Sunday, November 22, 2009

Not so great debates

Today I am focusing on the 'write' point of this blog today. What I'm currently writing (excluding of course this blog post) is a short series of arguments in the vein of 'Conversations with God' which really is just a showcase of how infuriating it is to have an argument with a believer. So really it's just written from a point intended to demonstrate how infuriating a believer claiming to be 'rational' is, particularly since they tend to always be humble, so I simply made the 'believer' one with no reason to be humble, nor to have any excuse to take refuge in ambiguity. So it's far more about how one feels than the 'reason' of the debate.

Anyway, it's pretty easy to write, you simply pose good questions and answer them with 'because.' until somebody has an emotional breakdown.

Anyway, occasionally when I feel the narrative I'm writing is too circular, (which happens a lot), I turned to 'The God Delusion' and 'Letter to a Christian Nation' and other such books that cover some of the well trampled argumentative paths.

Anyway, through the wikipedia entry there's a link to what is so far a terrible 'debate' (most debates though are pretty terrible, given my own experience as a debator and an adjudicator). Anyway, what I find most convincing of God's non-existence is the Christian communities ability to consistently produce champions as poor as Professor John Lennox.

The video resides here.

Now the debate suffers not just from Professor Lennox's poor arguments, but actually the rhythm of the debate gives Lennox a tremendous advantage. Which is each topic is introduced with Richard Dawkins' arguments. Lennox then gets to respond (poorly) to Dawkins' arguments whereupon Lennox himself just makes a bunch of claims about what he thinks Christianity to be. Then Dawkins' has the next topic thrust upon him and no official response is allocated to Dawkins'.

So provided for you is a critique of some of Lennox's 'killer' blows.

1. Faith is blind; science is evidence based.

Lennox makes a few concessions in order to demonstrate that he believes faith to be of a variety. Falling to him to substantiate why his brand of faith is superior, that is not blind. He plays some semantics with the word 'proof' and distinguishes it from evidence, so really the first minute or so is definitions, no real arguments. He doesn't mention directly the 'scientific method' that is to confirm beliefs through replicatable experiments. (wisely perhaps as none exist that can be applied to his own beliefs).
Thus his first argument is the limits of science that firstly it can't tell us if a poem is beautiful, or piece of music or picture. Which is debatable, but on this at least Dawkins isn't the expert, Hoffstader probably is who would have leapt in and pointed out that all that is understood of artificial intelligence thus far would refute this claim, at least that say you couldn't use means entirely mechanical to build the kind of intelligence that would have 'subjective preferences' it may find different things beautiful for entirely different reasons, but this wouldn't be too different from the reason two different people will most often have completely different preferences for what they find 'beautiful'. The existence of universal preferences of beauty would be a more compelling case for the existence of God, like if there was some underlying vertical heirarchy to FHM's 100 sexiest women annual, instead of the wild deviations that occur year to year.
Then he makes the argument that science can't answer the elementary questions of a child 'Who am I?' 'What is the purpose of my existence?' and 'Where am I going?' which I guess if he was making the point of science being 'blind' is a good one, except he doesn't, and implies that religion isn't 'blind' to the answers to these questions.
The first one, could be answered by one of Des Cartes scientific offerings that stands 'I'm thinking therefore I am' as evidence based, if you experience thought it is the defining characteristic of sentience and you conclude that you are a sentient being. As for the purpose of existence, science (from the Darwinian perspective) would say 'you don't have one.' or perhaps more correctly 'I don't know that you have one, and I know of no reliable source that can answer that for you.' and 'where am I going' would depend on the time and context, but I would hazard a guess that a child would be going to bed, or to school in most incidences.
Thus Lennox's argument is the old 'science explains how, religion explains why' which is blind and dangerous because religion has no basis for answering the why questions, it is just speculation - in other words from the view of science it is just making shit up. So the child could ask me the same questions and I could say 'You are a space whale' 'to destroy the Pharmaceuticals lobby' and 'Disneyland!' and these answers would be blind, they would have no basis and serve as ultimately unsatisfactory. The thing is that with religious beliefs in all probability what in modern english we would call 'made up' would be described by a self proclaimed (or popularly proclaimed) prophet as 'divined' and anyone who accepted 'divined' answers as an explanation would be none the wiser when it got passed down a generation that either their prophet knowingly made up the answers, or mistook their own imaginative process as evidence of some external interference.
Lennox surprisingly rejects 'God of the Gaps' which historically speaking has been the result of religion explaining 'why' in scientific fields that didn't really exist yet, such as physics, chemistry, biology, geology, archeology, astronomy, cosmology, psychiatry, economics... and pretty much every scientific field there is, soft or hard.
Lennox makes a good historical argument, that when people saw natural laws in history they saw in it God. Or the 'scientist looked for law in nature because they assumed there was a lawgiver. Izaac Newton was more impressed with God when he discovered that light followed rules (in his crucial experiment) that Al Kindi himself was an Islamic philosopher that was the originator of the scientific method (thanks SBS) and so fourth.
Which Dawkins actually refutes well in his conclusion to the whole debate, that it took until the 19th century for Darwin to actually overcome the natural intuition that anything that works has to have a designer. That an eye can emerge non-randomly from a very long incremental process of evolution with no mind or design to it at all. It was simply a gene that survived because it helped the organisms survival.

2. Science supports atheism, not Christianity.

Lennox follows on from one of Dawkins arguments that 'if geneticists found some scientific proof of Mary's virgin birth, the Christian sphere would not say "Irrelevent science has no bearing on religion"' which Lennox agrees, Christianity is subject to scientific confirmation, but then sidesteps by talking about historical science given that the events of the Bible happened in the past (since the scientific method wasn't developed until after the rise of Islam, Christianities successor in Judeo religions no scriptural evidence is really verifiable).
Lennox's first argument is a rehashing of his concluding statement from the first topic, namely that scientist have 'faith' that the universe is rationally intelligible. Which I understand to be, they believe there to be natural laws, I would call it a stretch to say that expecting things to obey natural laws (like physics) is the equivalent belief to expect there to be a law maker.
Then he claims that if athiests reduce reason to random electrical impulses in the brain (a fallacy, at least in Darwinian theory, which would say that the brain is an evolved organ that helps an organism survive and reproduce via intelligence) then they are 'cutting off the branch the branch they are sitting on' the central flaw being that athiests don't believe intelligence to be random, except in that it is an 'accident' that life looks the way it does (or doesn't).
The reverse argument is probably the better truism, that the assumption that we are intelligent because we are intelligent, or rather the expectation that the universe exists because we exist to observe it existing is more a case of someone pulling themselves out of the ocean by tugging upwards on their own hair.
Which amounts to the 'Anthropic' principle. Which has numerous criticisms as employed by theists, largely for being a truism, and I like to argue that to conclude that our existence in the universe is submissible as proof that 'the designer' intended to have us in it does not elevate human beings above anything they produce as a result of their intelligence, including jump-suits. Or perhaps more crucially, as 'scientific' reason would not support Christianity above and beyond any other religion, as it appears to be from a scientific and historical perspective an product of human intelligence.
Suffice to say, it is a huge license for people to insight the Universal constants as evidence of a supernatural purpose in producing human life. Particularly given the vast quantity of Universe superfluous to life.
He then claims that the notion of the 'Big Bang' was inspired by the Bible. Lennox makes a point (that later contradicts his dumbest, arguably losing argument of the debate) that Genesis overcomes the Aristotlian world view that the Universe had no beginning and was eternal. Dawkins refutes this himself. I would also point out that Genises says with as much confidence that the Universe began as it does that it was completed in 7 days, that the planets existed before light (implying that planets formed before stars, another falacy given that the chemical elements needed to form planets can only be generated from Hydrogen the base element by stars, and with the variety we have, much, much, much bigger stars than our sun).

3. Design is dead; otherwise one must explain who designed the designer.

Lennox in my view whilst not making a good case thus far, loses the argument completely, on what he describes as 'the schoolboys question' which is 'who designed the designer?' and Lennox (who just minutes earlier explained Genesis as superior to Aristotle's take on science because it described the universe as created), he actually argues that God is not created, he is eternal and was always there.
This is exactly the argument that God is unscientific, because he doesn't work as an explanation, or rather it is a completely 'unsatisfying' explanation, which Dawkins supports by explaining it as an explanation in mathematical terms, that is the Universe or 'Big Bang' has a very complex mathematical model of how a singularity can explode, heating and cooling over gajillions of years to form a Universe. Which is simple compared to explaining an omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient eternal designing agent.
The concept of 'simple' and 'simplicity' vs. 'complexity' is something that evades Lennox, suggesting that when he read Dawkins' books (which he suggests he has read) he was reading it with a mind to refute any claim he could latch onto. Dawkins refutes this well himself.

4. Christianity is dangerous.

Lennox's first argument is a popular logical fallacy known as I believe a 'definitional retreat' or perhaps even 'affirming the consequent' where he makes the argument essentially that 'Christianity is not dangerous > because when Christians have done bad things (Crusades, conquistadors, the holocaust) they were not following the teachings of Christ > thus they weren't Christians). Which doesn't address Dawkins conclusion that such belief fosters an environment were it can be employed dangerously. It is in essence arguing that Christianity is not dangerous because anything dangerous arising from it is not Christianity.
Which is self defeating because it gives Christianity no ability to make the world a better or worse place through the extension of its membership or preaching of its teachings, if you acknowledge that it's members will simply be reclassified based on what they do because of their interpretation of the beliefs.
It may be an argument, but it ultimately hurts Lennox's cause. Because it reduces again the realm of Christianity to have any worthwhile effect upon the world.
Historically speaking, I would actually agree with the notion that most attrocities committed by Church leaders weren't 'Christians' because from sociological perspectives the oldest trick in the book to is manipulate the masses by preaching something you yourself don't believe in (their in creating your base of power, free trade being a modern day example). This is known as 'lip service' by the leadership.
It really as an argument reinforces Dawkins' concluding point, that the dangers of Christianity are that it encourages faith as a virtue, faith being the opposite of sceptecism, which it does, undeniably because faith is precisely not doubting God's existence.
The arguments about Pol Pot, Stalin, Mao, Hitler are well trod and bad ones, because they are athiests. The quickest route to refuting these is to seize upon the Marxist regimes as they are the certifiably athiest states, where one would should be seized that Marxism doesn't preclude the creation of a 'police state' with an absolute ruler that then terrorizes people regardless of class to sustain the lavish lifestyles of an even smaller elite.
The second obvious refutation, is that athiests aren't a community, an athiest is spontaneous where members of various religious sects are the product of a system that produces them. Athiests simply don't believe in God, because their reason tells them not to, and they trust their reason. Dawkins in his book and in the debate further refutes these as following 'religious' social structures, in the book he refers to the 'athiest' regimes as 'personality cults' in other words, religious figures are simply replaced with Mao or Stalin as the new dieties, nothing Jesus didn't do himself on exactly as much evidence.

5. No one needs God to be moral.

Lennox comparison, is between DNA and a rock. Certainly because they are both devoid of sentience, however DNA works in an incredibly complicated environment of self replicating sequences that from them arize varius degrees of sentience. That is mechanical organisms like trees that will happily expunge the life from their own 'kin' in competition for sunlight, no single thought undertaken, to dolphins, humans and elephants that have central nervous systems, the ability to forecast, predict, learn, emote etc. Some better than others.
Therefore Lennox chooses to interpret the mechanical process of DNA as somehow denying the complex organisms it produces from having free will, or even arguably behaviour. Thus, whilst the quotation he bases his entire argument around is interpreted in such a way as to deny humans their intelligence, which is untrue, what is true is to say that our intelligence is the non random accidental product of an essentially mechanical process arising from 'natural selection' vis-a-vis the battle of survival. So you can just throw out the majority of speech he makes.

He doesn't then do anything to refute the perfectly relevant points about the shared morals between all peoples (which establishes a base-line morality) that obviously, can be observed as arising without the need of any specific instructional scripture. He also doesn't address the 'shifting moral zeitgeist' argument. Which I admit Dawkins doesn't do justice by calling it 'something in the air' and I was half expecting Lennox to make the claim that that 'something in the air' had to therefore be a God. But nevertheless it establishes that 'age-old' scriptures and the Gods they supposedly service have nothing to do with the social norms of morality (or at least are not directly responsible for) what we call morality because it can be demonstrated that the bible comes out both for and against slavery, (or rather, as Sam Harris notes, Martin Luther King draws inspiration from the bible in his civil rights campaign, just as Confederate states drew inspiration from the bible to defend the practice of slavery).
Then he tries to make a point of Dostoevsky's quote 'if God does not exist, everything is permitted' which is stupid because it's a prime example of the mentality that Dawkins saw fit to address in the book 'God Delusion', that is that everything is permitted, the only real tangible reinforcements of morality, come from a community expunging people who break this law from their society. For example, God didn't strike down Hitler with an impressive bolt of lightning the moment he committed his first atrocity, or abort his fetus before he had a chance to be Evil. Instead the European community, and in a limited sense the global community fought to expunge him from existence. Almost like a manifestation of 'Darwinian' drives to favor our own Gene's selections over his. It works down to a micro scale too where whilst 'evil' is permitted in a physical sense, like killing your wife to take her money is physically possible, society does a lot better than scripture at removing these 'evils' from the community in order to protect itself.

6. Christian claims about the person of Jesus are not true; his alleged miracles violate the laws of nature.

Lennox makes probably his second worst argument here, that is that is that anything that obeys the laws of nature isn't a 'miracle' because it is expected. And that (much like 'being eternal' is a central property of God) the ability to intercede and break the laws of nature as a demonstration of his omnipotence are a central property of God.
In other words, if 'Miracles' can happen that violate the natural laws (namely physics) they would teach humanity one thing and one thing only - that we cant trust our senses. This happens to select individuals in our society who experience 'miracles' in exactly this way, people who can't trust their senses are labelled commonly as schizophrenic, and accuratly as 'insane', that is they have lost their ability to rationally interact with the world around them.
Miracles would be useful in one instance only, where they could help determine a rhyme or reason to the will of god, they would then be subject to the scientific method. You could for example set up a huge oxytorch, and march people through it that you have taken an extensive background check on. Those that pass through the flame unharmed you could deam 'righteous' and run a differential on the various decisions they have made in their life to determine 'righteous' behaviour, those that die in agonising pain you could reject as 'unrighteous' and also use as a control group in your differential.
Of course such experiments don't work, have never worked, and are highly unethical. If you were particularly dogmatic you could say that such an experiment would never work because it is inherantly unrighteous, and those conducting the experiment would not be permitted by God to know his will, of course there exist ethical alternatives like the 'Great Prayer' experiment that if anything showed that if God does exist, he really hates when people pray for the sick, because he seems to kill the patients out of spite. (cited in the God Delusion).

To be honest, after topic 4, Dawkins starts refuting the essential arguments of Lennox himself, tellingly he is willing to stick to his time limits and sacrifice introducing material.

The reason I don't refute any of Dawkins arguments is that Lennox refutes them thoroughly (and poorly) for himself from the get-go. The second reason is because there aren't, not ones I can see. Dawkins follows the rules of logic and knows the science. He may not know the Bible inside or out, but the Bible is neither scientific, internally consistent, interesting or particularly instructive.

The debate is in all honesty an dead chicken versus an alligator in intellectual terms. I'm sure Lennox is good at Maths, but not debate, physics etc. In fact the only thing preventing Lennox from drowning is because he A) really, really believes his own arguments are convincing. B) Dawkins is structurally denied the right of reply to many of the worst arguments Lennox makes.

Thus it remains the only debate that remains impressive to me is that between Noam Chomsky vs William F Buckley Jr. which is like a gigantic alligator versus a buffalo.

Please don't post me links to 'The Battle of Kruger' which was a three way battle anyway, where the Buffalo only 'win' in the sense that they avoid a loss also by ganging up (as Christians often do), resulting in a zero sum game.

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