Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Debating the atheist: Feinstein vs Glasser

Russell Glasser vs Stephen Feinstein?

This summer and fall, Christian pastor Stephen Feinstein and Russell Glasser, from the Atheist Experience TV show, agreed to hold a debate using the format of alternating blog posts.

I'm not sure if there was a specific topic chosen, other than the obvious. But links to the entire debate can be found here. (Afterwards, there were follow-up posts here and here.)

I really like the idea of a written debate, where the claims from both sides remain for fact-checking and follow-up. It also means that skill in public speaking - how you're presenting yourself - doesn't overshadow what you're saying.

Admittedly, both men probably have roughly-equivalent experience in speaking to an audience, but I do like this format. The results... well, the results were about what I should have expected, I guess.

In his first post, Pastor Feinstein said, "I argue from the outset for the Christian position only, and I affirm that the Christian worldview is the only worldview that is possible given the preconditions of intelligibility."

He also said that he would explain "why I believe atheism is untenable, irrational, and ultimately impossible."

Feinstein then set out the Christian position as he sees it. Interestingly, since I hadn't heard this particular claim before, Feinstein said that the Trinity - "one God who exists as three persons" - had to be true, because you can't have a "person" unless other people exist, too. Without it, God wouldn't have had a personality before he created human beings.

So, according to Feinstein, before the Creation, God had a personal relationship with himself! Apparently, his split-personality sat around chatting for eternity, before deciding to create other people. (The evidence for this? There isn't any.)

OK, this thought wasn't continued during the debate, but I thought it was rather odd, not least because this seems to imply that Jesus existed long before his mother did. I mean, isn't Jesus supposed to be one of the Trinity? Well, I don't know. As I say, it seemed odd, but I guess that hardly matters if there's no evidence any of this is actually true.

Anyway, Feinstein pointed out that everyone has presuppositions and claimed that atheism had "a number of huge problems that savage it." But since they had plenty of time, he wasn't actually going to get into those problems in this post. That would come later. (It never did.)

However, "I hope by the end of this all, you can see very clearly where I am coming from and seek to know the Lord Jesus Christ."

In his reply, Russell Glasser readily agreed to Feinstein's claim that everyone has presuppositions, saying "you’ve got no argument from me on that point." But he suggested they start by identifying the areas where they agree, suggesting these three:
  1. that the natural world actually exists in the first place [not a particularly controversial claim, I'd think];

  2. that "The primary way we receive raw information about the world is through our senses, which are not totally reliable, but not completely unreliable either;"

  3. that "Some kind of reasonable standards are necessary to filter out the different things we do and don’t believe in. ... You and I are ultimately going to come up with different ways we apply those standards, but I think you’ll agree that there’s no point in an argument where we just say “This is what I believe, and it is true because I believe it.” We’ve got reasons for what we believe."

He concluded, "For me as an atheist humanist scientific skeptic, here’s one of my primary principles: All else being equal, it’s better not to assume that something is true without good reasons."

In his second post, Feinstein seemed to agree with those three points, but with one revision: "I would add that apart from our senses, we learn maybe as much from logic or deduction as we do from sense experience."

Note that Feinstein clearly wants to use logic, rather than evidence, to support his positions. Since he doesn't have any evidence, that's probably wise of him. But it very much brings to mind that transcendental argument for God tactic I blogged about on Sunday.

He also claimed there had to be "preconditions" to account for Russell's three areas of agreement. However - and this came to be a real pattern in this debate - "It is too early in the debate for me to give specifics."

Note how Feinstein said the same thing in his first post. Well, he repeated it several times in this one, too. He was going to do great things,... just not right now:
No my friend. I will give you a lot of evidence. I will use much reasoning and logic. I will fall back to epistemology frequently. And at the end of it, your position will no longer justifiably be called as rational. To see it as rational would be to do so in spite of reality. I understand that this is bold for me to speak like this, but I am so convinced of the transcendental necessity of the Biblical God and all of the reasoning and evidence to go along with it, that I have this confidence. I am so convinced of the truthfulness, perspicuity, and infallibility of the Bible and the worldview it presents that I confront your position with such boldness. ...

Russell, I will give you good reasons to believe in the God of the Bible and I hope to demonstrate to you that you are the one who believes in atheism for no reason, whereas I have plenty of reason to believe in my God. I think by this point I’ve shown you which direction I am going to take this. I am interested to see where you are planning to take it. I think the phase of using feelers is coming to an end.

Unfortunately, Feinstein never seemed to get to the part where he'd actually demonstrate any of this. He seemed to go directly from promising what great things he'd do to... claiming victory. He was like South Park's underpants gnomes, leaving out that crucial bit in the middle.

This is where the debate seemed to falter and fail, before it had even begun. To some extent, I think both sides were too worried about giving their opponent an opportunity to score points.

In his reply, Glasser complained that Feinstein wouldn't even agree "that there is something rather than nothing" [italics in the original]. Now, I didn't read Feinstein's post that way, since you could also read it as agreement, just with an additional suggestion of agreeing that logic is equal to evidence. And it was Glasser, after all, who was trying to start with some point of agreement.

I would have said, "OK, so we both agree on my three points of presupposition. That gives us a baseline, so let's go from there."

And maybe I would have continued, "Regarding your additional suggestion, though, note that there are systems of logic that don't map at all to the real world. For example, any fantasy author can create a logical system to explain the magic in his fictional world, but you'd need good evidence before you could apply it to this one.  So logic alone is not nearly enough."

Something like that, anyway. Remember, those are my words, not his. And I don't know if that would have helped, but it would have built on Glasser's original attempt to find some basis for agreement. (However, Glasser was probably correct in his complaint, since Feinstein later indicated that he would not agree to those initial assumptions, not without justification.)

Indeed, the discussion degenerated completely, because Feinstein just doubled-down on this foolish line of attack: "I find it entirely ironic that you accuse me of circular reasoning, when you reason as follows: 1) The world is real. How do I know? Well, I assume it is real."

Um, but that's the whole point of presuppositions. They're just assumptions. But they're assumptions you both agree to accept, so that you can start a debate at all. (And Feinstein did, after all, say that he agreed with all three.)

Glasser specifically noted that there's no guarantee that the world is real, that it's possible we could live in some kind of Matrix-like simulation. He wasn't saying that the world was definitely real, but just that it was a reasonable assumption for their purposes. After all, if you can't even agree, tentatively, that the world is real for the purpose of this debate, what's the point in continuing?

I still think Glasser could have phrased things differently in his second post, but Feinstein took the debate even further down that path. Furthermore, I have to believe that the pastor was being dishonest in his third post.

First, he claimed that atheists couldn't expect the universe to be predictable: "Can you, the materialistic atheist, from your own worldview/presuppositions assume the uniformity of nature to be true? Russell, you cannot dismiss this question as being irrelevant. It is totally relevant. Your fundamental assumption is that the universe is governed by random chance. How in the world can randomness account for uniformity? They are antonyms!"

He continued, "If the universe were truly random, then no two things should happen in a predictable manner. Yet, the fact that the universe is uniform and predictable (an assumption we both agreed upon) means that the universe CANNOT be random. "

But, as Glasser later pointed out, Feinstein was using "randomness" in its meaning of "undirected," and "undirected" is not an antonym of "uniformity." A stream of water can be undirected, but still predictably flow downhill. Obviously, the word "random" has several different, though related, meanings.

This was a clear example of the equivocation logical fallacy, and given his interest in logic, Feinstein surely must be aware of that. And yet, he claimed that atheists "put the smoke and mirrors up." That's dishonest.

Then, Feinstein goes on to say that, "In philosophical terms, you are guilty of arbitrariness. Arbitrariness is to believe something without any justification whatsoever. Well, you have never observed something come from nothing, so to assume the entire universe happened this way is to be guilty of arbitrariness."

I'd say there are several problems with that, starting with the fact that "nothing" doesn't seem to mean the same thing in physics as it does in casual conversation. But the biggest problem is that atheists generally don't assume they know how "the entire universe happened." What they say is just that the god explanation - since theists do assume they know how it happened - simply hasn't met its burden of proof.

Again, Feinstein should know that. He should know that he's being misleading. But what's he do? He starts claiming victory! Um,... say what?

In his next post, Glasser points out that Feinstein hasn't really demonstrated anything. And it is, after all, Feinstein's claims which must be demonstrated. Atheism is just the rejection of those claims, nothing more. Similarly, if I claimed that leprechauns exist, it wouldn't be your responsibility to demonstrate that they don't. No, it would be my responsibility to demonstrate that they do.

Glasser makes that clear:
You say that a Godless universe must necessarily be a universe in which consistency and patterns do not exist. The ball’s in your court to demonstrate any reason why this follows.

The ball is also in your court to show how it makes any sense to say that a sentient God could actually “create” the laws of logic at all. Did logic not exist before God spoke it into existence? Is it your hypothesis that there used to be a universe in which A = not A, and then God decided to change it? Could God have decided to make all laws of logic the opposite of what they are now? And if he did, would it logically follow that he did not? Can God perform tasks which are illogical, simultaneously both A and not A, or is he bound by the laws of logic himself? What, in short, does it mean for God to “decide” that the laws of logic are one way and not another?

Feinstein completely ignored that in his reply, his fourth post. (In his fifth post, though, he claimed that logic just is, because "it stems from the mind of God." But he didn't offer any evidence of that. And if logic just is, then why can't that explanation work equally well for atheists?)

He must have repeated that he'd already won at least five times. Did he just forget about the middle part of the argument, between promising that he'd win and claiming victory, that part where he'd actually demonstrate something? He also said, "I told you that I agreed with your assumptions, but I do not agree with you concerning the notion that we do not have to justify them."

As I said before, I don't understand that at all, since both sides admitted that they were just assumptions. As long as both sides agree to them, as the starting point in a debate, why would either side have to justify them? They are, after all, just assumptions which Glasser admitted right from the start could be false.

But I'll let Glasser describe the rest of Feinstein's post:
You spent your first two posts promising to build up to an argument without making one; you spent your third post making empty assertions about how you think the God must work; and you’ve spent your most recent post trying to get people to reread the third post to mine out arguments that aren’t there. ...

In the last post I asked you to justify your God. Instead of doing that, you kept repeating the mantra that God is “necessary” and other things are “contingent.” While this obviously sounds very thorough to you and you seem extremely satisfied that you have explained yourself, all you’ve actually done is begged the question by repeating the same claim with different words.

In other words, you are asserting that the laws of logic are “contingent,” by which you mean “something which requires an explanation”; while God is “necessary,” by which you mean “I don’t have to provide an explanation.” If you think that this kind of thing passes as any kind of rigorous proof, rather than self-satisfied word salad, then I don’t think you understand this discussion as well as you think you do. ...

I know you’ve decided that you’re being terribly clever by ruling out “axioms” and then claiming that “preconditions by definition cannot apply to a necessary being.” But all you’ve done is declared God to be your axiom using a different word, while at the same time demanding that axioms be off limits. No wonder you can declare victory so often. [my emphasis]

I agree. I don't know why I keep expecting better from theists, since I've seen this kind of thing before. And I know they don't have a good argument, because if they did, we'd have heard it long before now. But I still end up disappointed when they can't do any better than this.

For all the words he set down, Feinstein didn't even come close to making his case. Frankly, his entire argument seemed to be nothing but special pleading, another logical fallacy. And Russell Glasser really hammered that home in his fourth post.

Frankly, I was losing interest at this point, and Feinstein's final post was just tired, old presuppositional apologetics. After all this, it was rather disappointing. In his final post, Glasser did a good job of summarizing:
From the ancient Greeks onward, many civilizations have seriously believed that it was possible to determine fundamental truths about the nature of reality without coming into direct contact with any part of reality. That is to say, if you could use mathematical deductions, philosophical arguments, and logical inferences to make a case then you don’t need to learn anything from the natural world; you can just conclude things about it. Usually, of course, the desired conclusion is a God of some sort, although needless to say, which God varies widely. ...

Even apart from religion, the application of so-called “pure reason” in the absence of experiment has led to centuries of serious misinformation about the nature of the universe. Aristotle was utterly convinced that heavy objects fell faster than light objects, because it just seemed obvious. It took over 1900 years before Galileo corrected that record. ...

One thing I can say about this debate is that it has greatly increased my awareness of the tactics of presuppositional apologetics. Unlike much of modern evangelism, presuppositionalism is an unrepentant throwback to a simpler time, when you could simply ignore evidence and assume that “pure logic” can lead you to a desired tangible conclusion, devoid of any connection to the observed world. ...

The bottom line is that Stephen believes that all things require a creator… except when they don’t. He wants you to believe that it is impossible and absurd for logic to simply stand on its own without a justification, but when asked to supply the justification for God, he becomes strangely petulant. ”I told you that God is necessary!” he insists. ”Why can’t you understand that if I describe something as necessary, I don’t have to account for it anymore?”

One last observation: Comments were disabled for these posts, since it was supposed to be a debate between two people, but they were enabled afterwards. The Atheist Experience post has 183 comments, and it's still open. Feinstein, however, closed the comments on his post after only 20 - and most of those were his own comments!

Apparently, the comments at Feinstein's blog were moderated for content (not just to filter out spam and profanity), and he allowed only nine other people to comment at all! Given how often he boasted of victory, you have to wonder why he was afraid of letting other people talk.

Well, I thought this whole thing was interesting, though it was very long-winded. Gee, I can't imagine being long-winded, can you? :D


Jim Harris said...

Last night I read the entry in Wikipedia for the "soul." Abortion is murder because Christians believe the soul enters or is created in the body at the time of inception. So I thought, what exactly is the soul. Read the Wikipedia article. There is so much conjecture about what is the soul as to make it a meaningless concept.

That's the problem with religion, they build castles out of air. They are so assured of their logic that know it describes physical reality when all they really see are made up concepts. They literally can not tell reality from fantasy.

How can you argue with such people?

WCG said...

Jim, that's why I liked Russell Glasser's attempt, at the beginning of their debate, to find common ground.

Of course, that failed, but it is possible to agree with believers about some things (true, maybe not with all of them). For example, we should be able to agree about the separation of church and state, since that's been a boon to theists and atheists alike.

All too often, unfortunately, we can't even agree on that. But arguments for the separation of church and state might work, even where arguments against faith-based thinking don't. I think it's worth a shot, anyway.