There are two science-religion debates coming up. One is tomorrow (February 4) between ‘Science Guy’ Bill Nye and Answers in Genesis young-Earth creationist Ken Ham. The other is on February 21 between cosmologist Sean Carroll and theologian William Lane Craig. Serious concerns have been expressed by both sides about the usefulness or even the desirability of these debates.
I can understand the argument that religious fundamentalists like Ken Ham, knowing that they are looked at askance by the intelligentsia, are trying to gain credibility by debating scientists and so one should avoid giving them that platform.
But there is another concern that is often expressed and that is that if the science side ‘loses’ the debate, then the cause of science is damaged in some way. This puzzles me. As a former debater, I know that winning and losing debates says almost nothing about which side is right. George Bernard Shaw, a quick wit and a formidable debater, used to say that he could take either side of an argument and usually win a debate, irrespective of what he believed or the merits of the case. In fact debaters are like lawyers, trained to be able to argue both sides by being arbitrarily assigned the stance to be taken.
So in going into a debate, one should first decide what one seeks to do. If one’s goal is to ‘win’, then you study the opponent and likely arguments carefully and be ready to pounce with counter-arguments and crowd-pleasing jokes and other ‘zingers’. Such debates are really a form of entertainment, a gladiatorial contest where each side cheers their own and few minds are changed. Winning and losing are constructs in the mind of each observer.
But you can also take a different approach and that is to decide to largely ignore your opponent or try to ‘win’, and instead aim your remarks at the people in the audience who are there to really learn something. Such people are more likely to be swayed by thoughtful insights delivered in a calm and rational manner than by debating theatrics.
A recent blog post by Carroll suggests that he is taking the latter approach against Craig and I think he is wise to do so. Carroll seems to have the right perspective about the value of these debates.
Just so we’re clear: my goal here is not to win the debate. It is to say things that are true and understandable, and establish a reasonable case for naturalism, especially focusing on issues related to cosmology. I will prepare, of course, but I’m not going to watch hours of previous debates, nor buy a small library of books so that I may anticipate all of WLC’s possible responses to my arguments. I have a day job, and frankly I’d rather spend my time thinking about quantum cosmology than about the cosmological argument for God’s existence. If this event were the Final Contest to Establish the One True Worldview, I might drop everything to focus on it. But it’s not; it’s an opportunity to make my point of view a little clearer to a group of people who don’t already agree with me.
The guy is a very polished public speaker, and he is certainly an expert in this format. But I have the overwhelming advantage of being right. If I thought WLC were right, I would just change my views. Since I don’t, my goal is to explain why not, as clearly as possible.
Having read his books and a lot of his other writings, attended his seminars, and seen him discuss science-religion issues in various places, I think Carroll will achieve his goals. This kind of argumentation is what he is good at and it is always best to play to one’s strengths. Also the audience that is likely to listen to a Carroll-Craig debate will contain many of the kinds of more thoughtful people that Carroll is targeting.
Nye does not have the scientific depth of knowledge that Carroll has. But Ham is no Craig either and young-Earth creationism is so silly that one hardly knows where to begin in trying to counter those views. It is almost impossible to have a thoughtful scientific discussion with a young Earth creationist because there is an absence of the common ground necessary for an exchange of ideas. The worldviews are just too far apart and fundamentally incompatible. They live in an alternate reality.
I don’t know what Nye is going to do but in his case he would be best advised to go for the other lower-brow debate approach consisting of jokes, put-downs, and zingers. This is not because he is lowbrow (I know very little about Nye except that he is an enthusiastic supporter and advocate of science) but because his opponent is.
So I expect that the Nye-Ham debate to be of lower quality in terms of the content than the Carroll-Craig one. It is purely entertainment, more like a reality show in which the characters play to type. The best preparation for Nye would be to have a team of comedy writers, like those in The Daily Show, to give him material. If Nye ‘loses’, all that means is that Ham had the better crowd-pleasers. There really is no consequence other than giving Ham’s fans short-term bragging rights, like the supporters of a winning sports team.