How not to stage an atheist debate, part 3

I want to digress from the format of the debate to look closely at some of the content that Ross hurled out there at breakneck pace. I’m looking at a yellow piece of paper, of which a copy was left near every seat in the house. The title is “RTB Testable Creation Model Predictions.” It lists under four major sections: “Origin of the Universe,” “Origin of Life,” “Origin of Animal Species,” and “Origin of Humanity.”

I can’t find a copy on the net and I’m not interested in typing the whole thing, but let me just grab a representative example. This is just one that especially caught my eye. Under “Origin of Humanity,” prediction number 3 says: “Humanity’s origin will prove to date back to between ~40,000 to 150,000 years ago.”

All by itself, this is a perfect representation of what Hugh Ross cluelessly imagines to be a scientific prediction. First of all, because it’s absolutely non specific in what the nature of the evidence might be. How will humanity’s origin prove to date back to that point? What kind of artifacts will be uncovered that will confirm this? Where shall we attempt to look for these things?

This may be a prediction, but it is not a testable prediction, because there is no concrete plan of action to actually perform the testing. Hugh Ross is perfectly content to sit on his ass and say “Future scientists will prove that I was right” — not entirely unlike George “only future historians can judge me” Bush I might add. (Cheap shot!) There is also no time frame for this “prediction” — if it never comes true in Ross’s lifetime, oh well, we have the rest of future history to wait.

And the second thing is, it’s really not a prediction of creationism. Oh sure, it’s a prediction of this particular model of creationism, so tautologically it says “If humanity came into existence more than 150,000 years ago, then my theory that humanity came into existence more than 150,000 years ago is falsified.” Doesn’t make the slightest impact on the general proposition of whether creationism is true.

To satisfy yourself that this is the case, I want you to imagine that conclusive evidence were found indicating that humanity came into existence 150,001 years ago. Furthermore, let’s suppose that this evidence were so incredibly persuasive that Rana and Ross had no choice but to accept it. Yeah, I know this strains credibility, because there is nothing a creationist is required to accept when it comes to fact-checking, but just play along. Suppose that tomorrow Ross were genuinely convinced that humanity came into existence at least 150,001 years ago.

Now my question is: Can you honestly imagine Ross going on to say “I guess that proves that creation is wrong, then!” Because I sure can’t. At most, I can see Ross going back to his little Word document, and quietly changing it so that NOW it says “Humanity’s origin will prove to date back to between ~40,000 to 160,000 years ago.” Then he’ll claim he has updated the model, and the new model has not been falsified.

This is the problem with a theory that presumes the existence of an infinitely powerful being. It confounds all possible attempts at prediction. The god can just as easily do things one way as another. Sure, you can SAY something like “My theory predicts that life originated abruptly” (which Ross does, in the “Origin of life” section, bullet point #3). But if your god felt like creating life slowly, then he could create it slowly. Hence life originating abruptly is actually not a prediction of the theory at all, because if the prediction is wrong then it doesn’t falsify the theory.

To his credit, Michael Shermer made a good effort to drive this point home later, but here he was both helped and hindered by the extremely stacked audience. During his presentation, he yelled out “If this prediction were shown not to be true, would you all stop believing in God?” and the crowd obligingly yelled back “NO!!!!!” To people who already understood his point, Shermer drove it home again. But to the people who were actually shouting at him, it went right over their heads. I could hear them: they were PROUD of themselves for having the conviction to stand up for their faith. They obviously didn’t feel like a point had been made at their expense. In my opinion, Shermer needed to back up his showmanship with an easily understandable explanation about how none Ross’s predictions constitute falsifiability even to Ross himself. It might be the time constraints, but I didn’t feel that this came across.

Okay, this is turning into quite a marathon, but my notes are much sparser for Rana and Shermer’s presentations. I’ll get to them next time.

How not to stage an atheist debate, part 2

To set the scene: I showed up with Ben at around 6:30 to pick up my tickets from Matt, and ran into Annie. She was already engaged in conversation with a guy in some kind of usher capacity, where he was saying “All I’m saying is, we both see things like the complexity of the cell, we both have the same evidence, but we just arrive at different conclusions.” Never one to waste time on the subtle approach, I jumped into the conversation: “That’s right. One of those conclusions is based on actual scientific analysis of the evidence, and one is not.”

We bantered like that for a bit longer before going in. As I said, the entrance was absolutely jam packed with tables selling, or perhaps giving away, copies of books by Hugh Ross, Lee Strobel, and that crowd. Ben (age 6) got a little green pocket edition of New Testament Psalms and Proverbs shoved into his hand by a guy lurking by the entrance. I told him a lot of people in the room were hoping that they could make him a Christian, and I said we could read the book later if he was interested.

The inside was similar… I found Don Rhoades to sit with, and he introduced us to the very Christian old couple on his other side that he got acquainted with. From behind me I caught a snatch of discussion: “Well I believe in the big bang… God said it and BANG, it happened.” No, seriously. Somebody thought that joke was clever enough to say out loud.

After the lights dimmed and introductions were made, Ross launched into his presentation. Hugh first made the very lofty claim that he had come up with a scientific, testable, and falsifiable model of creation. Hugh Ross first announced that he was not a young earth creationist, as the evidence points to a billions of years old universe just as science said. He also specified that he would not be defending Intelligent Design that evening… as we all know, ID scrupulously tries to avoid the mention of a God, and Ross wants his Christian deity front and center at all times.

Here’s a summary of Ross’s debating techniques:

  • Extremely cutesy PowerPoint transitions. I swear, every single page of his presentation involved a different wipe, fade, cut, 3d foldout, etc. I found it annoying, but an excellent foreshadowing of the total emphasis of style over substance.
  • Lots and lots and lots of quote mining. At every possible opportunity, Ross loves to quote an atheistic scientist who has said one or two lines that says something about the appearance of design. It happens all the time. Dawkins put it on the first page of Blind Watchmaker. He said biology is the study of things that appear to be design but aren’t, but then spent an entire book responding to how nature produced this apparent “design.” Ross, of course leaves out the book and uses the quote to make it sound like Dawkins is a design advocate. Similar atrocity committed against Lawrence Krauss. You have to wonder, if his case is so scientific, why can’t he quote some real, published scientists who actually believes in design, rather than faking it?
  • Steal credit from real science. As far as I can tell, Ross has never done any original scientific research. Here’s what he does instead: Cite a particular scientific discovery that has already been made, and then declare that this is a test of your creation model, which predicts it. Never mind that the people making the discover completely fail in every single instance to recognize the ramifications of their own theory as a point for design. Sure, they’re smart enough to actually do the science, but after that they’re too blinded by ideology to understand their own research.
  • Make one kind of prediction over and over again, which largely takes this form: “I predict that more evidence will be found to support my theory.” Wow, how specific!
  • That old Muslim apologist trick of claiming that your holy book anticipated the discoveries of science. Lots of Bible quotes. In most places he doesn’t put the actual verses on the slides, because then he might have to actually defend some extremely nonspecific language. Instead, he just throws up a page with 10-12 chapter and verse citations, and asserts that those verses were uncannily accurate. Don’t worry, who’s gonna cross-check in the middle of a debate anyway?
  • Tons of big numbers, very little justification. Ross says that there are a large number (let’s say it’s 547, because it doesn’t matter) of features of the universe that require a designer to account for. Like the Bible verses, certainly no one is going to look them up during the debate. In many cases, he uses the “creationist stand-up comedy” technique that I so love, of explaining how big a number is. “Boy I tell ya, that number was big!” “HOW BIG was it?” “Oh, it was SO BIG that…” In one place he announced a number in scientific notation and then said that it was more than a trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion. Confirming my suspicion that Ross relies on his ability to play to a largely innumerate audience, who don’t understand big numbers otherwise.

Anyway, in the end Ross’s “testable predictive model” boiled down to the fine tuning argument. That’s it. Take away the power point transitions, the big numbers, the Bible verses, the phony quotes, and you’re left with a series of claims that there is no explanation for feature X of the universe, therefore Magic Man Done It. As you would expect, he didn’t ever attempt to justify how Magic Man came to be, just asserted that it was the only alternative.

We know this as “God of the gaps” of course, but Ross was ready for that too: he said that BOTH sides have gaps, therefore it’s acceptable. Oh sure, nobody has complete knowledge; it’s just that Ross argues in a total knowledge vacuum, and then wants to say that this is equivalent to proving something with evidence.

I was already thoroughly irritated, and there was still another full creationist presentation to go. Why, Michael? Why did you agree to this format? First of all, I don’t see all that many other live debates where ANY participants is allowed to speak uninterrupted for thirty minutes to an hour. Usually there’s a back and forth exchange every ten minutes or so.

Second, if your opponent controls the format, and he tells you “Okay, MY side gets more than an hour, you get half an hour” you have an alternative. You threaten to walk. Will your opponent taunt and mock you, call you chicken? Yeah, but he’s going to taunt and mock and declare victory anyway, and he’s going to come off looking like he won even with the bullshit set of rules. If you owned a professional football team, would you sign a contract agreeing to a game where you only get the ball on 1/3 of the plays? No. That’s not brave, it’s gullible.

Let Ross preach to a room full of choir. He practically did that anyway… on the whole I think the debate gave him free publicity with not much down side for him.

To be continued.

How not to stage an atheist debate, part 1

As Martin announced on Sunday, last night at the UT campus Michael Shermer (editor of Skeptic magazine and author of Why People Believe Weird Things, among other things) held a debate against Hugh Ross and Fazale Rana, authors of sever old earth creationist books and proprietors of reasonstobelieve.org. There were some other guys on Michael Shermer’s side too, UT Philosophy of Science professor Dr. Sahotra Sarkar and Biomedical Engineering chair Kenneth Diller. However, they did not do a full presentation, but were apparently only there as backup for the Q&A portion.

I took my son Ben to the debate, not because I thought he would get much out of it, but because I had him for the evening and I figured it couldn’t do him any harm. I gave him a six year old eye view of the creationism controversy, building on stuff I already told him about Galileo about religion’s frequent stance against science, and touching on the Scopes trial as well as talking about the evolution controversy today. Matt D. was in attendance and so were at least two other ACA members that I’m aware of, Don Rhoades (not Baker) and Annie.

In my perception, the debate was an unmitigated disaster. The debate was a prime example of everything I’ve been saying in these posts about how atheists and science defenders continually get suckered into debates where the theist controls the format, the topic, and the crowd. It’s almost enough to make me give my unconditional support to Eugenie Scott when she warns that you should seriously consider not debating at all.

When I talked to Matt last night he seemed to disagree, and if he doesn’t chime in we’ll be discussing it on The Non-Prophets this weekend. I plan to write several posts in this series, so you can see the updates quickly but still get around to all my notes eventually.

For now, here’s a quick list of grievances:

  1. Turnout. It was very clear that churches hyped the hell out of this. This was a big gymnasium filled with folding chairs; in the lobby there were at least three tables loaded with Christian apologetics books, and none on the atheist side. Without exception, every conversation I heard that did not involve an ACA member was dismissive of evolution.
  2. Format. Oh my dear FSM, what happened? Ross and Rana both got to speak uninterrupted back to back before Michael Shermer got up. Between them — I timed this — Ross and Rana clocked in at an hour and fifteen minutes, while Michael Shermer got just over thirty. The other two members got face time, but no presentation. By the time Shermer was done, people were already starting to leave anyway.
  3. Topic. Was there one? The proposed topic going in was “Was Darwin Wrong?” which is bad enough. (Yes, of course Darwin was wrong. Duh. Evolution isn’t wrong but Darwin was wrong about a great many aspects of it.) However, they didn’t make any pretense of discussing this topic. The opening PowerPoint slide said “Evolution & Intelligent Design,” then Hugh Ross proceeded to say he was not going to talk about Intelligent Design because he would be promoting a Christian “testable theory.” Any kind of constraints on the discussion were thrown out the window from the first minute.
  4. Sponsorship and moderation. The debate was sponsored by one or several Christian groups, and some guy from the UT Engineering department announced at the beginning that the department had also sponsored it, although this didn’t imply that they condone anything that was said. But rather than moderating, the chair introduced the speakers, and then two hours later used some Q&A time to further bash the evolution side and speak about the importance of mixing some religion in your science. (Matt was actually under the impression that he was billed on the creationist side. I looked up the fliers. He was not.)

That’s enough for now; expect more posts as the day goes on.

This week in Austin: yet another evolution/ID debate

Christians still don’t seem to have gotten the memo from Dover that ID is dead deader deadest, and they’re still trying to find public forums in which to flog its corpse. I’m not sure they should be accorded the courtesy of a debate by legitimate scientists any more. More and more I tend to agree with the views of those who say these debates, by virtue of occurring at all, send a message that ID must have some scientific legitimacy, otherwise why would major universities be hosting the debates in the first place.

That’s not the case, of course. Any student group can book facilities at their university, and so another one of these debates is taking place this coming Tuesday at 7. Skeptic magazine editor Michael Shermer will be one of three folks on the pro-science side, taking on two creationists, Hugh Ross and Fazale Rana, of Reasons to Believe. These guys, like Behe, have scientific backgrounds, and I know Shermer and Ross have debated before. Despite Ross’s CV’s, though, I must say, I’ve seen some episodes of the Reasons to Believe show on TBN, and was, let us say, amused. On one episode as I recall, Ross tried to answer one aspect of the problem of evil — that of “natural” evils like earthquakes — in this way: that God needs earthquakes because that his way of moving minerals through the Earth’s crust.

I wish I could make stuff like that up, people.

As for Shermer, well, here’s the deal. I like the man, like what he does to promote skepticism, have liked some of his books. I also worry about how he’ll handle himself in this debate, because he’s the kind of guy who — well, I don’t know if it’s too strong to call him a “Neville Chamberlain atheist,” but he is inclined towards trying to find a conciliatory middle ground between religion and science that I just don’t think works. I’ll post a review of his book Why Darwin Matters soon to explain what I mean.

Whatever Shermer ends up saying, I know we won’t have to worry about such “we are the world” namby-pambiness from another of the pro-science debaters, Sahotra Sarkar. This guy takes the gloves right off. In early 2002 he debated that supreme nitwit Kirk Durston at UT, and utterly shamed him. I suspect Ross and Rana will be licking their wounds after a few rounds of Sarkar’s debate-fu.

Of the third pro-science debater, Kenneth Diller, I know nothing. I don’t know if he’ll be moderating the debate and the CFI site has him mis-listed as a participant, or what.

Now here’s the sad bit: I’ll be out of town for this. So we’ll have to rely on a report from Kazim or Matt or someone else on the crew. But I’m sure it will be a night to remember.

One complaint a lot of us have already made: The title of the debate is “Was Darwin Wrong?”, which is a fine example of that problem Kazim has discussed here, which is that so many of these debates — planned as they tend to be by the religious side &#151 come front-loaded with assumptions favoring the religious position. Was Darwin wrong? About what? There were several things Darwin was wrong about. But evolution by natural selection isn’t one of them, as 150 years of solid science have shown. A better title might have been “Which has greater evidence, evolution or intelligent design?” But that would put poor Reasons to Believe at a serious disadvantage, I suppose, and reveal their reasons to believe are fragile things indeed.

Regarding Ray Comfort, the World’s Stupidest Christian™

Ray Comfort, the World’s Stupidest Christian™, is the world’s stupidest Christian. When you consider the competition, that’s quite a feat. Ray’s degree of stupidity is truly stunning to behold. It’s so monumental it serves as a kind of strange attractor towards which other Christians, not necessarily as stupid as Ray but not especially smart either, are inexorably drawn. It’s Stupidity as a force of nature, implacable, unwavering as the tides, and entropically hurtling towards greater and greater stupidity until any remaining vestige of what might be determined intelligence has been broken down into its constituent molecules, and scattered to the voids of space.

So like, the guy’s frackin’ stupid. Really. I’ve blown boogers into tissues during a bad cold that are Nobel laureates compared to this guy. Stoo-pid.

Not content with the minor notoriety one gains from being the World’s Stupidest Christian™, Ray has decided he really needs to earn the title. After all, a man’s gotta have something in the way of an achievement in life. So, to this end, as those of you who’ve been hanging out on RDnet and Pharyngula have already heard, he has “challenged” Richard Dawkins to a “debate”. This is as funny as Verne Troyer challenging Mike Tyson to three rounds in the ring.

But it gets funnier. Ray Comfort, the World’s Stupidest Christian™, thinks Dawkins will be impressed by money. So he’s offered $10,000. Thinking a millionaire will be impressed by your $10,000 is like thinking a supermodel will be impressed by your Honda Fit. But, bless his heart, that’s why Ray is the World’s Stupidest Christian™!

Dawkins was unimpressed with the $10,000 offer, shockingly enough, replying to someone claiming to rep Ray that the offer “is less than the typical fee that I am ordinarily offered for lecturing to a serious audience (I often don’t accept it, especially in the case of a student audience, because I am a dedicated teacher). It is not, therefore, a worthwhile inducement for me to travel all the way across the Atlantic to debate with an ignorant fool.” Gold! Dawkins then added (and you can see him smiling as he wrote it) that he’d consider playing along if Ray donated $100,000 to the RDF “so that that money will NOT be available for buying animatronic dinosaurs with saddles, or other similar nonsense. The fact that he would be making a substantial donation to a charity dedicated to Reason and Science adds to the humour of the situation.”

Now it gets even funnier. Get this: Ray Comfort, the World’s Stupidest Christian™, thinks Dawkins is haggling. So he raised the offer to $20,000, imagining, I suppose, that Dawkins is now obliged to come back with something like, “How about 90?” At which point the haggling continues as a matter of form until they settle on 50.

Of course, Dawkins isn’t playing. He doesn’t have to. And the funniest thing of all, in a long list of funny things, is that without this stupid “debate” even taking place yet, Dawkins has already humiliated Ray! D’oh! That’s what you get for being the World’s Stupidest Christian™, cupcake!

And Dawkins has humiliated Ray simply by letting Ray be Ray. It’s uncontrollably funny the way Ray’s very offer essentially amounts to nothing less than an admission of inferiority in all respects. To wit, Dawkins doesn’t need Ray. Ray desperately needs Dawkins. Dawkins has everything Ray doesn’t have and cannot gain through merit: prestige, respect, authority, legitimacy, expertise. Ray wants all of those things, and hopes an association with Dawkins will cause them to rub off on him, especially as he’s deluded himself into thinking he can prove evolution false in a debate with one of the world’s leading scientific authorities on evolution. But you see, that’s Ray Comfort, the World’s Stupidest Christian™, all over!

I love Ray. Really. I heart him like a hearty thing. He cannot know what joy he brings into the daily lives of atheists, just by the million little loving ways he reminds us that he’s the World’s Stupidest Christian™.

So Dawkins has named his price, because he can, because Ray has nothing Dawkins wants or needs. And the mere fact that Ray has already upped his previously pathetic offer to a slightly less pathetic level has pretty much bagged this “debate” for Dawkins right out of the gate. In the same way it’s funny to see the no-hopers at the Discovery Institute still trying to convince themselves of their relevance more than three years after Dover put a howitzer shell through ID, by their continuing efforts to find scientists to debate them, it’s even funnier seeing Ray running after Dawkins, like some loser at a bar trailing after a hot chick pleading, “Well, maybe if I gave you my number…”

Gang, this is exactly the right way to treat creationists every time they try to make a grab for legitimacy and shore up their inflated sense of importance: pure derision. Because you know, it works! It really gets their gander up.

How did Ray Comfort, the World’s Stupidest Christian™, react to being dubbed an “ignorant fool”? Well, nosir, he dint like it! And he whined about it in entirely predictable fashion over at — where else? — the Christian Worldview Network.

During the more than 5,000 times I have spoken in the public forum, I have engaged hundreds of little Richard Dawkins’ and have noticed that when their argument is very weak, they always revert to personal insults. While I won’t condescend to insults, I will point out that Mr. Dawkins does believe that we were created by aliens.

Which, of course, he doesn’t, but that’s beside the point. Ray doesn’t realize that Dawkins is not insulting him by saying he’s an ignorant fool. He’s simply stating a fact, as I am when I refer to Ray by his unofficial title, the World’s Stupidest Christian™. It’s like, imagine that Dawkins has a bowl of chocolate ice cream in front of him. And he looks at it and says, “The flavor of this ice cream is chocolate.” Is he calling the ice cream a name? Is he insulting it? No! He is merely stating an observable fact about the nature of the ice cream. Likewise, when he points out Ray is an ignorant fool, he is merely stating an observable fact about Ray Comfort. Ray will never get these points. Because &#151 what is he, everybody…? All together now…

“Anything is Possible”

The last time I was on AE, a woman used this line. I asked her if she understood that what is possible has no bearing on what is real. A friend of mine indicated he would have rather asked the woman if it’s possible she is wrong. I liked his reply better, because it creates an interesting situation: Is it possible that not all things are possible? And if so, doesn’t that mean that you’ve just said it’s possible that your assertion is incorrect?

What is impossible, on the other hand, has a great deal of bearing on what is real. A married bachelor or a square circle, for example, would be examples of things that are clearly not possible, because they would be contradictory by definition. Some things, in fact, we can demonstrate are not possible.

While I wouldn’t deny it is not a misuse of the term “possible” to say “It is possible for a square to have four sides,” that would be an uncommon use of the term. And in the article below, I’m dealing with the more pragmatic usage (as in the headline), where people apply it as a means to express that which is not impossible, but also not a requirement of existence or definition. So, while I could say, “It is possible for a square to have four sides,” that would be an uncommon use. Generally a person would say something like, “A square has (or must have) four sides,” as a requirement of a square, and the term “possible” would be reserved for what may be, but also is not required.

An atheist is anyone who does not believe a god exists, or who further adds that no god exists. An atheist, then, is not concerning himself with what is possible, but with what s/he believes is most likely to be true. And if this atheist is also a skeptic or counterapologist, s/he is also concerned with what evidence suggests is most likely true. But even the “hard” atheist is not making any sort of shocking claim. S/he’s not assuming anything each of us doesn’t assume daily for all sorts of situations. Here is an example of what I mean:

Scenario: John and Mary are happily married by their account. Mary has just left to go shopping for the afternoon. As she walked out of the house, John was watching a football game. After 30 minutes at the mall, can Mary claim John is not engaged in an infidelity? Is it “impossible” that John is now with another woman?

Of course, the only logical answer to that question is “no, it is not impossible. And even Mary cannot logically make such a claim.”

Based upon what we (including Mary) know, it is possible, for John to, at this moment, be with another woman. There is absolutely nothing stopping this from being a possible scenario.

However, based on the scene as described, has any reason been given for Mary to suspect that John actually is with another woman at this moment? No. Certainly he has opportunity—but opportunity and possibility are, obviously, not necessarily correlating to reality if the reality is that John is faithful.

Whenever we acknowledge an event or scenario is possible (not required, but may be), we are also acknowledging, whether we admit to it or not, that the opposite scenario must also be possible. So, to say “It’s possible John is unfaithful,” means, inescapably, that we are also saying that it might not be so—that it is, in that same moment, possible that John is faithful.

And this is the context in which most theist apologists use “possible,” in my experience—in a context where I must always hold as true both that John is possibly faithful and John is possibly unfaithful. But the moment I acknowledge one, I have acknowledged the other.

I have heard more times than I care to mention someone appeal to mathematical models of other dimensions and then insist that a god may be existing in such a dimension. In other words: It’s possible these mathematical models correlated to reality and that other dimensions exist; and it’s possible that something we would agree can be labeled as “gods” might exist within those other dimensions.

Yes. It’s possible. It’s also possible that reality does not correlated to the math. And it’s possible that even if there are other dimensions, there is nothing within them either of us would be remotely inclined to label as a “god.”

What does that tell us about reality? And how does that move forward as “evidence” for the existence of a god?

In other words—how do I take those two conflicting possibilities and convert them into beliefs?

We can believe that mutually conflicting possibilities exist. As John showed us, we actually must—since, for every “unknown, but possible” scenario, there is an equal and opposite “unknown, but possible” scenario. John is possibly faithful and possible unfaithful. And I believe this, and there is no conflict or contradiction in that framework.

However, I cannot both believe John is faithful and also believe that John is not faithful. That is very much a conflict and a contradiction. So, the atheist—who is concerned with what s/he believes, is not dealing with possibilities, but with what s/he actually believes is correlating to reality. The fact that many things are possible does not help us to determine what we should believe to be true.

The hard atheist, then, is not saying anything more critical than Mary would be to insist that “John is faithful to me.” And how many spouses would feel safe making that statement—even without 24-hour surveillance on their husbands/wives? Surely some would be wrong. But we can all grasp the pragmatic reality that we make such statements daily with an unstated asterisk behind them that leads to the footnote, “to the best of my knowledge.” Saying no god exists is no more than this. And saying I believe god does not exist is to say even less—even less than people (atheists and theists alike) assert every day about all sorts of things of which they cannot be sure.

And I’m a little concerned now that quite a lot of time and energy is spent in dialogues with theists about what might be possible and what that would mean for reality if what were possible were actually true. Such discussions are fine if people enjoy philosophical exploration for the sake of sheer exploration. But if the dialogue is about “why should I believe a god exists?,” they are an utter waste of the atheist’s (and, therefore, also the theist’s) time. They get us no closer to truth. This is one reason, it just dawned on me, that Pascal’s Wager is not at all compelling to me. Despite the many faults with this particular apologetic offering, the main problem with it, for me, is that it starts out with an assumption that we should operate on pure possibilities without any consideration regarding whether or not those possibilities can be shown to correlate to reality. And who in the world operates using that model in their day-to-day life?

It’s possible I’m hallucinating traffic signals. And certainly if I am, the consequences will be dire if I attempt to drive. It’s far safer, then, to not drive my car. But would I be wise to function in that mode of reason in my life? Obviously not.

I submit that discussions that begin with a premise of “possible,” be nipped in the bud—unless philosophical discussion is what you’re into. As soon as the apologist goes down the path of, “in mathematics, there are models of other dimensions,” or anything else that is “possible” but not known to correlate to reality, the response should be to ask if they are intent on discussing what is most likely to be true or merely what is possible. Because I will acknowledge off the bat that any number of “possible” gods can be defined. But that doesn’t offer me any compelling reason to believe that any of them correlate to what really exists. And if their premise starts off with what is possible—how do they intend to get to what is convincingly true? The premise is possible, b
ut so is the negation of the premise—so there had better be some really compelling reason for me to move forward on such a premise.

When someone puts forward to me that “X is possible” as a premise for believing in god, I will hopefully remember to point out that “–X is also possible,” and ask if they believe that as well, since it is also a possible scenario. I simply wonder if it would not be best to not pursue fruitless arguments about what is possible, but to simply negate the possibilities until it sinks into this type of apologist’s head that “possible,” when used in this vein, is utterly bankrupt of meaning. If “it is possible god exists” is a reason to believe, then surely “it is possible god does not exist,” is just as much a reason to disbelieve. I, though, see neither as a reason for anything, and I will try to remember to press this point at every opportunity to see if it actually can get the apologist’s mental light bulb to click “on,”—not to get them to agree with me, but to at least make them understand the fallacy they’re working under with this particular line of “reasoning.”

Debate flow

This is not about atheism, but I thought people with an interest in debating would like to see it. In response to my discussion of the Australia atheism debate, Crucifinch asked:

you mentioned debate flowing which I am unfamiliar with. Do you know of any good resources for introduction debate flowing? I found a few online about how to make a flow -better- but nothing that could serve as a good base.

I can’t find what appears to be a definitive guide to Flow online — this Wikipedia article looks like it has some good links, but it is about Policy debate. Alan and Mike did something that is a lot more similar to Lincoln/Douglas debate, which is what I did in high school. It’s centered around the notion of philosophy and values, the style is looser, and there is no specific “plan” that is being critiqued.

I’ll outline what I know about LD flowing, although it’s been quite a few years. Here’s what you do. Take a plain yellow legal pad open to a blank page. Tilt it 90 degrees counterclockwise, so that the binding is by your left hand. Draw a horizontal line across the page to divide it in half. Then, draw enough vertical lines to divide the page into as many horizontal boxes as there will be speeches. For example, in a typical LD debate, there are five separate speeches, with the first debater (arguing the “affirmative” position) speaking in the first, third, and fifth segments; and the second debater (arguing the “negative” position) getting a slightly longer amount of time in the second and fourth segments. In Alan’s debate, there were only four long sections.

So assuming we talk about Alan’s debate, you will have four sections across the page, divided into top (for Mike’s arguments) and bottom (for Alan’s). Label the upper boxes across, “1A” (first affirmative speech), “1N” (first negative), then 2A and 2N.

Now, in the first round, you will write down an outline of Mike’s speech. There isn’t a ton of room, so make sure you just write the most important Big Picture points and they fit on one or two lines each. You won’t write anything on the bottom, because Alan hasn’t spoken yet. You won’t be writing any case information in the lower left corner, but if there is a cross-examination period then feel free to write down possible questions to the other person in that space.

In the second round, you will start out writing in the bottom box under “1N”. Alan presents his own case first, so he makes original arguments. But after he has finished this, he will want to respond to Mike’s arguments at some level of detail. Draw a horizontal arrow leading from Mike’s 1A on top to Alan’s 1N on top. During preparation time, you should jot down how you plan to respond to these arguments, in the second box. Then you hit each point in turn and sit down.

On Mike’s next turn, 2A, he will respond to your original points from 1N bottom, AND attempt to counter your arguments to his 1A case. So you write more arrows, showing a continuous horizontal flow for each argument as the round goes on. If Mike fails to respond to Alan’s point, go ahead and put a big “X” next to the argument because it’s over. Remember to call attention to it later! You want everyone in the room to be aware that you made an argument which was so good that Mike tried to get away without answering it. Repeat the argument too, to remind people of what you said when you scored this hit. This process will continue all the way to the last round.

Since you already know your own case in advance, you should prepare a flow sheet ahead of time and fill in the “1A top” box or the “1N bottom” box, so that you don’t have to waste time writing your own case during the debate. Planning this outline will also help you write your case to begin with, because it focuses your attention on creating a broad structure to your argument which is easy to follow. I like to write presentations in outline format so that you make large points I, II, and III; and then you make subpoints IA, IB, IIA, IIB, and so on. Rule of thumb, if you break it down effectively then you should be writing maybe 7-15 lines per box. If your opponent’s case is well structured, then you should be able to format his box in about the same style. If not, count your blessings and prepare to take him to task for throwing out a mishmash of disorganized thoughts. :)

Constructive criticism on the rumble in Sydney

I’d like to thank Rachel Macalpine again for sending me the debate between Alan Conradi of the Sydney Atheists and minister Mike Paget. Since I recently did a lecture on evangelical atheism, this seems like a good opportunity to point out some techniques in action. I’ve asked if I can provide constructive feedback on this blog, and gotten permission. So here goes.

First of all, Alan, I applaud you for going out and doing this. There needs to be more direct confrontation between atheists and Christians, and it’s good publicity for your group.

As an atheist, of course, I am highly biased and thought that your arguments were correct and Mike’s were not. But if I were a “neutral” observer, scoring the debate purely on points won and style, I would probably wind up awarding Mike a TKO victory on that basis. I don’t think you should feel bad about this at all, because it seems to me that Mike had a few notable advantages right from the start, and you stacked up really well against him. I’m going to try to approach it from a presentation angle and see if we can get you to do even better the next time.

First of all, let me make an important point from the start. A live, face-to-face debate is not an email debate, nor is it a peer reviewed scientific paper. It might help if you think of debate more like something equivalent to stand-up comedy. In both pursuits, you live or die by what the audience thinks of you. If you’re not bringing the audience along with you, you can tell it in their faces and their audio cues. Because you are not working with a written format, the audience has to proceed at the pace you give them. They can’t stop to think about your words, they don’t always know for sure what you mean to say, and they can’t pause in the middle to fact check you.

At any given moment, they are either enjoying your performance or they aren’t. If they enjoy you, then they will laugh and clap, and that raises your spirits and you present more confidently. If you’re losing the audience, if you can practically hear the crickets chirp, then it throws you off your psychological game and you have a greater tendency to stumble. This is one of the motivations behind David Sirlin’s principle that it’s better to play offense than defense in most games. If you rush to get an early advantage, then a small edge can snowball into a large win.

Now this is where Mike has a big advantage right from the outset: Mike is a minister. He does this for a living and you don’t. He’s right there in front of a crowd every single week, working the audience and figuring out how to keep them wrapped up in his words for an hour or so. And it shows. Mike went to the podium and flattered the audience and the hosts, then loosened up the crowd with some jokes, got them laughing with him early, and then pretty much entertained as he preached.

By contrast, your opening presentation seemed light on the funny and heavy on the scientific exposition. “I intend to accurately define atheism and show you that the atheistic position on God is the most sensible stance to take. I will also explain that the Christian take does not make sense.” There’s nothing PARTICULARLY wrong with that, but it doesn’t exactly grab the attention and hold on. There is actually an important principle of comedy, which is this: Always open with your second-best joke, and always close with your best joke. I could explain this, but if you think about it for a minute I think the reasoning should be obvious.

So, what’s the best joke available to you that both captures the audience and makes them immediately understand what you want them to know? I don’t know, but as I watched Mike’s opening I tried to ad-lib what I would say if I got dropped into your position. Mike’s whole opening was an attack on atheism, and what he said was that because atheism does not make sense, God — which is the alternative to atheism, and which naturally explains the unexplainable — must logically be seen as superior. He didn’t get around to actually defending Christianity until later.

Here’s the opener I came up with: For decades people have reported unexplained disappearances of ships and planes in the Bermuda Triangle. Until now, nobody has understood the cause, but now I do: hyperdimensional space aliens from the planet Zebulon. Now you might say, “But Russell, how can you be so sure that there are any hyperdimensional space aliens from the planet Zebulon?” And I would say “Simple. Obviously any fool can see that if those aliens existed then they would have the POWER to cause those disappearances, and therefore since we don’t have another explanation, we must go with the only proposed explanation that makes sense.”

You see what I’m getting at? It probably needs some tweaking, but one of my first principles in an argument is, show don’t tell. Never simply assert that an idea is ridiculous; reframe the idea in a subtle way that is OBVIOUSLY ridiculous. It’s not just that there is no god. It’s that his argument is totally flawed, and even the religious audience might see the way it’s flawed if you entice them to come along in your reasoning.

Here’s another natural disadvantage you had: Mike went first. Traditionally in a debate, the first guy to talk is able to easily launch an offense while the second guy is on defense. So I’m curious: was this discussed before hand? Was it assumed that the minister gets to go first, and did you make any effort to push back on that rule? Might be something to think about for next time… at least insist on a coin flip if there wasn’t one.

Even going second though, you have to keep something in mind. The question as it was written is fairly balanced. There are two sides to it: Which makes more sense, atheism or Christianity? Like the joke about the two hikers fleeing from a bear, I don’t have to outrun the bear, I just have to outrun YOU. Defending atheism as a reasonable position is fine, but your chief job is to press the offense and make it clear that Christianity makes no sense. Oh sure, the universe didn’t create itself. So what does that mean, that it makes sense to assume the existence of the invisible sky pixie who knows everything? On what grounds should I take that more seriously than the Zebulonians?

There is, of course, all kinds of bullshit that you can illuminate in Christianity: talking snakes, loaves and fishes, people ready to kill their children based on a voice in their head. If you throw that stuff out of context it sounds like nonsense. The notion that we don’t know FOR SURE what the origins of the universe are pales when you compare it on a ridiculousness scale to Christianity. The Christian position is: “I get to make shit up, and unless you can prove my fantasy wrong, then it wins.” Not true at all.

Don’t be afraid to point that out. You don’t want to look like you’re abusing your opponent, but you’re not under any obligation to pull your punches when you have the opportunity to score a hit. You can defuse the situation a little by calling the opponent by his name, to look a little more chummy, and soften your words with a little flattery. I.e., “Now Mike, you’re a smart guy, but do you really believe THAT?” Don’t overdo it, but using the opponent’s name is an effective tool in establishing audience rapport.

As I saw it, when it was Mike’s turn to talk, he talked about atheism. Then when it was your turn to talk, you ta
lked about atheism. Thus, without a word of discussion between the two of you, Mike declared what the terms of the debate would be, and you accepted his terms. Now, it’s completely natural for that to happen, because as I said, Mike has that advantage by going first. But you are not required to quietly accept the terms. In fact, it’s completely fair for you to challenge the definition of what Mike thinks the debate is, and even call attention to the fact that you’re doing it and why. Try this on for size:

“Mike talked a lot in his speech about what he thinks are the shortcomings of atheism. One thing you’ll notice that he did not do is provide any good reason why Christianity makes sense. As I heard it, the debate topic was to be, which makes MORE sense, atheism or Christianity? Now, I can understand why Mike would prefer not to talk very much about Christianity at all, because when you take a closer look at the principles he is trying to defend, they really don’t stand up very well. In order to win, really my opponent has to meet such-and-such obligation, and I’m sure you are all with me in seeing that he has not yet met this obligation.” etc.

Boom. You don’t just deflect his points, you totally change the terms of the debate to a setup that favors you. As I said at my lecture, when you’re playing defense, the best thing you can do is “not lose” — when you’re playing offense, you can WIN. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t defend atheism against his charges, of course. But you’ve got a limited amount of time to talk, and this is about adjusting your priorities. Make sure to make it clear that atheism is the DEFAULT position. It does not assume the existence of anything that is not already accepted by all parties: we know the universe exists, we know that people exist, and Mike even accepted some basic science up front when he declared that he accepts evolution. Take advantage of that concession and don’t waste your time “proving” anything about evolution or creationism from then on, but DO refer frequently back to the ground that he’s yielded to you. Even if there are creationists in the audience, they’ve already lost, because their side does not have a dog in this fight.

“Now Mike’s already accepted huge swaths of science as explanatory for aspects of our universe, so I’m happy to agree with my distinguished opponent on that point.” [Never pass up the chance to be gracious if it doesn't hurt your case!] “However, Mike’s the only one on this stage who is so uncomfortable with gaps in our knowledge that he feels he must assume the existence of something which, come on let’s face it, is way beyond wildly improbable when you look at it objectively.”

Okay, next point. Again, live performance is not the same as the printed word. You can assume that your audience will not be paying attention sometimes, and will miss things you say. You make them pay attention in two ways: By being forceful and hitting them in an emotional place, and by repeating your key points. Because people learn things through repetition.

Let me say that again.

People learn things through repetition.

If you’ve got a critical point to make, then make it early and make it often. The first time you make the point, you have to explain it. The next time you make the point, you merely have to refer back to it. “As I already said a minute ago, Occam’s Razor…” or “Mike’s STILL avoiding the burden of proof, you remember when I pointed that out in my last speech?”

Because you see, people learn things through repetition. On one level, you’re simply reminding them of a concept that they already learned, and driving it home. On another level, you’re giving the audience the chance to internalize this as “Wow, this point is really coming up a lot… Alan must think it’s a real winner for him!” You’ve encouraged them to see you in a winning light. And as a final benefit, if you badger your opponent a lot then he will have to respond to that point thoroughly or look bad. Remember, every minute he uses up responding to YOUR topic is a minute when he is merely “not losing” but failing to press his own case forward.

And also, people learn things through repetition.

Okay, obviously I’m trying to be funny (though I may fail). Let me go back to principles of comedy. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the humor columnist Dave Barry, but he frequently closes his essays with a sly reference back to something he already said.

Let me find you an example. Take a look at this 2001 column about taxes. Somewhere in the middle of the column, Dave writes:

Also, if you are an ostrich rancher, you can claim the depreciation on your ostriches. The IRS doesn’t give an exact amount, so let’s say for the sake of argument that your ostriches have depreciated to the tune of $4,800, or, rounding off, $17,000. If the IRS questions this figure, explain that you had to start raising ostriches because you were unable to make ends meet with just the whaling. That way your story is basically airtight.

Okay, now to start with, the idea of being an ostrich rancher is very silly all by itself, so Dave got a cheap laugh out of the visual image. But then skip down to the end of the column, which concludes:

In conclusion, I hope this tax guide has been helpful. If you follow my advice, and the IRS asks you where you got your information, remember to give them my full name, George Will. Good luck!

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to harpoon an ostrich.

Ah, see there, he didn’t have to explain what he was talking about, because if he did his job right the first time, then you’re ALREADY amused when you think about ostriches, so he’s taking advantage of previous groundwork. By doing this, he’s able to make an existing joke seem funnier, even if it was only worth a small chuckle the first time, and this also plays into the idea that you close with your best joke. It’s an okay joke, but now it’s amplified.

Case in point, suppose you had used my “Aliens from Zebulon” introduction. You can get a lot of mileage throughout the debate from repeatedly bringing them up. Even those who are against you will be able to laugh at something that is so over the top silly, which lightens the mood, and induces positive feelings about you. If you don’t overuse it early, that can even be a valuable part of a solid closer: “Remember, Christianity can’t make more sense than atheism, because Christianity makes even less sense than Zebulonians.” Okay, that’s a mediocre effort on my part, but you get what I mean… a good closing punch should make the case that YOU WON, go out with a potential laugh, and make your opponent sound ridiculous enough that people would be hesitant to side with him. All in one sentence!

As I said before, being a good debater has a lot in common with being a good comedian. (There, you see? I repeated myself. Because people learn through repetition.) Strong points become better when you drive them home. So the lesson is, if you have a point to make, do not save it for the end, because there’s no time for it to sink in. For instance, if you’re in your last five minutes, and you find you have to explain what “Occam’s Razor” means, then it’s probably already too late for that to make an impact. Throw it away if you can, and stick to amplifying arguments that you’ve already won. Or if you really think you can’t do without it, for goodness sake do it earlier next time!

Actually, on the same note, I probably wouldn’t bother using technical terms like “Occam’s Razor” at all, most of the time. First of all, Occam’s Razor isn’t even a rule or anything, it’s just a guideline. It has no authority, and if you invoke it, you risk getting bogged down in an argument about whether Occam’s Razor is really valid, or who’s meeting the conditions of O
ccam’s Razor better. Besides, using fancy-pants philosophy terms makes you sound like an egghead, and you’re ALREADY saddled with that handicap because you’re the guy who cares about “evidence” and “reason.” Describe the concept behind Occam’s Razor, or illustrate it with a clever anecdote, but don’t name the term as if you expected it to carry authority. The place for formal names of fallacies and philosophy of science terms is in a lecture hall or a textbook — not in a situation where someone like Mike is busy trying to knock you out. You can spend your time better.

In formal debates, there is a popular style of note-taking known as “flowing.” You might want to look into it, as it helps you keep track of key arguments so you can jog your memory about which points are strong for you. When you flow, you write down shorthand summaries of the major arguments for each side as you see them, and then you draw arrows across the page to more text that shows where that argument stands in each round. By glancing at this sheet, you can quickly assess which arguments are weak enough to ignore, and which arguments are important to counter. You can also nail your opponent when you say “Remember I brought up this point which made my case so strongly? He didn’t say a word about it.”

Alan, I hope you’ve taken this all in the spirit that I intended it. Some of this sounds like I’m beating up on your performance, but I thought it was a strong presentation that could be better. I want to see you and your friends do more of this, and become serious forces to be reckoned with. There were just a few choppy moments where you had long uncomfortable pauses while you tried to compose your notes, but really, I don’t need to criticize those at all. That is the kind of thing that comes to you through practice, because the more you debate, the more you move towards the horizon where you know everything.

I would like to conclude by pointing out a couple of places where I thought you did really well. It was choppier in the beginning, and as you moved toward last speech, you seemed to grow into your confidence, and you threw out a couple of zingers near the end which obviously went over really well with the audience. One was, “Using the Bible to prove the Bible is like proving the existence of Batman by reading Batman comics.” Love it. Don’t change it. I like to use comic book metaphors too, because they’re easy to grasp AND funny. Besides the laugh you got, you’ll notice that you also forced Mike to respond to this charge by saying “The Bible is so totally not like Batman!” Just think about all the constructive things that he could have been saying, during the time when instead he was forced to make the case that he is not QUITE as ridiculous as an imaginary tights-wearing crimefighter.

Also, near the end I guess Mike said something about how he shouldn’t be expected to prove God, and you said something like “It’s not our fault that you guys haven’t come up with the goods!” Outstanding. When your opponent is drowning, throw the sonofabitch an anvil. (James Carville line. I like it.)

Until you have the hang of extemporaneous speaking, consider finishing your opening speech way ahead of time and rehearsing it in front of your family. The first few minutes is when you will be most prone to stage fright — it still happens to me! — so it’s important that you know the material cold and can deliver it in your sleep, in a confident and winning manner. After that critical time period has passed, you will grow accustomed to all the people and you can ad-lib a lot easier.

Finally, let me give you another idea for a closer. Right near the end you said “Christianity makes some sense” — that is a concession you do NOT need to make. If you have to say something that sounds like a compliment, but it’s a major aspect of the subject you’re trying to discredit, then you’d be better off making it a backhanded compliment that undercuts the position, like “I admit that Christianity is appealing and may feel good to believe.” Same point made, but quite the opposite of letting people see your opponent as rational. Then you’re in a great place to declare that you won: “…but it should be OBVIOUS to everyone here that atheism, as the position that makes no such outlandish assumptions, makes more SENSE.”

Copy and Paste Dialogue

I don’t mind a theist being inspired by another person’s arguments or ideas. I don’t mind a theist referencing someone else’s ideas and arguments in his own arguments. There’s nothing wrong with including a link or a quoted passage, in a correspondence, to someone else’s data or views. But if a person comes to me announcing that he wants to talk to me about his beliefs, he should at least do me the courtesy of presenting his beliefs—whether or not they are supplemented by the ideas of those who have influenced his thinking.

The author of Article X, from which the theist quotes, is not the person who contacted me to discuss her beliefs. If that author wants to hear my views about her beliefs, she is able to write to me and request my feedback. But I see no value in pretending that a long strand of copied and pasted material from her article is the view of the theist who wrote to me to dialogue about his beliefs.

If a theist writes and wants to know my response to a particular article or view that is not his own, that’s fine. But he should refrain from calling it his belief, if all he can do is parrot the argument of someone else. If he lacks sufficient understanding of the concept to be able to so much as restate it in his own terms or respond to questions without running back to the source, then he shouldn’t put it forward as his belief.

Forming our own beliefs in life is not the same as memorizing and internalizing someone else’s arguments and ideas. To label such things as our own beliefs is plagiaristic and shows a woeful lack of understanding about what constitutes forming beliefs of our own. In order to dialogue about what I believe requires I have a firm enough grasp on the belief to express it clearly, in my own terms, to others, and also to respond to questions without seeking input from any source beyond my own mind. Anything that can honestly be labeled as my belief can exist nowhere but inside my own mind. A prerequisite to holding a belief is understanding the belief. It is not possible for a person to both assert a proposition is true, and to fail to understand the proposition. When questioned about what we believe—why should we need to go and look it up? If I find myself looking up my response to a question that concerns what I claim I believe, clearly, I have a dilemma.

If someone were to ask me, for example, what I believe regarding UFO activity on our planet, I can’t imagine it would make sense to that person if I said, “give me a second to go and look up what Carl Sagan has to say about that, because I believe whatever he says.” How can I call it my belief if it (a) is not contained within my own mind, and (b) I don’t even know what it is I’m claiming I believe while I am asserting I accept it as true?

I seem to see more often than is comfortable long-winded e-mails that ultimately say, “I don’t understand it myself, but I absolutely believe it.”