RD Blog Post 2 – Discussion Problems

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http://freethoughtblogs.com/reasonabledoubts/2014/01/18/rd-extra-debate-is-belief-in-god-irrational-chris-hallquist-vs-randal-rauser/#comment-13538

 

In looking over all the comments it seems that I might be the only theist here so I think the forum could benefit from some thoughts from an opposing point of view. It’s not always best to hear only the opinion of those who already agree with you. I personally try to consume 4-5 times as much content put out by atheists than I do by other theists.

As already mentioned, I concur with most everyone else that the debate could have been better. I will start with some suggestions for Rauser, just in case he is still reading the comments. I realize that I am basically the counterpart of the guy in the bleachers yelling at a pro ball player; I know I would have done much worse a job in an actual debate. But a little bit of feedback never hurt anyone.

1) Definition of Rational – I think the debate could have survived just fine without hammering this point. I realize that from a technical point of view that might have been the right call, but I think everyone involved is pretty familiar with the common use of the term. It might have been something to bring up only if the discussion started deviating from the common use.

2) Rational in Context – This was also an unnecessary point in my opinion. What we are all concerned with is if belief in God is rational for an intelligent, well educated person in the 21th century and not someone living in the jungle. I don’t know what context could possibly make it rational for one such person today and not for another.

3) The Definition of God – I would not have agreed on this point so quickly. It made it possible for Chris to use the evil god argument so as to not need to respond to your list of arguments like the Cosmological etc.

4) The Consensus – it almost feels like the whole debate deteriorated into a back and fourth about whether there is or isn’t a consensus. Does it really matter?

5) Appeals to authority and Ad hominems – Other people have said plenty about this…

6) Chris’ Arguments – Chris brought up 2 main arguments, suffering and the evil god. I would have liked to see much more time spent actually responding to them as difficult as that would have been.

And now for Hallquist and everyone else here. Someone could definitely write a book called “Theists are from Mars and Atheists from Venus.” There are enormous difficulties with most discussions between the two camps and it is my belief that the fault lies with both of them. There is very little effort made to try to understand the other side better and, as a result, these conversations seldom lead to any real progress in understanding. I am personally more interested in helping bridge the gap in communication than I am in actually winning a debate. So to that end, here are some things that, in my opinion, make these conversations unnecessarily difficult, things that could be avoided:

A. Capstone Arguments

A capstone argument is a term I just made up to denote a type of argument that cannot be answered adequately without first assembling a complete theoretical support structure underneath it. It is a type of question that requires prerequisite questions to be addressed first.

The best way to illustrate this is to use an example people here can relate to. Imagine a creationist demanding in an evolution debate taking place in front of a church congregation that the evolution of the eye be fully explained to everyone’s satisfaction. But the majority of those present don’t even understand basic concepts like genetic variation or natural selection.

These type of arguments are not necessarily fallacious but can still be used unfairly in debates by demanding that someone explain in 20 minutes something which could, at least in the case above, take several semesters to explain fully. It places a person in a position where they either have to give a quick answer no one will understand or a long answer no one will stay awake through. Under such circumstances, would it be totally unreasonable for a person to say, ‘Hey, why don’t we leave the evolution of the eye aside for now and discuss first the concept of Natural Selection? Once we settle that and a few other preliminary points, we can come back to your question.’

Questions like why God would allow a little girl to suffer or the Amalekite genocide (from Justin’s debate last year) are that kind of questions on the theist side. They simply cannot be answered without working through a series of individual ideas that, when taken together will provide a complete answer. And, this “complete answer” could very well still be wrong. But not giving your opponent a chance to even formulate it isn’t going to prove anything.

So what can be done instead? Let’s take the question about the little girl that was tortured and killed. It is not practical to expect an answer to THAT question within this debate format. Consider instead first having a debate on the question of whether a powerful/loving god should EVER allow suffering. If this question is not answered then the matter is settled and the little girl does not need to be brought up. If however it is determined that there are cases where such a god could allow suffering, then a second debate can determine if the principles drawn in part one can apply to the innocent and under what circumstances.

Both camps should be mindful of complex questions the other side must address and not take advantage of such for the purpose of getting the upper hand in a debate.

B. The Omni-attribute Wild-card

Another thing that makes this type of discussions very unproductive is defining god as an omnipotent/omniscient/omnibenevolent being. Both camps use these attributes as a sort of wild-card in debates:

– Theists say things like, ‘who are we to presume to know what an omnipotent/omniscient god would do in any given situation?’
– Atheists flip that around by saying, ‘If God is omnipotent/omniscient, couldn’t he have found a better solution to problem X?’

And thus the discussion is kept in the dark since nothing definite can be said about something none of us can wrap our minds around; if such attributes are even actually possible. We just keep speaking past each other and then get together with our own people and comment about how irrational the other side is.

And it’s not like there is a consensus on the definition of the words either. People have historically defined those words very differently. So, if nothing else, at least first agree on a precise definition of what each term means and doesn’t mean.

But then why use them at all? If a god existed that was powerful enough to speak a universe into existence and yet still wasn’t exactly OMNI-potent, or if a being existed that knew the exact placement of every atom in the universe and every thought that any intelligent being has ever thought and yet wasn’t actually omniscient, if such a being existed instead of an omnipotent/omniscient one, is a person more justified in being a theist or an atheist? So if an atheist could successfully prove that an omnipotent/omniscient/omnibenevolent god could not possibly exist, what exactly has he really accomplished?

Now someone might argue that it is the theists’ fault these terms even come up. So let me address for a second any theists that might happen to read this. In my experience not one of the Biblical proof-texts I have ever come across used to support God’s omni-attributes actually demands an omni- interpretation. They can all be just as accurately applied to a god that is less than omni-________. So why then do people insist on making claims about god that he never actually makes about himself? Or, if god was NOT omnipotent but could still speak the universe into existence, would he be any less capable of solving your problems?

More importantly though, my concern is not with what people actually believe but with what topics should be taken up in debates between theists and atheists. Is it really worth wasting endless hours discussing something that neither side could say anything definitive about and which has no practical application even if they could? Don’t theists and atheists have much more important differences to work out?

Why not instead ask more practical questions like, ‘Is it rational to believe in a being that is not confined to the fundamental forces of our universe and is responsible for making the existence of this universe possible?’ (Daniel Schechter, #27 above made a similar suggestion)

Or, regarding the issue of suffering we could ask, ‘is it rational to believe that a powerful yet loving entity would allow suffering to exist?’ Introducing the omni-attributes into that conversation does nothing except to guarantee that neither the participants nor any observers will gain anything useful from the exercise.

As a final thought, I want to consider the aspect of Limited Options. When we judge the actions of a human being we always take into consideration their limitations. Cutting off a child’s leg is a horrible thing. But if this was done by a physician in the middle ages trying to save the child’s life after a severe infection, we interpret this action as heroic rather than tyrannical. Even the child’s parents and the child himself when older would agree. In such cases we don’t judge the action in isolation but in contrast with available alternatives. The doctor could have let the child die, he could have done something else which, though less painful, would not have saved the child, but instead he chose to cut the leg, which, given the alternatives, was the loving thing to do.

If we do not define god as an omnipotent/omniscient/omnibenevolent being then we would have to evaluate god’s actions in contrast with available alternatives as well. This is one reason why I think atheists prefer debates that use the omni definition of god. It allows them to ignore the subject of limitations altogether when evaluating his character. However this is not necessarily a correct conclusion. An argument can be made that even an omnipotent god could face limitations under certain circumstances and in fact, many people have historically defined omnipotence in this way. In the end, it all boils down to how a person defines the word and this definition is entirely arbitrary.

C. No Independent Evaluation

Often when talking to atheists I am presented with arguments in the form, ‘why would a loving god perform action X?’ But, when I try to respond, the person finds a way to twist things around so that god still ends up looking cruel and vicious. So in essence, the validity of my response is judged based on whether that person can or cannot fathom some malicious alternative explanation, as if there is ever a time when a vivid imagination WOULDN’T be able to concoct a malicious alternative explanation.

We don’t judge people like that in every day life unless we have something against them to begin with. People that hate Obama think the guy can do no right. So, for the most part, atheists can put a negative spin on just about anything and theists the opposite in their favor. There is no independent, unbiased, impartial process of evaluation used to determine the validity of any argument; we just simply judge things based on what those who agree with us think.

In a legal trial considerable time is spent making sure an impartial jury is carefully selected. People undergo a careful screening process to make sure they are not in any way inclined to side one way or another before hearing the arguments. They don’t ask the prosecutor or the defense attorney to make the final decision about which side should win.

I think sometimes atheists deceive themselves into thinking that unlike religious people, they don’t have a vested interest in any particular point of view but are simply skeptics. They are just trying to get to the truth, to follow the evidence wherever it leads, and can therefore trust themselves to be impartial. But in reality, whether they have started off irreligious or have had to deconstruct a religious worldview and replace it with another, they are just as emotionally invested in their view of reality as the religious. True skeptics would be equally skeptical of both sides of the argument while in the same time willing to give both sides the benefit of the doubt.

In my opinion, until we find a way to evaluate our ideas using some type of impartial, independent standard, we will just continue spinning our wheels. I realize this is not an easy task since, when it comes to religion, no one is truly unbiased. But I think if we invest some time and energy towards this end, solutions could be found that would still be better than what we have now.

D. Low Standards of Proof

I ran into this problem here when I asked for an alternative way that god could have handled a situation which would have been better overall. The person, while certain of god’s incompetence, felt that I was being unreasonable asking for alternatives. But how could we possibly know that god chose an inferior course without properly evaluating his other options?

Let me illustrate this with an off-topic example someone mentioned in a previous comment (Daniel Schechter, #27).

“As an additional aside, an “intelligent” designer would NEVER have run the urethra through the center of the prostate unless that designer WANTED to cause horrible suffering in the large number of men whose prostates become enlarged, requiring agonizing surgery or death by kidney failure or a burst bladder as the urethra becomes slowly choked off.”

Without meaning any disrespect to the author of that statement, there are some problems with this type of arguments. First, it is incredibly easy to point out supposed flaws in a design. A 10 year old looking at a BMW could claim German engineers don’t know what they are doing or else they would never have done X or Y. So should we just accept that there are a problem any time someone claims there are?

And then, how would we go about proving them wrong? Would we need to think up every possible alternative configuration so that we could then show that the current one is better in contrast? What would prevent them from then saying that there are still other options we’ve missed which are better yet?

Rather, if someone thinks that a design is flawed, it is their responsibility to show how that design could be improved upon. This would allow us to then place the two arrangements side by side and ask questions like:

1) Would the alternative configuration for the urethra/prostate work well not just in principle but as part of a complete human being?
2) Would it require other aspects of our anatomy to be changed in order to accommodate it leading to potentially bigger problems?
3) If the change is made at the genetic level, would this alternative work well throughout the entire developmental process?
4) Would it continue to work well for many generations and in different environments/conditions?
5) If genetic defects are to occur thousands of generations down the line, could the resulting problems be even worse than the current ones (in case the current problems are themselves the result of genetic defects)?

These are just some of the questions that would need to be considered in order to determine that a design really is subpar.

This same type of incomplete arguments are often used by theists in evolution debates (basically, both sides use them freely whenever they don’t have the burden of proof). Creationists say things like ‘evolution is wrong because there’s just no way that X could have ever evolved.’ This as if scientists are supposed to just stop doing science because creationists think there’s a flaw with the theory. Why not instead come up with an alternative, scientifically valid model that does a better job accounting for all the data and then there will be something to talk about?

In my opinion, it is irresponsible to put much weight on the objections of people who are not willing to do the work necessary to show that there’s a better alternative. Anyone can make such objections even without any knowledge of the subject and there’s no way to verify that they are right. Making these type of arguments betrays a lock of interest in actually getting to the buttom of an issue just as long as some degree of doubt can be introduced to confuse those who ARE looking for answers.

Quick Response to the Latest Comments

1) Why discuss only suffering when the actual concern was not suffering in general but the suffering of innocents?

Because, as mentioned above, I believe one discussion needs to take place before the other.

2) Why this strange scenario?

As mentioned earlier, the most concise version of the Free-Will response is not,

– suffering exists because people have free-will

but

a) there is free will
b) free will was misused
c) god did not immediately interfere

I used an analogy to illustrate how this works. However, I wanted several things from this analogy:

a) to eliminate all unnecessary variables so we could focus on the essential points.
b) to have one group that disobeys and one that remains faithful so that god has to take both into consideration.
c) to have more than one individual on each side since otherwise, if god separated them, there would be no one left to hurt but one’s self. But I wanted to keep the number manageable so I chose 10 with 5 on each side.

I did not just pull this scenario out of thin air; it is a miniature representation of the traditional Christan narrative. God created many free-will beings, some of which rebelled while others remained faithful. There are many more elements to the Christian narrative but, like I said, I wanted to keep only the necessary elements to evaluate the preliminary question of whether a loving god should ever allow suffering period.

I have no particular attachment to this analogy so if someone feels they could come up with a better one then by all means, as long as they maintain the elements under discussion.

3) Why couldn’t god convince them NOT to disobey?

This question is similar to people saying, ‘if they had been better parents that kid would have turned out better.’ The reality is that this isn’t always so because children have minds of their own.

4) Why allow the suffering?

Because there are cases when people do learn from personal experience what they refused to learn from the advice or the mistakes of others.

5) Why not make people out of gas?

I feel that I should ask first, ‘is that your final answer?’

6) Also, let us be grateful to my buddy Lausten for making sure the forum is not accidentally deceived by my ability to appear logical at first. Good looking out:)

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