29 October 2011

Reasonable Faith: A Dialogue of the Deaf, Part 3

First Rebuttal
Feeble though I'd though Peter Atkins' case had been the other night, I didn't think William Lane Craig did himself any favours when he began his first rebuttal by claiming that Professor Atkins had effectively taken an agnostic stance in his case, saying that Atkins  hadn't argued that God didn't exist, merely that God's existence seemed to him to be improbable. I wasn't happy with this. It seemed to me that Craig was overplaying his hand by demanding that Atkins insist that God's existence is impossible. We all know that it's philosophically impossible to prove a negative, and for Craig to mischaracterize Professor Atkins' modicum of intellectual honesty as a surrender was, I felt, deeply dishonest.

That said, Craig was spot on in rejecting how Atkins had tried to paint him as having pursued a 'God of the Gaps' argument, and in pointing out that contrary to what Atkins had said, his argument had not been exclusively theological. Rather, he said, he had cited scientific evidence in a philosophical argument with a theological conclusion.

Homing in on how Atkins had assailed his cosmological line of argument, Craig took particular umbrage with how Atkins had spoken of the possibility of the Universe coming from nothing, arguing that Atkins didn't even understand the concept of 'nothing'. He cited Atkins as having argued that the Universe's matter and antimatter cancelled out in such a way that in reality it's accurate to say that 'nothing' exists. I thought this was surely yet another unfair misrepresentation, but later on Atkins made it clear that that is indeed what he believes.

Anyway, in the course of tackling Atkins on this matter, Craig was a bit unfair in glossing however how Atkins had implicitly shown an awareness of the difference between 'nothingness' and 'non-existence' as philosophical concepts, and but that aside, after showing how Atkins seemed to be believe that we are nothing, he wrapped up with the priceless line, 'the conclusion is he is clearly absurd.'

Or, at least, so I've rendered his words in my notes. I might have misheard.

Professor Atkins Replies
Up jumped Professor Atkins to replace Craig at the podium, clearly indignant at what he described as Craig's 'travesty of my remarks about nothing coming from nothing.'  I'm not sure he did anything to correct Craig's summary of his argument, though, other than to try to redefine 'nothing' and to insist that Craig hadn't presented any scientific evidence, something that was hardly surprising given that -- as he believed -- science and religion were incompatible. Instead, he argued, Craig had merely resported to philosophical obfuscation.

Provocative though that was, and wholly unsupported by any evidence in its own right, Atkins was on firmer ground in challenging how Craig had unfairly misrepresented his circumspect and honest recognition that it's impossible to prove a negative.

He was absolutely right on that but he immediately abandoned the moral high ground when he began to vent his rage at Craig having said that it's impossible to be moral without belief in God, despite Craig having said no such thing. What Craig had said, of course, is that morality -- in the sense of something objective rather than a mere matter of opinion -- can not exist without God. Anyway, obviously furious at this imagined sleight, he wheeled out that old chestnut that is Voltaire's line about 'those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.'

Remember that. I'll come back to it.

Turning then to Craig's third argument, he disparaged the whole thing, albeit missing its weak points entirely. He ranted about how the Gospels were obviously political propaganda, written decades after the events they purported to describe, and the the Christian creeds were based on these Gospel fictions. This, of course, is historically ignorant claptrap, as he'd realise had he any historical training whatsoever. Even if we date the earliest of the Gospels, as I'm increasingly inclined to do, to around 60 AD, the fact is that the Pauline letters predate them, and these letters provide clear evidence of creedal statements believed by the nascent Christian Church before Mark was ever written. 

This, after all, is crucial. The most important evidence for the Resurrection is the existence of the early Church and the nature of the earliest Christian beliefs, with particular reference to the religious matrix of the time. The Church predates the Bible, though the Bible -- and other writings -- testify to the existence, the experiences, the activities, and the beliefs of the Church. 

Drawing on David Hume's argument against miracles -- an argument which, to be frank, really does little more than proclaim a prejudice to be a principle -- he insisted that the Resurrection is an extraordinary claim, which it is, and that as such it demands extraordinary evidence. There is no such evidence, he said, though his credibility in making such a claim looks pretty feeble in light of his obvious lack of familiarity with what evidence there is.

Craig Again
Up Craig got with a huge grin for his second rebuttal, where he almost immediately gestured to Atkins while saying 'in light of Professor Dawkins' critique', and carried on while Atkins flapped in fury at the desk, referring to him as Dawkins a second time, leaving Atkins looking throughly put out.

Refuting Atkins' claim that Craig hadn't presented any scientific evidence, Craig again cited Borde, Guth, and Vikenkin's 2003 work on the possibility of a Universe without a beginning, mentioning Vilenkin's book Many Worlds in One. I'm not convinced Craig had quite got their argument down, but I was surprised that Atkins seemed impotent whenever this was raised, as surely he must have known Craig would bring it up as he's done so before. His inability -- or refusal -- to engage with this left him looking foolish. If Craig was misrepresenting their work he ought to have been able to say so; if Craig had it right he had no place claiming that Craig hadn't featured any evidence. 

As it stood, the only person in the whole debate who brought any evidence to the table was Craig, and he argued that the evidence was such that it had implications that any reasonable man was obliged to consider.

Craig then corrected Atkins's misunderstanding and misrepresentation of what he'd said about Craig's argument from morality, and moved on to Atkins' deployment of Hume against the reality of miracles and the effective impossibility of their being evidence of such. Hume had written before the methodology of Bayesian probability had been established, and as David Millican has admitted in a debate earlier in the week, Hume was wrong.  The fundamental question isn't 'given the evidence we have, what is the likelihood that the Resurrection happened?' so much as 'what is the likelihood we'd have the evidence we have if the Resurrection didn't happen?'

And that, I tend to think, is pretty much the kind of argument Raymond Chandler has Philip Marlowe make in Playback:
'There was no other possible way to look at it. There are things that are facts, in a statistical sense, on paper, on a tape recorder, in evidence. And there are things that are facts because they have to be facts, because nothing makes any sense otherwise.'

Atkins Returns to the Fray
If there was a point where Atkins lost the debate, I think it was when he strode up to the podium and started repeating things he'd already said, albeit rather louder. Granted, given Craig's tactics, I think he never really had a chance, but the way these things work is that in practice if you lose your temper you lose the argument. 

There was no evidence for anything Craig had said, he insisted; as before he refused even to acknowledge the 2003 paper that Craig had so smugly cited in his initial statement and his second response. This struck me as deeply and foolishly dishonest, given that everyone had heard Craig referring to something he regarded as scientific evidence, the credibility Atkins hadn't even attempted to contest.

Craig starts his arguments from the view that God exists, Atkins decreed, and therefore Craig's arguments are meaningless; this wholly ignored how Craig's formal arguments, for all their failings, most certainly don't start from that premise and work towards it as a conclusion. Yeah, sure, Craig rather expects his arguments to lead to God, but is that all that different from a scientific testing and working towards a hypothesis?

As for Craig's use of philosophocal arguments, well, it was clear that Atkins didn't value them at all. Philosophers, he said, always had 'an air of pessimism' about them, and he said something about philosophers saying that it'd be impossible to discover certain things. This was one of those things that left me blinking, scribbling into my notebook that Socrates, at the very least, would hardly have taken such a line on impossibility, and that Atkins seemed to be setting this up as a conflict not so much between science and religion as between science and philosophy.

To be fair, I probably shouldn't have been surprised that he'd taken such a line. Granted, of his works I've only ever read Galileo's Finger, but based on that he seems to hold to a narrowly scientistic view of human knowledge, such that he doesn't regard other routes to understanding as being valid. 

Atkins tried to swat aside what Craig had said about evidence for the Resurrection with reference to spurious Elvis sightings, as though wholly unaware that the two phenomena are demonstrably different in numerous ways:
  • Jesus had been put to death by the State in a public execution after a public whipping, with an agent of the State having driven a spear into the side of his corpse to make sure he was dead, whereas Elvis died of natural causes in privacy.
  • Jesus' followers soon came to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead, whereas those who claim to have seen Elvis claimed that Elvis had never died.
  • Jesus' followers came from and lived in a cultural milieu where the idea of something rising from the dead of their own accord was unthinkable and were miraculous resurrections of any sort were hardly ten-a-lepton, whereas those who claim to have seen Elvis live in a world where we know  people occasionally fake their deaths and go into hiding.
  • The risen Jesus supposedly spent a lot of time with his closest followers from before his execution, dining with them and being witnessed by large numbers of them together, whereas Elvis seems only ever to have been spotted by people who hadn't known him.
  • Those who claimed to have spent time with the risen Jesus had nothing to gain from doing so, and risked ostracism, beatings, imprisonment, and execution for making such claims, whereas those who claimed to have seen Elvis were often rewarded with newspaper notoriety.
Even if we dispute the evidence for the Resurrection, we have to recognise that claims of the Resurrection are of a wholly different type to 'Elvis sightings'; Atkins' failure to recognise this and his treatment of the two things as though they were functionally indistinguishable was historically ignorant and logically incoherent. I hope he doesn't take such a cavalier approach in his professional activities.

Unlike religious people, Professor Atkins proclaimed confidently, he was cautious. The certainty of religion is a dangerous thing, he said, ending with, in effect, an ad hominem attack on all religious people, citing a story from the Independent about how three women had died from AIDS after being directed by their Evangelical pastors to cease taking medication. Horrible, certainly, but all that really shows is that gullible people can always be misled by people in authority. Plenty of people have died after receiving bad instructions from doctors, after all, but I doubt Professor Atkins would see this as grounds for abandoning belief in medicine.

Of course, one might note that the fact that he's quoting the Independent in the post Hari-gate era raises questions about his preferred sources of information and his ability to weigh historical rather than scientific evidence, but let's not be mean. It's not as if he's been trained to do this, after all.

Questions and discussion followed the rebuttals. I'll wrap up by looking at the them tomorrow.

No comments: