Tag Archives: Atheism

How well do Darwinists do in debates with skeptics?

UPDATE: Welcome Post-Darwinist readers! Thanks for the link Denyse!

I thought that I would introduce a couple of my favorite critics of Darwinian fundamentalism, Stephen C. Meyer and Jonathan Wells. Here they are debating with Michael Shermer. I like Michael Shermer for two reasons – fiscal conservatism and engagement with his opponents. I’ve seen him MC sessions at Christian conferences. So let’s give him a chance to make his case.

Biographies of our debaters

Michael Shermer

Dr. Michael Shermer is the Founding Publisher of Skeptic magazine (www.skeptic.com), the Executive Director of the Skeptics Society, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, the host of the Skeptics Distinguished Science Lecture Series at Caltech, and Adjunct Professor of Economics at Claremont Graduate University. Dr. Shermer received his B.A. in psychology from Pepperdine University, M.A. in experimental psychology from California State University, Fullerton, and his Ph.D. in the history of science from Claremont Graduate University (1991).

Stephen C. Meyer

Stephen C. Meyer is director and Senior Fellow of the Center for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute, in Seattle. Meyer earned his Ph.D. in the History and Philosophy of Science from Cambridge University for a dissertation on the history of origin of life biology and the methodology of the historical sciences. Previously he worked as a geophysicist with the Atlantic Richfield Company after earning his undergraduate degrees in Physics and Geology.

Jonathan Wells

Jonathan Wells has received two Ph.D.s, one in Molecular and Cell Biology from the University of California at Berkeley, and one in Religious Studies from Yale University. He has worked as a postdoctoral research biologist at the University of California at Berkeley and the supervisor of a medical laboratory in Fairfield, California, and he has taught biology at California State University in Hayward.

Massimo Pigliucci

Massimo Pigliucci, Ph.D., is a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at State University of New York at Stony Brook, where he conducts research on the ecology of plant populations and the evolution of adaptations…. He received his doctorate in genetics at the University of Ferrara in Italy, his Ph.D. in botany from the University of Connecticut, as well as a Ph.D. in philosophy of science at the University of Tennessee.

Let’s get ready to rumble!

Let’s start with a short 15-minute debate between Michael Shermer and Stephen Meyer, moderated by Lee Strobel.

Meyer starts with these points:

  • the origin of the universe implies a Creator who exists outside of time, space and matter, because he created time, space and matter
  • the physical constants and ratios of physics must be fine-tuned in order to support the minimal requirements for life
  • the cell is filled with molecular machines that are identical to machines built by humans, such as rotary engines
  • the cell contains biological information in the DNA, and the origin of this information cannot be explained by evolution

Shermer makes these points:

  • we should never infer intelligent causes, we should keep searching for a materialistic explanation and say we don’t know until we find an explanation that allows me to continue to be an intellectually-fulfilled atheist
  • who made the designer?
  • maybe the big bang will be overturned and then we can go back to the eternal universe that I want to be true in spite of the evidence
  • we can speculate (without any experimental evidence) about alternative theories of how the universe got here, unlike the standard big bang theory which is backed by multiple lines of scientific evidence

Then a dialog ensues:

Shermer: The design of life is sub-optimal – if God did it, it should be perfect, with no trade-offs between non-functional requirements, just like Wintery Knights’ software architecture designs and Java code are perfect

Meyer: There is no such thing as a perfect design. Software architects, like Wintery Knight, who have studied software design, will tell you that non-functional requirements must be traded-off against one another. (Source: Software Engineering Institute at Carnegie Mellon University)

Shermer: Let me commit the ad hominem fallacy by attacking the motives of intelligent design proponents instead of dealing with their arguments and evidence.

Meyer: Two can play at that game, since evolutionists are atheists and secular humanists. But who cares? let’s stick to the arguments and evidence, ok?

Strobel: Meyer, are evolution and Christianity compatible?

Meyer: No, because evolution requires that the natural processes that create the diversity of life be random and unpredictable.

Shermer: Well, maybe the natural forces could be caused by the designer but in a totally undirected and undetectable way, so you Christians could have blind faith and we could run the public square.

Meyer: But Darwinism says and that no design is detectable in those processes, so they processes cannot be actually directed on Darwinism.

Shermer: But the designer could use natural selection and mutation.

Meyer: If so, then why did Darwin explicitly reject God having a role in these processes?

Shermer: I don’t believe in God because there isn’t enough evidence and it would require too many changes in my life. I like having autonomy from God and his moral demands. Also, we must always prefer material explanations, we can never infer that an intelligence played a role. I will only allow you to have two explanations of natural phenomena: 1) God didn’t do it, or 2) we don’t know.

Meyer: I like that you allow “we don’t know” as an explanation if we don’t know, because that is a rejection of dogmatic explanations that don’t fit the available evidence. But the arguments for design are based on what we do know, not what we don’t know – science gave us these arguments – and the progress of science has only strengthened them.

Conclusion

Well, I think it’s pretty clear who won, and who had the evidence! I like Michael Shermer, though, and I hope that he comes around to our point of view in time. At least he’s willing to debate, and he has a pretty moderate view compared to other Darwinian fundamentalists.

Other debates on Darwinism vs intelligent design

Michael Shermer debates Jonathan Wells at the pro-Darwinism Cato Institute (in 7 parts), MP3 audio is here.

Massimo Pigliucci debates Jonathan Wells for the pro-Darwinism PBS, downloadable video and audio.

John Lennox debates against Michael Shermer about the existence of God.

Further study

Here are posts on cosmological argument and the fine-tuning argument. I’ll respond to hopeful, but unwarranted, speculations about quantum mechanics and chaotic inflationary models, which I will be blogging about later. I’ll blog about molecular machines in a future post.

An essay on the origin of biological information by Meyer is here and a debate between two software engineers on it is here. I’ll also mention Meyer’s forthcoming book Signature in the Cell. Don’t forget about the upcoming debate between William Lane Craig and Francisco Ayala!

By the way, William Lane Craig has also debated Massimo Pigliucci on the topic “Does God Exist?”.

UPDATE: Did you see my post on why Darwinists don’t allow debates like this to happen in school classrooms?

Is the concept of moral obligation intelligible on atheistic materialism?

Commenter ECM sent me this post from Uncommon Descent about the is-ought fallacy, and the difficulties that atheists have grounding morality on worldview in which only material things exist. The post is written by Barry Arrington. He is summarizes an argument based on some of the comments from an earlier post.

Barry introduces two assumptions:

(1) That atheistic naturalism is true.

(2) One can’t infer an “ought” from an “is.” Richard Dawkins and many other atheists should grant both of these assumptions.

Given our second assumption, there is nothing in the natural world from which we can infer an “ought.” And given our first assumption, there is nothing that exists over and above the natural world; the natural world is all that there is. It follows logically that, for any action you care to pick, there’s nothing in the natural world from which we can infer that one ought to refrain from performing that action.

This makes sense to me. If only matter exists, and the whole universe is an accident, then where would an atheist get this idea that the current arrangement of matter ought to be any other way? Matter just is. This concept of “ought to be” is totally alien to an atheistic worldview where everything is matter, because moral obligations are non-material.

The article goes on: (I added the number 3)

Add a further uncontroversial assumption: (3) an action is permissible if and only if it’s not the case that one ought to refrain from performing that action. This is just the standard inferential scheme for formal deontic logic.

Basically, he is saying that an action is permissible so long as there is no moral obligation against that action. Can you see what’s coming? (I added the number 4)

We’ve conformed to standard principles and inference rules of logic and we’ve started out with assumptions that atheists have conceded. And yet we reach the absurd conclusion: (4) therefore, for any action you care to pick, it’s permissible to perform that action.

And let’s be clear about why this is bad for atheists:

If you’d like, you can take this as the meat behind the slogan “if atheism is true, all things are permitted.” For example if atheism is true, every action Hitler performed was permissible. Many atheists don’t like this consequence of their worldview. But they cannot escape it and insist that they are being logical at the same time.

Let me just add one more point. How are we supposed to be morally obligated to perform any action if we are pure matter? Meat machines don’t have free will. We would just be strings of dominoes falling forward, with no choice whether to fall or not. And even if we could somehow choose, our choices have no ultimate moral significance.

So, what does morality mean to atheists, then?

A while back, I listed some quotes about morality on atheism, taken from atheists who have actually thought through the consequences of atheism for rational moral behavior.

Here is a quotation from Richard Dawkins:

In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, or any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference… DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.

Of course, atheists can sense the objective moral standard that God has built into every person. But their materialist worldview undercuts the meaningfulness of moral values, moral duties and moral accountability. And people just don’t act morally once morality has become irrational for them. Acting morally is hard.

What ends up happening to atheists is that they only do the right thing for pleasure, or to avoid social punishments. Once the pre-supposition of materialism has destroyed the rationality of morality, it becomes impossible for atheists to answer the question “Why be moral?”. Any atheist who continues to act morally is living inconsistently with their own worldview – and that is not sustainable in the long run.

Atheistic assumptions wear down the awareness of the moral law that atheists started out with, so that they begin to advocate for obviously immoral things, like the suppression of freedom of inquiry. Eventually, the guilt becomes so strong that they exchange authentic moral values like chastity and sobriety for cheap narcissistic fads like recycling and yoga.

The case of William Wilberforce

Consider this article from the Wall Street Journal about the abolitionist William Wilberforce.

In fact, William Wilberforce was driven by a version of Christianity that today would be derided as “fundamentalist.”

…William Wilberforce himself, as a student at Cambridge University in the 1770s and as a young member of Parliament soon after, had no more than a nominal sense of faith. Then, in 1785, he began reading evangelical treatises and underwent what he called “the Great Change,” almost dropping out of politics to study for the ministry until friends persuaded him that he could do more good where he was.

And he did a great deal of good…[h]is relentless campaign eventually led Parliament to ban the slave trade, in 1807, and to pass a law shortly after his death in 1833, making the entire institution of slavery illegal. But it is impossible to understand Wilberforce’s long antislavery campaign without seeing it as part of a larger Christian impulse. The man who prodded Parliament so famously also wrote theological tracts, sponsored missionary and charitable works, and fought for what he called the “reformation of manners,” a campaign against vice.

Even during the 18th century, evangelicals were derided as over-emotional “enthusiasts” by their Enlightenment-influenced contemporaries. By the time of Wilberforce’s “great change,” liberal 18th-century theologians had sought to make Christianity more “reasonable,” de-emphasizing sin, salvation and Christ’s divinity in favor of ethics, morality and a rather distant, deistic God. Relatedly, large numbers of ordinary English people, especially among the working classes, had begun drifting away from the tepid Christianity that seemed to prevail. Evangelicalism sought to counter such trends and to reinvigorate Christian belief.

…Perhaps the leading evangelical force of the day was the Methodism of John Wesley: It focused on preaching, the close study of the Bible, communal hymn-singing and a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Central to the Methodist project was the notion that good works and charity were essential components of the Christian life. Methodism spawned a vast network of churches and ramified into the evangelical branches of Anglicanism. Nearly all the social-reform movements of the 19th and early 20th centuries–from temperance and soup kitchens to slum settlement houses and prison reform–owe something to Methodism and its related evangelical strains. The campaign against slavery was the most momentous of such reforms and, over time, the most successful.It is thus fitting that John Wesley happened to write his last letter–sent in February 1791, days before his death–to William Wilberforce. Wesley urged Wilberforce to devote himself unstintingly to his antislavery campaign, a “glorious enterprise” that opposed “that execrable villainy which is the scandal of religion, of England, and of human nature.” Wesley also urged him to “go on, in the name of God and in the power of his might, till even American slavery (the vilest that ever saw the sun) shall vanish away before it.”

Wesley had begun preaching against slavery 20 years before and in 1774 published an abolitionist tract, “Thoughts on Slavery.” Wilberforce came into contact with the burgeoning antislavery movement in 1787, when he met Thomas Clarkson, an evangelical Anglican who had devoted his life to the abolitionist cause. Two years later, Wilberforce gave his first speech against the slave trade in Parliament.

…This idea of slaving as sin is key. As sociologist Rodney Stark noted in “For the Glory of God” (2003), the abolition of slavery in the West during the 19th century was a uniquely Christian endeavor. When chattel slavery, long absent from Europe, reappeared in imperial form in the 16th and 17th centuries–mostly in response to the need for cheap labor in the New World–the first calls to end the practice came from pious Christians, notably the Quakers. Evangelicals, not least Methodists, quickly joined the cause, and a movement was born.

William Wilberforce believed that slaves were made in the image of God – that they were embodied souls who could be resurrected to eternal life. Wilberforce believed that the purpose of human life is to freely seek God, and to be reconciled with God through Christ. He wanted all men and women to have the opportunity to investigate and respond to God’s self-revelation to them.

Further study

You can read more about Wilberforce’s beliefs here and his public activities here. And you can still see modern-day abolitionists, like Scott Klusendorf, acting out their Christian faith. Only today they’re called pro-lifers.

A good paper by Bill Craig on the problem of rationally grounding prescriptive morality is here.

William Lane Craig’s comments on the Columbia University debate with Shelly Kagan

Thought I would cut and paste these comments from Reasonable Faith regarding the debate I summarized in my last post so that you would be able to see how much Craig appreciated Kagan’s debating skill. I thought this was a great debate!

This is just a big quote from Craig’s March 2009 newsletter:

After a week at home, I was off again to New York to speak at a Veritas Forum at Columbia University. Columbia is on the western edge of Harlem, just north of Central Park. Its campus is a lovely oasis in the midst of big city ugliness. Like the other Ivy League universities, it was originally founded as a Christian institution. On the face of the old library the inscription states that Columbia exists “for the advancement of the public good and the glory of Almighty God.” In the campus chapel above the altar are inscribed Paul’s words, now ironically so appropriate, “Whom therefore you ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you” (Acts 17. 23)!

On the first evening I debated professor Shelly Kagan of Yale University on the question “Is God Necessary for Morality?” Actually, this was not a debate but a dialogue. After we each gave our opening statements, we had a very substantive discussion. Kagan has Christian colleagues at Yale, like Robert Adams and John Hare, who defend moral values and duties based in God, and I was struck by the respect with which he treated the view. He surprised me by not arguing for his own view of ethics, which is a radical consequentialism. He holds that if torturing a little girl to death would somehow result in greater overall good as a consequence, then that is what we should do! Instead he defended a social contract view of morality, according to which our moral duties are whatever rules perfectly rational people would agree to as a way of governing society. I responded that this makes morality a human convention, rather than objective. Kagan also affirmed in our dialogue that he is a physicalist and determinist. I charged that determinism strips our actions of any moral significance. We also disagreed over the importance of moral accountability. I claimed that the absence of moral accountability on atheism makes morality collide with self-interest and robs our choices of significance, but Kagan maintained that we don’t need a sort of cosmic significance in order for our moral choices to be significant. All in all, we had an affable and substantive exchange which fairly presented the alternatives.

One feature of our dialogue that pleased and surprised me was how clearly the Gospel emerged in the course of our conversation. Talking about moral values and accountability led naturally to the subject of our failure to fulfill our moral duties and how to deal with that. I was able to explain our need of God’s forgiveness, moral cleansing, and rehabilitation. Kagan then asked me how Jesus fits into the picture. That gave me the chance to expound on Christ’s atoning death and the fulfillment of God’s justice in Christ’s bearing the penalty for our sin. I was gratified that the Gospel could be shared so clearly and naturally with the students present.

The next day I sat for an interview with an independent filmmaker who is doing a short film on the theological significance of the beginning of the universe in contemporary cosmology. Later that evening I spoke in a small campus theater on “Who Was Jesus?” Judging by the student questions, this audience was largely Christian. It is very touching to hear so many Christians after the debate and my lecture share expressions of encouragement and thanks for the way the Lord has used our ministry in their lives.

Craig’s other lecture at Columbia

To hear the other lecture by Craig on the topic of “Who did Jesus think he was?”, click here. The video is here. This lecture was also delivered in February, 2009 at Columbia University, probably the most secular leftist university in the United States. Yes, the same university that invited Achmadinejad to speak.

Debate summary: Is God necessary for morality? William Lane Craig vs Shelly Kagan

Debate summary

This is a summary of a debate on the rational justification for moral values, moral duties and moral accountability on atheism. The question of free will and determinism also comes up. Note that this is not a debate to see who wins. The commie wusses at the Veritas Forum made Craig promise not to press for a victory, as he reports here:

I did respond briefly to Prof. Kagan’s view… but I didn’t press the point because our hosts with the Veritas Forum had made it very clear to me that they were not interested in having a knock-down debate but a friendly dialogue that would foster a warm and inviting atmosphere for non-believing students at Columbia. The goal was simply to get the issues out on the table in a congenial, welcoming environment, which I think we did.

The debate was held in February, 2009 at Columbia University between Yale philosopher Shelly Kagan and William Lane Craig.

Video and audio are here:

Shelly Kagan – opening speech

Framing the debate:

  • The question is not whether people need God in order to act morally, because atheists are able act morally and immorally just as well as theists
  • The questions is whether we need to God in order to be the ground for morality. Do right and wrong really exist if there is not God?
  • He will defend objective morality on atheism

One possible explanation for morality without God is:

  • right is what helps others and doesn’t hurt them
  • wrong is what hurts people and doesn’t help them

And the standard rules of moral behavior emerge from these 2 principles.

What are the objections to this help/hurt theory

1) Are these really wrong, or is this standard just a matter of opinion?

No, these moral standards are not a matter of opinion, they are facts.

2) What makes these rules apply to everyone and prescribe behaviors

Possible answers:
– moral rules are just brute facts
– contractarianism: (social contract) the moral rules should be chosen by reflecting on a hypothetical discussion between ideal reasoners
– something else

3) Morality involves commandments, so who is the commander?

Possible answers:
– moral commandments don’t require a commander
– for example, logical rules like the law of non-contradiction don’t need a lawgiver, and moral rules could be just like that
– or, perhaps the commander is society itself, which fits with the contractarian theory

William Lane Craig – opening speech

Framing the debate:

  • not debating whether belief in God is necessary to act morally
  • the question is whether god is a necessary ground for morality to be meaningful

Is God necessary for morality? It depends on what morality means:
– is morality just an arbitrary pattern of social behavior?
– if so, then God isn’t needed to ground humans to act according to a pattern of social behavior

But if morality is objective, (true whether anyone believes it or not):
– then god is necessary to ground objective morality
– because objective moral standards exists independently of human standards of personal preference or cultural fashion

Non-objective morality is illusion/convention
– pattern has no objective moral significance, it’s just an arbitrary fashion that varies by time and place

God is necessary for morality in 3 ways
1) God grounds objective moral values, i.e. – what counts as good and what counts as evil
2) God grounds objective moral duties, i.e. – what we ought to do and ought not to do
3) God grounds moral accountability, i.e. – our ultimate fate depends on how we act morally

1) Moral values
– whether some action is good or evil, independent of whether anyone thinks it is or not
– individual and social opinions do not decide these standards of good and evil
– god is necessary to ground moral standards that exist independent of human opinions
– the moral values are set by god’s unchanging nature

Human value:
– why think that humans have value, such that they should be treated a particular way
– on atheism, humans are just animals
– evolution means that moral values are the product of the struggle for survival
– the “herd” moral standard is arbitrary, it is not really a true standard
– on atheism, moral values do not exist independently, they are merely descriptions of behaviors that are the product of biological and cultural evolution
– in other animal species, many things that we think of as wrong are practiced, like stealing and rape
– so why think that our practices are objectively true, instead of just customs and fashions of our species?

Free will:
– moral choices require a non-physical mind distinct from the physical brain in order to make free moral choices
– on (biological) determinism, no choices are morally significant – just actions of puppets on strings
– no moral responsibility for a puppet’s determined actions

2) Moral duties
– whether some action is right or wrong
– whether humans are morally obligated to perform certain actions, independent of whether we think that we do or not
– the commands flow from god’s unchanging moral nature
– they become duties for us, his creatures

on atheism
– on atheism, humans are animals, and animals don’t have real moral obligations
– where would moral duties come from on atheism, to whom is the duty owed?
– on atheism, it is just a subjective impression ingrained into us by social and biological pressures
– on atheism, there is no standard of what we ought to do
– on atheism, breaking the social contract is the same as belching loudly at the dinner table, it’s just being unfashionable – not doing what the rest of the heard has decided is customary

3) moral accountability
– on theism, the moral choices we make affect where we end up in the afterlife
– god balances the scales of justice in the end

on atheism:
– it is irrelevant how you act, you end up in the same place (dead) regardless of how you live

why be moral on atheism?
– why shouldn’t a person pursue self interest instead of following the moral conventions of the social contract
– it’s not always the case that doing the right thing is also doing the thing that gives you selfish pleasure
– a very powerful person would not need to be moral, since they can escape the social sanctions that result from their breaking the social contract
– why would a very powerful do the right thing when it is against their self-interest, on atheism, since the social contract is just arbitrary fashion?

acts of self-sacrifice are irrational on atheism
– the result is that no one will be moral when it is hard to do the right thing
– because in the long run, it doesn’t matter what you do, on atheism
– compassion and self-sacrifice are not pleasurable, and are therefore pointless on atheism

Conclusion:

questions atheists must answer:
what is the basis of objective moral values?
what is the basis of human value on atheism?
why ought we to do the right thing and avoid doing the wrong thing?
what is the basis for moral accountability

Continue reading Debate summary: Is God necessary for morality? William Lane Craig vs Shelly Kagan

Upcoming panel debate featuring Tony Costa and Michael Coren

For my Canadian readers, if you are in Toronto, you might want to consider attending this upcoming debate on morality in an atheistic worldview. Is it possible? Is it rational? The official topic is “Evolution of ethics: Science vs Faith”. It is being organized by non-Christians, which explains the title, and the apparent 3-2 advantage the non-theists will enjoy.

Excerpt from the Humanist Canada web site:

Are ethics divinely-inspired or man-made? Are there absolute morals? Although scientists and philosophers have debated the nature of ethics for hundreds of years, developments in genetic research have unleashed a firestorm of issues concerning human control of creation and its impact on our future. Given that society ideals change over time, how can we determine what is morally right or wrong?

Join Humanist Canada for a lively and thought-provoking debate on the nature of ethics. Five prominent speakers, from both the Christian and Humanist communities, will discuss and debate some of the hottest topics today including abortion, gender, homosexuality, and biotechnology. Our panel of speakers includes: Christopher diCarlo (celebrated professor of Philosophy of Science and Bioethics; founder of “We Are All African” Campaign); Michael Coren (outspoken Christian writer; radio and TV host); George Dvorsky (popular transhumanist; animal rights activist); Tony Costa (recognized public speaker for Campus for Christ); and Jean Saindon (award-winning professor of Natural Science and Technology).

Time and place: Saturday April 18 @ 6:30 pm, Innis Town Hall, 2 Sussex Ave, Toronto

Tickets: $15 Humanist Canada members; $25 general admission; $10 students (with school ID). Appetizers, desserts and drinks included. Purchase tickets by April 15 for best seats. Click HERE for the printable registration form or click on ticket choices below.

DiCarlo debated Bill Craig before and really, really disappointed me.

If you know of an upcoming debate or discussion event related to the topics on this blog, be sure and send me an e-mail. If you know of any additional materials related to this topic, please leave a comment.

Other debates on atheism and morality

Here are some prior debates on the rationality of morality on atheism.

  1. From Christianity Today, a written debate: Douglas Wilson vs. Christopher Hitchens
  2. From the University of Western Ontario, a transcript of a public debate: William Lane Craig vs. Kai Nielsen
  3. From Schenectady College, a transcript of a public debate:William Lane Craig vs Richard Taylor
  4. From Franklin & Marshall College, William Lane Craig vs. Paul Kurtz (audio, video1, video2, video3, video4, video5, video6, video7)
  5. From the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, William Lane Craig vs. Louise Antony (audio1, audio2, video1, video2)

Further study

A good paper by Bill Craig on the problem of rationally-grounding prescriptive morality here. My previous posts on this blog on this topic are here and here. The first one is about whether atheists can use a made-up standard to judge God for his perceived moral failures, the second one is on whether meaningful morality is rational on atheism.