Why you should argue in public and private

Greta asks a question of the FTB community today: Atheist Arguments — Public or Private?  My answer is: both.

There’s no pat answer to how you should conduct yourself in an argument, any more than you can encapsulate morality in a set of ten laws that are followed unfailingly without question.  Obviously, I’m a big fan of taking arguments public, which is why I love being on a TV show with lots of callers.  (Well, that, and I’m a big old narcissist.)  But what I generally say as a rule of thumb is that you should only have an argument if the argument is beneficial to you and your position in some way.

Argument is a performance, and a performance only has an audience.  But there are three different kinds of audience you might want to entertain, so there are basically three styles of argument you may wind up having.

  1. The audience is… someone else.  This is what happens when Greta posts an argument on her blog, or we do one of those cute “we get email” posts, or we take calls on TV, or there’s a public debate happening in an auditorium.
  2. The audience is the theist.  Bear in mind that you do not have to enter such arguments with the expectation of completely changing the theist’s mind and making him an atheist.  If a theist drifts across the spectrum from fundamentalist to liberal theist to agnostic to atheist to outspoken atheist, then you’ve done a good job.
  3. The audience is… yourself.  And that’s the most likely motivation for keeping an argument private.

Don’t underestimate the importance of the third audience, because atheists aren’t omniscient.  There are some difficult arguments that people butt up against as they learn to explore the philosophical implications of their beliefs, and sometimes you’re going to lose.  Seriously, it happens to everyone, because unless you are the single best debater in the whole world, tautologically there is somebody better than you.  So don’t fall into trap of thinking that “only stupid people disagree with me,” because that’s really not the case.

Never forget that arguing with somebody is essentially a game, and there are good players and bad players — or rather, there are better players and worse players.  You may be a pretty good chess player against your friends, but I don’t see you beating either Deep Blue or Garry Kasparov.  But the great thing about losing is that it’s a learning opportunity.  When you lose an argument, you’ve discovered a weak spot in your understanding of the issues.  Then one of two things is true: either you were wrong, in which case — hooray! — you can change your mind and now you’ll be right!  Or else, it turns out that you lost with a winning argument.

In this second case, now you have some direction to take your reading.  You should read more about this argument that beat you.  Find out what other people would say against it; find out what philosophers have said about it; find out whether it butts up against some important scientific principle that we know about.  The overall tournament doesn’t end just because you lost the game.  And once you learn exactly where you made the mistake, then the next time you run into this argument, you’re going to nail it.  That’s what arguing for yourself really does for you.

So really, there’s nothing wrong with taking an argument private.  There is always that chance that the theist is a reasonable person who will actually soften his position on some of his misconceptions.  Don’t tell me it never happens; it happens all the time.  And there’s also an equal chance that by practicing an argument in private, you will become a better player, which in turn will help you out with future public arguments.

And then those public arguments will help you sway more people who don’t have a vested interest in picking one answer… but only if you get good at it.  Don’t be so arrogant that you think you’ve won when you’ve actually lost.  That way lies victims of Dunning-Kruger.  If you’ve honed your abilities through practice, then by all means show off and win some souls.

Post-show thoughts for 1/10

Hi folks,

Thanks for watching the show last night, and thanks in advance to all of you who will eventually come across this thread after listening to the podcast. Sorry for spinning this off into a new post, but I felt like using my executive privilege to cut in line and not appear after 20+ comments.

I hear what you guys are saying about the positives and negatives of last night’s experiment. And believe me, this was definitely an experimental bit, and I didn’t have any idea whether this would be a good move or not. I suspect I will not really be sure until discussing it and reading feedback for a few more weeks. I’m sure there are things that could be improved.

I cut my intro short, because the obvious shuffling around on camera threw me off a bit and I didn’t want the introduction to seem phony. But I was intending to explain a little better why I decided to violate our usual stated reasons for not having Christians on the show. Obviously there are a lot of exclusively Christian shows out there, so we feel no need to provide “equal time.” But as we’ve noted often in the last year, it’s hard to get a reliable source of disagreement from the callers when so many people are internet fans who seek us out because they like us. I think yesterday’s show illustrated that very well, since all but the last two callers were atheists, and those two were a bit mediocre in my opinion.

So I have been wanting to see what would happen if we go offer an invitation to an experienced Christian speaker, rather than some clueless person who just happened to stumble on us. I sent out an email to everyone at Great Hills Baptist (which is among the biggest churches in Austin) and got feedback from Kyle right away. While acknowledging that this was possibly a stumbling first effort, I’d like to make a case for why this appearance was a success.

First of all, apologies to people who were hoping that they would see a full scale brawl and didn’t get one. I know that that’s a direction we could have gone, but that would have depended more on getting a guest who wanted to fight. We got Kyle. He’s a polite, friendly, non-creationism-promoting, non-atheist-condemning Christian, and that’s who we wound up with on the show.

At the same time, I completely disagree with somebody’s claim that this was so “softball” that it was like Fox News interviewing Dick Cheney. My opening statement was intended to point out that whether or not evil is a “problem” for God, there is no indication that there is any kind of God (whether Dionysus, Jonathan Edwards’ god, or Kyle’s god) taking an active interest in society; and what we see is exactly what we’d expect if every individual simply made up their own concept of god based on personal preference. To the extent that Kyle made specific claims about his god, we didn’t miss any opportunity to point out that there is no rationale for believing that this god actually exists, or that Kyle’s interpretation of God has any more weight behind it than that of Jonathan Edwards. And furthermore, Kyle didn’t provide any serious disagreement with this response, preferring to disavow any application of evidence.

Yes, the conversation still turned out to be pleasant and friendly. So what? The mission of the Atheist Experience is not to destroy Christians at every opportunity. It’s:

  1. To promote positive atheism — which wouldn’t have been as well served by hosting a Crossfire-style shouting match.
  2. To provide community outreach and clear up misunderstandings — which I think will only be helped if we can encourage more Christians to watch the show and not fear the atheist attack dogs.
  3. To present atheism as a rational point of view while pointing out logical inconsistencies in religion — which we most certainly did.

I must also report that Kyle was a fine dinner companion, listening respectfully to people who wanted to contest what he’d said, and talking about experiences that people were interested in hearing. That’s exactly why we regularly add “or atheist friendly” in our dinner invitations.

Finally, I hear some people saying that the segment wasn’t long enough, and that they were left wishing that we had left more time for it. Fantastic! I was initially worried that 30 minutes was going to be too much time. I was thinking that if it became a one-sided preachfest, at least we would have a time limit. Instead, the time I was on seemed to fly right past, and I was downright surprised when 6:00 rolled down. Apparently, so were our viewers. So if you actually wanted more, then that’s a good indication that this is something we ought to repeat.

Obviously I wouldn’t be averse to having a guest with a little more fire and brimstone in them. If you know a better way to get in touch with such people, post your suggestions.

A brush with Jehovah’s Witnesses

I’m at home all week. I have a new job starting in San Antonio next Monday, but for now I’m just cooling my heels. I’ve been living in my sister’s house for a while, planning to move to an apartment in a couple of months.

Anyway, this is build up to explain why I was enjoying a nice nap today after an exciting round of healing Heroic Oculus on my level 80 priest, when the doorbell rang. I answered it and was confronted by a smiley woman in her forties or fifties, and a twenty-something middle eastern looking young woman.

They were looking for “Katherine,” and when I said there was no Katherine here the older lady said that perhaps they had the wrong house. I said “You might be talking about my sister, Keryn.” Then she asked if we were believers in God in this house, and I said “No, we’re pretty much all atheists.” She lit up and said “Well that’s great, we love talking to people of all religions and, uh… people of none. I am sure this is the house I was at before, she told me to come back later.” At that point I asked if they were Jehovah’s Witnesses, they confirmed it, and we were off.

Now, I know some people who would try to get rid of JWs as quickly as possible, but I love them. I’ve only had one other encounter with them, which I documented here. They are so full of confidence that their book holds all the answers, yet generally pretty ignorant of basic facts. So I decided to pass some time chatting.

I was introduced to the younger woman, who pretty much never spoke the whole time, as a converted Muslim. I had to explain the whole “Jewish atheist” upbringing thing, which the lady interpreted to mean “Oh, so you read the Bible but you never actually got to know the Lord.” I told her I didn’t see it as getting to know anyone, but rather as not being raised to believe that their god existed.

The woman eager to start reading from the Bible, so I patiently refrained from calling it a book of fairy tales, or a big book of multiple choice, and she proceeded to gush happily about how the Bible is full of stuff that she finds inspirational. She asked me permission to read me one, and I consented.

To be honest, I don’t even remember which part she picked. I just remember that at some point shortly after, we were talking about Adam and Eve, the first people, and she brought up how they defied God and ate the apple. So I asked whether they had the knowledge of good and evil at the time when he ordered them not to eat the fruit?

A little evasively, she said that they didn’t know good and evil, but they understood that it would be disobeying God. But I persisted, did they really? How did they know that it was wrong to disobey God if they didn’t know good and evil? What did they learn from the fruit of knowledge if they had that much understanding about not disobeying God?

She started to read what God said about how the day that Adam and Eve ate the fruit, they would die. So I said “But they didn’t die that day. So God was wrong.” And she said no, they certainly did die, in the sense that they became mortal. Then we talked about how the word “day” is sometimes a metaphor, and I brought up young earthism, so she said that she dismisses young earthism. “Yes,” I said, “but there is no indication in the Bible how long those ‘days’ of creation actually were. Science had to figure it out first, before you could take credit for her.” I also had to fill her in on background history of Bishop Ussher, since she didn’t know how widely accepted young earthism once was.

I asked how, with all the non-literal stuff in the Bible, she can tell the difference between what’s meant to be taken seriously and what’s not? The Bible has no key to interpreting itself — she pointed out that “in the beginning” from Genesis could be an indeterminate length of time and I pointed out that there is no way, without the insight of scientific examination, to actually determine that this is meant to stand for exactly 14.5 billion years.

But then she said that yes, the Bible has lots of original scientific knowledge, such as the order of creation matching up perfectly with what science says. “Oh reeeeally?” I asked, because this is one of my favorite claims to respond to. “Show me this ordering of creation please, that’s fascinating!” So she skipped back to Genesis and started running through the separation of light and darkness, and then plants, and then… “Where was the sun at this point?” I asked.

She had an answer for me: “Oh, this verse doesn’t mean that the sun was CREATED there. It just means that the sun was REVEALED at that point.” Then she started to explain to me about the vapor canopy hypothesis, where the firmament water that would eventually become the water of Noah’s flood, was blocking out the visibility of the sun.

“So,” I said, “you believe that when plants came into existence, there was no visible sun on earth.” “That’s right.” “And you believe this is in accordance with what modern science says? Seriously? How do you think plants get their energy? Ever heard of photosynthesis?” She put it to me that plants were getting energy straight from God.

So I said “I’m sorry, but you originally said that you think this information matches up with current scientific data. I know a lot of scientists, and I think it’s safe to say that only a very tiny minority would give any credibility whatever to your version of events, including the vapor canopy hypothesis.” She insisted that she had all kinds of literature she can bring back proving its scientific accuracy. I replied that I’m well aware that lots of creationists believe in that, but that doesn’t make it in agreement with scientific thinking.

“What I’d really like to see is some kind of mainstream, peer reviewed, scientific journal that seriously advances the ideas that you’re talking about.” She promised that she would do the research and come back with it later. Asked what time would be good for me, and we agreed on Saturday at 11. The whole conversation lasted about 15 minutes, I think.

Personally, I’m betting they won’t be back.

Open thread on Thunderf00t vs. Ray Comfort

A lot of people are emailing us to let us know that the big debate is up on YouTube. Here’s part one, and you can follow up on the rest yourself.

I’m opening it up to comments because I know you’re all dying to discuss their respective performances. I will probably contribute my own impressions later. I do have some, but I don’t want this post to be simply “Russell’s opinion of the debate.”

For the conclusion of the Ross/Rana/Shermer debate review

I apologize for not completing my earlier discussion of the debate. For those who don’t listen regularly to The Non-Prophets, I just wanted to mention that we had a fairly lengthy discussion there. You can hear the end by listening to this episode.

If you have listened to the episode, feel free to post a summary of what we said in the comments.

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.

Ray Comfort odds and ends

There seems to be a lot of Ray Comfort related stuff on my radar lately, so I’ll dump it all in one post.

  • Sam, a grad student in New Zealand, debated Ray for $100.  Considering all the sneaky tricks regarding format, and Sam’s status as a novice speaker, I would have asked for a lot more.  But according to people I’ve heard from, Sam made a surprisingly good showing, and Ray turned out to be incredibly bad at it.  You can judge for yourself by reading Sam’s post, and there are even audio files attached.
  • Everything Else Atheist mocks a recent blog post by Ray for his very, very bad understanding of sex and relationships.
  • Guy P. Harrison, author of 50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God, made us an interesting offer.  He wanted to see a good takedown of Ray Comfort’s new book, You Can Lead an Atheist to Evidence, But You Can’t Make Him Think: Answers to Questions from Angry Skeptics.  But he didn’t want to read it himself, so he sent it to us instead.  I’ve read it, and now Matt’s reading it.  At some point in the near future, the plan is to either appear together on Atheist Experience or do a Very Special Episode of Non-Prophets that will give this, ah, very enlightening book the attention it deserves.

Case study: William Lane Craig vs. Bart Ehrman

In my ongoing discussion about the need for experienced debaters in the atheist camp, a theist named MrFreeThinker linked to a debate between William Lane Craig and Bart Ehrman, in which he asserts that Bart Ehrman was “pwned.” In particular, MFT says:

Bart Ehrman made some mathematically poor claims where he equivocated between intrinsic probability and specific probability with regard to miracles. W.L. Craig was able to use Baye’s theorem to show how his reasoning was mathematically fallacious. Ehrman was unable to counter Crag’s claims but made some backhanded ad hominems later on saying that Craig would be laughed at if he tried to bring his calculations on miracles to any secular university. W.L. Craig then pointed out that philosophers such as Richard Swinburne (a eminent philosopher of science at Oxford University) had also made similar calculations it was a moment of sheer pwnage.

(On a side note Swinburne’s calculations on the probability of Jesus’ Resurrection and God’s existence are available in his books “The Existence of God” and “Resurrection of God Incarnate”)

After reading the debate transcript, I have to agree that Ehrman made some missteps. But I don’t think they’re the ones the MFT thinks they are.

Let’s start with the topic being debated. Right now I’m a bit fixated on the issue that theist/atheist debates are routinely set up with fixed, bogus, and stacked resolutions. THIS debate proposed to settle the following question:

Is There Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus?

Sigh… here we go again. As I keep saying, theist debaters perpetually count on setting up debates with a loaded topic, so that the unbeliever loses before the debate has begun.

So what’s wrong with this topic? Yet again, it allows the theist side to play semantic games with definitions. What qualifies as “historical evidence” for the resurrection of Jesus? I think a naive atheist would assume that this means there is “sufficient, compelling, and persuasive evidence” that establishes the resurrection of Jesus. Fine, if you have a sympathetic audience. But you don’t. You never will. So here’s what Craig’s obviously going to do: he’s going to declare that any claim by anyone that indicates Jesus was resurrected counts as “historical evidence.” And he wins! Why? Because he’s right!

Just like “theory,” “evidence” is a word with numerous meanings depending on how it’s applied. So if Craig can find one person, from any point in history, who is willing to say “Jesus was resurrected,” he’s got evidence. Is it good evidence? Duh, of course not. But it’s evidence. By the same standard, I could easily lose a debate asking me to prove that there’s no historical evidence for Galactic Overlord Xenu. And the Salem Witch Trials provided all kinds of evidence (read: other people’s testimony) proving that those women were, in fact, in league with the devil.

Ahem, Bart, I believe the topic you actually meant to debate was this: “Was Jesus resurrected?” Simple. No frills. When you stepped into this loaded topic, you gave Craig a free pass to “win” just by throwing out enough stuff to allow for the vaguest possibility that Jesus was resurrected. You awarded yourself the burden of proof, requiring yourself to demonstrate conclusively that there is no evidence of any kind, good or bad.

So if nothing else, I want to thank MFT for bringing up yet another perfect illustration of my point. Now let’s move on to the substance of the debate. I’m not going to go through the entire thing. For now, I just want to focus on the specific case this argument from probability that he brought up.

From where I sit, all I see is Craig doing what creationists always do. He throws up a bunch of obfuscated equations on the board, counts on his audience not knowing enough to understand what the argument is, slips in gigantic assumptions about the natural world, and declares victory.

Obfuscated equation: check.

Pr (R/ B&E) = Pr (R/B) × Pr (E/ B & R) /
[ Pr (R/B) × Pr (E/ B & R) ] + [ Pr (not-R/B) × Pr (E/ B & not-R) ]

What value does that equation add to the credibility of Craig’s actual argument? None whatsoever. It’s a time filler, and it awes a lay audience who are expected to treat monstrous equations as magical incantations.

When you strip away the filler, Craig finally gets around to framing his actual argument, which is this:

“In order to show that that hypothesis is improbable, you’d have to show that God’s existence is improbable. But Dr. Ehrman says that the historian cannot say anything about God. Therefore, he cannot say that God’s existence is improbable. But if he can’t say that, neither can he say that the resurrection of Jesus is improbable. So Dr. Ehrman’s position is literally self-refuting.

But that’s not all. Dr. Ehrman just assumes that the probability of the resurrection on our background knowledge [Pr(R/B)] is very low. But here, I think, he’s confused. What, after all, is the resurrection hypothesis? It’s the hypothesis that Jesus rose supernaturally from the dead. It is not the hypothesis that Jesus rose naturally from the dead. That Jesus rose naturally from the dead is fantastically improbable. But I see no reason whatsoever to think that it is improbable that God raised Jesus from the dead.

That’s it. It took approximately five pages and three slides to say that. Five pages of scribbled equations, smarmy insults, cute little nicknaming conventions, and a whole pile of hand-waving. To obfuscate those two simple sentences.

And when you strip the argument down to those two sentences, the argument sucks. It’s basically “Jesus could rise from the dead, because God can do magic!” Hey, wait a minute, I thought that was a big part of what we were arguing about in the first place. But Craig just asserts that this is true, and doesn’t support his implied belief that magical events are happening all the time. Instead of backing up this claim, he deftly covered it up in those five pages of completely tangential empty academic masturbation.

This is endemic to creationist arguments. Kirk Durston does that too. Michael Behe does it a lot. What these debates have in common is that they use tons of math as a way of befuddling the audience, lulling them into thinking “I have no idea what that guy is saying so he must be smart.” Then they have a hook to bring the argument back to the audience’s reality. They make a spurious connection between the hook and the math, and then “therefore God exists.”

They do this all the time. It’s their main tactic.

The thing about math is, it does actually mean something specific, but it’s impossible to look up or pore over the details during a live debate. It’s also long and it’s boring, and they’re counting on the audience to gloss right over the equations and assume that the hook is a correct summation of the math.

Okay, so since we know this tactic is going to come up repeatedly. How do we deal with it? I haven’t settled this in my own mind, but I have some ideas. First of all, the math is guaranteed to be a smokescreen. There’s a place for equations in a scientific journal, or a class full of students who are studying the topic, but if you’re trying to persuade an audience of mixed education, it’s a sure bet that the intention is to obfuscate rather than explain.

So blow past the math. It’s important to watch like a hawk for the moment where the apologist explains what his REAL argument is, and make a snap judgment about whether this argument stands up on its own. You can’t study the math or verify it during the debate, so you can assume that (1) it may well be full of lies and phony inferences, and (2) the audience will have no idea if it isn’t. So above all else, do not waste time actually addressing the equations.

At any rate, atheists already have a perception problem of being overly nerdy, being concerned with “science” and “evidence” and whatnot. I think a little verbal kung fu is in order, i.e., using your opponent’s strength against him. Don’t just skip the math… ridicule it. That may sound kind of mean, but pay attention: William Lane Craig is kind of a dick anyway. He resorts to slides with labels like “Ehrman’s Egregious Error” and “Bart’s Blunder.”

Hell, I think it wouldn’t hurt to have a slide ready that says “Craig’s Cretinous Calculations.” And then, fill the page with truly irrelevant equations. Put up the freaking Pythagorean Theorem, or an expanded quadratic equation. Make a joke out of it. The audience will crack up if they realize you were prepared all along to hit Craig with his own nonsense. Odds are that they were probably feeling uncomfortable already because Craig was making them feel stupid, so it should be easy to get them laugh with you. And then, boil down his argument to its unsupported essence, and nail it.

But I digress. We were discussing how Bart Ehrman did. Well, MrFreeThinker, I’m willing to concede that he didn’t do all that great. This is right in line with what I keep saying: apologists win debates because they are good at performance art. Ehrman wasn’t prepared to act like a circus sideshow attraction.

But don’t think that means I’m ridiculing Craig when I say “circus sideshow.” That’s what an apologetics debate is. Bart should have been prepared to do performance art, and if he can’t win at that game then he isn’t prepared to debate.

As for Richard Swinburne, I couldn’t care less what he thinks. Craig pulled him up because he was name-dropping. Preceding this comment, Ehrman said this:

“I have trouble believing that we’re having a serious conversation about the statistical probability of the resurrection or the statistical probability of the existence of God. I think in any university setting in the country, if we were in front of a group of academics we would be howled off the stage.”

Ehrman shouldn’t have said that. You know why? Because he should have known that for any crazy belief in the world, there probably exists some crackpot academic who will support it.

So yeah, I guess I’ll sort of give Craig the point for his name drop. What he proved was that the correct phrasing is:

“In any university setting in the country, if we were in front of a group of academics we would be howled off the stage… unless, of course, one of them happens to be Richard Swinburne.”