Thursday, November 18, 2010

Live Blogging the Hitchens/Dembski Debate

Famed anti-theist debater, columnist, and literary critic Christopher Hitchens is debating Intelligent Design proponent and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary professor William Dembski this morning at Prestonwood Christian Academy in Plano, Texas on the subject, "Does a good God exist?" The debate is streaming live at PCA's webcast site and I'll be updating this blog post as the debate goes with my impressions and observations.

It should be an interesting debate. Hitchens is known for his scathing wit and sharp rhetorical skills, and Dembski (while not exactly up to snuff on his science... if you ask me) is a well-trained theologian (whatever that might mean).

(Any times I mention will be Eastern Standard Time, and I'll largely be paraphrasing since I can't type fast enough to quote exactly.)

Bill Dembski's intro mentions his debating and lecture appearances... but Hitchens' doesn't, and they mess up the title of his book.

Hitchens gets out of the gate with an important distinction between deism and theism, mentioning Jefferson's deism. Outlines Paley's Watchmaker argument and how the deists embraced it. Points out that theism typically means belief in a god interested in human affairs, rather than an indifferent designer.

Hitchens points out our tiny, relatively unimportant place in the universe, and points out that we're made of the remnants of dead stars just like our own sun.

Hitchens: "The universe, in all its destructive power, doesn't seem as if it's the intended result of the hand of a divine, benign creator who loves us."..."It's a show of great hubris to think that the universe is focused on us."

Hitchens seems a little bit off his game. His illness is clearly getting to him.

Hitchens muses about the rabbis who claimed to see the will of God in the holocaust, then in the return to Palestine, contrasted to the strife in the region today.

Hitchens: "Our resemblance to other primates is not likely to be accidental." Human fetuses grow and then shed a coat of hair. We have an appendix. We have teeth that we no longer need for our diet. We all bear Darwin's "unmistakable stamp of our lowly origin." Primates are capable of doing great things. We're adapted to the African savanna, which we abandoned at a point where there were fewer than 2000-3000 people left and we needed to avoid the fate of 99.8% of all forms of life ever to appear on Earth: extinction. This doesn't give evidence of design, or a finger of a god of any kind, let alone one that wishes us well.

Hitchens suggests Francis Collins' "The Language of God" - a book about how DNA is evidence of the brilliance of God's design. Weird choice, but probably a strategically good choice for the audience full of Christians.

Hitchens: "I don't think it's healthy for people to want there to be a permanent, unalterable, unremoveable authority above them. I don't like the idea of a father above you who never goes away. You don't want a father who'll stick around and never die. The idea of a judge who doesn't allow a lawyer or a jury or an appeal. For hundreds of years, the struggle for freedom was against the worst type of dictatorship around - the theocracy of the divine right of kings. The totalitarian temptation has to be resisted, and I believe this is one of its core, origin points."

Hitchens: "It's not humble - rather, it's arrogant - to believe that you're the center of the universe. Free yourself from the idea that you're in thrall to the supernatural - a thrall interpreted by other mammals who claim access to the authority that gives them power over you."

Dembski says that the existence of God is the weightier question, and his goodness is much easier to explain. Yet he's going to spend 5 minutes on the former and 10 on the latter.

Dembski brings Dawkins into the debate and insists that atheism requires belief in evolution as our creation story.

Dembski claims that there is no such thing as junk DNA - that all DNA, even that which we call junk, has function.

Dembski claims that the Cambrian explosion is still a mystery today, and makes no mention of the fact that it happened over millions of years. Quotes someone claiming that there is no evidence of evolutionary ancestors of the animals in the explosion. Tells people to read his book.

Dembski claims that the inverted retina is actually beneficial. His argument is that it's not all bad because it ensures maximal sensitivity. His entire argument says nothing to explain away the blind spot in the eye. Couldn't God have made the eyes just efficient but without the blind spot?

Dembski complains that Hitchens, a non-scientist, doesn't provide a full, detailed explanation of the evolution of the eye. "It's not that Hitchens doesn't provide that - nobody provides that." Really? That's quite a claim.

Dembski regarding mathematical, computer models: "Unless you tether them to real, observable processes, you can use them to prove anything - in which case they prove nothing." Dembski is all about computer models.

Dembski: "Atheism demands evolution. ... If you're an atheist, that's your only option." Says that God could've put us here in a way that appears designed. (Nice untestable claim, Bill.)

Dembski: "Science is not a cumulative enterprise." Implies that evolution is just waiting to be overturned.

Dembski attacks Darwin's ignorance of modern biology, as if it were relevant.

It's been 12 minutes. Dembski has done absolutely nothing to discuss God's existence, nor has he discussed God's goodness. Oops.

Dembski claims that our language is not the result of unguided development, but design. What??

Dembski cites a movie written by Carl Sagan in an argument in favor of intelligent design.

Dembski says that we can tell something is designed if it meets a specified template. Do we have access to God's templates so that we can tell what he designed? No? Then your argument fails.

Dembski complains of being expelled from academia for flogging his IDiocy.

Dembski: "Richard Hitchens..." Who are you even debating here? Do you know who he is?

Dembski just made the utterly unjustified leap from deism to theism, claiming that the appearance of design is best explained by theism. Sorry... no. Deism would suffice, if a designer were really needed.

Dembski has now had 19 minutes to speak, compared to Hitchens' 15. The moderator shows no sign of stopping him.

Dembski: "I haven't argued for the full-blown deity, but I've gotten you into the ballpark of a deity." That's DEISM, not THEISM.

Hitchens: "An atheist does not have to be an evolutionist. Atheism long predates the revolutionary discoveries of Charles Darwin."

Hitchens: "Why does religion take discoveries about the nature of things so personally? De Rarum Natura was hated by the church for centuries. They didn't want you to know this. They didn't want Galileo to look through a telescope to see that the sun went around the Earth. Why would anyone care? Well, because it would mean we're not the center of the universe, which might make it fractionally more likely that we're not the meaning of the whole thing. This is such a solipsistic, self-important position."

Hitchens re: the eye: "Dembski said I was obsessed with it. That's not true. Darwin was at first stumped by its evolution, and it's often cited as an example against evolution."

Hitchens mentions cave animals with vestigial eye-shaped indentations where eyes would have been in evolutionary ancestors.

Hitchens: "Darwin said nothing about survival of the fittest; he spoke of adaptability."

Hitchens explains that evolution has nothing to do with the choice of the animals - it's a filter or sifting mechanism.

Hitchens: "Israeli archaeologists had ample opportunity, funding, and motive to find archaeological evidence in support of the exodus, but found absolutely nothing in favor. Rather, they found ample evidence in the Egyptian archives that showed it never happened."

Hitchens: "For me, the most important philosopher and moral teacher was Socrates, but there is little evidence of him - only second-hand accounts, no personal writings, etc. This is much like Jesus. The discrepancies between the gospels are extraordinary and are nothing like the evidence we have for known historical figures. But for Socrates, whether he existed or not is irrelevant, because we have his thoughts and his methods."

Hitchens: "Dembski seems to think that pointing out the disagreements and differences between scientists is somehow a blow to the practice of science, rather than something to be expected of people who make a career out of investigating the unknown."

Hitchens: "Science doesn't claim to prove there is no god - just that we have what we think are better explanations."

Dembski claims that he'll be focusing on the point of the debate this time. We'll see.

Dembski claims that the ANCIENT PHILOSOPHERS had a prototype of Darwinian evolution. What a crock.

Dembski actually claims that ancient creation myths begin with purely material origins and worked toward complexity - hence evolution. What the flaming fuck?

Dembski misuses the term "vestigial" to mean "useless" when no biologist would ever say that. Vestigial organs are not useless. They're organs which have evolved out of their original use.

Dembski distinguishes between adaptation within a species and evolution of species. This is an utterly baseless distinction to make and can only possibly be taken seriously if he doesn't believe in an old earth.

Dembski: "Last time I argued that God exists, this time I'll focus on his goodness." Well, no, you didn't. You rambled about irrelevant things for 4 minutes past the end of your time.

Dembski asserts that a universe without a god could not allow for good.

Dembski: "Denying God's existence is irrational and logically incoherent. It's absurd." God is definitionally good because he's the source of all being and purpose and no objective moral standard can come from God. Dr. Dembski, have you ever heard of the Euthyphro dilemma? "This may seem like a cheat, but it's not." Yes, it is. If morality is derived from God, God can change his mind at any time and define good as something else.

Dembski: "Once you have God, it's incoherent to affirm that God isn't good." You haven't gotten God yet, Bill. You have, at best, a deist god, not the Christian one, and you certainly don't have any of the theological attributes you just threw at it.

Dembski quotes Ingersoll regarding materialist morality: "no reward or punishment, only consequences." Well, DUH. That's right. And consequences are enough to build a moral system.

Dembski asserts that morality without an objective standard is all relativist and baseless. This is not an argument for God's existence or God's goodness. This is totally unrelated to the topic of the debate.

Dembski says that materialism can't provide an objective morality and thus can't determine one behavior as better than another - equating genital mutilation to the objection to it. "The atheist is cheating whenever he makes a moral judgment - acting as if it has an objective standard."

Dembski cites Hitchens' famous challenge (name a moral action taken by a religious person that could not be taken by an atheist) and DISMISSES IT AS THE WRONG QUESTION.

Hitchens: "I imagine that Christians should object to Dembski's position. If the existence of god can be proved scientifically, what is the need for faith? There'd be no need for faith if there were evidence, would there?

Hitchens: "Dembski is right - if I were a Christian, I wouldn't think God owed me an answer. But then, why the discussion of questions of suffering? Are we expecting an answer?"

Hitchens: "If we didn't have a social dimension - a bonding one - we wouldn't survive. We'd have gone by now. We wouldn't have made it out of Africa. The question is self-answering. You could call this morality if you want, but it's only really necessary to recognize that we have a kinship and solidarity and without it we're gone. Morality can't be dictated to us. It doesn't come in tablet form that we can swallow. It has to come from the Socratic method - discussion of why something is moral. The ten commandments say nothing about genocide, slavery, child abuse, and innumerable other things we consider evil. If you base your morality on this, you miss out on a lot."

Hitchens: "You can be an atheist and have any number of political options as you'd like. It dictates nothing."

Dembski's last period was 14 minutes long. Hitchens' was 5 minutes. What's going on here, moderator??

Dembski denies that humanity was ever proud of being the center of the universe. References Sagan's Pale Blue Dot and claims that the ancients didn't regard being the center of universe as being in a place of privilege.

Hitchens interrupts Dembski: "I'm not arguing with the ancients, I'm arguing with you."

Dembski insists that human exceptionalism is morally important and that we therefore must have a special place - otherwise it leads to abortion, euthanasia, and eugenics.

Dembski thinks he's very clever for having bought the domain name '' in response to hearing about the overwhelming evidence for evolution.

Dembski: "Having intelligent design is not proof of the Christian god. It doesn't get you the gospel, the tomb, or the resurrection." And yet you spent almost 20 minutes arguing that it did!

Dembski quotes Romans 1:20 as evidence that God's existence is self-evident.

Question time!
Question 1
Using the evolutionary process, where does the concept of human thought and the ability to reason come in, especially in light of things that appear to go against evolution, e.g. self-sacrifice? How does that promote the species?

Hitchens: It's a good speculation - why do people get pleasure for doing things that aren't necessarily in their self-interest? We do have that along with our predatory, selfish, and other attributes. I like giving blood - the feeling that I'm giving someone else a life-giving fluid, though I'm not really losing anything. You haven't lost a pint, but you've given one. I have a very rare blood group, and I hope that there's enough for me when I need it. It doesn't require a divine spark, design, or programming. The existence of sociopaths and psychopaths is explained quite well by evolution, but not so well by claiming that their minds were the design of a good god.

Dembski: The idea that evolution has given us bonding and group solidarity is possible, but not necessarily exclusive to evolution. If you're going to take the bonding from evolution, you can take other things as well, e.g. the 'great battle for life.' Rape and infanticide have been called an evolutionary adaptation. (The problem, Bill, is that these are SCIENTIFICALLY LINKED to evolution - evolution can't be used to MORALLY justify them one way or the other.)

(Dembski's entire argument appears to be the fallacy of the argument from final consequences - evolution means we can't have an objective standard! Bad stuff happens if evolution is true! Well... yes. And?)

Hitchens: Just a few verses away from the ten commandments is an order to commit genocide, rape, and slavery. I don't object to what people do in the name of religion - I'm objecting to the scripture itself.

Dembski: "The debate is about the goodness of God, not Christian theism." But now he's going to argue from Christian theology, as he has been the whole time when describing the logic of God's goodness. Defends the use of the atomic bomb as a moral quandary.

Dembski: "God is a just god. He's not bound by the same rules we are - he makes the rules." EUTHYPHRO, MOTHERFUCKER, DO YOU SPEAK IT?

Dembski creates a false dichotomy between atheism and formal theism - ignores deism, pantheism, etc.

Dembski objects to Hitchens' atheism because his worldview isn't perfect. Seriously?

Hitchens calls Dembski on his argument from final consequences - "it may be bleak and nihilistic, but is it true?" Points out that believing God allowed the world to break at the fall doesn't provide any less nihilistic or alienating of a worldview. "You have to consider yourself created incurably sick, and then ordered on pain of death and eternal torture to be well. This is not morality."

Dembski: "We're not incurably sick. The cure is Jesus Christ." Aww, how sweet. Human sacrifice.

Dembski: "I was raised a Roman Catholic. I had no belief that Jesus was God." Rambles about how he used to be a nonbeliever and a new-age kind of guy. I have no idea what the hell he's talking about or how it's even vaguely related.

Dembski: "Life here may suck and the scriptures may be harsh, but would you like a sanitized Bible where you had nothing like this?" Actually, yes. If it's meant to be a moral guide, absolutely.

Hitchens: Christianity has saddled itself with an unbelievable and wicked religion by forcing acceptance of the old testament atrocities.

Hitchens: "The sheer number of accounts of Jesus' life makes it likely that some such figure existed, though we can't discern his attributes. It does not prove or even suggest that his birth was divine, that his father was God, or that his mother was a virgin. Suppose that they are true. I did not ask for Jesus' torture and human sacrifice, and were I there, I'd have done whatever I could to prevent it. It's not bad for a person to take the punishment for your debts. But it's ridiculous to suggest that they can take away your culpability. It's scapegoating. It's an old, primitive practice from the middle east that doesn't deserve the consideration of modern people. This sacrifice is not being offered - you refuse on pain of death. Is that a threat? 'Well, that means an eternity of torture, you know. You better take that into account.' This is North Korea. This is a celestial dictatorship. This is the sort of worship that it takes a slave to accept."

Dembski points out that it's not offered on pain of death because scripture says we're dead in our sin. Hitchens laughs.

Another Dembski straw man: bringing up other people's arguments against free will and then charging Hitchens to explain the idea of responsibility in light of them.

Question 2
Where did the matter of the Big Bang come from? How about the fossil record - do you find it convincing/confounding?

Dembski: "Biblical creation ex nihilo [which doesn't exist, btw - there wasn't "nothing" in Genesis 1:1] mirrors the Big Bang. The Big Bang opens the door to theism [Deism at best - sorry Bill.] The Big Bang hasn't been alive/the way to go for 40 years." Big Bang cosmology has "theistic" implications? What? "I think there's a fair amount of common ancestry, but not universal." He's speaking of the Biblical "kinds" here - good old baraminology.

Hitchens: "There was a time when a natural philosopher like Newton or Kant could speculate about the natural world and do better than many professionals could. Hawking's statement that science has killed philosophy, I believe, means that we're approaching a point where you might not be able to say anything useful as a philosopher unless you're also a scientist."

Hitchens cites Lawrence Krauss' "A Universe From Nothing" lecture on YouTube regarding creation ex nihilo.

Hitchens: "A lot of 'nothing' is coming our way to destroy us. What kind of design does this evoke? A fantastic waste of energy. Makes God into a tinkerer or a profligate. Just like how 99.8% of all species have become extinct - what a waste! What a cruelty! That's the kind of tinkerer - the capricious, incompetent tyrant God is. Man did not create God. Man and women created many, many gods, and we continue to do so. Either all of them are false, one or more of them are true, or all of them are true. And the evidence seems to point that none of them are true. They're the creation of something that is so obviously half a chromosome away from a chimpanzee."

Dembski reveals that his closing remarks are prepared. Sigh. That's not a debate.

Dembski: Quote saying that any man who strives to bring everyone over to his ideology is dangerous. HELLO! Romans 14:11 ring a bell? "For it is written, [As] I live, saith the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God."

WHY AM I NOT SURPRISED that Dembski thought bringing up Hitler, Kim Jong Il, and Stalin would be a KILLER conclusion? And why does Dembski dismiss the fact that most of the SS were Christians? Does he excuse the mostly Christian people of Germany because Hitler was (supposedly) an atheist?

Dembski flails about trying to defend Mother Teresa. Thinks that's a good conclusion. Meta-babbling about how his rhetoric courses taught him to wrap up quickly.

Hitchens: "Mother Teresa spent her entire life struggling against the empowerment of women, the only thing that has been proved to combat poverty. She did much to increase suffering, poverty, disease, and filth. These were and are the metier of the Catholic church."

Hitchens: "I'm not going to allow Nazism to be called secularism. I'm a prisoner of my knowledge; I know too much about it. Mein Kampf speaks greatly to the idea of an obligation to God. Nazi soldiers swore fealty by God and wore the Gott Mit Uns belt buckle. Nazism was the Christian right in Germany subsumed into a political party."

Hitchens: "I don't have to wait to die to meet Shakespeare; the Shakespeare we know lives immortally in his writing. If we were to meet the man, we'd likely be disappointed."

Hitchens: "To me, the offer of certainty, complete security, and an impermeable faith that can't go away is an offer I don't want to take. I'm always hungrily operating on the margins of a potentially great harvest of knowledge and wisdom, and I wouldn't have it any other way. I'd look at the people who tell you - at your age! - that you're dead already and that you can only live by accepting an absolute authority. Don't take that as a gift; look at it as the poison chalice that it is. Much more truth and beauty and wisdom will come your way if you do."

And that's it. Whew. Good fun. Hitchens may have been flagging early on, but he certainly picked up the pace along the way and got back in his stride.

Hitchens has to leave to go take care of his health, but Dembski is sticking around. I wonder if he'll be licking his wounds.

They're closing with a prayer. How nice. The guy doing the prayer says he doesn't have all the answers, and the debate confused him, but since 1978 he's never been convinced of the atheist worldview and he's been convinced of the truth of the Bible. How nice - get in there right away to reaffirm your beliefs and wash away some of that doubt that was starting to take root.

In summary...
Hitchens was Hitchens, as we've come to know and love. Polite and at times deferential, showing great respect for and camaraderie with the audience. His barbed tongue and eloquence were just as I expected. Dembski rambled incessantly, going over his time by several minutes at every occasion, asserting that he'd established things he never established, contradicting himself, claiming not to be arguing from Christian theology, and arguing against quotes from people who were not at the debate nor with whom Hitchens agreed.

Hitchens made an effort to connect emotionally with the kids and their desire for freedom. The only connection Dembski built with them was over scripture and dogma. He seemed to see them as fellow Christians only, not as individuals with their own desires.

Am I biased? Yeah. But seriously, if anyone sees this debate and thinks Dembski came out on top, I'll wonder about their sanity.

I'd love to be able to sit in on the lunchroom conversations going on at this school right now!