Debating God: part one

Parliamentary debates are usually taken as the model for speech debates, but legislatures debate policies, not, primarily, factual issues. The answer to a debate in a legislature is ‘yes, we shall pass this legislation [or amendment]’ or ‘no, we shall not’.

The question, ‘does god exist?’, lends itself to no such yes/no answer. The two sides of such a debate are not mirror-images of each other. Theists are mostly believers in a body of scripture that conveys some supposed revelation, and given that you believe this revelation you are almost certain to answer ‘yes’.

The opposite is not true. Suppose you had never heard of any god, and someone said ‘there is a god’. A reasonable response would be, ‘I am sceptical, show me evidence’.

In actual fact, we live in a country where one religion was previously dominant and enforced over the centuries through compulsion. In earlier times, this was backed up by torture and death. More recently, relatively gentle sanctions were used, such as making church membership obligatory for marriage or university attendance.  (I cannot go into a mediaeval church now without being reminded of the brutal history of the Church, which reflects the unremitting cruelty of the Pentateuch, but I am digressing.)

For historical reasons, then, we have come to our present, relatively secular, situation through active scepticism and resistance. Nevertheless, this does not mean that non-theists necessarily answer ‘no’ to  the question ‘does god exist?’. In fact I have come across people with a whole range of positions from ‘it is possible that some kind of supreme being exists’ to ‘it’s so improbable that it is not worth wasting time thinking about it’.

What kind of god are we debating? The people who suggested this debate believe, presumably, in one of the variations on the christian god. But people have believed in thousands of different kinds of god at different times and in different places. As Richard Dawkins likes to say, we are all atheists, it’s just that he believes in one god fewer than a christian or muslim does.

On the one hand, some people argue for a kind of basic foundation of the universe or of life, which may or not be intelligent. Often this will be presented in some form that people feel requires an agnostic position. When presented with this, I will ask for some consequences in the observable world that could be used to test for the existence of such a ‘god’. If those are not forthcoming, then I shall simply consider the existence this ‘god’ not worth the effort of thinking about.

On the other hand, most religious people believe in some kind of god who makes personal demands of behaviour, reverence and belief in certain claimed facts. These religions all assert the truth of what they claim about their own god over the claims of other religions. For example, both muslims and christians believe in Jesus. But to deny that Jesus is the son of God is blasphemy to christians. To assert that Jesus is the son of God is blasphemy to muslims. As these religions contradict each other, at most only one can be true.

Therefore, if you are going to debate whether god exists, we need to know in advance exactly what claims are being made about this god.

As the organisations promoting this debate are (I suspect, a very specific sort of) christian, and there is no reason to suppose they are going to assert the validity of any rival religion, I’ll concentrate on christianity.

Although I may be agnostic about more generic kinds of god, I think christianity is false. (This, I hasten to add because it will likely be raised, does not mean that I think that what is often referred to as ‘christian morality’ is all bad.)

My reasons for rejecting christianity are many: the contradictions between christian doctrine and history and science, the internal contradictions, the very flawed moral compass, and the dubious and political ways in which the scriptures were assembled that belie the claim that they are the ‘Word of God’.

That’s a start. Would PurpleFish members like to comment?

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Debating God: part zero

My local humanist group agreed to a debate on the topic ‘Does God Exist?’. This debate is being organised by two evangelical christian organisations, SOLAS Centre for Public Christianity and PurpleFish, that appear to have adopted the currently-fashionable practice of trying to control by using the language of victimhood and persecution, stealing it from groups that really have been disadvantaged in our society.

Andrew Copson, who is the chief executive of the British Humanist Association, has kindly agreed to present the humanist case, against Richard Lucas, who appears to be one of the stars of the evangelical speaking circuit. But I have misgivings about the whole idea. This is nothing to do with any fear about expressing my, or our, views, but it has everything to do with the shortcomings of the speech debate as a means of discussion.

I consider a debate to be mostly a form of entertainment, but sadly many people take the outcomes too seriously. Most worthwhile discussions are best carried out over a period of time, where people have the opportunity to refer to sources, to correct errors and to reconsider and modify their positions. Usually this is best done in writing, which is why science is normally done through the medium of journal papers.

At best, a speech debate can be little more than a statement of the positions of the opposing sides. At worst, it can become a slanging match. In between, there are debating tricks that one or the other side may use to manipulate the audience and to ‘win’ the debate. These having nothing to do with the validity of the arguments on either side.

This is especially true where the basis of the two sides’ positions are very different, as in the case of the proposed debate. On the one side, religion is usually based on asserting the truth of statements in some body of text, held to be certain and final – in the case of christians, the Bible. It is often possible for one person to have mastery of this limited source.

On the other side, humanists usually base their beliefs on a much more extensive body of knowledge, that is continually developing, is nuanced and never claims certainty: including science (for example, physics and geology, which explain our physical world, and evolutionary theory, which explains how we came to be human), and moral philosophy, which has also developed over time, so we do not accept now some practices that people accepted in Biblical times. We base our position on evidence interpreted through reason.

Given such a rich source of knowledge, no-one can have mastery over it all, and in responding to arguments one may need to look up evidence and review one’s understanding of a point. This cannot be done in a speech debate.

This is not a trivial point. I have seen and heard of debates that were ‘won’ by creationists over scientists, and by deniers of human-caused global warming over scientists, because of the tactics I am going to describe. I’ll mention, as examples, three of the common tricks.

The first is simply to claim that the side that is based on uncertain knowledge is weak. This can be plausible to the layman. Yet those who understand science know that grasping uncertainty is the strength of science: it revises ideas as evidence comes to light and so improves our understanding of the world, while those who claim certainty are stuck forever in error.

(Richard Lucas, leading in his Edinburgh debate, used a variant of this argument in talking of ‘objective morality’, which he didn’t define, and he certainly didn’t demonstrate that the Bible offers ‘objective morality’ – the opponent might have pointed out that the Bible forbids some things we now accept and condones things like slavery most now find abhorrent, so that is clearly not ‘objective morality’.)

Second, the straw man argument: misrepresenting or parodying the opponent’s views, to try to force the opponent to have to divert to correcting this, rather that moving the debate topic forward. Richard Lucas was guilty of this in at least a small way, by saying that atheists must adopt a deterministic view of human behaviour and not believe in free will – not at all true (has he ever read Daniel C Dennett?). However, this was a minor point and I think the humanist representative ignored it, which was the correct thing to do in the circumstances.

Third, the Gish gallop (named after a creationist famous for using this trick, but also widely used by climate change deniers like Ian Plimer). This is to fire off a large number of points, a mixture of half-truths, lies and irrelevant statements. The problem here is that to correct any one of these might take a whole talk in itself, not to mention referring back to sources of evidence that one cannot have at one’s fingertips in a debate. The inexperienced debater, in particular, is wrong-footed by this, is side-tracked into trying to answer dozens of misleading statements, and is made to look unprepared, ignorant or stupid in front of an audience of lay people.

I must point out that Richard Lucas did not use this particular tactic in the Edinburgh debate. I am however including it as it is so often used to attack science, with its emphasis on evidence and detailed reasoning, which most people do not appreciate or have the patience for.

Anyone who takes part in a debate, whether as a speaker or from the floor, ought to be aware of these tactics, and understand how to deal with them.

I’m inviting PurpleFish, the prime movers of this debate, to discuss the debate topic in a public exchange in writing, through either this blog or some other medium acceptable to all. Anyone should be able to contribute.

My first contribution (Part 1) will appear here shortly. I also hope to post a comment on the Edinburgh debate.

Hart and Armstrong: God on high

[BPSDB] One response to the ‘new atheists’ like Richard Dawkins is to retreat up a mountain. There you are surrounded by fluffy, intangible ideas, and a silence where you can experience the ‘Unnameable’ who can never be understood, far from the people like  ‘strident adolescents’ who actually want to try to understand things. (Why is it when people assert their non-belief they are always called ‘aggressive’?)

That’s the mental picture I get from this review by Christopher Hart of what appears to be a pretty missable book by Karen Armstrong.

The trouble is, up in the solitude and rarefied air on the mountain-top, where neither believers nor sceptics can reach you and bring some criticism to bear on your thoughts, you start to imagine things.

You start to imagine that something about which you have written around twenty books can only be appreciated through ‘a graceful acceptance of mystery and “unknowing”’. You create a myth that the root of religion lies beyond ‘beyond human language’, ignoring the fact that its roots lie in attempts to communicate with forces and things (as well as dead real people) that affected everyday life but were conceived of as having consciousness and intentionality.

You rely for your evidence on the abstruse writings of church fathers, who  engaged in what was really an intellectual exercise at one remove from religion as it was practised. Without any sense of irony, you accuse atheists of claiming absolute knowledge and ‘pronounc[ing] with finality on pretty much everything’. This is despite the fact that Dawkins has always emphasised that science, although it gives us real knowledge, always contains tentative areas (why else do scientific research?) and that he for one would be open to discovering that God exists, given evidence.

You leave most believers at the foot of the mountain, because their faith is based (at least for the Abrahamic religions) on texts that emphasise the personality of God, his very human-like qualities ands his interventions in the world. For most believers, it is likely that their understanding of God is even more personal than that of the leaders of their organised religions.

The  top of the mountain seems to be  a realm where everything is made of mirages, appearing upside-down. Perhaps the case has been made that the experience is very enjoyable, but certainly no case seems to be made for anything recognisable as God to someone with their feet on the ground, believer or non-believer.

Shropshire Humanist Group website

For readers in my area, I’ve just uploaded a new website for the Shropshire Humanist Group. No, I know it’s not the most beautiful work of art, but it’s better than nothing. It can always be improved, and I know there must be people out there – in my area as everywhere else – who would feel relieved to discover there are other people who think the way they do.

This is the beauty of the web – being able to search for information quickly and make connections between ideas. It’s not so long ago that this would have meant a trip to the library and a possibility of not finding the information one is looking for.

And this short post (as well as links elsewhere) should help the new site get picked up by the search engines.

Other creationists who crashed the Darwin party

[BPSDB]The “Shrewsbury Deep Waters Trust” were not the only creationists to take advantage of the Darwin celebrations in Shrewsbury. During March/April the Christadelphians sent leaflets throughout the town and set up a stall in the town centre advertising meetings – although they were not very efficient about it, as the leaflet came through my own door after the meetings had taken place.

The leaflet was produced by the Shrewsbury Christadelphians, although it seems likely that similar materials have been distributed elsewhere. What interested me was the quotation on the cover.

Darwin Question leaflet

Darwin Question leaflet

I asked the local Christadelphians, at their email address, for the source of the quotation, but I haven’t yet had a reply after five weeks.

I have searched on the web, where all Darwin’s writings are available, and have not been able to find it there. As far as I can tell, Darwin did not write a volume called “My life and Letters”. His son Francis put together a collection called “Life and Letters”. This contains one sentence that may be what the Christadelphians are referring to. This reads: “When we descend to details, we can prove that no one species has changed [i.e. we cannot prove that a single species has changed]; nor can we prove that the supposed changes are beneficial, which is the groundwork of the theory.”

If you do a search for the exact words, though, you will find it quoted widely on creationist websites, with the same erroneous citation. Quite likely, the Christadelphians simply lifted it from one of these. It is an example of what is often called called “quote mining” – selecting from the words of people who are perceived to be “authorities” in such a way as to change the apparent meaning in a favourable way. Creationists often use this trick to make it seem as if scientists are expressing doubt about evolutionary theory, or pointing out a problem with the theory that does not actually exist. In this case, I doubt if the Christadelphians are being consciously dishonest – it probably never occurred to them that something that is so widely quoted by their brethren could be wrong.

“Quote mining” is so prevalent that TalkOrigins, one of the best web resources on evolution, has a project devoted to it: you can find the misquotation I am referring to discussed here.

Selecting Darwin on this matter is misleading too: Darwin is not an “authority” on evolution as the Bible is an authority to Christadelphians. Darwin originated the theory of evolution of natural selection which continues to be the basis for a vast research project. Discoveries in genetics now mean that we can trace the evolutionary descent of huge numbers of species – which Darwin could not do in the state of knowledge that existed in his time.

Incidentally, the history of the Christadelphians makes interesting reading. They comprise a tiny sect that tries to uphold to an extreme the literal accuracy of the Bible. Not surprisingly, it has fractured into even tinier fragments as its members fail to agree on differences of doctrine that most of probably couldn’t even see. A probably inevitable consequence of believing that you know the absolute truth is that eventually you must believe that only you (and your followers) know the absolute truth.

More about Stephen Meyer’s lecture on Intelligent Design

[BPSDB]Rather late, this is my comment on the lecture given in Shrewsbury (Darwin’s birthplace) in late February 2009 by Dr Stephen Meyer from the Discovery Institute. This was billed as reviewing “Darwin’s life and theories from a new perspective – an assessment of the evidence for design which has emerged through the advances in science since publication of his On the Origin of Species in 1859” . It was also advertised as Dr Meyer’s first public lecture on the theme of his new book, “Signature in the cell: DNA and the evidence for Intelligent Design”.

The book has not yet been published, so I can’t yet compare it with the lecture. However, it did seem to me that there was very little in the lecture that was actually new – I have been following the debate between biologists and ID proponents for some years now. It wasn’t possible for me to take notes fast enough to give a point-by-point analysis of the lecture.

The lecture was divided into two halves, with a short break of five minutes. The crucial argument was presented early in the second part. I’d almost call it a “climax”, because Dr Meyer is a showman: he knows how to ramp up the excitement and carry the audience with him. Of course, in this case the audience was largely sympathetic to his aim and uncritical towards his arguments.

There was, in reality, very little mention of evolution in the lecture – mostly quotations from Darwin and other scientists – although the whole thing was carried off so that I suspect that most in the audience really believed that they were witnessing a powerful critique of evolution.

The lecture began with a few comments about Darwin and evolution, there was some talk about “chemical evolution” and the work of Oparin and Miller, and then much of the first part was given over to explaining the basics – what seemed to me to be perfectly acceptable explanations of the shapes of DNA and proteins, and how the functions of proteins depend on their shapes. Then he went on to more contentious matters, including the ID proponents’ favoured idea of “specified complexity”.

The climax came after the break. Dr Meyer took the audience through the calculation of the probability of a protein (of 150 amino acids) assembling itself from its units – vanishingly small, of course. I could feel the excitement of the audience close to me as he approached the result and there was laughter as he calculated the final result. They must have felt that Dr Meyer had delivered the coup de grace to evolution by natural selection.

This was really the core of the lecture. The rest consisted largely of unsupported assertions of ID dogma, for example, that undirected natural processes do not produce large amounts of “specified complexity”, that creation of new information is habitually associated with conscious activity, that the functional integration of proteins, DNA and ATP is evidence for design, and that ID has been justified by predicting that so-called ‘junk DNA’ would be found to be functional (I’m not a biologist, but my understanding is that some noncoding DNA is known to have important functions, but that there is good evidence that much DNA has no function).

The lecture depended largely on what might be compared with a David Copperfield illusion: Dr Meyer did not demonstrate what the audience were no doubt expected to think he had demonstrated, and the whole effect depended on the audience seeing what it wanted to see and not questioning what they believed they had seen and heard.

The calculation of the improbability of a protein is irrelevant, because it entirely omits the very process that ID-ists claim to question – evolution by natural selection. The evolutionary process is what made it possible to observe the proteins we see today carrying out the functions that they do. No evolutionary biologist imagines that any functional protein somehow had to be assembled all at once out of its individual amino acids. Proteins evolved in organisms, through relatively small changes in the genetic material (changes that accorded with the laws of chemistry and physics), and were selected for or against by the environments prevailing at the time. No step required any probability that was unreasonably small in the available time frame.

What’s more, to look at the protein and its function the way Dr Meyer did is to get the whole thing backwards. The protein and its function were not “specified” first and the evolutionary process tailored to creating it. Both the protein and its function are as they are because they are the outcome of a whole series of changes that were possible at each step. They may not be the best possible way to carrry out the function, but they exist both because they are the result of a series of physically and chemically possible changes and they enable the organism to function in its current environment – specifically, to reproduce successfully. In many cases, it is now possible to trace the steps by which the current system and its function came about – see, for example, the debate between biologists and ID-ists over the biochemistry of blood clotting.