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Sunday, October 19, 2008

Which makes more sense: The Aftermath

I thought I'd give a bit of a rundown on the debate between myself and Mike Paget on 'Which makes more sense, atheism or Christianity?'


First of all, I'd like to thank the AFA for giving me the opportunity to represent them once again. To find out more about the AFA, you can check out their website or become a member.

In preparation, I had read some books by Michael Shermer, Christopher Hitchens etc. and was sent a link to a great archive of mp3s of debates, including William Lane Craig vs Robert Price, Vic Stenger, Paul Kurtz. Lennox vs Dawkins, Michael Licona vs Dan Barker, and heaps more.

But as for the debate itself, I think it was a good night and everyone that came would have been a little challenged. I was incredibly nervous before hand, especially when the seats had all been filled and there were just as many people standing as there were sitting. I couldn't estimate how many there were, but the theater was packed like sardines, with people sitting in the aisles and on the floor at the front, standing at the back and in the corridor. It was terrific to see so many people interested in thinking about these issues.


We will get video and audio of the debate up asap (they couldn't give us the MP3 afterwards as they had agreed to) as we had many Sydney Atheists members recording in various formats. It's now just a case of finding someone who captured the whole lot, (most people's devices failed in the last 10 minutes due to the presence of an interactionalist deity who must have thought it worth his time to turn up just in case Mike proved his existence, allowing him to finally come out of hiding... or through random chance operating against our favour) and making it available for download.

If you have recordings from the night, please contact me at criticalmass@live.com.au


I was much more nervous about the questions from the floor, and to make matters worse, it was ridiculously hot and I was sweating like a pig by the time they came around. The questions weren't too bad, but I don't think I answered them as well as I could have, had I been given some preparation time. I found question time to be the most challenging, as I prefer to think things out and prepare my arguments, rather than thinking on my feet, but having had the experience I will be working on building up my answers to the types of questions people are likely to ask.


Afterwards, there were heaps of people that came up and congratulated me, and a lot less that wanted to argue with me.

It was a terrific experience to be involved in this debate. Each time I get to do one of these things I feel terribly under-prepared, especially so as this was my first time speaking in front of a crowd, but pushing myself has the benefit of improving my knowledge on the subjects. I look forward to my next opportunity to do something, but for now I have a brand new puppy to play with...

17 comments:

  1. You rocked Alan! (and everybody forgives you a little sweat, it was baking in there)

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  2. You might have been sweating like a pig Alan, but I was watching Paget very closely and there were moments I felt he was being consumed by his own fires with such lame arguments. Congratulations on a great debate and I look forward to your tour dates!

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  3. Alan, I thought you did a very good job as an articulate, thoughtful advocate of atheism. I felt exactly the same as you - very nervous, terribly unprepared, stinking hot and frustrated with the quality of many of my responses. I certainly didn't walk away thinking that I'd been a devastating intellectual on the floor, and I'll keep cautioning 'my team' not to characterise the debate as one-sided, because we need to work better at hearing your arguments.

    You also said so many things that deserved longer and more thought out responses. The problem with the debate format meant that so much had to be overlooked or dealt with only very briefly. it would be good to work out a way to focus on a tighter topic next time, perhaps, to allow a fuller engagement.

    I'm also sorry we couldn't get the mp3 to you immediately as we hoped (not promised) to do. we haven't posted it yet either. I have no plans to listen to it again, but am happy to interact with any of your reflections if you choose to do so.

    As for mags - thanks for looking out for me :-). Not sure I agree with your interpretation of my 'inner fires', but it's always fun to be described like a character from the Bold and the Beautiful...

    Here's a final irony though, after all our stress and exhaustion. Both atheists and Christians believe that this issue (a) matters and (b) can be approached with reasonable argument. My neighbour's observation: I don't think religion or atheism is anything that can be sorted out rationally; it's just up to the individual. That's Australia, folks.

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  4. Hey Alan,

    Thanks heaps for speaking - I can understand why you were nervous, and all that heat wasn't really conducive to clear thinking on either side! Whilst I disagree with many of your arguments (sorry, nothing personal, I'm sure you understand!), I really loved hearing what you had to say, and despite it being your first go, I think you did really well! I think it's really important that these things be discussed with respect and decorum (mind you, decorum seemed to escape a few of the audience members in the first few rows...). Be encouraged - you did well!

    Cheers,
    Katie

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  5. To Katie
    It's very hard to sit and listen to a continual misrepresentation to the correct definition of Atheism which is a lack of belief in a god. Mike either does not understand the definition or he deliberately employs this tactical falsity to confuse the argument.

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  6. Hi Mags,

    Yes, I realise that must be frustrating. But you know, I guess you have to expect that kind of thing to happen in a highly charged debate such as that where both sides feel strongly convicted. I mean, I would imagine most Christians there, myself included, found some of the things Alan had to say difficult to stomach and felt that he misrepresented where we stand as well - the parody of Christian belief give by Alan is an example I suppose. But you have to be able to listen and take it all with a grain of salt at times like that because otherwise none of us would get anywhere and it would have just resulted in a slandering match - not an attractive outcome, I'm sure you'd agree! :) Sometimes it really is worth just putting thing to the side for a bit just for the joy of listening and learning how others think and see the world - it's an immensely freeing thing! :) Sorry if I offended you Mags - certainly not intended.

    Cheers,
    Katie

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  7. Mags, I'm really not trying to misrepresent atheism. I just think that your definition (and, keep in mind, not all atheists agree with your definition, and very few in any academic role) is philosophically naive. It looks clever for a moment, but falls apart under examination. No belief in god does not entail no belief about god, and it's pretty clear that atheists have some strong pyschological commitments in this area, to borrow Alan's language.

    Now, I understand why atheists have tried to extricate themselves from the full burden of proof which early atheism assumed when it tried to argue the non-existence of god. But I'm worried that you have dug a deeper hole with this 'null hypothesis' nonsense. You don't need to employ that kind of rhetorical strategy, and I don't think atheists need it to make their point.

    I've got a fuller argument at http://mhpaget.blogspot.com/2008/10/which-makes-more-sense.html.

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  8. Well done to both of you, Alan and Mike. It certainly was hot in there, and you both did very well for a first debate.

    Mike, you may not be trying to misrepresent our position, but you are. Alan provided a clear definition of atheism multiple times, and you failed to define it further, which you should have done if you did not agree. You cannot just merely assert that Alan's definition is wrong without offering an alternative.

    Atheism is NOT belief that there is no god/s. You are actually saying that atheism is what is called "gnostic atheism", which says "I KNOW there is no god, and I also don't believe in a god". WE ARE NOT GNOSTIC ATHEISTS. To be precise, we are agnostic atheists, that is "we don't claim to know there is no god, but we also don't believe". These positions are sometimes referred to as strong and weak atheism. Replace 'god' with Loch Ness Monster, the Invisible Man, fairies etc and your position will (probably) be the same towards those claims. Very few academics agree with this definition??? Only the one's for which it benefits their position, which are christians like John Lennox. Perhaps if you stop just reading christian apologist literature you may be exposed to information that is not only from a christian viewpoint.

    This is a wiki by the Atheist Community of Austin, and it clearly defines these terms. Please read it.

    http://wiki.ironchariots.org/index.php?title=Atheist_vs._agnostic

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  9. Thanks for directing me to this site, Rachel. I had actually read it, though, having spent a little time at the Austin site before the debate. Let me try to explain what concerns me. Feel free to show me the holes in my argument!

    I do not object your right to offer this definition for 'weak atheism': "we don't claim to know there is no god, but we also don't believe". What I object to is the notion that this (a) makes sense and (b) somehow represents a kind of epistemic neutrality.

    The second half of the claim is 'we don't believe that there is a god'. Notice that the Austin guys get this right: they don't try the disastrous rhetorical trick of saying, 'we have no belief(s) about god.' That's because they understand that to say 'we don't believe that there is a god' entails certain beliefs about god, such as non-existence.

    The difference between the first clause and the second is one of justification. Classically, knowledge entails that something be true, be justified, and be believed. If you believe that there is no God, but do not claim to know that there is no god, then it means one of two things. On the one hand, you could believe that the non-existence of god is false (i.e. not true), and so your belief would not be knowledge. But this would be a logical contradiction (because you would be believing in the non-existence of god and disbelieving in it at the same time). Or you could believe that you cannot justify your belief in the non-existence of god.

    But this second case is obviously false, too, as you evidently try very hard to justify your non-belief in god. From this I can only conclude that the statement "we don't claim to know there is no god, but we also don't believe" is illogical - it is nonsense.

    Furthermore, to say "we don't belief in a god" entails a whole set of other beliefs. For example, that religion is a natural phenomenon. That morality is non-absolute. And so on.

    In other words, without having to move beyond atheism into humanism or naturalism, one belief becomes a whole set of beliefs - in other words, a belief system.

    As for Christian apologetics literature... I actually have very little. I own Alister McGrath's book, 'The Dawkins Delusion'. Oh, and I've just bought, but haven't read, Tim Keller's 'The Reason for God.' That's it. I don't want to repeat other people's arguments ad nauseam. Besides, I don't know if anyone has actually written about this more refined definition of atheism that you guys are using.

    Anyway, I hope you see that I'm not trying to assert anything at all. I really want to understand your perspective, without putting words in your mouth! At the same time, if something doesn't make sense logically, that just makes it pretty much impossible to understand!

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  10. Sorry, in my final paragraph, I should have said: 'If something doesn't make sense logicallyto me...' It's entirely possible I've missed something.

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  11. Mike Paget:

    “I do not object your right to offer this definition for 'weak atheism': "we don't claim to know there is no god, but we also don't believe". What I object to is the notion that this (a) makes sense and (b) somehow represents a kind of epistemic neutrality.”

    This statement about weak atheism makes perfect sense, and represents two separate positions. One about belief and one about knowledge. The misunderstanding derives from people thinking that atheism is a positive position, when it is by definition is a response position to theism. By substituting the word god, for any other metaphysical claim, such as “I don't claim to know there is no Horus, but I don't believe Horus exists.” reveals the strength of the position. Another way to make this statement would to be “the existence of god has not met its burden of proof for knowledge, therefore I don't believe that god exists.”

    Mike Paget:

    “The second half of the claim is 'we don't believe that there is a god'. Notice that the Austin guys get this right: they don't try the disastrous rhetorical trick of saying, 'we have no belief(s) about god.' That's because they understand that to say 'we don't believe that there is a god' entails certain beliefs about god, such as non-existence.”

    I think that you need to restate this is a clearer way, it seems as though you are making a category mistake about belief in and belief about, but it could just be muddy language.

    Mike Paget:

    “The difference between the first clause and the second is one of justification. Classically, knowledge entails that something be true, be justified, and be believed. If you believe that there is no God, but do not claim to know that there is no god, then it means one of two things. On the one hand, you could believe that the non-existence of god is false (i.e. not true), and so your belief would not be knowledge. But this would be a logical contradiction (because you would be believing in the non-existence of god and disbelieving in it at the same time). Or you could believe that you cannot justify your belief in the non-existence of god.”

    “But this second case is obviously false, too, as you evidently try very hard to justify your non-belief in god. From this I can only conclude that the statement "we don't claim to know there is no god, but we also don't believe" is illogical - it is nonsense.”

    Mike this is why atheism is a position of belief, not knowledge. It doesn't matter what you “know”. For example you could say to me “I know there is a god, as he revealed himself to me”, and yes that would count as knowledge - but only to you. I would respond by saying to you “that's great, can you demonstrate that knowledge to me”. If you can only tell me a story of your revelation, then what is knowledge to you, is anecdote to me, and there we have the basis of all religious systems.

    Mike Paget:

    “Furthermore, to say "we don't belief in a god" entails a whole set of other beliefs. For example, that religion is a natural phenomenon. That morality is non-absolute. And so on.”

    This is just not true. Not believing in a god, does not lead to any other philosophical positions. For example I could believe that there is no god, and that religion is a supernatural phenomena from would building space pixies and they provide absolute morality.

    Mike Paget:

    “In other words, without having to move beyond atheism into humanism or naturalism, one belief becomes a whole set of beliefs - in other words, a belief system.”

    Mike you need to realise that a world view can not be derived from the negation of a belief.

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  12. Mike Paget

    "Classically, knowledge entails that something be true, be justified, and be believed."

    While i agree with this definition it is important to be explicit that implied by justification is demonstrability.

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  13. Lloyd, your responses demonstrate the problem of your definition. I'll take the example you supplied. You claim '“I don't claim to know there is no Horus, but I don't believe Horus exists.” reveals the strength of the position.' However, it does just the opposite. It highlights that the issue is not at all the use of the word 'god' in the sentence, but the fact that the sentence itself regardless of the object (God/Horus/space fairies) does not make sense.

    Let's take the Horus example. I could say I do not believe in Horus, but do not claim to know that Horus does not exist. Here is the problem. Knowledge entails belief, truth and justification. If I do not claim to know that Horus exists, then I am saying either:

    (a) I do not believe he does not exist; or
    (b) While I believe he does not exist, this is not knowledge, because I do not believe this that his non-existence is true; or
    (c) I cannot justify my belief in Horus' non-existence.

    (a) is contradicted by the second clause: I do not believe Horus exists. (b) in internally contradictory. (c) depends on behaviour, and if the behaviour of aHorusists is like that of atheists, then aHorusists actually work quite hard to justify their position.

    In other words, whatever you replace 'god' with, you end up with a nonsense statement. It is inherently self-contradictory. This is the second time I've run through this little process I like to call logic and I've yet to see you have a shot at the basic argument.

    Your problem is that your interactions don't demonstrate an understanding of what is commonly called 'knowledge' and what is commonly called 'belief' in epistemology. To quote '“I know there is a god, as he revealed himself to me”, and yes that would count as knowledge - but only to you.' If something is only knowledge to me, then it is not knowledge at all - it is simply belief. Belief and knowledge are differentiated by knowledge's additional attributes of justification and truth.

    What I think you guys are trying to say is: 'we believe there is no god, but we don't claim to be sure.' That's quite a different thing. In fact, it's old-fashioned agnosticism, with a lean towards divine non-existence. 'Agnostic atheism' is just a furphy, as I've demonstrated above.

    Secondly, 'morality from space fairies' would not be absolute. It would still be contingent, being dependent on the moral framework of contingent beings. 'Absolute' morality is non-contingent.

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  14. Mike, you fail to understand that knowledge claims and belief claims are completely separate questions and are NOT mutually exclusive. If you asked me "do you believe in a god" and I said "I am agnostic", that answer has failed to answer the question! You either believe in a god, making you a theist, and everything else is atheism. If you say "I don't know what I believe" then you are still an atheist, because you lack belief. Our position cannot be contradictory as they are two DIFFERENT questions.

    Mike, you are clearly an atheist toward every other god claim, we just go one god further.

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  15. Hi Rach,

    Just saying that knowledge and belief are entirely different things does not make it so. For example, one cannot claim to 'know' something without also having a 'belief' that it is true.

    Classically, philosophy defines the two as follows. Belief can be summarised, as Alan has earlier, as a psychological commitment to an idea. Knowledge arises where belief is joined by justification and truth.

    Now, you are of course free to move away from the commonly accepted definitions of these words to import a new semantic load. But perhaps when you do so you might flag it, perhaps by writing knowledge* and belief*. ;-)

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  16. I enjoyed the debate immensely, and you didn't come across as unprepared, at all.

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