Saturday, February 13, 2010

Debating Debates

Well a few days ago there was a debate here in town between Dinesh D'Souza, author of Life After Death: The Evidence, and John W. Loftus, author of Why I Became an Atheist: A Former Preacher Rejects Christianity. If it's not abundantly clear, it was a debate on whether there is a god, specifically the Christian god.

It did not go well for the atheist. D'Souza was a polished public speaker and experienced debater. While I disagreed with many of his arguments, his presentation of them was that of a masterful sales pitch. Loftus, whom I agreed with from the beginning, just didn't seem to be countering D'Souza's claims effectively and his presentation was just awful. The general consensus on the blog lines seemed to agree. I can't recall any atheist who watched the debate actually arguing he did well, though there were at least a few who didn't think it was as bad as the hordes of other complainers made it out to be. I was going to wait until the full debate was on-line to watch to blog about it, but as far as I know it's still not up anywhere. I'll update and put the link here when I see it.

One thing about the response that I found encouraging is that in spite of the political realities of criticizing "one of your own" the atheists who commented were pretty frank and honest in their assessments. It may be my own personal bias talking, but it seems like the other side of these debates generally tend to defend their guy even after they were soundly pummeled. I probably shouldn't complain too loudly about that fact since false positive feedback likely means little motivation or acknowledgment to improve.

The other thing about the response were all of the arguments that should have been raised, or at least more effectively raised, during the debate to shoot down the arguments attempting to prove that the Christian god exists. Some of the comments on the local atheists blogs were worth compiling, along with some of my own, that are now dispersed all over the place. The following is that attempted compilation of six of them:

6 Rebuttals on God claims:

  • Claims that a god is so far removed from our reality, so undetectable, so beyond our understanding, so untied to our petty notions of evidence, that no empirical/scientific/real evidence should be required or expected.

This claim comes in many forms and is dressed up in so many outfits or buried under so many tangents or gobbledygook that sometimes it is difficult to notice the underlying argument. Sometimes they'll just come right out and say it. Either way it's humorous that such a tactic would be employed by someone who has come to the venue with the specific purpose of proving what they admit they cannot prove. A lack of evidence for something is not proof of something.

This argument is doubly difficult to defend given the interactive powers of the god specifically being defended in this debate, the Christian god, who is somehow so detached from our existence to be understood or provable, yet so powerfully intertwined with it that they "know" without a doubt that it exists and can be proven anyways. One could use this same logic to attempt to prove there is still ether and Michelson and Morley's little experiment was irrelevant, but instead of carrying EM waves it grants wishes to those who believe it exists, just not with enough regularity to provide evidence that the etherists aren't just giving it credit when things work out and blaming other things (it wasn't in the ether's plan!) when they don't.

  • Claims that those who do not believe are somehow not bothering to look and/or that threats of hell on children aren't some big deal.

I'm doing a double whammy with this one because I responded to someone making both claims already and why retype the wheel:

"My only other comment is that I don't think the Bible teaches everlasting torment."

Whatever you don't think is irrelevant. Most of us, if not all, have been threatened with eternal damnation by christians who are quite sure in spite of your view that there is biblical support for the concept in the bible. I, as with most of us, were psychologically abused by relatives who used that threat to keep us scared to death of doubts and divergence. Long after my first doubts on my indoctrinated religion I struggled with that psychological trauma. It took years to get past.

Your dismissal of that is neither compelling nor relevant. Just because I don't believe anymore does not undo all those years of suffering nor let the abusers off the hook for their tormenting of children.

"There are plenty of good reasons to believe, if you are willing to look."


This is utter nonsense and one of the lamest cop outs that anyone can ever pull in an argument. Just because you can't defend your argument doesn't make us blind, intentionally or otherwise.

I, as with many atheists, are former believers. This is a blog of a former preacher for crying out loud. Our lack of faith wasn't for a lack of never looking. It's due to the fact that the feelings and emotions and arguments we used to confuse for valid evidence fell apart with more compelling explanations, better arguments, and actual evidence.

How dare you presume to tell us we're somehow being lazy or not bothering to look after many of us struggled with your religion's psychological torment and struggling with the ramifications of it being wrong after being indoctrinated in your fairy tales since before we even had a chance to choose for ourselves with more developed minds.

If you're ever confused about why atheists can come off so angry, these issues especially are a very good place to start. You make it sound like we just never took the time to notice 'the good news' and dismiss the responsibility of our tormentors. You might as well go around telling rape victims, "It was your own dumb fault!"

Shame on you.


Perhaps I was a bit rough on him? Either way, it's difficult to defend the traumatizing nature of using one of the most horrific boogieman stories of all time on children, one that never goes away along with Santa, the tooth fairy or boogiemen otherwise. Granted, to people who have been convinced or also indoctrinated as children to believe it as true, this boogieman must be warned against if the person cares about the children at all. How could they live with themselves if they let this horrible thing get them?

But if none of this is real or even remotely provable, continuing this cycle of terror and torment is just unconscionable. Kids can sometimes live in sheer terror at the prospect of the things that go bump in the night. Any parent who has had to console a terrified child is well aware of how very difficult it can be on the child and how very difficult it can be to return them to a feeling of safety. Doing that to them on purpose? You better be damn sure that the threat is real.

Families in hiding from snooping secret police have legitimate reasons to note the danger to ensure the kids don't come to harm. Using these terror tactics to protect faith in something that's entirely fiction or fantasy, using far more terrifying fear mongering should have the parents demanding far more proof before resorting to what would otherwise be psychological abuse. It's no surprise why kids who grow up and lose their faith can often resent their parents using such tactics along with the religion and churches that encouraged such deplorable behavior.

  • Claims attempting to use the perception of reality as evidence for something in reality.

You would think that this would be an easy issue to tackle given that many religious folks of various stripes dismiss the concept of moral relativism and embrace the notion of one capital-t 'Truth.' We're all very aware that the delusions of mentally ill patients do not negate objective facts and empirical evidence. We can prove that nobody else is in the room even if they hear 'their' voices. We know that people who lack the gene to properly encode red color receptors in the eye live in a world where the perceived reality doesn't have that color. But we can also prove that just because they can't perceive it that those wavelengths of light are still there, just as we can with other electromagnetic waves outside of the visible spectrum.

Perception of reality, is not evidence of something in reality.

Claims that attempt to say such perceptions are proof of something otherwise undetectable, untestable, unobservable in any way shape or form come in many forms. The Bible itself is often used as proof that the Christian god exists. After all he inspired it, and many perceive it to be far too incredible to be merely the rantings of ancient desert dwelling mystics. Their perception of the hand of a god being required offers no evidence such a hand was involved in reality. Even if an argument could be made that the style and content somehow was impressively advanced for the time, which it frankly isn't, that would still not be proof of divine intervention any more than finding other ancient cultures who had advanced knowledge or impressive works that would otherwise seem unusual given their technical or worldly knowledge at the time.

Another common usage is that of personal experience. Humans have large and creative minds. Any shrink can list off the countless ways in which we use those minds to explain away our experiences, both of what we witness and also what we feel, that are simply inaccurate. Eyewitness testimony is extraordinarily unreliable, often in tragically, when it comes to criminal cases. The witnesses can and often will believe without a shred of doubt that they saw something that the physical evidence shows is impossible. Our creative capacity often fills in the gaps with what makes sense to connect memories of actual witnessed moments. A recent example from a local police shooting revealed the dramatic changes to statements those interviewed made after time, including one of a man who could not physically see the events from his vantage point but who later stated he saw things that simply weren't visible from where he believed he saw them from.

Emotions have a similar problem. To someone indoctrinated in supernatural ideologies, an epiphany or an odd warming sensation or any other funny feeling all humans get from time to time, have the gaps of what it means filled with supernatural explanations. Sometimes they chalk it up to the regular old heebie-jeebies, moments of clarity, etc the rest of us do all the time. Other folks will chalk up some of these feelings to "ghosts" or other mystical beliefs from their culture or belief system instead.

Emotional responses can in some ways be measured or observed, most interestingly with fMRI or even body language. But even that can only show an emotional response occurred, not provide evidence of a divine hand in causing it, no matter how much a person's perceived reality thinks it reflects reality. Their believing it is no more evidence of supernatural intervention than some schizophrenic's honest belief that I'm sending signals to his brain with my computer. The emotional response may be real, the cause is not. And it is certainly not proven by the perception alone.

Another tactic used is the perception of others. Either with appeals to popularity (as if vast majorities of people haven't been on the wrong side of a contentious issue before) or with demands such as those D'Souza mentioned in claiming all of those claiming knowledge of Jesus' acts couldn't all be liars (as if cultists have never honestly believed in unproven miracles of their messiah).

The appeals to popularity are easily dismissed with the litany of mistaken popular beliefs throughout history. It's considered a logical fallacy for a good reason. Specifically for Christians claiming to use this as proof that their particular god is the real one, who would dismiss such appeals in a debate with a Hindu defending his own gods, or a Muslim defending his own version of the Abrahamic god as true that leaves Christian's messiah relegated as nothing but a prophet, not the son of and/or an extension of their god. The old atheist line about Christians disbelieving in all of the thousands of gods imagined throughout history and atheists just going one god more is fitting here.

As for the early cultists truly believing the legends and even thinking they witnessed miracles before their very eyes, this is hardly persuasive either. In the modern world, where faith healers, con artists, and magicians pull off impossible looking feats that leave even people, with all of the tools of modern living at their disposal to debunk, convinced it's all true. When it comes to religious issues it goes beyond just pretending to remove organs and cancers with magic. The sway of cult leaders is hardly foreign to us in the modern world: David Koresh, Heaven's Gate, Jim Jones, Cargo Cults, etc etc etc. For those defending the Christian god in particular, with their easy dismissal of the divine origins of other religions and cults, this shouldn't be a difficult concept to grasp. They generally do it already but given their own religion's history a pass from honest skepticism.

  • Claims based on souls.

These can be fairly odd duck arguments. From a secular perspective the term "soul" generally just means our actualization of an emotional and moral self. To an atheist the mind is a product of the function of the brain, not some supernatural interface with the brain or the mind as the soul counterpart to the physical functions of the brain. With the studies on brain damage, injury, ailments, etc the evidence of the feelings, emotions, contemplation, etc of what we typically call the mind can pretty safely be correlated with the various functions of the brain. It would take some fairly convoluted explanations of the brain being a conduit for supernatural forces to have such a mind still leaving some fully functioning yet somehow inaccessible soul around that like the god arguments are entirely unprovable, unobservable, untestable, etc.

But that lack of proof and provability is the real issue on any arguments on souls being used to prove god. Souls suffer from the same evidentiary hurdles and ironically enough get used to fill in gaps of understanding. That filling similarly has little value to the skeptic without evidence, just as a god of the gaps does. As those gaps in human understanding shrink so to do the functions of souls and even of gods themselves. We no longer need Apollo to fill in the gaps of understanding on why the sun keeps running over the sky every day. We no longer need souls to explain the biochemistry of why molecules in this arrangement can behave in a way that makes cells work, versus the arrangement of other molecules that lack such fascinating interactions in non-living things.

Those chemical reactions will keep on going for a while after a complex multi-cellular organism like a human has enough failures that they're "dead" to us, which generally means the body has been damaged enough that it no longer keeps enough systems working to keep the brain functioning in a way we can interact with. They'll keep going until the failed systems that kept the individual cells and processes running with biochemical effectively allow them to all starve or they receive the biochemical signal molecules that trigger their cessation. At no point, from the creation of egg/sperm gametes, to fertilization, to fetal development, to development into adults to eventual death is there ever a gap requiring a soul to explain why it works.

No souls are required in other issues of chemistry or chemical reactions. None are required for biochemistry either. Any gaps in our knowledge aren't so great to require the insertion of some vast undetectable soul theory as opposed to the need of further study and experimentation. Even if souls are inserted in the tiny gaps left here or there, they still wouldn't be compelling theories given the lack of evidence... and the lack of anyway to provide evidence as they are not falsifiable claims.

  • Claims based on first cause

These are nowhere near as earth shattering as believers think they should be to the skeptic. Generally people agree that one thing leads to another. The reason why that mountain is there is due to geological causes or a god did it. Things now are the way they are due to past events. It's not a difficult concept. So if we keep going back and back and back, what was the first? Some like to believe the only two options are a god snapping his fingers or a big bang theory of sorts. But then we're left with the obvious question: "What caused them?"

Creationists like to pretend that depending on the concept that everything has a cause is great until we get to the supernatural. Those are magically exempt because, well, they're magic. It's not very compelling. Everything that exists has a cause except the one thing they're trying to prove exists? Meanwhile they're perfectly satisfied in dismissing that very logic when it comes to big bang theories. "Well what caused that then?" Any attempt to define or theorize on how the big bang as a first cause could be exempt from the causation argument is rejected, while they embrace it for themselves. Quite handy rhetorically but unpersuasive logically.

For those who ponder where everything came from, gods and singularities or other first causes included, those explanations are seriously lacking. They merely push back the causation question back a notch, but leave it solidly unanswered. Will there ever be an entirely satisfying answer without hitting a point where we just give up and say we can't know from here, whether it be what caused god or what caused the big bang? I don't know. For all I or anyone else knows, there may not even be a first cause to find. We can define a god concept or a multiverse or other scenario that by definition is the first cause, but how would we be able to prove it?

"Because I said so!" is not evidence, which is all the creationist has on his side to end the causal logic at his favored point of ending it. They may find the scientific theories lacking in this department, and few would blame them, but that's still not evidence for their claim, for their alternate theory, nor does it justify abruptly ending their logic when it suits them to claim victory on the argument.

  • Claims based on the ontological argument or if we can imagine it, so must it exist.

D'Souza touched on a similar theme as this with our imaginations being somehow proof of a divine. Such arguments almost always come off as pretty blatantly begging the question to me, as they nearly all demand that the supernatural explanation be necessary for the argument to be persuasive. Yet if one only presupposes that necessity without proving it, these arguments cannot be said to constitute proof.

The fallacy behind this becomes rather apparent when applied to worldly things. I could imagine a treasure trove in my closet all day long, it won't prove the existence of such, and I can quite easily disprove such existence. But alas such things do exist elsewhere, so obviously I can imagine it in other locations. What of the ability to imagine things I've never experienced nor could ever experience such as a god? Does the fact that I and others can and/or do imagine one mean that such a thing must exist to have laid the ground work for that ability? After all how could a brain originate an idea it lacks the input to piece together?

These questions assume that the god we're imagining can be contemplated by our minds. If the person making the argument has claimed god can't be contemplated by our fragile little minds as proof we can't prove him with said minds, he's already undercut his own ontological argument. He surely can't argue that we both can and can't imagine god and not expect us to point out the flaw in his thinking!

If he persists and says we can contemplate god he very well may debase prior arguments, but for the sake of argument let's see the brick wall this charges us into anyways. The Christian god is claimed to be the image of which we're made. That becomes a rather deadly two edged sword to his thinking. For a more generic god it is worth noting that the attributes of power, forming things, communication, design, etc are certainly not beyond the human experience in ways the mind could not expound upon towards other ideas. Flying unicorns don't really exist but we can certainly form images in our mind of what such things could be like by adding in wings of birds, horns of rhinos, bodies of horses, magical powers that exaggerate the ability to escape situations, move quickly, shoot lightning bolts from its eyes, etc.

It's certainly not a stretch to say the mind can contemplate not knowing how something works and assign attributes to an imaginary concept that allowed it to create the very real things we've observed or experienced. It no more proves that concept exists in reality than the treasure in my closet or unicorns. In the end the ontological argument can at best explain why people are prone to assign qualities to god that have some basis in their experiences while leaving qualities they claim can't be contemplated, left not contemplated. Shocker!

Giving it a rest:

That's probably enough for now. I've babbled on long enough about these issues that came up in the debate and the debate debates afterward, and from here I have a feeling like I could just keep adding tangents forever and a day. There's really no good reason to list every possible argument out there as there's already a fairly handy compilation of creationist claims that cover most of the territory on this subject. But it seemed worthwhile to put some of the interesting arguments all in one place for entertainment and future reference.

As is typical with arguments for god, they all seem to break down along the lines of logical fallacies at their heart, but often meticulously dressed up and buried beneath layers of misdirection. Once one digs through all of that, the "proof" of god that those who come to persuade us they have all ends up being the same lack of proof that has many believers arguing that it necessarily has to be a matter of faith, not of proof. From there I simply disagree with a need for such a faith. It seems about as useful as me pretending to have a guardian unicorn. When he lets me get hit by a bus, that's just him working in mysterious ways... or sadistic sense of humor.


xomru said...

"He surely can't argue that we both can and can't imagine god and not expect us to point out the flaw in his thinking!"

Good recap of arguments. A point I enjoyed was the about god being beyond comprehension yet still somehow comprehensible. That god exists outside out logic is a frequent argument and one of the more insidious fallacies that I have had trouble rebutting in the past.

Also, I would like to caution the use of language such as:

"To an atheist the mind is a product of the function of the brain, not some supernatural interface with the brain or the mind as the soul counterpart to the physical functions of the brain."

"To an atheist" is a statement that connotes some sort of organized agreement of scientific beliefs in principles among an atheist group, which I think slightly undermines the point you are trying to make. It sounds to me like a statement a religious person would make, such as 'To a christian...'.


Glock21 said...

You're right, that wording does seem to suggest far more cohesiveness in thought than actually exists among atheists. I'll have to watch out for that bad habit in the future.