A War of Gentlemen

This is a debate between Christopher Hitchens (one of the most prominent atheists in the world until, and indeed after, his death in 2011) and Tony Blair, Prime Minister of Great Britain from 1997-2007. The audience was polled as they entered as to their opinion of the resolution at hand (Be it hereby resolved that religion is a force for good in the world), and polled after as to whether their opinion was changed, and to vote on the winner. Whether one side won or not, the true metric of the debate was whose side had the greater sway over the audience.

During the debate, Mr Blair and Mr Hitchens respectfully spoke with each other, had a cross examination and rebuttal, and fielded equal questions from the audience. Not only that, but their rebuttals directly touched upon the points of the other, this is an important distinction.

This debate was hosted in Canada in formal style with formal debate rules.

This is a debate between Bill Nye the Science Guy (who needs no introduction) and Ken Ham, who I believe is one of the most negative forces in the world as far as scientific advancement goes, creator of the Creation Museum in Kentucky, the largest of its kind, as well as the Arc Encounter, a project spending multiple millions of dollars creating a 1:1 scale Noah’s Arc.

During the debate, there are hangups on the most trivial things and the debate ended up devolving into two men giving semi-related speeches trying, almost desperately to make their points, regardless of what the other said.

This debate was hosted in the States, and had rules, but was in no way done in formal style. Who won? Both sides will tell you their side won because they “made their points.” Well of course you can make your points if you completely ignore the presence of the other side.

To be fair, there was some lip service to rebutting the other side–but when the rebuttal stage includes a prepared set of slides, you obviously knew what you were going to say before the other side made their point. That isn’t debate, that is speeches, and while similar on the surface, it doesn’t work like it is supposed to.

The point of rebuttal is your ability to think on your feet, to counter the points of the other. The points you choose to counter say as much as your counter argument itself, and the points you choose to ignore (if not purely for time constraints) say more still. There was no point to the Ham/Nye debate, no resolution was reached, the root question was barely stated.

The Hitchens/Blair debate made points, suggested outcomes, and each man clearly worked with the other instead of ignoring their point.

This reminds me of a 2 hour joke I watched two days ago. It basically starts out “A Theist, an Atheist, and Eric Hovind walk into a bar…” It was supposed to be a debate, but the whole thing was a mess. It was a mess because the theist and atheist both ended up fighting Hovind, who clearly has no idea how to argue against someone who believes in God and Science at the same time. Like, Hovind came right off the rails several times, because how can you believe in God, but not that the Earth is 6000 years old?! That being said, it is a unique person who can be both charismatic (to a degree) and yet get an atheist and a theist to gang up on him. Hovind in this debate was asked to do something he is not used to, and yet he still used his script (his “questions” were from a direct script he has read verbatim, alone, on two of his various shows (Creation Today and Creation Minute) which basically showed that he is unable to think on his feet; if he goes off script, it’s all over). The problem came about one third of the way into the debate where Hovind could no longer break any new ground, and kept trying to bring the debate back to the formal definition of the word “know” against a man who has a DOCTORATE DEGREE in Linguistics. To the theist’s credit, Pastor Bob was incredibly patient with Eric.. Almost like he was trying to teach a lesson to a child who simply could not get it.

I think that goes to the core of what people *think* a debate is in popular culture; to them, it is just people arguing. No, “debate” is a formal thing, it has rules, it has outcomes, there are metrics to judging them… But I have seen far too many “debates” between theists and atheists that added up to two people seeing who could speak more loudly.

We need more Hitchens/Blair debates and fewer Nye/Ham debates. The former helps expand understanding, the latter is an entertainm… Oh shit, I just figured out why people in the US debate that way.

I’ll show myself out.

Ramble ramble ramble

Warning: The below set of paragraphs (which is about all the cohesion I can assign to this post) are rambling, barely coherent, and full of wildly wandering ideas and thoughts. I decided to post it because I wrote it, but I have no better reason than that, really…

A common thread that pops up in atheist/theist debates is the idea of faith, and most specifically it is cited by the theist that “You have as much faith in science as I have in religion! So why is faith bad?”

The question is an interesting one, and one that I had pondered for a long time as I could not come up with an answer that satisfied myself. Sure, science is something that, with the right expertise, I could go and verify myself… But how would I know that the answers were correct?

It becomes, I finally discovered, a question of axioms. And, after years of pondering, I finally managed to solve the question to my own satisfaction. Obviously, the strongly religious out there will see things differently than I do, but I feel like I have finally something akin to the difference between faith in God and faith in science.

A question has been posed numerous times by numerous different people, but I think I heard it first from Sam Harris. If something happened in the world that caused us all to forget our language and forget our skills, what would the order be in which we relearned them? Well, if we were to survive, hunting and gathering would come first, then maybe agriculture. Obviously we would need to find and build shelter. These are important. In this new world where we can’t read, though, when will we discover that Jesus died for our sins? That God hates homosexuality? That the Sabbath Day is Holy? At what point will those things matter to our survival?

The point of the above illustration is how to define the lowest common denominator, the thing from which all other things come, the axioms of our personal universe. If the above example came to pass, and God was not the first thing we found, then we can safely assume “God Exists” is not an axiom. But how about another example?

You are born, open your eyes, gasp your first breath. What is the first thing that defines your existence? Senses. Your sight, your hearing, your sense of touch, these define your universe. You have these, and are forced to trust these, before your parents can even take you to baptism.

A frequent citation is Roman 1:18-20 (18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.) It is an odd thing, to accept that verse as literal truth; I would imagine, if you find an uncontacted tribe in the Amazon, they will not be Christians. It is merely a thought to me, but I feel like they have an excuse. To accept these set of verses requires a previous axiom, though; that you can trust what you are reading. How do you know that Paul was speaking exactly what God wanted? It is historically proven that James, Brother of Jesus, was the first leader of the Christian church until his death, and he did not agree with Paul. In fact, he said Paul was leading the people astray. So why does this set of verses constitute an axiom of God’s existence?

A supplemental verse is from the book of proverbs, 1:7 and 9:10, which state that the fear of God is the beginning of all knowledge. I do not know how to start into this one, as a fear of God teaches you nothing. Also, the fact that we have Bibles today of different translations seems to prove that the Bible is open to translation errors… So how can we assume that the Bible is completely unedited. The King James Bible is said, by many YECs, to be the perfect Bible, based on the original documents… But that assumes there were no copyist errors in the originals, as we do not have “the originals”. We have copies of the originals.

So now we get closer to the point; in several YEC pieces of media, they state that because we don’t know everything we can’t know anything, based on the fact that if we only know 1×10^-20% of all knowledge, that God could easily exist in the 99.9999999…% of things we don’t know. They then give themselves a “get out of jail free” card by stating that “since God is the only thing in the universe that knows everything, and he has told us things he knows, nothing outside of our knowledge could prove us wrong. QED: God exists, and we are better than you.”

The number of assumptions that goes into that stream of logic is stunning, but to them it boils down only to the axiom that God exists… But not even that, it is that their God is the God that exists. But then you have to go further, their God exists, and knows everything. Not only that, then, but that this God is capable of delivering that knowledge to us. Not only that, but that we are capable of understanding the true nature of that knowledge. Not only that, but that this knowledge has not in any way been corrupted from its pure, God delivered form. The legendary Bible passage goes “For the prophets spake as the spirit moved them since the beginning,” not “God said that we should write down these exact words.”

Now we come to my so-called faith in science. I will grant that there is a certain level of faith, but the world you live in seems to have the dichotomy that there are only two states: 100% knowledge and 0% faith, or 100% faith and 0% knowledge. Given what I have experienced, I would say that I have a very high degree of trust in my senses, I’d say at least 85%. There is a wide opening there for hallucinations, for the mind to make translation errors from reality to perception… So how do we work around that?

Well, if there are two people in the room, both of whom have 85% trust in their senses, they can use each other as confirmation. “Do you see that dancing chicken?” The other can reply “No, there is no dancing chicken.”

What if there are three people, again all of whom have 85% trust. One asks the other two about said dancing chicken, and they reply “Dude, there is no dancing chicken.” Well, since they have a combined 2% chance of being incorrect (15% chance of being incorrect, squared for the two of them), there is a significant chance you are the one who is wrong. That is the principle of how science works; 1 person makes an observation, then has x number of peer reviewers, we’ll say 10. Now we have a (5.7×10^-7)% chance of all of them hallucinating that. Probabilities calculated this way can never be 100% certain, but you eventually (and fairly quickly) get to absurd probabilities that people of various backgrounds, places, ages, races are all hallucinating the same thing.

Is the above example perfect? No. But it goes to show the easy way I could even have 50% trust in my senses, but if I ask 10 people if they say the same thing I do, there is then a 0.1% chance that we are all hallucinating the same thing, given all other things being equal (Group Psychology will throw those numbers out the window, but they are their own probabilistic entity).

So even taking the above as clearly imperfect, we can demonstrate that knowledge is not (as the YEC would claim) an all or nothing kind of thing. God could exist in the 99.99….% of things we don’t know yet, maybe, but even that isn’t an all or nothing. Richard Dawkins put it best, really; Christians try to make the debate all or nothing. They say science should not speak about it because they would be forced to say that God existing or not existing is equally as probable due to not being able to disprove anything… But one can shade the probabilities, and what we can say, by using science, is that the version of Christianity espoused by YECs is improbable enough that the only way it can exist is to make several assumptions. They would claim that Occam’s Razor states that God exists, because it is the simplest explanation, but that is not how Occam’s Razor works. Occam’s Razor isn’t about the simplest explanation, it is about the explanation that makes the least number of unfounded assumptions.

Evolution makes assumptions, several of them, but we reduce the number of assumptions by evidence. The Bible causes people to make assumptions that, by definition, cannot be touched by evidence.

God exists; assumption. The Bible is inerrant; assumption. The Earth is 6000 years old and geology has just managed to get it monumentally incorrect; assumption. The universe is the same age as the Earth, and cosmology has just managed to get it monumentally incorrect; assumption.

All of the above are things that science has evidence against, but because of the assumption that the Bible is inerrant the Christian will feel comfortable throwing it out. The Big Bang, it is said, is the Devil’s way of beguiling us, and is a result of the assumption that evolution is correct, and that hurts my soul. Science tries, as much as is possible, to start with no assumptions and go where the evidence points us… And you call it an issue of assumptions?

The YEC will approach science with the assumption that the Earth is 6000 years old, and attempt to interpret the evidence through those glasses, and scientists are the ones with a “presuppositional issue”? It was said explicitly by Eric Hovind, scientists approach all issues with a presuppositional bias, then he turns and says “But the scientists who start from the Earth being 6000 years old are the only real scientists because they don’t have presupposition.” WHAT?!

I won’t lie, I just don’t understand. I don’t understand how one can so confidently reject these ideas, calling them  assumptions, then turn to the Bible and go “That. That is what has all the knowledge.”

Sorry about this post. I really am.