1. I recently linked to the debate between Michael Shermer and David Wood. Now I will comment on the debate.
i) A mistake many people make in evaluating a debate is to award winners and losers based on which position they agree with. For them, it's not about the actual performance. It's not about who made the best case in the course of the debate. Rather, it's about prior agreement or disagreement. What side the viewer is on coming into the debate frequently dictates who they perceive to be the winner or loser. Their own position affects what they hear. Often, they are poor listeners. They don't analyze arguments. They perceive the winner or loser, not based on the quality of the intellectual performance, but prior agreement or disagreement with the position under debate. Of course, that's the wrong way to assess a debate. Your side could be right, but still do a bad job of arguing for its position.
ii) There are roughly two kinds of spokesmen for a position: popularizers and high-level thinkers. Ideally, when assessing a position, we should judge it by the high-level thinkers and scholars. Indeed, good philosophers go the extra mile by improving on the arguments of the opposing position. That way, when they attack the opposing position, they attack the strongest case that can be made for the opposing position.
iii) However, there's value in attacking popularizers. In general, they have a much wider audience then the high-level thinkers and scholars. They are more directly influential. Their followers find their bad arguments convincing. Their follows fail to recognize what bad arguments these are.
iv) Wood won the debate hands down. He won on points. He's very focussed. Very analytical. Although he has a wicked sense of humor which he deploys in his satirical videos about Islam, in this debate he was pretty matter-of-fact.
Shermer is a practiced debater. He has his spiel. In this debate he seems to have mellowed since he debated John Lennox 6 years ago. Maybe he was just in a different mood that night. In this debate he often adopts a folksy, avuncular tone. However, that's a facade, because that's punctured by snide or bitter comments. Although his demeanor is initially somewhat winsome, it gets to be tiresome. In addition, he meanders. Jumps back and forth.
BTW, in comparing his debate with Wood to his debate with Lennox, I notice that Shermer recycles the same bad arguments, even after he's been corrected.
Italic text will be me quoting Shermer or summarizing Shermer.
2. In addition to the debate proper, he tweeted some of his debate talking points. Some of these he incorporated into the debate, but some didn't make the cut. I'm going to comment on the debate talking points that didn't get quoted before I comment on the debate itself:
If God can create a stone so big that he cannot lift it, then he's not omnipotent.
If God cannot create a stone so big that he cannot lift it, then he's not omnipotent.
Therefore, God is not omnipotent,
Therefore, God is either just another flawed being or God does not exist.
i) This attempts to pose a dilemma for Christian theism. But one basic problem with the stone paradox is the concept of lifting an object. That presumes a frame of reference. Relocating a physical object from one position to another. If, however, God made a stone so big that it filled the entire universe, then it's not physically possible to move it from one location to another because there's no available space. That's not a limitation on divine omnipotence; rather, that limitation is built into the set-up. So the question is incoherent. A contradiction in terms. A pseudotask.
ii) How does inability to do something ipso facto constitute a flaw? If I can't run 1000 mph, does that make me flawed?
3. Paradox of perfection:
If God exists, then he is prefect,
If God exists, he is the creator of the universe
Perfect beings must create perfect things
The universe is not perfect.
Therefore, the universe was not created by a perfect being.
That's not really an argument. Shermer fails to explain how perfect beings must create perfect things. In addition, he fails to define perfection.
The syllogism suffers from an implicit equivocation: a creature cannot be perfect in the same sense that God is perfect.
3. The universe is everything there is. Thus, God must be within the universes or is the universe. In either case, God would himself need to be caused, and thus the regress to a first cause just begs the question, "What caused God"? If God does not need to be caused, then clearly not everything in the universe needs to be caused.
But in Christian theism, the physical universe is not everything there is. Christian theism is dualistic: there are mental entities as well as material entities. God exists apart from time and space. Hence, the inference that God needs to be caused piggybacks on the initial false premise.
4. Not every event has a cause; quantum events like the radioactive decay of a beta particle do not have causes.
To my knowledge, beta particles are produced by quantum fields. They don't pop out of nothing. Rather, there's a physical process in place.
5. After God created the universe, he could cease to exist.
Making the world is an incidental property or relation. In order to create the world, God must have a nature apart from the world. His existence is not contingent on making the world: just the opposite.
6. Finite v. infinite universe
Shermer claims an infinite past is possible. But that's ambiguous. The question at issue is whether a cumulative temporal infinite is possible. Shermen fails to engage that issue.
Now let's shift to what Shermer said in the actual debate:
7. You can't prove a negative
The motivation for that maxim is to lower Shermer's burden of proof. According to him, he doesn't have to disprove Yahweh's existence.
But a problem with that maxim is that it stands in tension with his subsequent appeal to Sagan's garage dragon. Isn't the point of that hypothetical that you can prove a negative? You can disprove the presence of a dragon in the garage by searching the garage. There's no evidence for a dragon.
Proving a negative in that context doesn't mean having to explore every square inch of the universe. For the hypothetical narrows the scope of the search parameters to manageable levels. It's a search of finite space that can be done in finite time.
Perhaps, though, the counter is that you can't disprove the presence of the dragon if it's an undetectable dragon. The dragon is unfalsifiable in that sense. However, the point that Sagan labors to make is that an undetectable dragon is indistinguishable from a nonexistent dragon. Even if you haven't absolutely disproven the dragon's presence, there's no actual or possible evidence that it's there. And so you have no reason to believe there's a dragon in the garage. As a practical matter, we consider that equivalent to disproving a negative.
8. Dragon in the garage
Apropos (7), let's examine this some more. Sagan's dragon is a rip-off of Flew's invisible gardener. Here's how Flew frames the issue:
For if the utterance is indeed an assertion, it will necessarily be equivalent to a denial of the negation of the assertion. And anything which would count against the assertion, or which would induce the speaker to withdraw it and to admit that it had been mistaken, must be part of (or the whole of) the meaning of the negation of that assertion. And to know the meaning of the negation of an assertion, is as near as makes no matter, to know the meaning of that assertion. And if there is nothing which a putative assertion denies then there is nothing which it asserts either: and so it is not really an assertion. When the Sceptic in the parable asked the Believer, "Just how does what you call an invisible, intangible, eternally elusive gardener differ from an imaginary gardener or even from no gardener at all?" he was suggesting that the Believer's earlier statement had been so eroded by qualification that it was no longer an assertion at all.
The process of qualification may be checked at any point before the original assertion is completely withdrawn and something of that first assertion will remain (Tautology). Mr. Wells' invisible man could not, admittedly, be seen, but in all other respects he was a man like the rest of us. But though the process of qualification may be and of course usually is, checked in time, it is not always judicially so halted. Someone may dissipate his assertion completely without noticing that he has done so. A fine brash hypothesis may thus be killed by inches, the death by a thousand qualifications.
Now it often seems to people who are not religious as if there was no conceivable event or series of events the occurrence of which would be admitted by sophisticated religious people to be a sufficient reason for conceding "there wasn't a God after all"...I therefore put to the succeeding symposiasts the simple central questions, "What would have to occur or to have occurred to constitute for you a disproof of the love of, or the existence of, God?"
There are several problems with that objection:
i) Suppose a heathen Greek says Zeus lives in a palace on the summit of Mt. Olympus. Problem is, you can't see a palace on Mt. Olympus on a clear day. And if you scale the mountain, there is no visible, tangible palace. There is no visible, tangible Greek god.
Now, our heathen Greek might save appearances by redefining Zeus to elude direct empirical detection. Problem is, that's not analogous to Christian theism. Christian theism didn't begin with the notion of a humanoid deity, like Zeus. Christian theism didn't begin with a directly empirical deity, then when challenged, proceed to introduce ad hoc caveats to make God indetectable to the five senses. In Christian theism, God was never that kind of entity in the first place. So the Christian concept of God hasn't died the death of a thousand qualifications.
ii) In Christian theism, the evidence for God's existence isn't based on direct observation, but on the observable effects of divine agency, as well as the explanatory power of God. It's analogous to the explanatory value of abstract objects, or postulating theoretical entities (e.g. elementary particles) to account for what we can directly detect.
iii) Flew's objection confuses a semantic question of what makes something meaningful with the psychological or evidential question of what, if anything, would lead us to doubt Christianity. But those are distinct issues. It's true that for God-talk to be meaningful, it must be inconsistent with negations thereof, viz. propositions that affirm what God-talk denies or deny what God-talk affirms. Its assertions must logically exclude assertions to the contrary. But God-talk can easily satisfy that condition.
9. Over the past 10,000 years, humans have created about 10,000 different religions, and about 1,000 gods. what's the probability that Yahweh is the one true god, and Amon Ra, Aphrodite, Apollo, Baal, Brahma, Genesha, Isis, Mithras, Osiris, Shiva, Thor, Vishnu, Wotan, Zeus, and the other 986 gods are false gods?
i) Just listing a number of items, then asking what are the odds that you will pick one rather than another, as if that's a random, quantitative choice, like reaching into a bag and pulling out a raffle ticket, is ill-conceived. It's like saying, since there are thousands of inbound passengers at the airport, what are the odds that I will pick up one passenger in particular? But when I go to the airport to pick up a relative, the sheer number of passengers is wholly irrelevant to my selection criterion. There's no chance that I will drive home any other passenger. The probability is 100% that I will pick up my relative (assuming we don't miss connections).
ii) This involves comparing different concepts of God. Pagan concepts of the divine are quite different from the Christian concept. Pagan gods are impossible beings. If they existed, they'd be subject to the natural constraints of physical beings. They can't do what they are said to do given their nature. They can't exist where they are said to exist.
iii) There's no evidence they exist. By contrast, there are multiple lines of evidence for Christian theism.
10. As skeptics like to say, everyone is an atheist about these gods; some of us just go one god further.
Wood had a clever retort to that. He said the difference between one and none can be the difference between common sense and nonsense. I'd like to expand on his response. Suppose a patient has alarming, or even life-threatening symptoms. He goes to a diagnostician. Some of the patient's symptoms are visible.
Problem is, his symptoms are consistent with several different illnesses. But it would be dangerous if not fatal to simultaneously treat him for several different illnesses. The diagnostician must run a battery of tests to narrow down the candidates. By process of elimination, only illness remains.
Enter the adiagnostician. He doesn't believe in disease. That's an illusion. The patient has no underlying illness. The symptoms have no cause. "I contend that we are both adiagnosticians. I just believe in one fewer illness than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other candidates, you will understand why I dismiss yours."
But, of course, diagnosing the right illness has explanatory power, while denying any illness has no explanatory value.
11. Even if theists could prove the existence of a God, it doesn't prove that Yahweh is the God, or that he had a Son named Jesus, or any of the other characteristics of the God Christians worship.
i) Proving the existence of a God would suffice to disprove atheism. That's intellectual progress. The elimination of some preliminary false alternatives is an important stage in arriving at the true explanation.
ii) Suppose I prove the existence of a man born on August 22, 1920 in Waukegan, Illinois–who died in Los Angeles on June 5, 2012. H lived in Tucson from 1926–27 and 1932–33. H graduated from Los Angeles High School in 1938. He had four daughters: Susan, Ramona, Bettina and Alexandra.
None of that tells you that he was famous. None of that tells you what he was famous for. If that's all you had to go by, you couldn't tell that he was an immensely popular science fiction writer. Indeed, I haven't even given his name. Yet all those incidental details refer to the one and only Ray Bradbury.
If Yahweh exists, many things are true of Yahweh, even if, considered in isolation, they don't single out Yahweh. But multiple lines of evidence converge on Yahweh, just as multiple lines of evidence converge on Ray Bradbury. By process of elimination, it comes down to one candidate.
12. Atheism: what we don't believe. Onus on theist to prove God's existence, not on atheist to disprove God's existence. No atheist hypothesis; either you think there's evidence for God or not. No alternative that has to be defended.
That's a popular meme among village atheists, but it's demonstrably false. Negative claims are truth-claims. Denials assert something not to be the case.
An atheist either says there's no evidence for God, or insufficient evidence for God, or positive evidence that there is no God. In each case, that's an affirmation regarding the state of the evidence.
Suppose I call myself an atobacco-carcinogenist. I lack belief that chain-smoking raises the risk of lung cancer. Suppose I say there's no evidence that tobacco consumption is carcinogenic? Don't I assume a burden of proof?
13. X looks created, I can't think how X was created naturally, therefore X was created supernaturally. God-of-gaps. But science is filling the gaps.
i) How did we get to the presumption that if something looks designed, it wasn't designed? Why is the onus on the Christian to prove that something which appears to be designed is what it appears to be, rather than on the atheist to disprove evident design?
ii) Shermer acts as though there's no positive evidence for God. It's always just an argument from ignorance. But supposed we applied that to apparent design in general. Is the design inference an argument from inference in general? When we first discovered cuneiform tablets, should our operating assumption be that this happened naturally unless we can prove otherwise?
iii) How does Shermer distinguish evidence for personal agency from natural patterns or coincidence? Does he have any distinguishing criteria?
iv) Shermer substitutes naturalism-of-the-gaps for God-of-the-gaps. He abodes faith in promissory naturalism. His justification is the success of science in filling gaps. But science can only fill gaps of the right kind. Personal agency is categorically different from mechanical cause and effect. To paraphrase Shermer: "Naturalism is just a word, a linguistic placeholder, to fill in gaps. We don't know what that means. Atheists invoke "naturalism" when they hit an epistemological wall."
14. Any being that made the world can't be simple. Has to be more complex than creation. Infinite regress. Who designed the designer?
That's equivocal. Yes, there's a sense in which God is more complex than creation. Infinitely complex. However, we need to distinguish between abstract and concrete complexity. The concept of God is not the concept of a being who's the sum of his parts. God isn't composed of physical parts. Larger parts made of smaller parts.
Likewise, design suggests something made to perform a function. But God isn't complex in a functional sense. (Wood made some similar point. But he was limited by the clock.)
Rather, God is analogous to complex abstract objects like possible worlds or the Mandelbrot set. It's a different kind of complexity.
15. If God exists, why doesn't he prevent harm to innocent children?
I'm not going to rehash everything I've said on problem of evil. A few quick points:
i) It isn't just a matter of preventing harm to children. In a world of cause-and-effect, preventing one thing generally has the side-effect of preventing many other things. Preventing a particular evil will prevent some attendant goods. Preventing a particular evil will result in another evil further down the line. There's a domino effect–both for better and worse. You're not replacing one discrete incident with another discrete incident. Rather, you're replacing one domino effect with a different domino effect.
Because humans don't now the future, it's appropriate for us to prevent evils that would be inappropriate for an agent who sees the long-term consequences of alternate timelines.
ii) There are theodicies like soul-building and second-order goods that, in combination, cover a lot of ground. Shermer simply ignores that.
iii) From a secular standpoint, children are replaceable replacements. From the viewpoint of naturalism, there's nothing tragic about the death of children.
iv) What's ultimate is what ultimately matters. Not death and suffering in this life, which is temporary, but what, if anything, happens after you die.
16. The irrefutable God-problem: God gets credit for good, no blame for bad. Whatever happens, God hypothesis confirmed. What would disconfirm God hypothesis? Good things happen, so God is; bad things happen, so God is. What would have to happen to refute God's existence? What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.
i) I'd put it differently. God is responsible for good and bad alike. (I distinguish responsibility from culpability.)
ii) I don't think Christians generally argue that evil confirms God's existence. They don't generally argue for evidential parity: good events confirm God's existence and bad events confirm God's existence. Rather, they appeal to various lines of evidence for God's existence, then argue that evil is consistent with God's existence.
iii) There is, though, a sense in which evil confirms God's existence. Evil is evidence for God's existence inasmuch as moral realism requires God's existence.
17. If your theory of evil is that your neighbor cavorts with the devil at night, flies around on a broomstick inflicting people, crops, and cattle with disease, and that the proper way to cure the problem of evil is to burn her at the stake, then you are either insane or you lived in Christian Europe 400 years ago. This was the Christian theory of evil: Exod 22:18. Today, no one in their right mind believes this. Why? Because science debunked the witch theory of evil.
Maybe that's an applause like at atheist conferences. But it's grossly anachronistic and a blatant non sequitur. Is he even trying to be honest?
i) Exod 22:18 doesn't attribute natural disasters to witchcraft.
ii) Shermer is reading European folklore and Hollywood movies back into Exod 20:18. But there's nothing in that text about cavorting with the devil at night or flying on a broomstick.
iii) The penalty for witchcraft in Exod 22:18 isn't death by burning. Moreover, the prohibition isn't confined to women. Cf. Deut 18:10.
iv) Witchcraft isn't confined to Christian Europe 400 years ago. It's quite widespread in time and place.
v) There's evidence for the power of witchcraft. That's entirely separate from a folkloric or Hollywood narrative about cavorting with the devil at night or flying on a broomstick, causing crops to fail and cattle to die.
vi) Under the new covenant, the way to combat witchcraft is through prayer, evangelism, and exorcism.
vii) But as far as that goes, consider ufology. That's a secular movement in which E.T's are said to do things that used to be ascribed to witches.
18. God could just forgive the sin we never committed
Shermer is alluding to original sin. There's some confusion in what he says.
i) Scripture routinely speaks of eschatological judgment for actual sin.
ii) Gen 2-3 implies that if Adam and Eve hadn't disobeyed God, they and their posterity would live forever via the tree of life. But because Adam and Eve violated the prohibition, they were banished from the Garden, which rendered the tree of life inaccessible to themselves as well as their posterity. Biological immorality was something to be acquired, not innate.
It's like a rich man who squanders the family fortune on gambling debts. As a result, his children inherit nothing. But that's not punitive. They weren't punished because their father was a compulsive gambler. And they weren't entitled to the estate in the sense that a worker is entitled to fruits of his labor. They didn't earn it.
It's not as if human beings are entitled to immortality. If, due to the Fall, they lost the opportunity to become immortal, that isn't the same as being punished for a sin they didn't commit. Rather, it's like losing out on the inheritance.
iii) And, of course, glorification awaits Christian believers. What was lost in Adam is still attainable for believers.
19. So God sacrificed himself to himself to save us from himself. That's barking mad!
That's such a crude, incompetent misrepresentation of the atonement. Does Shermer put it that way because it's catchy?
i) To begin with, Shermer's formulation is unitarian rather than Trinitarian.
ii) In addition, it's not about saving us from God, but saving us from divine judgment. Saving us from the just deserts of sin. It doesn't create the schizophrenic spectacle that Shermer's reductionistic caricature depicts.
iii) Suppose a judge's son commits theft. The son can't afford to make restitution. So his father makes financial restitution on behalf of his son and in lieu of his son. That's not barking mad.
20. What is God like? God is just a word, a linguistic placeholder, to fill in gaps. We don't know what that means. Christians invoke "God" when they hit an epistemological wall.
It's unclear if Shermer is saying the concept of God is just a linguistic placeholder with no definable meaning, or if he's saying the invocation of divine agency to explain things is just a linguistic placeholder with no definable meaning. Maybe he doesn't distinguish the two. Given his fondness for Sagan's garage dragon, which had its antecedents in logical positivism, he may think "God" or "God-talk" is literally meaningless. Has no real constantive content.
If so, that's in conflict with his appeal to the problem of evil, for that depends on having a clear concept of God. Something with specific definable properties.
21. Unlike physics, religion is geographically variable
Although he used to be a professing Christian, Shermer has either forgotten or never understood the nature of Christianity. Although some Christian truths dovetail with intuition, Christian faith is primarily based on historical knowledge. Testimonial evidence. A record of divine deeds in creation, redemption, and judgment. Like historical knowledge in general, that's acquired rather than instinctive or intuitive. History is something you must learn about, not something you are born knowing. Not something you can figure out, like a mathematician. So naturally the geographic distribution of the Christian faith will be uneven in time and space. If Christianity is true, that's to be expected.
22. How does God do it?
If by that question, Shermer is asking by what means did God work miracles, that generally misses the point; except for coincidence miracles, miracles circumvent natural means. The effect is produced directly, apart from a physical medium. Even at a creaturely level, that's not unexampled. Take cases of psychokinesis–some of which are well-documented.
If God is timeless, then God doesn't make things happen by acting in the world, but by enacting the world–akin to how a novelist makes things happen, not as a participant in the novel, but by composing the plot, setting, and characters.
23. What kind of God is a jealous God?
Although he used to be a professing Christian, Shermer never understood that the "jealous" God is part of the marital metaphor, including "spiritual adultery". The analogy is that just as spouses should be faithful to each other, Jews have a duty to faithfully keep the covenant, just as Yahweh faithfully keeps his end of the bargain.
24. Sometimes cancers do go away whether or not someone prayed for them
i) How does Shermer know that no one prayed for them? Ironically, his fellow atheist, Hector Avalos thinks prayer studies are useless for precisely that reason:
The problem with this and any so-called controlled experiment regarding prayer is that there can be no such thing as a controlled experiment concerning prayer. You can never divide people into groups that received prayer and those that did not. The main reason is that there is no way to know that someone did not receive prayer. How would anyone know that some distant relative was not praying for a member of the group that Byrd had identified as having received no prayer? "Can Science Prove that Prayer Works?" Free Inquiry 17 (1997).
ii) I'm somewhat dubious about how people refer to "spontaneous remission," as if that's a scientific explanation. But what does "spontaneous remission" mean? Is there an actual known mechanism by which cancer sometimes goes into remission, or is that just a label, a verbal placeholder, in lieu of a biological explanation? Is the phenomenon naturally inexplicable according to the present state of medical science? I've read "spontaneous" means "without any apparent cause".
On a related note, I suppose it might depend on the kind of cancer and the extent of damage. Take C. S. Lewis's description of his wife's remission from bone cancer:
I have stood by the bedside of a woman whose thighbone was eaten through with cancer and who had thriving colonies of the disease in many other bones, as well. It took three people to move her in bed. The doctors predicted a few months of life; the nurses (who often know better), a few weeks. A good man laid his hands on her and prayed. A year later the patient was walking (uphill, too, through rough woodland) and the man who took the last X-ray photos was saying, “These bones are as solid as rock. It's miraculous.”
That isn't just tumors disappearing, but the condition reversing itself.
There's also the question of remission that's synchronized with prayer.
There's also the question of remission that's synchronized with prayer.
25. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic
Shermer cites that quote from Arthur Clarke (which he misattributes to Asimov) to contend that you can never establish a miracle since it might be caused by E.T's. But that makes Shermer's atheism unfalsifiable. So his position amounts to secular fideism. This is his alien-of-the-gaps argument.
Ironically, it's the mirror-image of Flew's objection to God-talk. To paraphrase Flew:
Now it often seems to Christians as if there was no conceivable event or series of events the occurrence of which would be admitted by sophisticated atheists to be a sufficient reason for conceding "there was a God after all"...I therefore put to you, "What would have to occur or to have occurred to constitute for you a disproof of atheism?"
26. Why does God only heal things that might have happened anyway, rather than amputees?
i) But the question is disingenuous, for Shermer has an escape clause (#25).
ii) Shermer shows no awareness of the scholarly literature on miracles, including well-documented case studies (e.g. Craig Keener, Robert Larmer).
iii) It doesn't take one artificially narrow class of miracles to disprove naturalism. Any bona fide miracle will overturn a universal negative against their occurrence.
27. Good without God
Finally, Wood said an atheist only has two possible sources of morality: either we are hardwired to have moral instincts or we are culturally conditioned to have social mores. Yet these aren't sufficient, either individually or in combination, to underwrite moral realism. Evolutionary ethics commits the naturalistic fallacy. And cultural relativism implies moral relativism.
Shermer never even attempted to directly rebut Wood's argument. Shermer tries to establish secular ethics by stipulation.
It isn't just Christians who find fault with Shermer's position. So do secular philosophers. For instance: