I was drafted to participate in a debate on my campus last night, and first I have to admit that yes, I have been quite vocal in my opposition to the utility of debates. As an excuse, I was asked by our students to do this, and I’m a sucker for student requests.
Secondly, the topic was, “does god exist?” That’s a real groaner of a subject, and normally I’d demand something more specific and manageable, but again…students. Also, my opponent, Perry Hendricks, seems to be a nice guy, so I went with it. It’s not as if we’re going to actually answer the question, or that the answer would matter.
We had an audience of about 100 people, mainly students taking a break before finals week hits them next week. I’d asked that it be recorded, but unfortunately it was not. But fortunately, I’d brought a pair of clip-on mikes, so I was able to capture Perry’s and my remarks in audio. Unfortunately, those mikes did not capture the audience’s questions, which is too bad since there were a lot of questions (mostly for Perry) and they were good sharp questions, too. I end this recording at the start of the Q&A, I’m sorry to say.
The format was straightforward. Perry got 20 minutes for an opening statement, then I got 20 minutes, then we go 10 minutes each for responses, and then we descended into a flurry of back-and-forth that again, my rudimentary recording set up could not cope with.
Partial transcript/commentary below the fold.
Here’s a short summary of Hendricks’ argument authored by Perry Hendricks.
I will argue that there are (at least) 4 facts that are evidence for theism over atheism. First, I’ll argue that conscious agency is evidence for theism over atheism. Second, high level knowledge is evidence for theism over atheism. Third, moral knowledge is evidence for theism over atheism. Why think that these first three facts are evidence for theism over atheism? Briefly, because they are good kinds of things, and if God exists, he would (probably) ensure that good kinds of things exist. But these facts aren’t likely to come about just given the truth of atheism.
The fourth fact is this: the fact that there is something that is necessary (non-contingent) is evidence for theism over atheism. Why think there’s something that is necessary? Two steps. Step 1: contingent things (i.e. things that don’t have to exist) exist: there are phones, people, trees, and so on. These things are all contingent. Step 2: all contingent things depend on something beyond themselves (e.g. I depend on my parents in order to exist, a phone depends on the materials extracted from the earth (among other things) in order to exist, and so on). Step 1 and Step 2 entail that something necessary must exist (think: the set of all contingent things is itself contingent, and so it must depend on something beyond itself). Why is this evidence for theism over atheism? Because the theistic hypothesis entails that there’s a thing (God) on which all contingent things depend. Whereas the atheistic hypothesis makes no such prediction.
And here’s my opening statement in full.
You’ve probably already figured out that I’m taking the con position on the question “does god exist?”, and I must admit that I’m not terribly enthused about the debate. I’ve wrestled with the question at least since I was ten years old, and part of that process of wrestling was largely about trying to understand why so many other people believe in something so absurd. The only interesting part of the question is hearing how other people have come to their conclusion.
Dr Hendricks and I briefly discussed the boundaries of the discussion, and part of that was defining our terms. What do you mean by “god”? This is a major stumbling block. I’m used to wrestling with thorny, complex subjects — try asking me to define “homology”, or “what is a gene?”, and we’ll have a good time while we try to pin down the topics, which are surprisingly difficult — so I’m not averse to a robust conversation. The fact that a word is difficult to define does not mean that the referent does not exist, but it does mean that laying a mutually agreed upon foundation is necessary before we even begin to talk about it.
“God” is such a vague and poorly defined subject, lacking in concrete evidence, that I was actually relieved that he suggested a definition he found agreeable: an omniscient, omnipotent benevolent being. Great, I thought, we’re going to discuss the silliest possible meaning of the word, so maybe we’ll have some fun after all.
In multiple debates on this subject, I’ve noticed that my opponents can’t resist the temptation to defend the most grandiose, most extravagant, most extreme version of a god they can imagine — no petty little local storm god with some impressive tricks for them. Their god must be the mightiest god of them all, the god who can beat up your god. Guys, it’s not a competition. If you can show me any kind of god, like the god of mice, the god of lost car keys, the god of curing hangnails, I’ll be impressed. But nooo, it’s always the god who knows everything and can do anything — they set the bar impossibly high, as if it’s a contest in who can invent the most superlatives.
And then, philosophers and theologians are the worst. Having invented Super God, the debate then consists of inventing post-hoc rationalizations for why their Supreme High Overlord MUST exist. They don’t actually show that this deity does exist, it’s all about stacking abstract ideas into an elaborate logical house of cards that demonstrate why it shoulda oughta must exist. Every advocate for a religion does this sort of thing, spinning out rationalizations for why their peculiar and specific version of god must of necessity exist, never noticing that they all contradict each other.
I will say this for philosophers — at least they try to distill out a universal definition, expanding the meaning of “god” into a vacuous vapor that at least avoids obvious battles between Jesus & Mohammed, or Odin and Mars. Instead we’re wrangling over some toothless, inhuman, intellectual abstraction.
I’m a scientist. Trying to rationalize a phenomenon into existence by arguing about it is not how we play the game. That means we may be talking past each other for an hour.
Here’s how I would do it. You claim that there exists a being who knows everything. OK, let’s start small and simple.
What’s in my pocket? Ask your omniscient god to tell you what I’ve got in my right back pocket.
Cue the excuses. I know what people will say. That’s too petty for the God of the Universe. Who am I to make demands of god? God is ineffable. God works in mysterious ways. A skeptical theist might say we can’t know the reasons god doesn’t give the answer, so his failure on this test means nothing. Or my favorite, accuse me of impiety or sacrilege.
All I can say is that you’re the one claiming that this god is the all-knowing lord of time and space. He’s got time. Yet he always fails the simplest of tests.
This is just the start. If a god passed that test, we’d follow the scientific method and ask further questions and make new hypotheses. Let’s ask god to do a thorough scan of my body to identify any potential cancers! Let’s ask him to do that for everyone! Early diagnosis is critical for effective treatment.
We know already that this won’t work — all through human history, prayers have been streaming skyward to ask for relief from disease. They are not the basis for reliable treatment. Notice that I’m being generous, only asking for information, and not asking him to snap his fingers and just make cancer disappear, which, presumably, an omnipotent being could do. I know, maybe god has his ineffable reasons, maybe there’s a reason why letting someone die of cancer is a net benefit to humankind. Sure.
But then I have to ask, what is the point of postulating a hypothetical omniscient being if it’s knowledge is unknowable to us? If even the most trivial examples of knowing can’t be known? If it’s omnipotence can do nothing for us?
That’s another huge problem with the god hypothesis: how do we know? How do we test it?
There are a couple of common canards about atheists that I’d like to lay to rest here. We do not hate god, generally speaking. We don’t claim to have absolute, positive proof that god does not exist. If I had to answer the question of this debate, “Does god exist?” with a simple answer, it would be “probably not.” The thing is, we don’t know for sure…but neither does anyone else. We all have access to the same evidence, and it’s the theists who claim that, for absolutely sure, there is a god…but the atheists are saying your evidence is unconvincing, that you’re claiming certainty where there isn’t any, and that you cannot even define god in a clear and testable way.
This is one of the reasons I don’t care for these kinds of debates, because they are fundamentally about certainty vs. doubt, and certainty is always preferred by the larger audience, while doubt is so inconclusive and so unsatisfying. If you prefer honesty and truth, though, the correct answer to the question is “WE DON’T KNOW.” I don’t know. Dr Hendricks doesn’t know. No one here knows. In fact, if anyone were to raise their hand and announce with absolute positivity that “Jesus is Lord,” “God is Great,” or “Gods Don’t Exist,” I’m afraid I’d just roll my eyes, and know that, on this subject, you aren’t worth talking to. Dogmatism is so uninteresting. Slogans are not evidence.
Finally, I must address the question as a professor of the liberal arts, as a scientist, and in particular as a developmental biologist. One of the things I look for in a narrative or an explanation is a beginning, and a progression of events. I want a central character who grows and adapts and changes. This is true even for religious believers: the Bible starts with a creation story, explaining where people and the world came from. The Anishinaabe have a creation story. The Fulani people (Mali) have a creation story. The Han Chinese have a creation story. If we go back to the Bible, it’s full of stories, and stories are not static, they are full of events and change, beginnings and endings.
Yet here we are, discussing a deity that has no beginnings, is omnipotent and omniscient for eternity, who shows no progress, who is claimed to be benevolent but without any motivation, any reason for his being.
Richard Dawkins said “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction”, but I’d argue that the god we are debating here is the most boring character imaginable — a cosmic Mary Sue, a paragon of hyperbole. Why argue about his existence? Why worship such a being? It won’t make any difference. It won’t change it’s opinion of you whether you’re a mass murderer or a saint. It just is, an inflexible and implacable entity that already has its mind made up, if it can be said to have a mind.
Now this is not an argument that such a being could not possibly exist, but only that it deserves no more reverence than the laws of thermodynamics … although, you know we can measure entropy and see the effects of those laws. We don’t worship Maxwell’s Equations, we don’t have priests of the church of Carnot wagging their fingers at us when we violate conservation of energy — we can’t, because it is a principle inherent in our universe. The omnipotent, omniscient god of Hendrick’s proposition is indistinguishable from an intrinsic property of nature, and cannot be a being with a mind, and cannot be the kind of deity people promote in their churches. If you want to appreciate that kind of deity, skip church and take a science class or study the humanities instead.
Finally, the burden of proof rests with the person who wants to claim the existence of something — I’m pretty sure we’re not going to see any demonstration of evidence in this auditorium tonight. Please do surprise me.
I didn’t transcribe our responses to each other. You’ll have to listen to the video for that.
That’s it. As I predicted, we spent a lot of time talking past each other, in part because Hendricks has a peculiar understanding of facts and evidence. “Evidence” consists of making a logical assertion, and then counting up the number of assertions made, and if the number of theistic assertions is greater than the atheistic ones, theism wins. On the other hand, he seemed irritated that I wasn’t providing what he considered adequate evidence for atheism — I had failed to prove a negative.
Oh well, it was a pleasant enough evening, other than the passing encounter with an audience member who demanded that I explain how things move without god and seemed quite angry that I thought his question was silly. There’s always one.
A thousand thanks to my Patreon supporters. These are the people who provided the money I used to buy the remote mikes, so without them, this video would be totally silent. And now I’m going to shut up and go away, because I have to write a couple of final exams to plague my students, some of whom were in the audience here.