In yesterday’s Part 1 of this three-part series, I wrote about how in debating sophisticated religious people, atheists have the disadvantage in that science impacts religion in many ways and that atheists, even if they are scientists, cannot know about all developments everywhere and so can be blindsided by arguments based on science that they have little knowledge about. I have labeled this the ‘Craig Con’, in contrast to the older and cruder ‘Gish Gallop’, because some theologians are now more sophisticated than the ones who came before and use information from cutting-edge science to give the same old and tired arguments for god a patina of freshness and credibility. William Lane Craig is the smoothest practitioner of this debating tactic, though by no means the only one.
For example, some years ago I was on a panel debating so-called intelligent design (ID) with its advocates Michael Behe, Jonathan Wells, and a theologian. In the course of the debate, the theologian made an assertion about cosmology that he felt supported the ID case. Since I was the only scientist on the panel opposing ID and am not a cosmologist, he may have felt safe doing so. But it just so happened that I was well aware of this particular issue and, despite the fact that the moderator was also an ID supporter and tried to keep me from responding by saying that he wanted to move on to the next topic, I insisted on revisiting the issue and showed how that cosmological example, rather than being an argument in favor of god, was in fact an argument against ID.
But it was luck that I happened to know that particular issue. There are many areas of science (actually almost all of it) where I do not have the kind of detailed information where I can offer a pointed and authoritative rebuttal. But it did illustrate to me one important point and that is that if one agrees to such a debate, one needs to prepare very carefully and be aware, at least in general terms, of what arguments your opponents are likely to present and in particular what arguments your immediate opponent likes to use and his or her rhetorical style. You should not try to wing it, based on your general knowledge and the confidence that you are right. The lay audience often is not in a position to judge the substance of scientific arguments and can be swayed by rhetorical style and debating tricks. Fortunately in the internet age, one has access to a lot of written and visual information that one can exploit to prepare carefully.
A second point is that one should try and debate in the written, asynchronous form where one has the time to look into surprising science-based arguments. An example of the benefits of that involves intelligent design advocate William Dembski, who seems to have kept an unusually low profile the last few years after the spectacular fiasco in 2010 concerning his theory of Adam and Eve and the dinosaurs. (See here, here, and here for that fascinating saga that led to his being dressed down by his religious bosses and maybe led to him having to find a new job.)
Dembski keeps coming up with new and esoteric arguments based on highly mathematical aspects of science. In 2006, he claimed to have proved something called the ‘conservation of information’, an argument based on information theory that used a theorem by MIT professor of mechanical engineering Seth Lloyd (author of the 2007 book Programming the Universe: A Quantum Computer Scientist Takes on the Cosmos) on the upper limit of computational operations of information that could have occurred since the beginning of the universe. Dembski claimed that the amount of information that currently exists in the universe is currently greater than that limit. His predictable conclusion is that the only way this is possible is if god inserted that extra information at no cost. (You can see a simplified version of his argument here.)
I am not in a position to judge the validity of this but found that others with the required knowledge have analyzed Dembski’s argument and claimed to find major flaws that invalidate his conclusions, leading to some back and forth. I did contact Lloyd directly and asked him if it was true that the amount of information currently in the universe violated his upper bound and he seemed surprised that anyone would make that claim based on his research and even more that they would use it as an argument for a god.
For another example, see how rabbi Moshe Averick distorted Nobel-prize winning biologist Jack Szostak’s words to make the case for god and the brutal comeuppance that he received.
The point is that such rejoinders were possible because the debates were taking place in a written, asynchronous form, allowing for careful and detailed responses. If such arguments had suddenly appeared in a verbal debate, the opponent may not have the expertise to judge them and respond properly and might well be nonplussed (if not actually minused) by them and thus ‘lose’ the debate in the audience’s eyes. After all, who among us has expert and detailed knowledge of all aspects of information theory and of biology?
Note also that these theologians are especially fond of using scientific arguments that are associated with people who are either famous or at elite institutions, since that adds credibility to their case in the audience’s eyes, even as they distort what the people actually said.
In the third and last post in this series, I will look at Craig’s attempt to use the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin singularity theorem to argue for god and how to respond to that argument.
But despite the best preparation, one can still be surprised in a verbal debate by supposedly scientific arguments that appear out of the blue that one was unprepared for and I will also discuss about how one might respond to them.