Saturday, March 27, 2010

Great God Debates: Part I

I never thought I’d say this, but I’m sick of debating politics. Although I’ve been trying to quell the false notion that Americans are somehow universally opposed to the health care bill that passed, that we’re living in a socialist police state, or that the second coming is only hours away, Nate Silver has pretty much already said everything I’ve been wanting to say better than I can.

Instead, I want to discuss some of the arguments I’ve been thinking about since listening to around a dozen hours of debates between D’Souza and various atheists. I’ve waited about a week since I listened to the debates before writing any of my thoughts down. Rather than be bogged down in the procedural minutia of the debates or even my impressions of who won, I wanted to focus my responses to the broad focus of the questions being discussed and those arguments that have stuck with me.

The adversarial system of debate has its advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, these debates avoided what I call the Colmes problem; both sides were represented by equally intelligent, prepared, and devoted debaters. Additionally, both sides also avoided the easy-out option of agreeing to disagree or finding an ecumenical peace. While such an agreement may be the ultimate goal of watching such a debate, I believe that moderatism should be borne of a fair consideration of good arguments from both sides, not the contention-is-of-the-devil-so-we-shouldn’t-talk-about-controversial-things intellectual laziness that I’ve seen so much.

The major drawback of the debate model is that both sides have incentive to make arguments they don’t necessarily believe are true, simply because they are effective. In debate, making arguments which are untrue, but which take a long time to debunk, is called “spreading.” I saw far too much of this coming from both the Atheists and D’Souza. What’s worse, however, there were debates where some of these arguments went unaddressed, meaning that an argument that the debater knew was untrue (as shown by the fact that in other debates he acknowledged that it was misleading) stood out in the audience’s mind as being accurate.

In the interest of keeping close to my 500-word goal for each post, I will not address my most serious concerns with the debates now; those merit their own posts. There are a few quick judgements worth noting, however:

Hitler may have been a closet atheist, but the outward religious message he used to sell his philosophy deserves at least part of the credit for the Third Reich, Mr. D’Souza.

The USSR, on the other hand, was actively antithetical to religion, even though it tolerated it. Atheists: do not try and dispute that Stalin is yours. It only makes you less credible when you correctly disown Hitler.

Faith, as it is defined by D’Souza, is actually a useful category. He is right that science is based upon it, and he lays a fine theoretical foundation for the value of faith in a god. I disagree with his specific application of his faith into Pascal's wager, but I think he gets the first half of his argument exactly right.

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