Friday, November 25, 2016

Debating Hitchens

I recently viewed or read (where transcripts are available) severals debates between Christopher Hitchens and sundry opponents (e.g. Craig, McGrath, Turek, Wilson, Wolpe). Two of the best debate with were with William Dembski and Jay Richards.

In some respects, Hitchens is an excellent debater. He has a strong, warm, resonant baritone voice. He's articulate and eloquent. He can pivot. He projects tremendous moral and intellectual self-assurance. 

However, at least where religious debates are concerned, part of what makes him so smooth is that he repeats himself from one debate to the next. He has a stump speech which he rehashes with stylistic variations. He uses the same illustrations, the same one-liners. Ironically, you can sound more spontaneous when you've memorized a script. You're never at a loss for words. You have ready-made arguments and phrases at your fingertips. This gives him an advantage over opponents who've only done it once or twice. 

However, this also means that for all his intellectual posturing, Hitchens never revises his formulaic objections in response to counterarguments. When he's corrected in one debate, he recycles the same errors in the next debate. Or he recycles the same errors in the very same debate. He lacks the intellectual honesty to accept correction. He refuses to learn. 

For instance, he constantly appeals to a moral knowledge. When it's pointed out to him, time and again, that he can't justify moral norms, that bounces right off him. Is he really so obtuse that he can never absorb the distinction between moral epistemology and moral ontology? Or does he appreciate he difference, but he ignores it because he doesn't have a good answer? 

In terms of delivery, Dembski is not a natural debater. He has a thin voice. He was reading off his computer screen rather than making eye contact with the audience. He's technical and clinical. 

But in terms of substance, he beat Hitchens hands down. Hitchens is completely out of his element when debating evolution with Dembski. And he's no match for Dembski on metaethics. Dembski is brilliant and erudite. Has a lot in reserve. Has lots of facts at his fingertips. Hitchens is a much better orator, but Dembski is a much the better thinker. Very analytical and precise. Although atheists pride themselves on rationality, Hitchens relies on rhetorical ability while Dembski appeals to reason and evidence. 

Jay Richards has a better delivery than Dembski. Strong speaking voice. Although he's dry compared to Hitchens, Richards is very focussed. Great presence of mind. Never loses his train of thought. Can turn on a dime. 

It's also interesting to compare Hitchens in the two debates. In his debate with Dembski, he was suffering from the effects of cancer and cancer therapy, so his performance was more low-key. In addition, he was speaking in church, so he toned things down to avoid antagonizing his audience.

In his debate with Richards, by contrast, he was robust. But although he started out charming, it degenerated as he became cocky and boorish. A rhetorical bully and braggart. When addressing a sympathetic audience, he showed his true colors.

I'm going to comment on some of his statements in the debate with Dembski, then comment on some of his statements in the debate with Richards. I won't comment on most of what he said, in part because I've discussed those issues on multiple occasions. Also, Dembski and Richards did a good job of fielding his objections.   

1. He indicated that the universe is poorly designed because it has a lifecycle. How could it be planned if it's running down? 

I find that objection uncomprehending. You might as well say a bonfire is defective because it burns out. 

The universe produces energy and consumes energy. It's not a design flaw that a closed system will eventually exhaust its sources of energy. Likewise, the universe is a dynamic system. Over time, a habitable solar system may become uninhabitable. But a static universe would be uninhabitable. 

If nature runs its course, the universe will become uninhabitable. That's not a design flaw. Rather, that's the nature of physical processes. 

That doesn't necessarily mean the earth will become uninhabitable, or the universe will terminate. For the God who made the universe can reboot the process. 

2. Hitchens feels that the the rarity of life in the cosmos is inconsistent with divine creation. 

i) He doesn't explain why he feels that way. He seems to take it as self-evident. It's a strange objection, if you ask me. To begin with, I incline to the opposite reaction. Doesn't the rarity of life in the cosmos make us special?

ii) In addition, is it even feasible for most of the universe to be habitable–or must most of the universe be inhospitable to provide the raw resources and conditions for a charmed solar system like ours? How many habitable solar systems can the universe actually sustain? Doesn't the universe require a certain variety? A heterogenous distribution of stars and galaxies in different phases and alignments? Different kinds of stars and galaxies? 

3. Hitchens said that if our ancestors hadn't migrated from Africa, the human race would have gone extinct. 

I find that odd. According to human evolution, haven't humans continuously resided in Africa? It's not as if they all up and left, then some of the returned. Am I missing something? 

4. Hitchens said he doesn't like the idea of a father who never goes away. A judge who doesn't allow lawyers or jury or appeal.

i) That's an intellectually childish objection. God isn't analogous to human parents whom human children outgrow. God is incomparably and eternally our intellectual superior. As contingent creatures, we're forever dependent on God's provision. 

Why, moreover, doesn't Hitchens raise a parallel objection to naturalism. As an atheist, he can't outgrow the natural world. He's dependent on the natural world to survive and thrive. 

ii) Human judges are fallible and biased. That's hardly analogous to God. 

To be sure, Hitchens doesn't believe in God, but the point at issue is evaluating the idea of God. 

iii) That also shows that his rejection of Christianity is essentially emotional.  

5. He talked about Gospel contradictions. 

That's probably something he's parroting from Bart Ehrman's Jesus Interrupted. Ironically, there are many synoptic variations in his debates on atheism. From one debate to the next, he paraphrases his basic script. It doesn't occur to him that his own practice is parallel to Jesus presenting the same basic message to different people at different times and places. A skillful speaker engages in a certain amount of audience adaptation. You vary the message somewhat depending on the audience and the circumstances. That's something we can see Hitchens do from one debate to the next.

6. He repeated the canard that heliocentrism displaced humans.

i) To begin with, that confuses a spatial position with our significance to God. But that's a non sequitur. How would our physical location make us significant or insignificant to God? Why would that be meaningful to God? God isn't even located in space. The position of our planet in relation to the sun has no effect on our proximity to God or heaven, since that's not a physical relation to begin with.

ii) From a scientific standpoint, if heliocentrism is necessary to make earth habitable, then our location in relation to the sun accentuates the value of human life rather than devaluing human life. If heliocentrism is a necessary condition for life on earth, then that arrangement promotes rather than denotes our privileged position.   

7. He said you will be punished for rejecting an atonement you didn't ask for.

But that's a backwards way of putting it. That's like saying you are punished for rejecting a pardon. No. It's that you were already condemned. A pardon was your only way to escape punishment. If you reject the pardon, then you revert to the default condemnation.  

Mind you, spurning a pardon is impudent in its own right. So that's culpable. That's an aggravating factor, on top of your previous guilt. 

8. Hitchens says we inhabit an unstable planet, which exposes us to natural evils

He acts as though that's a design flaw. But our biosphere is a dynamic system. So-called natural evils maintain the balance of nature, which is a prerequisite for life on earth. 

Moving on to his debate with Richards:

9. He says that by definition, freewill can't be granted. That's the paradox: Of course we have freewill–we have no choice!

i) To begin with, I don't know how he defines freewill. Does he mean freewill in the libertarian or compatibilist sense? I seriously doubt he has a philosophically sophisticated position one way or the other.

ii) I can't tell if he affirms freewill. Many atheists subscribe to physical determinism. 

iii) His objection is sophistical. Even if you can't refuse the initial grant of freewill, that doesn't mean you can't exercise freewill once you have it. The endowment is a one-time, unilateral act by God. The effect of something God did to you and for you. True, you can't refuse that, since that's a part of how you were created. You were in no position to reject it because you didn't exist at the time. Even though you can't refuse the endowment, you can exercise the faculty thereafter, as a result of that initial grant. 

10. He asked how the knife-edge for life proves a designer

It's not an arbitrary knife-edge. Rather, for biological organisms to exist, many different conditions must coincide. The greater the number of conditions, the narrower the window that they will be compossible. For each condition must be consistent with every other conditions. Given that these are independent conditions, it's remarkable that they can all converge. 

To take just one example, human tolerance for temperature variations is infinitesimally narrow compared to the range of cosmic temperatures, from absolute zero to Plank temperature. One or two hundred degrees either way is fatal to human life. 

11. He repeated the canard that demanding a first cause for the universe commits you to an infinite regress. Who made God? 

i) Is he really that dense? Or does he just lack the intellectual patience to master the concepts? If you're going to attack a position on its own grounds, then you need to assume the viewpoint of the opposing position for the sake of argument. Even though he doesn't believe in God, the question is whether the idea of God is analogous to the universe. 

In classical theism, God is a timeless, spaceless, necessary being. God is uncaused. God doesn't come into being. He's not made of physical parts. He doesn't exist through time. 

ii) Moreover, that's not an ad hoc ascription of transcendent attributes to God. In one respect, it's analogous to the concept of abstract objects. That's a philosophically respectable category. Likewise, the idea that something must necessarily exist for anything contingent to exist is a philosophically respectable category. A very deep metaphysical principle. 

In philosophical theology, these fundamental categories find their embedment in God. An atheist can attempt to dispute them, but they have great explanatory power. 

12. He quoted Jesus statement that "I come not to bring peace but a sword" (Mt 12:34).

But he quotes the passage out of context. It's metaphorical. The meaning is immediately illustrated by vv35-36, where it refers to the hostile reaction of people to Christians and the Christian message. It's not Christians who foment violence; Rather, the Gospel provokes violence against Christians. Christians will be persecuted. For someone who fancies himself a literary critic, Hitchens has a tin ear for this verse. 

13. He complains about Christians who lie to children about hell and terrorize children about hell.

i) There are some Christian adults who abuse that doctrine.

ii) The corollary to hell is the hope of heaven. That can be a great comfort to dying children or children who lost a parent or grandparent or sibling. 

iii) It would only be a lie if there was the intention to deceive. The fact that Hitchens doesn't believe in hell hardly makes it a lie for people who believe in hell to preach it. 

iv) His objection could be raised with equal or greater forced to atheism and physicalism. Aren't children naturally terrified by the prospect of oblivion? Won't children despair if told they have no chance of ever seeing their dead parent or grandparent or sibling again? 

14. He objects to a "celestial dictator" and Big Brother who watches you while you sleep and convicts you of thought-crimes. He says that negates the concept of freedom and happiness.

i) To begin with, that betrays his essentially emotional repudiation of Christianity. He hates the idea of God. But just because he doesn't like the consequences of Christian theism scarcely means it can't be true. 

ii) His attitude mirrors Jean Paul Sartre. Why would you object to divine surveillance (as it were) unless you're tempted to do wrong when you think no one is looking?

iii) Far from negating human freedom and happiness, the existence of God is a necessary condition for human existence. As contingent creatures, the only framework within which we can exercise freedom and find happiness is one provided by God. That's our sandbox. 

15. Alluding to God's command to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, he says he'd curse God if he was told to sacrifice his children to prove his devotion to God. And he said that's what all monotheists are told to do.

i) The case of Abraham and Isaac is unique. Jews and Christians aren't commanded to reprise that action. What is Hitchens even talking about?

ii) If God knew that Abraham would refuse, that's not how he'd test him.

iii) It wouldn't be a real test unless it was something absolutely precious to Abraham.  

There is, moreover, the paradox of commanding Abraham to do something that seems to nullify God's own promise. That, too, is a test of faith. 

iv) Abraham came from a pagan culture in which human sacrifice and child sacrifice to gods was expected. People were used to that. The plot twist demonstrates to Abraham that Yahweh is not that kind of God. At the last minute, he stays Abraham's hand, and provides a surrogate (animal sacrifice). 

16. Hitchens says God puts us in a world where the odds are stacked against us, then you must pass certain tests to get eternal life. 

But it's not a trial by ordeal. Christianity says we are sinners, but we can be saved on easy terms. It is Jesus who underwent the trial by ordeal. We only have to repent of our sins and trust Jesus for salvation. 


  1. I'm reminded of what Luke Muehlhauser wrote regarding the Hitchens vs. Craig debate:

    The debate went exactly as I expected. Craig was flawless and unstoppable. Hitchens was rambling and incoherent, with the occasional rhetorical jab. Frankly, Craig spanked Hitchens like a foolish child. Perhaps Hitchens realized how bad things were for him after Craig’s opening speech, as even Hitchens’ rhetorical flourishes were not as confident as usual. Hitchens wasted his cross-examination time with questions like, “If a baby was born in Palestine, would you rather it be a Muslim baby or an atheist baby?” He did not even bother to give his concluding remarks, ceding the time instead to Q&A.

    This always seemed like a pointless matchup to me. One is a loudmouthed journalist and the other is a major analytic philosopher. You might as well put on a debate between Michael Martin and Bill O’Reilly.
    END QUOTE [BOLD added by me, AP]

    1. He indicated that the universe is poorly designed because it has a lifecycle. How could it be planned if it's running down?

    While he as alive Hitchens was completely ignorant of Biblical eschatology. Now in the afterlife he's not (whichever way he went). I guess while alive Hitchens had never heard of the term planned obsolescence. Planned obsolescence can be an evil thing among humans depending on purpose and the duration of usefulness of a product. However, in Christianity, God has various purposes having the universe wind down in its available energy and habitabilty. For example: 1. to suggest it's creation by a creator. A universe that existed without the apparent need of intervention (past, present, future) might suggest that it didn't need a creator/designer, sustainer, renovator; 2. to let us finite creatures contemplate our existential need for a transcendent Creator who can grant us eternal life; 3. to demonstrate design in the timing of the rise of human civilization. Many cosmologists point out that we're now in that window of time when we can look out into the universe and extrapolate backwards and forwards the course of cosmic history so that we can know our beginning and our ending. Whereas, if we as a species arose slightly earlier or later we wouldn't have been able to, and our beginning and ending would have been a complete mystery that wouldn't lead to a suggestion of a cosmic designer; 4. God has a redemptive plan that includes a future renovation of the universe after the Fall (which was itself planned). I could go on, but those 4 should suffice.

    2. Hitchens feels that the the rarity of life in the cosmos is inconsistent with divine creation.

    i) He doesn't explain why he feels that way. He seems to take it as self-evident. It's a strange objection, if you ask me. To begin with, I incline to the opposite reaction. Doesn't the rarity of life in the cosmos make us special?

    I agree with Steve that the more natural reasonable reaction should be to conclude that life on Earth is special. However, total depravity is such that humans can interpret almost any data in a way contrary to God. As I pointed out in one of my blogposts:

    Different atheists can say the following contradictory things:

    11 a) If there were an artistic God of creativity
    [think of the principle of plenitude], then there should be much more life in the universe/solar system than we find. Since life seems to be scare in the universe, therefore that counts against God's existence.
    b.) If we found much more life in the universe, that would be evidence of evolution and how easily it can get started. Therefore it would count against the idea that life on Earth is specially made by God.

    1. Oh, I forgot to point out that that quote of Luke Muehlhauser was when he was an atheist. I think he's still an atheist. No one can say that he was biased for Christianity when he originally wrote the review.