Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Effective argument

Yesterday I watched a fairly long debate on youtube between Christopher Hitchens, a very well known and very outspoken atheist, and an evangelical christian named Jay Richards.  You can start it here.  Note that I linked to the 2nd part of the show, for your own sanity don't watch the first part which is just introductions.  The basic topic of the debate was arguments for theism vs. atheism.  I mentioned Hitchens before in a post about good atheist books to read and I was eager to see exactly what this persuasive, passionate individual would do in a debate format.  It turns out that what he did is savagely lambast religion both in the general sense and specific religions in particular in a very amusing and effective display of oratory.  What he failed to do was actually address his opponent's concerns and have any semblance of a real debate.  I must give Richards real credit because although he was trying to defend some truly laughable points in favour of Intelligent Design he at least kept things civil and went about his arguments in an organized, reasonable fashion.  Just like a good actor in a badly written movie Richards did a good job presenting a point of view that left him little to work with.  His primary points were as follows:

1.  The universe can either be seen as theistic or materialistic.  Therefore we should consider which of these two explanations fits the data we have about the universe better.
2.  The universe had a beginning and because in science we know that all things happen for a reason and are caused it stands to reason that there is a force that caused the universe.  Therefore there is a God.
3.  Many structures in nature are irreducibly complex such as some flagella on microorganisms and eyes in more complicated creatures.  Because these could not have arisen from natural selection only God must be responsible.
4.  The particular set of circumstances in which humans find themselves is so unlikely that there is no way it could have arisen by chance alone and there must have been a designer to have made it thus.
5.  Since God is required for both the universe to have begun and for it to be in the way it is and for us to be around to question it God must be real.

Of course this line of reasoning fails at every point.  Many things in the universe appear from nothing for absolutely no reason we can discern.  Time itself was not a thing prior to the Big Bang - the idea that there was a big universe ticking along normally with all the matter in a single point somewhere isn't remotely representative of the actual physics as we understand it.  Irreducible complexity has been tried on dozens of different structures in living things and has *always* failed because in every case the structure has been proved to have evolved normally.  Every time it fails some new structure is hailed as irreducibly complex, leaving us with a God of the gaps, a creator found in any tiny bit of information science has not yet discovered.  The conditions for life are not nearly as precise as most calculations made by theists suggest - things live beside volcanic vents in the utter darkness of the ocean floor, in caves miles underground, underwater, in the air, within other creatures and in nearly any chemical composition you can name.  Lastly we must note that this is a false dichotomy; there is absolutely no reason to divide the choices into atheism vs. Christian God but rather there are an multitude of other choices like the Flying Spaghetti Monster, a 20 storey tall slot machine of infinite power or any other less silly choice you can imagine.  These arguments, if they worked, which they don't, might prove that there is something science does not yet understand about the universe but they cannot prove the existence of an anthropomorphic, caring, all powerful Creator, much less one that is incredibly concerned with minor surgery on the penises of males of a particular stone age nomadic tribe.

Richards brought absolutely nothing new to the table.  It would have been easy, maybe even trivial for Hitchens to utterly demolish all these arguments and yet he did not.  I kept thinking "Why wasn't I at this debate?  I could have CRUSHED Richards into paste!  Get him Hitchens!"  I am no astrophysicist nor evolutionary biologist but you don't need to be as these arguments simply don't stand up to even 'science for the layman' level book knowledge.  I got really frustrated by the end because I thought that even though Hitchens had some fantastic points it would be easy for someone watching the broadcast to think that the theistic viewpoint had some kind of scientific legitimacy because Hitchens avoided actually addressing it properly.  Why didn't he take the 2 minutes it would have required to show the fatuousness of the arguments he was facing?

It could be that Hitchens just isn't informed enough.  He is a huge name in religious debate and a very well known writer but in his book he doesn't bother with scientific debate but rather focuses on religion's history and inconsistencies.  Maybe he knows that the science is on his side but doesn't know it well enough to debate it.  It could also be that he feels like even arguing that science is legitimizing his opponent's position and suggesting that there is actually a scientific debate to be had.  The tactic of debating things that are widely known to be true as if there is an actual question is used all over the place - most notably in politics and climate science - and perhaps there is an argument to be made that even pretending that there is a point in debating things like irreducible complexity is silly.  Clearly it is worth investigating so that there are rock solid scientific proofs one way or the other but the benefits of engaging in debate about it on TV is somewhat more questionable.

I don't know what to make of it.  I certainly wish I could have been on that podium instead of Hitchens as I think I could have ruined the 'science' of his opposition and still had plenty of time for biting social criticism but I wonder if that would have even been more effective.  Is anyone actually convinced to not believe in God by scientific arguments one way or the other or do they just use them to support their position when convenient?


  1. The "debate" is indeed extremely hard to watch without becoming frustrated at Hitchens' cavalier attitude towards Richards' outrageous arguments, but I think you hit the nail on the head. Why debate something that really doesn't need to be legitimised any more than is necessary -that is, a personal viewpoint. NOT a verifiable, scientific theory to be taken seriously.

  2. Every time I find a transitional fossil I create two more missing links.... it's a real problem.

  3. Fossils were put on this earth by god to confuse Athiests.