Michael Shermer on the Mexico Debate


In November, I participated in a three-on-three debate with three atheists, Richard Dawkins, Michael Shermer, and Michael Ridley. This was part of an international conference held in Puebla, Mexico. (See my account here.)

On January 17, 2011, Michael Shermer offered his take on our debate.

I’m inclined to comment briefly on a few of his remarks. Here are ten distinct points to consider.

First, in describing the debate, Michael refers to me and to William Lane Craig as theologians. Just for the record, my field is philosophy. My theology friends would no doubt want people to be clear about that.

On to more substantive points in Michael’s commentary:

Second, Michael argues in his review of the debate that arguments for the existence of God are irrelevant to the question, “Does the universe have a purpose?” This is a hard sell, for several reasons: (1) during the debate, the atheists wanted to be known as atheists who had a different conception of the purpose of the universe than we, the theists—so by their own testimony, what one believes about the existence of God makes a difference to what one thinks about the purpose of the universe; (2) the atheists took pains to repudiate our arguments for the existence of God (though they did not offer substantive objections to the arguments we presented); (3) the atheists were in disagreement with each other about whether the universe has a purpose; (4) of course the universe has a deep purpose if it was purposively created by God (as we argued), and does not have a deep purpose if its existence is not grounded in purposeful agency (as they believe).

Third, Michael has to state a very qualified sense in which the universe does not have a purpose, even if God does exist. He says, “whether there is a God or not, the universe per se cannot have a purpose in any anthropomorphic sense for which that term is usually employed.” This is a pretty baffling remark. Michael seems to confuse two senses of purpose, one where the universe has a purpose per se, and another where the universe has a purpose in some anthropomorphic sense. Since these two apparently separable senses are conflated by the grammar of his sentence, it’s nigh impossible to know what Michael is saying.

As a naturalist, and consistent with how he argued in the debate and has usually argued in debates with me, Michael must deny that the universe has a purpose in any ultimate sense. This may be what he means by his use of “per se.” So if the universe has a purpose at all, it will be relative to human interests. That is, the universe will have a purpose in a strictly “anthropomorphic” sense.

But this is what you have to say if you are a naturalist. It is not what theist’s believe. Again, Michael is mistaken. By his own conception of what “purpose” means, the existence or non-existence of God makes a difference to whether the universe has a deep, transcendent purpose. The theist says it does, and the naturalist says it does not.

Fourth, there is a practical difference, as well. A theist who believes that the universe has a purpose that is determined by God’s own purposes as Creator of the universe will want to know what this means for his own existence, so that he might live wisely and welcome human flourishing on God’s own terms.

Fifth, the atheists we debated have a stake in maintaining that it really makes no difference what one believes about God, since life is meaningful in any case. But whatever meaning the atheist wants to attribute to human existence, it will be whatever meaning humans can make of life without reference to God’s providential purposes. I can admire the moxie of such humanistic optimists. But I cannot agree that the meaning they manufacture in their way is the same meaning that my life has if God exists and if obedience to God’s loving will is the great condition for transcendent human significance.

Sixth, Michael asserts, without argument or evidence, that the laws of nature “have no purpose other than what they dictate matter and energy to do.” Here he betrays that he is a determinist. So I do not know what purpose could even be freely imagined, adopted, and pursued by human persons. After all, on his view, we are but by-products of the swirling mass of matter and energy that, in accordance with the laws of nature, dictate everything that happens.

Here again, Michael assumes that naturalism is true, and then infers that it must therefore make no difference whether there is a God when we ask whether the universe has a purpose. But what explains the existence of laws of nature? He may think there is no explanation. But the theist attributes their existence to the purposeful decision by God to create a universe that functions in accordance with such laws. These laws owe their existence and operation to God, and are operable only insofar as God deigns to leave them alone in their ordering of physical events. A supernatural being is sovereign over the natural laws. Hence, non-natural events are possible and will occur if God chooses to act supernaturally in the world of physical events.

Further, God has created human purposes, in God’s own likeness, with powers of self-determination, so that laws of nature do not strictly determine everything that happens.

Seventh, Michael mocks the notion that stellar stuff ponders its own purpose, as if this ludicrous notion would have to be true in order for the universe to have a purpose. This odd move invites four comments: (1) none of us suggested such a thing, nor is there any basis for thinking that we did, would, or should hold to such nonsense; (2) on Shermer’s view, human beings are little different than star stuff, and it would be as odd to attribute genuine thoughts and deliberations about purpose to humans as it would be to attribute such activities to stars; (3) but of course, we do attribute genuine thoughts, deliberations, and concerns about purpose to human persons, and this is evidence that Shermer’s general worldview is mistaken and that there are “objects in the universe” that have these powers; (4) while stars are naturally indifferent about the purposes they serve, that they serve a divine purpose is of real consequence for us.

Eighth, Michael boldly asserts that “life began with the most basic purpose of all,” that of “survival and reproduction.” How does he know this? Can he tell us how life began? If he cannot—and I’m sure he cannot, otherwise he would have told us by now—then how does he know what “purpose” is served by the existence of life?

Ninth, Michael contradicts himself when he says in one paragraph that even H. sapiens (that’s us!) do not sit around thinking about the purpose of things, and then says in the next paragraph that we are imbued “with a sense of cosmic purpose.” The paragraph after that begins, “Human beings have an evolved sense of purpose—a psychological desire to accomplish a goal.” Hmm. Then we come to the next paragraph: “How we define our purposeful lives may be personal . . . .” So we do define our “purposeful lives” personally. But how, if all is dictated by the laws of nature?

A couple paragraphs later, Michael compounds his inconsistency, admonishing us about how we should live. In answer to the question, “What type of purposefulness should we practice?” he describes specific purposes that he values. But why should anyone value these things? And what, in any case, could we really do to advance them—again, if all is determined?

Tenth, Michael concludes his article with the same proposal that ended his remarks at the debate. He invites theists and other non-atheists to try being an atheist “for an hour,” so that we all may see how little difference it would make to our lives. He has this backwards. Anyone who tries to be a genuine atheist without noticing a difference in his life either must not have oriented his life to the principles of theism, or he has failed to be an atheist, even for an hour.

I encourage you to read Michael Shermer’s account for yourself here. If I have erred in my understanding of his argument, feel free to comment on this post.

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Shermer, Ridley, and Dawkins vs. Craig, Wolpe, and Geivett: Retrospective on the Debate


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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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).
  4. 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.)
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. 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.
  13. 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.
  14. 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.
  15. 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.
  16. 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.
  17. 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.
  18. 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:

“Does the Universe Have a Purpose?”—A Debate in Mexico, November 13, 2010


November 13, 2010, Doug participated in a three-on-three debate on the question “Does the Universe Have a Purpose?” Location: Puebla, Mexico Venue: BUAP Benemerita Universidad Autónoma De Puebla Address: Vía Atlixcáyotl No. 2499, San Andrés Cholula. C.P. 72810. Puebla This debate was part of the third annual Festival Internacional de Mentes Brillantes (English: International Festival of Great Minds). The general theme of the conference was: “The Origins of the Future—A Life Experience: Rebirth.” Debate participants: Matt Ridley, Michael Shermer, and Richard Dawkins vs. Rabbi David Wolpe, William Lane Craig, and R. Douglas Geivett, with comments by Michio Kaku. Date: Saturday, November 13, 2010 Time: 10:00 a.m. – 12:00 p.m. For program details, go here and here. The conference began November 11 and concluded November 13. Other conference speakers included: Malcolm Gladwell, Sheena Iyengar, Elizabeth Pisani, Nancy Lee Etcoff, David M. Buss, Steven Pinker, Nancy Segal, Jared Diamond, and others. If you plan to attend the conference, Doug welcomes the opportunity to meet you and to hear from you in the comments box of this post. Post-debate update: A couple of changes were made to the debate format. Richard Dawkins took the place of Michio Kaku on the atheist side, and Michio Kaku was given the opportunity to speak from the position of declaring the question of God’s existence “undecidable.” The entire debate can now be seen and heard on YouTube here (in English) and here (in Spanish). It’s estimated that some 3,000 people attended the debate. At the end of the day, the debate was broadcast on Mexican national television, with an estimated two million viewers. Doug looks forward to hearing from anyone who was at the debate or has seen it on television or YouTube. Please leave your comments in the comments box for this post! Post-Debate Reflections: I’ve recorded a number of my own reflections about the debate here. Other Posts about this Debate:

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