Friday, May 7, 2010

Is Belief in God Rational? Debate at CSU

Yesterday, I attended a debate at CSU, where a philosophy student and a teacher at a local church debated against CSU's atheist organization called the Non-Prophets.

Weighing in on the Theist side is Jason Moore, a first-year graduate student majoring in Philosophy with a concentration in Bioethics. Also weighing in for the Theist side is Phil Karayan, a teacher at Grace Church.

For the Atheist side, four representatives of CSU's Non-Prophets, an atheist student organization emphasizing freedom from religion.

Theist Opening Arguments

The universe has three possible explanations for its existence:
1. Came into being by chance
2. Existed eternally
3. Creation by God

The universe could not have come into being by chance. To begin with an atheistic big bang cosmology and expect the order and complexity in the universe is like expecting a tornado moving through a junkyard to produce an operational Boeing 747.

The universe also could not have been eternal. The second law of thermodynamics states that the universe is winding down, and the amount of usable energy is being consumed. Eternal things do not wind down. Second, the expansion of the universe precludes it from being eternal. According to Stephen Hawking, almost every cosmologist now believes that the universe and time itself had a beginning at the singularity.

There is a difference between something existing necessarily and existing contingently. As Thomas Aquinas argued, nothing in the universe exists necessarily. Therefore, the existence of the universe must be grounded in a necessary being.

Atheist Opening Arguments

Rarity of existence is not evidence for design. Imagine a leaky window air conditioner in an office in the desert. The water from the air conditioner drips on one spot on the ground, making it fertile. If a plant grew in that fertile spot and were conscious, wouldn't that plant think: "I live in the only fertile spot as far as I can see. Surely this spot was designed just for me!"? Design arguments are fallacious, because they assign probability to events after the fact.

The universe came into existence without a personal cause. It is not true that whatever begins to exist has a cause, and just because time had a beginning does not mean God did it. God is a placeholder and an artificial construct of our minds. Positing him to explain anything does not advance knowledge, but is instead a God-of-the gaps argument.

Rational belief is anchored in what can be observed and tested scientifically. Since God is beyond the scope of science, belief in him is irrational.

If an all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving God existed, why does evil exist? An all-powerful God would be able to prevent evil from existing. An all-knowing God would know how to prevent evil from existing. An all-loving God would want to prevent evil from existing. Why then is there evil in the universe? Is it because of free will? Then why is it that we experience natural evil, such as tornadoes, earthquakes, and watching young children die slow and painful deaths of cancer?

Points of discussion during the cross-examination

Can we reach a conclusion as to whether God exists based on evidence, or is belief in God subjective, being neither verifiable nor falsifiable?

What is evil? The atheist group defined it as human suffering without justification.

In 2 Kings 2:22-24, the prophet Elisha was being insulted by a group of youths, mocking him for his baldness. God then called a group of bears to maul the youths to death. If this is the God of the universe, then is he worthy of worship, or should he be rejected?

Theist Rebuttal
The design arguments answer the question: "Is our situation the result of intelligence or non-intelligence?" The design arguments show that certain aspects of the universe, and even life itself, are better explained as being the product of intelligence than of necessity and chance alone.

The existence of natural evils does not mean that there is no creator. No religion claims that no evil exists. Also, the argument that suffering happens without a reason is unjustified. It starts with "I cannot see any reason why God would permit this" and commits a leap in logic to conclude "therefore there are no reasons why God would permit this."

Atheist Rebuttal
The theist argues that we live in an ordered universe, but what does a disordered universe look like. If you fill a balloon with sand and water and then pop it, the explosion will produce what looks like patterns, even though it is random.

Furthermore, even if there is fine-tuning in the universe that requires explanation, isn't God's fine-tuning in need of explanation as well?

Theist 2nd Rebuttal
Atheism leads inescapably to nihilism. If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist. In an atheistic universe, where would any sort of objective and prescriptive ought even come from?

The atheist will often assert that God has to be bound by the laws of the universe in order to act in it. Not at all. The relationship between God and the universe is like the relationship between an artist and his painting. The artist is free to create and interact with his painting without himself being bound by the painting.

The atheist believes that the God of the Bible is acting unjustifiably. Not so. Doesn't the owner of a house have authority over it? If God is the creator of the universe, then it is his universe, and he has the right to do with it as he pleases.

In regards to the design argument. If design exists, then by definition the existence of a designer follows necessarily and inescapably. And there is evidence of design. If you found a watch lying there in the forest, you would not think that it was the product of time and chance. Instead, you would instantly recognize its design. Similarly, highly complex machinery like the cell or the eye show more design than the watch.

Atheist 2nd Rebuttal
To say that atheism leads to nihilism is a very small-minded concept. Atheism can cope and be reconciled with moral realism. Since morality is simply the idea of minimizing suffering, why does God need to enter the picture?

It is the idea that morals are grounded in God that is incoherent. If God is a morally perfect being, then does he do good actions because they are good, or are the actions good because God does them. If the former, then morality isn't anchored in God after all. If the latter, then morality is arbitrary, for God could ordain rape, torture, and murder, and those would become the good. Atheists can also live very moral lives, and are underrepresented in prisons.

The watchmaker argument has been undercut by evolution. We know how simple things can gain the appearance of design through nothing more than time and chance. Our bodies also seem to be designed imperfectly, such as the eye, and therefore, could not have been designed.

Finally, God has no scientific basis of existing. so how can belief in him be rational?

My Thoughts
A good showing for both sides. The two sides engaged each other's arguments respectfully, without resort to personal attacks. This led to a very productive debate.

As you can see from the previous section, the debate was fairly one-sided. The theistic side gave four arguments for its position arguments for its position:

1. An argument from necessity
2. The Kalam Argument
3. A series of design arguments
4. A moral argument

The atheist side gave two arguments in favor of its position:

1. Argument from evil
2. Belief in God is not evidence-based

So we have four solid arguments on the theist side against one solid argument and one fallacious argument on the atheist side. Why is the second argument fallacious? Because there are things we all believe in that are not based on evidence. Specifically, the criteria for what counts as evidence are themselves not based on evidence, lest we be arguing in a circle.

So really it's four theistic arguments against one atheistic argument. Let's see how well they did:

Argument from necessity - Went unanswered. This argument goes through

Kalam argument - Challenged the premise that whatever begins to exist has a cause. When asked what can begin to exist without a cause, reply was "the universe." That's question-begging. However, since no arguments were given to support this premise, I'm not sure if this argument goes through.

Teleological Arguments - The watchmaker argument was properly answered. However, the argument from the initial conditions was answered with a blanket statement of "you can't calculate probability afterwards." Anyone who believes this statement should avoid a career in gambling enforcement. How can you possibly catch a cheater if you can't calculate probability afterwards? Another objection is that God requires just as much fine-tuning, although it was never shown why God would require such fine-tuning (and wouldn't any fine-tuning or complexity be explainable by necessity, anyway). This argument goes through.

Moral Argument - The theist side challenged that if God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist. The atheist side responded that there is an objective moral value system apart from God, namely, reducing suffering. No response to this objection from the theist side. This argument is answered.

Argument From Evil - The atheist side argued that an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good God would not allow evil to exist. The theist side responded that first, this argument does nothing to refute the existence of a creator. Also, if it is possible that God has sufficient reasons for allowing evil, then God is compatible with evil, and just because you can't see any reasons why God would allow evil does not mean that there are no such reasons. This argument is answered.

This debate was a lot of fun to watch, and I look forward to many more debates.

Bonus: Dan's Disastrous Downfall
The Kalam Cosmological argument is one of the most misunderstood arguments out there. Dan Barker in particular, whose arguments the atheist side borrowed, badly misunderstands why something that begins to exist needs a cause. First, let me lay out three assumptions that I share with Barker.

1. An event is a change in the state of affairs. When an electron moves around a nucleus, that is an event. When light moves through space, that is an event. When a mind produces a thought, that is an event.

2. Time is a sequence of events occurring one after another. When there are no events, there is no time.

3. There is not an infinite number of past events. The past is finite, meaning that there was a first event.

Barker's booming blunder is his assumption that because time began to exist, there is no state of affairs before the first event, and therefore the universe can exist necessarily because there was no time before the universe was. "Asking what existed before the first event is like asking what is north of the north pole." Barker confuses the fact that there was no time before the first event (indeed, the idea of events before the first event is self-contradictory) with the notion that there was no state of affairs before the first event. In fact, if there was a first event, then there had to be some unchanging and therefore timeless state of affairs prior to it. The question is: what was that state of affairs?

On an atheistic view, there was nothing, except perhaps abstract objects such as numbers. How then did this state of affairs give rise to matter, energy, time, and space? If the cause was an impersonal set of sufficient conditions, then it can't exist timelessly, as it is inseparable from its effect. Only a personal agent, an unembodied consciousness can exist timelessly, and then act.

Once you realize this, then admission to those three assumptions leads necessarily and inescapably to a personal creator.