Sunday, June 24, 2012

"God" Debates

Thanks to Youtube, you can watch people who are celebrated and world class leading people in their fields debate eachother on the merits of God. Thanks to moveable type, the printing press and paper, you can read the summation of the debate published in a widely available book 'Why I Am Not A Christian' by Bertrand Russel. Thanks to the internet you can actually read it here.

I am going to assert, without conclusively proving, the debate has not moved onto a place where Russell's rebutals are rebutted. That is, I feel that Russell has reasonably dismissed a bunch of arguments, and arguably all the arguments. For example: 
The First-cause Argument

Perhaps the simplest and easiest to understand is the argument of the First Cause. (It is maintained that everything we see in this world has a cause, and as you go back in the chain of causes further and further you must come to a First Cause, and to that First Cause you give the name of God.) That argument, I suppose, does not carry very much weight nowadays, because, in the first place, cause is not quite what it used to be. The philosophers and the men of science have got going on cause, and it has not anything like the vitality it used to have; but, apart from that, you can see that the argument that there must be a First Cause is one that cannot have any validity. I may say that when I was a young man and was debating these questions very seriously in my mind, I for a long time accepted the argument of the First Cause, until one day, at the age of eighteen, I read John Stuart Mill's Autobiography, and I there found this sentence: "My father taught me that the question 'Who made me?' cannot be answered, since it immediately suggests the further question `Who made god?'" That very simple sentence showed me, as I still think, the fallacy in the argument of the First Cause. If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause. If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as God, so that there cannot be any validity in that argument. It is exactly of the same nature as the Hindu's view, that the world rested upon an elephant and the elephant rested upon a tortoise; and when they said, "How about the tortoise?" the Indian said, "Suppose we change the subject." The argument is really no better than that. There is no reason why the world could not have come into being without a cause; nor, on the other hand, is there any reason why it should not have always existed. There is no reason to suppose that the world had a beginning at all. The idea that things must have a beginning is really due to the poverty of our imagination. Therefore, perhaps, I need not waste any more time upon the argument about the First Cause.
What you will find instead is, that in a substantial number of these 'Is there a God' debates is that the affirmative (There is a God) will get up and just reiterate the 'first cause argument' in some form or another, to a varying degree of eloquence, as if Bertrand Russell had never rebutted it.

Then the negative (Athiests do not have to substantiate belief in something unsubstantiated) get up and with a much higher degree of eloquence, and varying degrees of genuine frustration and restraint, reiterate Russell's rebuttal in some form or another.

So rather than being a 'debate' as a contest, intended to pursuade the audiance is an farce. It is in practice an old familiar play, like 'Romeo & Juliet' that never moves into new territory and the outcome never changes.

But it gets worse.

It isn't just a way to act out Bertrand Russell's book for new audiences that never would read it, getting people like Christopher Hitchens and Tony Blair, Deepak Chopra and Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and some Irish Mathematicians to star in the roles of rational person and believer. The debate almost always forces the negative to wear two hats. That is-it is biased against the affirmative.

Firstly the negative - for convenience I will call them athiests, not only have to argue the case of a rational view of the universe, they almost always have to spend their time fulfilling the role of the adjudicator or moderator.

Giving examples ties in with how to move the debate forward so I'll try and combine these two.


'Science' and 'reason' have very specific meanings, and within their context words like 'proof' and 'evidence' and 'methodology' also have very specific meanings. And you see these words being abused, which is to say, employed without respect to their proper definition.

Just looking at 'science' tells you a lot about how the debate can't move forward. Perhaps the most common (and tired) argument FOR god, is 'you can't prove there isn't a god'. If you use the functional, practical and real definition of science - this is not an argument at all. The reason being that science does not have to prove negatives. It's an inadmissable argument where you need an adjudicator or moderator to step in and say 'this is a reasoned debate with agreed definitions, and that argument is inadmissable', instead you wind up with 10-40 minutes of the hour long televised special being taken up by an athiest scientist trying to get across to the believers/spiritualists what science actually means, so that they can rebut the tired old argument.

Reason and logic too need to be agreed on. Deepak Chopra for example, when debating Sam Harris and Michael Sherma employs a well known tactic and informal logical fallicy known as 'blinding with science' which is where he throws out a bunch of inaccessible scientific jargon to support his views that actually have no meaning or misrepresent the science he names. After 'blinding with science' he frequently employs 'definitional retreats' precisely why to move forward with the debate you need a moderator to enforce the definitions that is a distinct role, seperate from the people representing rational views of existence.

Succinctly, you need both sides to agree to the rules of the debate.


What largely makes the debates popular wastes of time, is that the affirmative has a really easy job of holding its ground. So without agreed definitions, it can make invalid arguments that the negative has to respond to, then if they choose to respond at all, they can simply interject and mouth a bunch of meaningless platitudes. A fine example being Deepak Chopra, and after doing so, depressingly large portions of the audience will clap.

Imagine if you had a game of basketball, where one team uses a series of creative passes to get the ball into the hands of their best 3-point shooter, whom wide open (no defender is there to physically contest them taking the shot) shoots the ball into the net. Roughly half the audience errupts into applause and cheering to see such superb play, their team transitions into defence as the other team takes the ball.

The other team kick the basketball along the ground in a display of fancy footwork, directing the ball away from the waiting defenders completely and into the change room where they dunk it into a bowl of coleslaw. Suddenly the other half of the audience errupts into rapturous applause.

This takes place because there is no objective scoreboard, or even effectually referee to point out, and penalise the completely illegal, and meaningless play of the second team. The audience in turn applauds there efforts out of a complete ignorance of the rules of basketball. The first team was furthermore duped into playing in the first place because they were led to believe that they were competing in a game of basketball.

The analogy may be labored, but I'm at pains to point out that the debate can't move forward if the affirmative - believers, side of the debate can continue to pretend to be debating, when in fact they are not engaged in the debate at all.

Furthermore the negative, the rationalists by participating in such events counterbalance the spreading of their reasoned arguments by being complicit in legitimising the illigitamate opposition.

Once you stage a debate with accepted definitions of what the debate is about, and what constitutes logical arguments, and what tactics are unacceptable (known as fallacies) you can simply set up a scoreboard. Then you can have winners and losers.

What would this look like? The affirmative stands up and says 'My esteemed opposition, I respect your right to believe there is no God, but you don't afford me the same respect. You are as bad as the fundamentalists you criticise, you can't prove God does not exist, but you demand that I prove God.' The argument is invalid, based on the agreed definitions of science, athiest, proof etc. so while the audience bursts into applause, the scoreboard deducts points from the affirmative speaker for making an invalid argument. Then the moderator explains that the negative speaker does not have to respond to the argument, because science does not have to prove negatives.

I believe such a scoring system is necessary, you get points for making valid arguments, the points are deducted when somebody rebuts your argument with a valid counter-argument, which they in turn recieve points for. Fallacies and invalid arguments (ones that contradict the agreed definitions) are penalised.

In the above description, you will note that the audience applauds an argument that actually loses points or is penalised. This isn't to say the sadistic audience is cheering the failure of the hated affirmative. It is my observation that the affirmative side cheers invalid arguments and fallacies often in this debate from a place of ignorance.

The lack of a scoreboard allows this debate to wallow in pre-Bertrand Russell infancy forever. For the simple reason that the speakers that employ these invalid arguments, or vacuous platitudes or logical fallacies recieve no negative reinforcement and infact recieve positive reinforcement. One could argue that sometimes the speaker who does so is not doing so out of a place of genuine ignorance, but is actually being deliberately deceptive and misleading. The audience is I'm fairly certain always applauding from a place of ignorance.

If you add an objective element to provide negative or positive reinforcement, you can produce a winner or loser that at the very least means that no matter how convincing you found the person who believes as you do, you would have to walk away wondering why your side lost.

As it stands both sides can walk away thinking they won. Some debates currently poll the audience members, to determine 'democratically' who won the debate, this just demonstrates the problem. Under the scoreboard and moderator system, I have described you would find some of the well known debates look like this:

Christopher Hitchens (12) def Tony Blair (0) - the most civilised debate, where Hitchens systemically rebuts Blairs arguments. Blair is nowhere near Hitchens ability, but is intelligent enough to not employ blatent fallacies etc.

Richard Dawkins (8) def Irish Mathematician (-12) another civilised debate, one though where the structure frustrates Dawkins who has to skip arguments just to clear up the blatent fallacies and invalid arguments made by his opposition.

Sam Harris (30) def Deepak Chopra (-88) in some ways the best debate, and in other ways the worst. The worst because Deepak Chopra is involved and virtually unchecked by everything but the reasoning of the opposition. Almost everything he says is fallacious AND vacuous.

But under the democratic polling system, these debates could all go either way, depending on the make up of the audience as they don't understand the rules of logical debate.

Accusations of Bias

The scores for the famous recent debates I made up all heavily favor the negative, the athiest champions. And by Champion I don't mean 'winner' but those championing the cause of atheism and a rational, scientific view of the universe. That the first time such a debate is held, there will almost certainly be accusations of bias. If not from the participants, then certainly in the comment thread on youtube.

For example, when somebody makes the non-argument 'the athiest view of the christian God is bleak and depressing, that's not the God I believe in.' (a definitional retreat) the moderator steps in and deducts points and explains that the athiest attacked the God as described in scripture, and the speakers personal interpretation is not evidence based, and thus invalid.

Just trust me when I say, that under such adjudication and scoring, it will appear brutal for the side of faith. It would seem like the umpire in a sporting match was handing out all the penalties to one team and giving the ball to the other. It would appear one-sided.

Sorry to keep using sporting analogies, but my high-school principal was fond of describing debating as sport, and it kind of is. The thing is that for almost all the debates on this topic organised we have historically been presenting them as if two elite-professional teams were facing off against eachother. Instead for whatever reason, they are in practice an elite-professional team versus complete amatuers, that are committing penalties left right and center because they don't even know the rules of the game.

Obviously I have a bias, but for every debate I've watched, I'm simply struck by the inability of the believers, the Christians, or those representing faith based belief systems to produce a champion of anywhere near the quality of the negative. This is despite atheists having no major institutions to back them, no central organising body nothing.

The Dawkins or Hitchens debates certainly at least dig up presentable champions to oppose them, but they are clearly dwarfed in intellect and reasoning ability by the athiests. And this is despite the lack of moderation forcing them to give up minutes to explaining the basic presence of science and defining terms like 'explanation' and 'complexity'.

But the bias is intrinsic, Harris and/or Dawkins write about the correlation. Atheists tend to be well versed in logic, reason and science, as formally defined processes, because atheism is belief position arrived at by reason. Furthermore, the proportion of University Professors that are athiests are much higher than the proportion in the general population. Conversely, the proportion of devout believers in God, is much higher than the general population on prison death rows. Belief is weakest in developed countries with high standards of living, and highest in impoverished countries with low standards of living.

Faith, by definition, is belief in the absense of evidence. It is not a reasoned position. So the bias for something that is called a 'debate' and is supposed to be a contest of intellectuals engaged in reasoned argument, is just inherently biased away from faith and towards athiesm.

So why do them?

These debates need to take place, and can take place because there is a large body of believers that genuinely believe that faith in a personal God is a reasonable position. These are arguments in the tradition of Pascal's Wager, or Des Cartes meditations.

In terms of where reason and philosophy is at, these arguments are way behind the times, but I'm sure you will find representatives of Judeo Religions and other Personal Gods and even spiritualists that believe they can win the argument applying only reason.

Debates under the conditions I've described (and not those conditions I've criticised) would do a genuine public service, the consciousness raising Dawkins talks about in 'The God Delusion' namely. But really I want them held to actually move the debate forward. I would love to actually see somebody champion religion with the kind of quality that atheism has been championed with on the better occassions. There are plenty of people who shouldn't champion atheism, but the fact is that Hitchens, Harris and Dawkins at least have done really high quality jobs. All of course preceeded by Bertrand Russell, this quality simply has never been produced for the faith side, Blair didn't even come close, and he is probably the closest.

Des Cartes and Pascal were alright, but the debated when the standard of the debate was much lower, the debate itself in its infancy, before enlightenment thinkers like Spinoza and Voltaire came along, and Isaac Newton revolutionised the study of physics.

To me, even if no debate ever would actually change the mind of a believer or athiest, they would be valid I feel because the champions of faith only CAN do so, from a place of ignorance as to what reason is. These debates would be humbling and educational to them. Furthermore, they could actually educate the audience as to the misuse of science and the bastardisation of scientific terms. It would create more honest belief, in other words. One that is exactly what it is, faith, and doesn't pretend to be supported by reason and empirical evidence. 

Lastly you could actually just reiterate the same debate, with a track of the scores and see an improvement in the quality of debate. For example, the first time Sam Harris faces off with Deepak Chopra, he walks away with 30 points on his side of the board and Chopra has to humbly swallow -88. The next week Chopra learns his lesson and stops abusing and misrepresenting quantum physics, he may still lose, but the debate is actually about the topic and not about what constitutes science, expertise and qualifications. Say Sam Harris 10 defeats Deepak Chopra -12.

You don't even need to have the same speakers or panelists, you just need to move the debate on. On to someplace interesting in a non-Schadenfrued way.

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