Some thoughts about my recent debate over the historical evidence for the resurrection. First, thanks again to all those people who came, thought about the topic, offered comments and suggestions, and to Bridgeway Christian Church for having the maturity and courage to host it.
Friday, May 7, 2010
This was the first debate I have done, and my general feeling now is that I’d be willing to do more. But there’s something peculiar about debates and the whole debate culture over God and Christianity that does not sit well with me. For many people, both debators and audiences, the point of a debate in their minds appears to be to win, where winning means something like giving the most rhetorically effective, and emotionally powerful set of points and rebuttals in defense of your view. Being rhetorically effective involves your demeanor, being nimble with your responses, being pithy or laconic, and having the appropirate sort of passion, among other things. Quick, incisive responses can score big points in the minds of audiences, and can easily sway their estimation of who won. These are only part of what’s effective in a debate, and not everyone is influenced by these factors equally. But histrionics often eclipse clear reason, for the audience and the debators. And histrionics figure largely in what we take away from the debate.
A couple of obvious points suggest themselves about these aspects of debates. First, as a trained philosopher I’m much more interested in what sort of overall view makes the most sense, what arguments support it, and what the problems with it are. All of that can rarely be fairly captured in the rather contrived format of a debate. At best, a debate is going to give you a somewhat skewed snapshot of the complete philosophical argument behind the position being presented. And the philosophical merits of the position may well be obscured by the artifice of the debate structure. Ultimately the most reasonable position can come across very poorly in a debate, and a completely flawed and bankrupt position can appear to be brilliant.
This will sound naively idealistic of me, but our first goal in these efforts ought to be to figure out what’s true and what conclusions the best available evidence supports, period. It’s empowering and seductive to be swept into the rhetorical aspects of debates, but that takes us off track. On some views, the Sophists were regarded by the Greeks as people possessing remarkable debating and argumentative skill, but their sole purpose was to confound, perplex, and best their opponents, no matter what the content. They were relativists about the truth and knowledge, and took great pleasure in tying all opponents in knots with their debating skill. Socrates was executed over suspicions about his alleged sophistry. The worst and ugliest modern version would be the hired gun lawyer with no principles who puts her legal mastery and rhetorical skill to work for any client willing to pay without regard to any larger moral principles about justice.
After having read much of his work, and watched many of his debates and videos, I’m of two minds about William Lane Craig, who is a dominate figure in the Christian debating circuit. On the one hand, Craig is a decent philosopher who generates some arguments of interest in the growing state of the discipline. But on the other hand, Craig has indicated on many occasions that there are no circumstances, even hypothetically, under which he would be prepared to change his mind about certain basic propositions of Christian theology. The “self-authenticating witness of the Holy Spirit” has given him a special knowledge, he maintains, that is incorrigible and therefore beyond any possibility of error. He also has considerable rhetorical and debating abilities that have been honed with hundreds debates. He is a master of manipulating or reframing the discussion and scoring points that are rhetorically effective, but on reflection seem to have little real philosophical merit. On this darker side of Craig’s work, it would appear that this agenda of defending his Christian convictions at all costs, and by whatever rhetorical or argumentative means necessary has eclipsed his concerns about truth and reason. He will insist that the Holy Spirit has given him unassailable access to the truth, but until I understand how a special feeling inside your head can do this all by itself, I’m deeply suspicious. See this video for his take on it: Craig on Faith
Given Craig’s centrality in the recent Christian debate culture, it was inevitable that people would suggest his work to me, recomment I read his articles, watch his debates, and it was even suggested that I should debate him. And in many of my recent blog posts, his arguments have been brought up. My short answer is this: it’s a mistake for serious philosophical atheists to devote too much time and energy to dealing with Craig because he’s a person in this field who seems to be shouting the loudest and the most. Craig’s arguments have been dealt with at length and with devastating consequences by many people, including myself. Craig is rarely deterred by any of these critiques, and he is not prone to acknowledge any objection or weakness no matter how clearly it has been illustrated. But we shouldn’t mistake his pitbull persistence and rhetorical skill in defending Christianity for something other than what it is. The unassailability of Christianity in his mind bestows a weird kind of pointlessness to his debates. As he and his followers see it, debates can only serve to corroborate what they already know is true—Jesus is lord. If Craig “wins,” which he often does given his skill, then that just vindicates Christian belief once again, if he doesn’t (and few of his supporters would acknowledge that this ever happens), it doesn’t matter because he would never change his mind, and the private, magical, Holy Spirit knowledge he has in his mind makes any consideration of arguments or the evidence irrelevant. At this point, given what he’s said about the indefeasibilty of Christian belief, I’m not inclined to take anything that Craig or his followers say seriously until I’m convinced that they are playing the same game with the same rules of rationality that the rest of us are. An essential principle of rationality, as I see it, is that all beliefs are defeasible, and subject to the tribunal of reason. If I start claiming to have a special magical voice in my mind that tells me there is no God, and that this knowledge is invulnerable to any disproof or counter evidence, you would be right to dismiss me as a lunatic. You have my permission to commit me to a mental hospital if that happens.
The question about just what a debate is supposed to do is vitally important too. In religious matters, it’s naïve to think that many people who watch and think about a debate will have their minds changed by what transpires in the discussion. If the topic of the debate was about a matter that an audience member had not already formed opinions about, and one that is not as emotional, then it could happen that someone could listen closely and then form a considered conclusion on the basis of the debate that they did not have before. But we all know that this is exceedingly rare in religious matters. People come to the debate deeply entrenched in a set of views about the matter, and they are prone read the success or failure of the debators by the extent to which their positions and arguments corroborate what the listener already thought was true. Democrats invariably figure that the Democratic candidate won the debate, Republicans think the Republican candidate won, with only a tiny minority shifting their views on the basis of what they heard. My suspicion is that that minority is even smaller in religious debates and that any shifting is even smaller in magnitude. I’ve mentioned this study before that shows how confrontation with substantial evidence that contradicts their actually results in believers being more entrenched in their views.
One of the ways that the bias emerges in these situations is that the theist who listens, for instance, applies a harsher, more critical, and more careful set of standards to the atheistic arguments, and then he relaxes those same standards with regard to the arguments for theism. And many atheists appear to be just as guilty of this double standard problem. In fact, this is just a human problem. We bring a belief structure to the evidence and we are prone to evaluate that evidence in ways that will make it consistent with the belief structure. Instead of carefully considering the evidence first and then forming a conclusion, the conclusion leads, and we distort the evidence in order to corroborate it. A related phenomena is our proclivity to identify bias in others, while being reluctant to attribute it to ourselves. See Pronin, Gilovich, and others in this list of sources.
At the same time the non-believers are shaking their heads and complaining to each other, “How can the believers possibly believe that nonsense?,” the believers are commiserating with each other about how wrong headed the nonbelievers’ approach is.
In fact, after the debate, I drifted across several conversations between clustered believers and non-believers who were expressing just these sentiments. I resisted the temptation to get drawn into several “Can you believe how stupid they are?” discussions that non-believers were having and deliberately tried to engage many of the believers to get their thoughts about the arguments. The bias attribution bias makes it difficult and sometimes unhelpful when I’m presenting arguments for non-belief to non-believers. They love the argument no matter what it is because of the conclusion, so often they can’t help me figure out what’s wrong with it nearly as well as some believers can. It’s for this same reason that my philosophy department where there are atheists, Catholics, evangelical Christians, Buddhists, and Fidiests (and a lot of collegeality) is an incredibly stimulating environment. A department full of atheists would quickly lead to stagnation and intellectual breeding. The pitfalls of intellectual inbreeding are exactly why believers and non-believers should be seeking out these exchanges of ideas like we had in the debate. I’d love to do it again ten times next year in the biggest churches Russell and I can find.
That said, I do think that debates, discussions, and arguments can change minds. But the process can be a slow one. At any given time in a person’s intellectual history, their belief structure has a great deal of inertia. If we are talking about abstract, philosophical or religious convictions, the network of things you believe resists sudden changes. Neurobiologically, this torpor can be traced to developed activation thresholds between neurons. Over time, neurons that fire together, wire together. Neurochemical pathways inside neurons and between them get well worn, and metabolically entrenched. But most importantly, neurons, even when we get old, are plastic and can change, grow new connections, form new networks. That requires varied input and varied stimulus. And it requires time. So here’s my hope about what the essays on my blog, the debate, my lectures, and all the work I’ve done on this topic. My hope is to be part of a shift in thinking that leads to greater intellectual liberation in some members of my audience. My hope is that something I’ve said will stick, some idea or image or analogy will be remembered, in the mind of someone who is not completely lost to a consciousness devouring ideology, and it will be part of a process that will lead them greater intellectual freedom. My goal, ironically, isn’t even to create a bunch of atheists. Unreflective, ideologue atheists who have been enslaved by the idea that religion and belief in God are evil (and I’ve met a lot of these) are just as lost and objectionable as the Christian who has been too swept up in the agenda to reason straight.
Posted by Matt McCormick at 2:41 PM