Friday, March 15, 2013

The Pastor bores another interested party to tears

In my late twenties, I read Robert A. Heinlein’s “The Number of the Beast” - a science fiction novel that explored travel through extra dimensions. It held my interest through about 80% of the book, but I couldn’t finish it. As much as I liked Heinlein, the last 75-100 pages were excruciating. They droned on and on. Pastor Stephen Feinstein is like that in his debate with Russell Glasser .

I started reading the individual debate posts during the first week of November of last year, and soon discovered that Deacon Duncan was doing a much more thorough job at Evangelical Realism than I ever would, so I dropped an attempt at writing this up. Then, a few weeks ago, Deacon burned out after reviewing the Pastor’s 4th post, and kinda left me feeling unfulfilled. So here I am, looking to get closure.

So, what's left me feeling so empty? Wellllll... It’s like this, doc:

Round One Recap

The Pastor’s first post throws down the gauntlet, somewhat, by exclaiming

“I believe atheism is untenable, irrational, and ultimately impossible" [and] "I affirm that the Christian worldview is the only worldview that is possible given the preconditions of intelligibility."
The Christian Worldview includes, of course, belief in a triune God. Stephen professes his belief in this, so we have his position clearly stated, and we expect his arguments to launch from there. He doesn’t launch them in this post, however.

Russell’s first post counters with a rejection of the Pastor’s claim that “Atheism possesses a distinct view of reality (materialism)” etc ... but he admits that “I personally do lean towards materialism, humanism, and a scientific approach to learning about the world” ... he describes himself as an “atheist humanist scientific skeptic”

He goes on to contrast his position in comparison to Stephen’s as

“All else being equal, it’s better not to assume that something is true without good reasons.”

Russell then closes with what he feels the pastor needs to do to win the debate, specifically:

“Give me some good reasons why I should view God, as you define him, as a being that exists; OR, Make me understand that it is foolish to seek reasons for anything, and it’s a good idea to just believe something like your god for no reason.”

This is a fairly uncontroversial beginning.

Round Two

In his second post, the pastor gives more of “I’m gonna do this”, but no actual doing of the “this”. There are several thousand words in this post, but no detectable argument supporting his round one claims that “atheism is untenable, irrational, and ultimately impossible" and "the Christian worldview is the only worldview that is possible given the preconditions of intelligibility”.

Russell detects this, and calls him out:

“if you have any interest whatsoever in definitively showing me and other atheists that we hold an untenable position, then you’re going to have to give me some motivation to accept your assumptions over mine. If you can’t do that, then by your own prior promises, you will have lost.”

This apparently hurts the pastor’s feelings.

Round Three Recap

It gets weird in Round Three.

In a lot of formal debate settings, the opponents go out of their way to be polite and respectful. I believe that politeness pays dividends, because the word “atheist” is usually painted as all sorts of bad: baby-eating, church-burning, religious rights-oppressing atheists. Face it, a calm explanation that there is nothing supernatural going on in the world may convince a believer, or it may not. Yelling at them or ridiculing them beyond their tolerance for ridicule probably makes them more entrenched in their belief, so Russell's being fairly restrained so far.

In this debate, however, the pastor just starts spewing unfocused nonsense. It ramps up significantly in this third post, and then gets worse in following posts. It makes it hard to be respectful of the pastor from here on out. He just really sucks at this. On to the recap:

The pastor immediately whines:

"I am disappointed in your response [...] your condescending remark about me spending many paragraphs on something trivial was unwarranted and unnecessary."
It would be difficult to be won over by this display of thin skin.

Then there’s more emotional gnashing of teeth:

you are doing exactly what I feared you would do“ [...followed by an accusation that Russell is...] “putting forth smoke and mirrors to try to get out of the trap that your position puts you in”
This was said in spite of the fact that he makes no effort to illustrate what the smoke and mirrors are, nor what the trap is that Russell is allegedly in. Thus we have the beginnings of the pattern that will reappear through the rest of the debate. Whine, accuse, claim victory, interject incomplete philosophical claims - and do it in a haphazard order that makes it difficult to understand what he’s getting at. He went on like this for about 30 more paragraphs. If you didn't know better, you'd suspect he was being purposely obtuse.

To give you an idea of how verbose this is: In a “normal” debate, opening statements might be the longest of all spoken segments. The subsequent rebuttal, objection, and closing segments tend to get shorter as the debate progresses. The opposite is true here. The pastor expends about 5500 words (not counting his salutation) - or about 60% more than William Lane Craig might use in his entire opening - and longest - statement.

The pastor also trotted out some other themes that would reoccur:

“atheistic universe where the governing principle is random chance” ... “transcendental logic” ... “ducking the issue of presuppositions"

Notable crazy rantlet:

"if your presuppositions can be shown to be impossible, then does not your entire position come tumbling down? The answer is yes, whether you like it or not."
Tellingly, he doesn't recognize that he hasn't demonstrated that Russell's presuppositions are impossible, and he never presents a plausible alternative. It's as if he has an imaginary debate going on in his head, and we don't get to see his best work.

... "inductive inference / uniformity of nature" ... "transcendental precondition” ... On and on and on these buzz-phrases roll - a few wrapped in intelligible sentences, but few in intelligible paragraphs.

What he appears to be doing is saying that inductive and deductive inferences are unreliable because they rely on presuppositions, and that presuppositions must be explained. He conveniently forgets that his whole “God” alternative is an unwarranted presupposition.

In his half of the round Russell calls him out, on his presupposition of God, his misuse of the word “random” and his erroneous “atheism implies a random universe“ attack.

Finally, Russell summarizes the Round Three exchange nicely:

1. Both Stephen and Russell should agree that some concepts are axiomatic, requiring no explanation. For Stephen, the axiom is God. For Russell, reality and logic are axiomatic, and God is a needless insertion.

2. Stephen cannot assert that the existence of logic requires justification, unless he also attempts to offer a justification of God. If he believes that this is unnecessary, then he should grant point.

3. If the assumptions for all parties are arbitrary then Russell should win this debate, since Stephen failed to meet the burden of proof that he implied when stating that atheism is impossible. If the belief in God is merely Stephen’s preferred assumption, then it is not necessary, and may be discarded due to Occam’s Razor.

4. Stephen’s claim that a godless universe must be a random universe (where “random” is used to mean “inconsistent,” “illogical,” or “haphazard,” as opposed to merely “undirected”) requires justification, otherwise I reject the premise.

5. Stephen should justify how a God would go about “creating” the laws of logic, without himself being subject to logic.

Next time, I’ll break out Round Four separately, and attempt to pick up where Deacon left off.

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