Sunday, May 27, 2012

Poke it with a stick

I've declared on several occasions my admiration for, and fascination with Dr. William Lane Craig - specifically with his debates against atheists and secularists on topics of theology and morality. I even wrote an opening statement to a debate with him - wholly imaginary, of course. In that post, I spoke first, focusing mostly on preempting arguments that I know he employs. It was a good exercise, but, even given the weeks that I took to write the post, I made some egregious errors, and could have done a much better job.

I was going to craft a second imaginary debate - I may still do so - but I thought it would be interesting to first critique Dr. Craig's performance line by line, word by word, in order to identify where the weak spots are. As the equally imminent Doctor Who once said "There's something that doesn't make sense. Let's go and poke it with a stick."

The debate I chose was the 1995 contest between Dr. Craig and Massimo Pigliucci, held at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. It will probably be useful to break this down in different sized chunks, because there's a lot to analyze. In getting through just the first apologetic argument in Dr. Craig's opening statement, I found a whole lot to comment on, so I'll adopt the following pattern: 1) quote an entire paragraph or group of paragraphs; 2) summarize the paragraph(s); 3) If required, critique it sentence by sentence. It won't be possible for me to address all 2600 words in one post, and it wouldn't make for good reading, so this ought to make it manageable

First, some acknowledgements:

The now inactive sites Common Sense Atheism and Evaluating Christianity were inspirational in taking a more debate-centric viewpoint of apologetics - especially since both sites devoted some time to Dr. Craig. Additionally, Andrew at Evaluating Christianity wrote a Summary Case for Atheism, which is worth reading and keeping handy. A personal summary of belief, or non-belief, is always worth-while, and is one of the reasons for my starting this skeptic-themed blog. I also recommend to your attention related blog posts: William Lane Craig on Debating Atheists, advice on debating Dr. Craig, as well as a critique of the Kalam Cosmological Argument.

Secondly, PZ at Pharyngula addressed the topic of morality and the Bible early in the week. It's also worth reading and referencing. Although I structure my moral framework differently, the topic of "objective moral values" almost always comes up in Dr. Craig's debates, so is a subject worth reasoning about, and in the event that you argue theology, something to prepare for.

Finally, Deacon Duncan at Evangelical Realism and Alethian WorldView, has done a number of chapter by chapter book reviews that are anywhere from enlightening to priceless. His review of Dr. Craig's On Guard is a real treasure and partially inspiration for this effort. It's many installments, so be patient - start here and read through the end here.

And now ...

Dr. Craig's Opening Speech

Good evening! I want to begin by thanking the Issues Committee for the invitation to take part in tonight's debate, and I hope that it will be a significant step forward in your own spiritual journey.

Now in raising the question of God's existence, we are in effect engaging in the assessment of a hypothesis about the world, namely, the hypothesis that God exists. If our goal is to determine rationally whether or not this hypothesis is true, we must conduct our inquiry according to the basic rules of logic. Arguments based on invalid logic, however emotionally appealing, are worthless in providing any rational warrant for their conclusions.

Accordingly, we need to ask ourselves two questions with respect to this hypothesis: (1) What evidence is there that serves to verify this hypothesis? and (2) What evidence is there that serves to falsify this hypothesis?

Let's look, then, at the first question: What evidence is there that serves to verify God's existence? Tonight I'm going to present five reasons in support of the specific hypothesis that a personal Creator and Designer of the universe exists, who is the locus of absolute value and who has revealed Himself in Christ. Whole books have been written on each one of these, so all I can present here is a brief sketch of each argument and then go into more detail as Dr. Pigliucci responds to them.

Notice how Dr. Craig frames the debate in the second and third paragraphs. He stipulates that the debate participants are addressing a hypothesis, but immediately turns focus on how to "determine rationally whether or not this hypothesis is true", and cites logic as the means to do so. As we may see during the coming posts, he is a master at making unsupported assertions and having them sound perfectly reasonable. The focus on using logic is ironic, and probably used to lull the audience into a sense of comfort that he will, in fact, be assiduously logical throughout the debate.

Additionally, he partitions the debate broadly into "what verifies" the hypothesis" and "what falsifies" it. He has taken the initiative here, and immediately occupies the "what verifies" position which he will develop with skill - trust me, he always does. The opponent may be backed into the unenviable task of seeking to falsify the hypothesis in response to Dr. Craig's challenge, or risk being called out for not fulfilling the requirements that were layed out. What Dr. Craig doesn't say, and what is always the glaring omission when theists assert supernatural goings-on, is that the principle of falsification is part of the scientific method - there must be a hypothesis that explains the phenomenon in question, there must be tests to verify that the hypothesis explains the phenomenon, and there must be tests that will falsify the hypothesis. Since Dr. Craig doesn't supply tests as part of the challenge (why make it easy?), the opponent can't possibly falsify the hypothesis in any way. We'll have a look at Pigliucci's Opening Speech in a few posts, and see whether he "drops" this, or expends some time addressing it.

Next time, we'll complete his introduction and analyze his first real argument - the origin of the universe.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Boiling it down


It boils down to a question of whether there is something non-natural going on in the world, and whether non-natural "planes of existence", any entities that inhabit them, and super powerful or a single supremely powerful entity can exist and are somehow able to make changes to the natural world that we inhabit. A corollary to this conjectural "supernatural" is the existence of a soul, which is the fulcrum around which many religions hold sway over their human adherents - what with eternal reward and punishment as the carrot and stick.

The discussion of tangential issues - the basis of "objective" morality, for example, are red herrings that distract from the foundational claims that underpin any religion based on the supernatural. Similarly, the "divinity" of characters such as Jesus or Mohammed are subordinate subjects that have to wait in line while questions regarding the supernatural are answered.

Has anyone come forward with evidence or arguments for the supernatural today?

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Facebook friends

Facebook is still a pretty good way to catch up with people that you've fallen out of touch with - but it's also a notoriously bad place for people to shoot their mouths off about politics and religion.

I have an old acquaintance that I caught up with on Facebook - decent enough guy as far as I can tell, but the years go by, and you just don't know what's happened to people. I could have predicted this guy becoming an outspoken believer - after all, he was "outspoken everything" back in the day. I don't spend any time worry about how people will evolve over time, but I hope the best for them. Recent expressions of piety from him on Facebook , however, were predictable, and serve as an launching pad for a little imaginary rhetorical exercise. To wit:

[Set the scene, imagine my friend Fredly has just expressed belief in Jesus on Facebook, and that I, wanting to hone my skills in discourse, use this as an opportunity to respond. Ignore the fact that a garden-variety expression of faith wouldn't normally rate responding to.]

So, Fredly, you say everyone should believe in Jesus like you do, because it will change your life. Why is that any different than saying that believing in Santa Claus will change your life? Most of us believed in Santa Claus when we were young, and it gave us the hope of presents at Christmastime, but we found out Santa wasn't real, and we got on with our lives. Are we to infer, similarly, that we'll get over believing in Jesus eventually, and will get on with our lives? Why start believing in Jesus in the first place then? We are, after all, adults by now!

[Fredly responds with the usual "I know Jesus is real because I feel him in my heart".]

Fredly, I appreciate that you believe this fervently - I really do - but just because you believe something that you, personally, believe is therefore important for other people to believe, is a poor reason for anyone else to in fact do so. I can imagine you thinking that doughnuts can talk to you, but you'll be looked on as a crackpot until you can demonstrate that they can.

If believing in Jesus helps you individually to be a better person, and leaves everyone else around you unaffected or better off, then good for you! I personally wouldn't recommend it, because the whole idea of worship seems like a cession of autonomy and responsibility that leaves you less able to fulfill your potential as a human being.

[...but he'll save you from Hell...]

And this Hell thing - I take it you believe in Hell as well? That's an interesting proposition. Now, since I'm familiar with the Old and New Testaments, and I understand that the God described in them is allegedly behind this whole Jesus and Hell - and Heaven - scenario, let's unwrap this just a little bit.

First, you know that lots of predecessors to Jesus had concepts of a good place and bad place that the soul goes to after you die. This looks pretty commonplace to me. The Greeks had it. The Romans had it. Hell is the ultimate revenge fantasy: "you may get over on me now, but my big brother will kick your ass next week!" Not compelling as an argument to believe! For the sake of addressing this completely, what kind of place is this Hell? It certainly doesn't show up on Google Maps - well, except for the one in Michigan. So - where could it be?

While we're on the subject, who maintains Hell? How is it done? Is it a parallel world? I get the impression that Christians believe sinners go to Hell for eternity. Sounds like a bummer! A little cruel and unusual, doesn't it? Think about this for a sec ... you live 60, 70, 80 years on this earth - you fail to express belief in Jesus, and no matter that you fed the poor, sheltered the homeless, cared for the sick, and guided the misdirected to a better life - you are consigned to eternal punishment for eternity.

See any problems there? I see a couple - care to discuss them? I thought you would! First - imagine this place. You'd presume it's not in the universe we observe because everything in this one changes over time ... stars and planets don't last forever - a few billion to a trillion years at best. Hardly an eternity.

Same problem with punishment - there's got to be something to punish. Therefore, we have to assume there's a soul - right? Seen one lately? Didn't think so - me neither. Let's assume there is one, though, so we can get on with the eternal punishing thing. So - is it just the soul that goes to hell? How does it feel torment? No nerve endings ... don't have a body. Vulcan Mind Meld perhaps? The devil is a Vulcan? That explains the pointy ears, at least.

Okay, I think we need a body. Uh oh! Another problem! Bodies break down! What's that, you say? God will keep them from breaking down? Hmmm ... so he can eternally torment us. Great guy. Are you sure we shouldn't kick this god of yours in the balls instead?

Okay - so there needs to be space-time and some energy, at least for this Hell to all happen. And our souls and space-time have to be maintained forever, and the sustenance for our souls needs to be available as we need it, which kinda sounds like a problem with the laws of thermodynamics.

I'm thinking this is pretty implausible - wanna give it a rest?

[...but God works in mysterious ways...]

God works in mysterious ways??? What do you think you are, Genesis Chapter 1 Verse 1? Where the heck did this idea of "God" come from anyway? They start yakking about God from the first verse in the Bible, but never attempt to give a real world description of him. If the Bible describes am omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, omnipresent being, then I'm Sofia Vergara in a Burger King uniform!
This guy is passable at parlor tricks, but worthy of worship? Hardly!

So, presuming that the Yahweh character described in the Old Testament is the God we're talking about, let's dispense with the "God is mysterious" talk and just replace it with "God is incompetent" and on the disabled list.

[...but the Bible is proof that Jesus is the son of God...]

Is any book the proof of anything other than that the book in question was published? Anyone that's read the Bible seriously and completely knows what it says, and knows what a lashed-together compilation of stories and vignettes it is. Heck - look into the history of the Bible and the social and political context in which different passages were written, and you get an excellent idea of how the OT is essentially a tribal history/polemic/apologia that unifies the tribes of Israel and gives them continuity over the millennia. Does it hint at the existence of the supernatural? Of course it does! Does it clarify supernatural characteristics and behaviors? No - not even close. It appears as if written by Bronze Age goat herders to explain things that they had not the words and concepts to explain. Should we interpret this as existence of the supernatural? Of course not! We'd still be seeing all sorts of spooky stuff going on today if there were supernatural entities in the world - there's no reason that it would just magically stop when mankind started to develop the means of recording and preserving history, or measuring and investigating phenomena.

['re an atheist...]

Yeah ... so?

['re going to rot in Hell for all eternity...]

Oh good grief!