Shermer, Ridley, and Dawkins vs. Craig, Wolpe, and Geivett: Retrospective on the Debate
November 23, 2010 38 Comments
I’ve finally returned home after two weeks of travel and speaking, which included a debate in Puebla Mexico. I posted details about the event here prior to leaving for Mexico. There you’ll find links to English and Spanish versions of YouTube recordings of the debate.
I’ve had the chance to read some reactions posted in the blogosphere about this debate. I now want to list some specific points and observations of my own, partly to add clarity and partly to set the record straight about some things I’ve seen written.
I hope you’ll watch the debate and leave your objective evaluation in the comments box of this post.
- Usually, a debate question features one side taking the affirmative and the other side taking the negative. Here, the question for debate was “Does the universe have a purpose?” It was obvious from the correspondence I received from the debate organizers that I was to team with two individuals who agreed in taking the affirmative, and that the other three would take the negative—that is, they would deny that the universe has a purpose.
- The three of us on the affirmative side—William Lane Craig, David Wolpe, and Doug Geivett—all believe that whether the universe has a purpose depends on whether or not God exists. So we could argue that the universe does have a purpose if God exists, even if time did not allow for detailed arguments that God in fact exists. It would be up to the others—Matt Ridley, Michael Shermer, and Richard Dawkins—to argue that the universe does not have a purpose. Presumably, they would have to include arguments that God does not exist, since that would be crucial to their claim that the universe does not have a purpose. Or, they might argue that even if God exists, the universe does not have a purpose.
- The moderator introduced us as “theists” and “atheists,” and framed the debate as a debate between theists, who affirm the existence of God, and atheists, who deny the existence of God. Thus, two questions were conflated from the beginning: (1) “Does the universe have a purpose?” and (2) “Does God exist?” The question for any participant, then, was whether to focus on question (1) or question (2).
- Each of the six of us was allotted exactly six minutes for initial arguments. We were timed and stopped at six minutes. Strict enforcement of time limits is characteristic of debates, but not always understood by observers. I’ve noticed that some who’ve commented on the debate at various blogs have remarked that the moderator should not have interrupted debaters when they were about to make an important point. (The debate was part of a larger conference program.)
- Rebuttals were limited to three minutes each. Following rebuttals, Michio Kaku was permitted time for a few comments on the debate through that point. His remarks were followed by 90-second closing statements.
- The decision about which side would go first was determined by a coin toss. The atheist side won the coin toss and Matt Ridley went first. Each team was permitted to sequence its presenters in the order they preferred. Our side followed the order Craig-Wolpe-Geivett for all three components of the debate. We made our decision based on the tasks we each had agreed to perform during the debate. In my judgment, this sequence proved to be effective.
- How did the opposing teams work together as teams? It should be obvious that our team of theists worked very closely together. Our individual presentations complemented each other neatly and intentionally. We provided a united front in our presentation of evidence and response to objections. We worked together across the board. To illustrate, in his rebuttal, Bill Craig used a brief that I had prepared in response to the problem of evil, should it come up. Collectively, we argued for two main contentions: (1) If God exists, then the universe has a purpose, and (2) If God does not exist, then the universe does not have a purpose.
- Close observers will understand that our two main contentions directly addressed the published topic of the debate: “Does the universe have a purpose?” Further, they speak to the question of God’s existence in a direct manner. Third, as conditional statements, they do not require for their support any argument that God does, in fact, exist. Fourth, we repeated these two contentions for two primary reasons. First, to remind the audience of our claims, as debaters on both sides took turns speaking. This is a matter of effective communication. Second, to remind the atheist team that this was our position and that it was this that they must address in their response to us. This is a matter of holding the other side accountable to the actual arguments we mustered during the debate. I’ve seen some in the blogosphere complain that I repeated our two fundamental claims in my opening statement. But this was after David Wolpe’s opening statement, which did not repeat the claims, and three opening statements by the atheists. Nearly half an hour had passed since the two claims had been explicitly stated.
- In his opening statement, Bill Craig explained why the universe would have purpose if God exists, thus supporting our first contention. He then acknowledged that whether the universe actually does have purpose, supposing our two contentions are true, depends on the existence of God. So he used the balance of his six minutes to list several arguments for the existence of God, which all have been developed in detail in his books. In effect, he placed them on the table for the atheist side to refute.
- In his opening statement, David Wolpe developed the argument from fine-tuning for the existence of God, and hence of purpose for the universe. He then drew a close existential connection between this argument and the human quest for meaning and purpose.
- I my opening statement, then, I—Doug Geivett—recalled our two main contentions, then addressed the possibility that some on the other side would argue that the universe has purpose even if God does not exist. Following that, I developed an argument, not often heard in debates, that our very interest in the question of the debate is evidence that God does exist.
- So the trajectory of our three arguments on the theist side was itself purposeful and progressive. Together they represented an eighteen-minute opening argument for theism and purpose. If you put these together in the order in which they were presented, you’ll see that they made for a natural progression, with a build-up along the way toward a climax.
- It would be absurd, then, to expect any one of us to “carry the day” within the narrow scope of our individual presentations. For example, it’s ridiculous to scold Bill Craig for failing to develop theistic arguments more fully. Considered as a unified whole, our three opening statements complement and serve each other.
- Now what about the atheist side? This is my opinion and people are free to disagree, but I believe the atheists operated much more independently of each other, and even contradicted each other. In his opening statement, Matt Ridley argued against the idea that the universe has a purpose. Michael Shermer, on the other hand, argued for purpose, precisely as I predicted he would when Bill Craig and David Wolpe and I discussed strategy prior to the debate. This is why my opening statement includes a response to this type of claim with a special argument for the existence of God (see description above), and why my opening statement was third in the series. The atheists struggled to clarify the distinction between purpose in the universe and purpose on the level of human existence. Thus, they seemed sometimes to be arguing against purpose and sometimes to be arguing for purpose.
- While the atheists alluded to the argument from evil against theism, no one developed the argument in any detail. This was quite surprising and seemed to me a missed opportunity for their side. Of course, we were prepared for something more strenuous, and Bill Craig did address the argument, even more fully than it had been presented. Notice, too, that Craig’s response compounded the evidence we presented for the existence of God, since it embedded an argument from evil for theism. The atheists never had another word to say about this. Nor did the atheists answer my argument for theism. And in response the Wolpe’s fine-tuning argument, they simply mentioned the possibility of multiple universes and the like.
- Richard Dawkins is hero to many atheists today. So his participation and relation to the other two atheists deserves special notice. You’ll find that Dawkins made numerous assertions and almost no arguments. If you disagree, you should be able to reconstruct his arguments by identifying individual premises and specific conclusions. So far, those who have praised Dawkins’s performance in the debate, all of whom have been atheists themselves, have not attempted this reconstruction. I urge them to try. I will gladly address carefully reconstructed arguments in the comments section of this post. Dawkins called religious belief “pathetic” and accused Bill Craig of making an emotional argument. As I stated in my brief closing statement, it was Dawkins, more than anyone else, who made an “emotional argument.” First, he gave no arguments against the existence of God. Second, he offered no rebuttals of the arguments we presented, and third, he dismissed religious belief as pathetic without argument. If I’m wrong about any of this, I would be happy to see evidence of my error and respond to whatever arguments he did present.
- There has been considerable commentary about the “Craig vs. Dawkins debate” as a result of this event. Prior to this debate, Richard Dawkins had refused all invitations to debate Bill Craig. It’s for this reason that Bill was surprised to learn that Dawkins had agreed to participate in this debate. This, clearly, was the safest venue for Dawkins to appear in debate with Craig, since it was a three-on-three debate with unusually brief allocations of time for each speaker. But Dawkins was not debating Bill Craig only. He was in debate with three theists, in partnership with two fellow atheists. There was nothing the least bit threatening or intimidating about Dawkins on this occasion. I would happily debate him in a one-on-one situation. So if he prefers not to debate Bill Craig, for whatever reason, he’s welcome to debate with me.
- Some have criticized the moderator of the debate for the style of his facilitation. But people fail to consider the total context of the debate. This was but one of many events scheduled in a three-day conference. Also, the debate was aired at the end of the day following the much-watched boxing match between Manny Pacquiao and Antonio Margarito. Hence, the pugilism metaphor so emphasized during the debate. I happen to know that some who watched the boxing match on Mexican television stayed tuned to channel 7 and watched the debate. I’ve heard it estimated that around 2 million viewers have seen the debate as a result. Andreas Roemer seems to have good instincts about how to raise public awareness of an event worthy of more attention.
Again, I hope to hear from you with your reflections about the debate. Before leaving comments, you may want to review the comments policy for this blog here.
Other places where the debate is being discussed:
- David Wolpe’s account at The Huffington Post
- Michael Shermer’s Account of the Debate
- Apologetics Guy, Mikel del Rosario
- If you wish to see comments by fevered supporters of Richard Dawkins, click here and here
- Atheist Media Blog
- Premier Community
- Wintery Knight here.
- Apologetics 315 and here and here
- Rational Skepticism
- TheoBlog (in German/auf Deutsch)
- The Richard Dawkins Foundation
- Debunking Christianity
- Josué Ferrer: “Falacia atea”