Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Collision - Part 2 - The Discussion

I've broken my analysis of the Collision event into two posts. The first post covered the movie and the second post (this one) will cover the discussion between UWA's Ben Rae and Daniel Midgley which followed the movie (including their appearance on RTR earlier that day).

Ben Rae was the representative of the Christian Union at UWA. Ben has a degree in Science (neuroscience) and stated that he was raised Christian and surprise, surprise discovered that Christianity was true. How lucky of him to be born into the correct religion! (A good case for the outsider test for faith...)

Daniel Midgley was the representative of the UWA Atheist and Agnostic Society. Daniel is a lecturer in linguistics and an ex-Mormon. He also has the excellent blog Good Reason and a spot on local radio station RTR. He is the closest thing we have to a super-star atheist.

Earlier in the day, Ben and Daniel had a discussion on RTR which can be downloaded here. Many of the talking points were repeated in both the radio discussion and the post-movie discussion so I am going to treat them all together.

Many Christians and Atheists continually talk about "tone" and how the new atheist movement can be strident, snide, arrogant and uncivilised. I can report that both sides were pleasant to each other and the entire tone of the discussion was conductive to a fruitful discussion of ideas. There were times when both parties were talking past each other or going around in circles but these were stopped by Daniel and Ben by moving on to other questions. There was only one "uncivilised" moment in the event when a (probably atheist/agnostic) student interjected, but overall the audience sat captivated listening to the discussion. Props to Daniel and Ben for their professionalism, preparation and civility during the discussion. This is the nicest I am going to be towards Daniel and Ben...

Like most discussions there is a difference between matters of fact and matters of opinions. Facts are true irrespective or argumentation whereas opinions are backed by argumentation and are evaluated by third parties. Both sides engaged in an assertion-fest, that is they told us what their opinions were, but rarely supported them with argumentation and when they did, they were primarily weak.

Ben's Blunders

One of the most egregious factual errors by Ben Rae was his mischaracterisation of Buddhism. This drew gasps of disbelief and murmurs of discontent from the audience and rightly so. This of course is rather problematic for Ben. Imagine if someone claimed that Christianity was a religion where Paul was the Son of God - this person would clearly be ignorant of the teachings of Christianity, yet surely Ben would not claim this is sufficient justification for their disbelief in Christianity. When we are told Ben has evaluated Christianity and found it to be true, we could always ask why he hasn't studied Buddhism? (Clearly studying Buddhism from the words of fellow Christians is problematic) This would surely lead to an uncomfortable double standard. Ben seems to be justified in not understanding Buddhism yet a Buddhist would not be justified in not understanding Christianity.

I was also taken aback by Ben's repeated assertion that Christianity is an historical religion, and its claims (namely the resurrection) can be validated historically. When Daniel pressed him, Ben used the following historical criteria - Ben asked us to read the Gospels and ask ourselves if it made sense...Whoa...This made me cringe and had I been in Daniel's shoes I would have pounded him on this and the notion that Christianity is an historical religion.

In the category of "correct, but painful to admit" was Ben's response to Daniel quoting the end of Mark which tells believers that they can handle snakes. Ben stated that it shouldn't have been in the Bible. This amusing answer was scoffed at by the audience and rightly so. Apart from alienating the section of the audience which believes the Bible is the inerrant word of God, it made God look incompetent by letting generations and generations of people believe (including a whole denomination, namely Pentecostals) this was supposed to be in the Bible, yet Ben is one of the lucky ones to know it shouldn't be there. (How lucky is Ben - he clearly knows the truth better than 99.99% of all Christians who have ever lived and was born into it too!) Daniel didn't respond to this, and in discussion after the event, he revealed that he didn't need to say any more, Ben had said it all.

Ben made an interesting argument that the ability of humans to do science points to a God. The problem with this argument is that it's like a loaded coin - heads you win, tails I lose. It would also be true that the inability to perform science can also be argued to be compatible with theism. In fact some medieval Islamic theologians came to the conclusion that science was against God because you would be taking away God's will and sovereignty and effectively testing God. Ben's argument is nothing more than looking at the way things are - and contriving a just-so story to explain it, one which invokes God.

Many of Ben's other errors were perhaps not errors but looking at history with Christian glasses on. He conveniently ignores the reality of medieval Christianity, the fall of scholarship and the destruction of knowledge, the opposition of science by the Church and instead focuses on the post-reformation era where the falling Church hegemony coincided with intellectual freedom and curiosity.

Overall his argument was similar to Douglas Wilson - and to be honest - is the only thing worth asking. Whether Christianity has been good to this world is entirely dependent on whether it is true or not. If Christianity is true then it follows that it is good because it leads souls to heaven.

Daniel's Dodges

Now I turn my attention to the home team so-to-speak and look at where Daniel went wrong.

Ben's tactic was simple and effective. On what basis does Daniel have to declare Christianity either right or wrong and if Daniel can present a basis - why should anyone else care about it? Right and wrong being not just subjective (such as "I like strawberry icecream") but based on questions of morality.

Daniel - like so many intelligent atheists - failed to answer the Christians questions regarding morality satisfactorily. For example, Daniel kept reinforcing the notion that atheists can be as moral as Christians but this isn't necessarily relevant.

There are two categories of moral claims Christians generally make (there may be more - but I am simplifying it).

The strong claim is the biblical claim that non-believers are wicked, they lie and cannot be trusted. This view isn't taken as true by the vast majority of Christians because it is verifiable - and not surprisingly - is false.

The weaker claim is a theological claim, namely that moral ontology leads to the conclusion that the existence of objective morality can only be true if God exists. (As the argument continues, objective morality exists, therefore God exists). This is a standard argument that the majority of Christians hold to.

Daniel was effectively challenging the strong claims but did not address the weaker claim. In fact when Daniel scored a rhetorical victory by telling Ben not to give up his religion if he doesn't know why X is bad, he was again, still attacking the strong position instead of the general weaker claim.

In the world of the Christian - the atheist has no moral basis and is therefore acting inconsistently by being moral. This inconsistency is seen as a deeply help acceptance that moral truth exists, is objective, and grounded in a higher being. The garden variety atheist would reject this of course - but the job is to explain why.

I generally agree that atheism entails no moral position. Why? Because atheism is a position regarding the existence of God - and God alone. One must develop a positive moral ontology (instead of attacking one) - and this could take any form. For example, you could be a utilitarian or a deontologist. I personally have no defined morality because I have yet to be convinced of any moral system - I therefore divert most of my judgement to a socially neutral position.

Is morality even objective? Daniel didn't press this on Ben but seemed to take it as a given. Many standard responses include "we know X is wrong", therefore objective morality. This is false because we don't actually "know", we "feel" (emotional, intuition) or we "believe" or we have been lead to believe (via culture, etc), or we have the opinion that "X is wrong". Knowledge is a very strong claim in epistemology and there are many moral skeptics who would even go as far as to argue that moral knowledge qua knowledge is impossible.

Another standard response is "we all know murder is wrong". Of course this is a rather sneaky one because murder is defined to be illegal. Murder is a judgement on the action of killing - of which killing is in and of itself not intrinsically immoral. Human history can attest to the variability in how illegal killing is defined.

Another Christian classic is how can the atheist say that what Hitler (or any other tyrant) did was wrong. The easy answer is to merely ask the question, why did Hitler do what he did? In this case we see two problems with his moral reasoning. First he makes factual claims about Jews (and others) which are wrong and he bridges the is/ought gap with little to no justification. (i.e. it does not follow that because race X is inferior that they should be exterminated). I would question any tyrant on the basis that what they did was either factually questionable or contained faulty moral reasoning.

A serious problem for the Christian is not just their moral ontology but their moral epistemology. Is there any evidence from the history of Christianity that Christians know what this objective morality is? It is a problem to suppose that a devine God would on one hand let his people believe slavery is fine for an extended period of time only to later reveal to them that they were mistaken. How much suffering could have been averted if people knew that slavery was wrong all along? I generally take the view that people do what they do because they generally have compelling reasons (at least to themselves) as to why they do something. Many good people supported slavery because they believed it was sanctioned by God, and there is a clear biblical basis for this.

Ben claimed that Daniel (and other atheists) were merely using Christian morals to judge Christianity. This seems unlikely as it cannot be possible that one could use one standard to judge that same standard wrong unless one was applying it incorrectly. (For example, if Hexopoidian morality said cannibalism was okay - you could not be using this Hexopoidian standard if you conclude cannibalism is wrong. Note that I made up the word Hexopoidian.)

Ben also made an analogy to an apple tree in that atheists are chopping down the tree and expecting apples. (Namely getting rid of the basis for morality and expecting morality to exist) This is not necessarily true if the atheist position is correct. If it is true that there is no god then it follows that all morality - including Christian morality - was always just plain old human morality. The moon does not fly off into space if we discover tomorrow that Newton was wrong about his theory of Gravity. Therefore the atheist hasn't chopped down any tree - they are just looking at it a different way. Daniel was correct in asserting that Christian morality is merely human morality - but perhaps an argument to back up his assertion would have driven the point home more succinctly.

The drunken skeptic who yelled out from the audience about mirror neurons also failed to account for objective morality. If anything it makes the atheists position worse because he is claiming our moral guide is comprised of something irrational (i.e. emotion) and something evolved. These cannot be (and thankfully are not) the basis of a morality. The Christian would therefore have the upper hand by claiming that these mirror neurons don't merely produce morality but reflect it as God's mechanism to delivering moral truth. Ben was quite right in asking "so what?", however this isn't going to convince those on the other side that he is engaging with the statement.

I don't want to proclaim that I understand morality - because I don't. I admit that I have no moral system that I call my own but we need to be humble and admit that we are all in the same boat here. Even if the Christian is right - it still does not follow that he knows what is right and what is wrong. If people applied more moral skepticism instead of moral certainty when it is not warranted - a lot of suffering in this world could be prevented. There is nothing worse in my eyes than a good person doing something evil, when they believe it is good and they do so for faulty reasons.


Those Christians who understand my criticisms of Daniel will likely find their position has not changed after the discussion as Daniel did not mount any direct challenge to their faith.

For those on the fence, they are likely to find Daniel's position more reasonable, not because he was necessarily right but because his arguments were compelling. The average person knows in their heart that slavery is wrong - the Christian can tell us all they like they we are basing or borrowing our morality from them but when the average person picks up a bible and sees the condoning of slavery - we understand that the Christian is being inconsistent and picking and choosing their position.

The average person doesn't need a justification or feel as if they have to provide one as to why they believe slavery is wrong. The Christian may not like this but I doubt the average person will be swayed will appeals to a higher standard. Most people "know it" because they feel it, and that's it. This is why the New Atheists tactics have been so popular despite being riddled with logical errors. The Christian tactic of attempting to frame the debate in a Christian centric way is - in my opinion at least - doomed. Their best chance would be to actually defend what is written and show that peoples inner moral feeling just need a little bit of tweaking to be lined up with the bible.

For those on the fence who "get it", they will not be convinced by either person!

As for the die hard atheist - well I'm sure they go away from this feeling frustrated that the Christian didn't get it, and think that the Christian just needs to read some more books on evolution, etc. In reality it is the atheist who didn't get it, because they denigrated philosophy while championing reason.

I'm sure by this stage I've made everyone think that I'm a pompous, arrogant asshole who thinks he's better than both sides - either that or you are fuming at me because you think I didn't get it. If so then my job is complete.


Kel said...

"Daniel - like so many intelligent atheists - failed to answer the Christians questions regarding morality satisfactorily."
Isn't this an impossible task though? The problem is no matter how you define it, there's always the IS / OUGHT distinction so even if you're able to derive a morality then you're stuck trying to justify from what boils down to provisional principles based on the will. Yet the vision of morality that would be satisfactory is not needed, nor should it be desired.

That it's not satisfactory explained shouldn't be a problem. It's like complaining that an atheist cannot account for how special our species is - it's asking to be able to justify something that isn't necessarily so. We could look at art, culture, progress, etc. but those wouldn't be special in the same way that a Christian might deem satisfying. Yet it is and ought to be enough.

Reasonably Aaron said...

I agree Kel - it is an impossible task, which is why I believe the atheist needs to take charge and shift the focus of discussion to the flaws in the Christians reasoning regarding the existence of objective morality. Without challenging this notion the Christian gets the advantage because to many "it's obvious", which is why we hear the same ol' moral arguments made time and time again.

Kel said...

To use that line of attack, however, seems to me an unsatisfying path. The notion of objective morality might be flawed but the alternative that is proposed is a form of nihilistic subjectivism, where there's no difference between pleasure and pain. And most of all, it doesn't actually explain the feeling of right and wrong we experience. Are they just illusory?

Without addressing these concerns, I feel that just attacking the notion of objective morality would only ever be part of any argument on the subject. Yes there are flaws in their argument, but there's still something substantial that needs to be addressed.

Reasonably Aaron said...

I'm not sure the only two options are objectivity and subjectivity. I would say a third option is inter-subjectivity. An example of intersubjectivity would be money. A $20 note has little to no intrinsic value (maybe 1c or so of paper and ink), yet at the same time cannot be just subjective as we all seem to agree that this note has the value of $20.

Isn't free will illusory? It seems one of the strongest conclusions to come from science/philosophy is the counter-intuitive nature of reality. This isn't surprising given our evolutionary history.

Kel said...

I don't think that it's either objectivity or subjectivity either, but I do think that many make that false dichotomy and for that reason it's important to do more than shoot down the opposing case. Take away objectivity and you're taking away the explanatory power, however feeble, that people have at least some form of explanation for what they feel.

As for free will, I'm fairly convinced by the compatibilist stance. To say it's an illusion I think misrepresents the conception of the self, how are you separate from your mental activity?