Over the past several years I haven’t been watching a lot of these debates – maybe two or three a year, if that. I did watch the debate between Sye Ten Bruggencate and Matt Dillahunty earlier this year, and I did in fact draft up some thoughts on it that I wanted to share on my blog. My notes are still sitting on my hard drive waiting for me to revisit them. Maybe later I’ll get back to them.
Then I saw Anderson’s dust-up on the Lowder-Turek Debate. After reading Anderson’s review, I thought I’d like to watch the debate. At two hours and twenty-some minutes, that takes a chunk out of my day, so an investment like that better be worthwhile. So I watched it.
Unfortunately, with some noteworthy exceptions, it was for the most part a lot of the same ol’ same ol’. I admit that I was curious to see what Turek looked like as I have posted entries on this blog in the past interacting with some of his writings (see for example here and here), especially given Anderson’s above-mild praise for his performance in the debate.
I’ve listened to several of Frank Turek’s debates, and it’s impossible not to like the fellow. He’s a highly effective and energetic communicator who makes excellent use of illustrations, analogies, and memorable phrases (e.g., “moist robots” as a description of humans on a naturalistic view). He has a natural sense of humor and deploys it to good effect. Frankly (no pun intended) I envy his public speaking gifts.
Now, throughout his opening statement, his rebuttal, his cross-examination and other statements he makes in this debate, Turek over and over again gives one rendition or another of the same tired arguments we’ve heard from theists since the beginnings of this form of spectator sport. Whether it’s the universe had to come into being somehow or something needs to be “sustaining” the natural laws that hold up the debate hall or some law-giver had to issue morals to man, virtually all of Turek’s case boils down to an overt appeal to the metaphysical primacy of consciousness by way of “Duh, I donno, must be God did it!”
All too predictably, as “evidence” for the existence of a matter-creating consciousness, Turek points to the so-called “Big Bang,” insinuating something to the effect that everyone believes it, that “even atheists” accept that the universe originated in a “Big Bang,” that Stephen Hawking (who is currently saying that man, er [I don’t want to get a B- here!], human beings have ten centuries to find a new planet to call home) insists that the Big Bang happened, etc., etc. The usual suspects are cited – e.g., Peter Vilenkin, who according to apologists (I’m reminded of W.L. Craig here – see my response to his treatment of the same) affirms the Big Bang theory, but no progress towards validating the notion that matter is a product of conscious activity is ever made. Like other apologists, Turek nowhere even tries to make a case that conscious activity can produce matter. For the theist, the underlying assumption that reality finds its source in wishing is simply taken for granted.
Moreover, citing the notion of the Big Bang ignores the obvious question to the effect that, if the universe as we presently know it originated in an explosion which accounts for the appearance of its contents moving away from a central point, what exploded? After all, a non-existent thing cannot do anything, much less explode. Like Craig, Turek does not actually quote anything from the scientists he cites – if he did, it was cherry-picked. Rather, he gives the impression that scientists have done all this work and it just magically confirms the theistic view that the universe was produced by conscious activity. But the standard Big Bang theory nowhere affirms such a view. Rather, this is just an interpretation of expedience, an instance of theistic apologists seeking to assimilate findings in science, regardless of what their specific content and conclusions may be, in order to cite them as confirming evidence for a religious paradigm.
Alan Guth, who has worked closely with Velinkin, makes the following point in Cosmic Questions: Did the universe have a beginning?:
…the standard big bang theory says nothing about where the matter in the universe came from. In the standard big bang theory all the matter that we see here, now, was already there, then. The matter was just very compressed, and in a form that is somewhat different from its present state. The theory describes how the matter evolved from one form to another as the universe evolved, but the theory does not address the question of how the matter originated.
But notice the misleading ways in which apologists treat the Big Bang theory. They have no problem dropping names of non-Christians who have explored the idea and even defend it. But do these same apologists do the theory justice? Would they repeat the quote from Alan Guth that I’ve presented above? Apologists readily admit that many of the scientists who support the Big Bang theory are in fact atheists, but when doing so they like to give the impression that these intelligent thinkers’ minds are riddled with fundamental contradictions and slaves to some immoral determination to deny the theistic ramifications that apologists imagine such theories necessarily imply.
But if in fact the Big Bang theory holds essentially that some “initially hot dense state” exploded into the vacuum we fondly call “space,” then we’re not in fact talking about matter coming into existence from nothing, nor are we talking about conscious activity wishing matter into being. Rather, the view in question is that everything that constitutes the universe – the stars, planets, moons, asteroids, comets, quasars, galaxies, dust, what have you – were all part of single, extraordinarily condensed mass (talk about sui generis!) that suddenly exploded, shooting everything out into swirling rings of debris which to one degree or another eventually solidified as it cooled into suns, planets, moons, and everything else. So the theory is clearly not saying that matter came out of nothing. But you would never know this given what Turek and other apologists say on the matter.
This should cause any conscientious thinker to stop and ask: If the apologists’ position were in fact as true and solidly founded as they claim in their defensive posturing, why would they continually mislead their audiences by giving only part of the story and ignoring those aspects of it which in fact do not at all imply what they pretend the story to be implying?
In as misleading a manner, Turek predictably treats the issue of morality as though it could only have a theistic basis. He does not really present any good arguments for this – no theist ever does. Rather, his case is couched on repeating the same kind of cliché taught to children by otherwise clueless parents: moral laws come from a moral law-giver, and that moral law-giver happens to be a supernatural consciousness that has the power to wish the entire universe into existence and the ability to choose to do so. On such a view, everything in existence boils down to it being a product of wishing and fiat. Hence it’s doubly ironic when apologists make statements like “wishing doesn’t make it so” and “just because you don’t believe it doesn’t mean it’s not true.”
Thinkers of all stripes, theistic and otherwise, have developed many bad habits, including the habit of compartmentalizing different aspects of their worldview which, if examined side by side, would review some glaring contradictions at the fundamental level. In cases such as the one I’m discussing here, believers seem to have selectively kept out of view the power they grant to consciousness when it comes to their confessional investment on the one hand and, on the other, withhold from it when it comes to a more commonsensical understanding of reality. Either consciousness holds metaphysical primacy over existence, or it doesn’t. Since it doesn’t, and all thinkers recognize this implicitly (as evidenced by statements like “wishing doesn’t make it so”), apologists cannot get very far without tacitly admitting this inescapable fundamental fact in their conversation. Clearly they don’t realize that they’ve conceded the entire debate once they admit that wishing doesn’t make it so.
But notice also that Turek and other apologists never discuss the relationship between consciousness and its objects in any of their apologetic schemes. They never raise, let alone tackle, the question of whether or not the objects of consciousness conform to the contents of consciousness rather than the other way around. And yet, the view that consciousness holds metaphysical primacy over existence, that the objects of consciousness find their source in conscious activity and conform to the contents of consciousness, is fundamentally indispensable to theism as such. For theism posits a form of consciousness, accessible to the human mind only by means of imagination, which has the power to wish matter into being and reshape it according to its will.
Religious thinkers clearly want to give the impression that they take morality seriously. But this impression itself is difficult to take seriously when they treat morality in abysmally superficial terms (e.g., “morality is knowing right from wrong”) and use the topic generally to argue for their theistic fantasies. All too typically, they do not explain what informs morality (other than vague references to “law” and “obligations”), why it is important to man, what the purpose of morality is, how we can know what conforms to proper morality and what does not, etc. Rather, the only apparent utility that morality seems to have for apologists is in positioning it to leverage discussion in favor of theism. This alarmingly indicates in a fundamental way just what they think morality is: on the theistic view, morality is not pro-man, but rather pro-God. No wonder Christians continually think that repentance is vital to approaching their god on good terms.
What is so easily lost in such discussions is the vast importance that morality has for man’s life. (Oh, I’m probably going to get a C- on this paper now!) And likewise, the utter non-importance of morality for a being theists describe is similarly lost on them. Theists want to believe that morality has a supernatural basis when in fact it has a biological basis. It has a biological basis because man’s need for values stems from his nature as a biological organism.
Unlike the being Christians describe as their god, man is a biological organism whose existence is conditional: he faces the fundamental alternative of life vs. death. Man’s continued life is not automatic: his life requires values in order to continue, and he must act in order to achieve and make use of those values. Moreover, he does not know automatically what is a value and what is a non-value or even a threat to his existence. This knowledge he must acquire and validate, which means he needs reason: he does not acquire this knowledge by looking inward and consulting his wishes, dreams, feelings, imagination, or prayer; rather, he must look outward at the world of facts around him and identify what he discovers according to an objective standard. The principle of the primacy of existence provides just this standard. Most people accept this principle implicitly without ever identifying it implicitly (they give away the fact that they implicitly recognize the truth of the primacy of existence when they say things like “wishing doesn’t make it so” and “just because you don’t believe doesn’t mean it’s not true”).
Morality then is the science which teaches us that we need values to live and why, what is a value, and how to achieve, use and preserve those values we need. It is, as Rand put it, “a code of values to guide man’s choices and actions—the choices and actions that determine the purpose and the course of his life” (The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 13), and its purpose “is to teach you, not to suffer and die, but to enjoy yourself and live” (For the New Intellectual, p. 123). Certainly, then, a crucifix would never be a fitting symbol for such a pro-life moral code.
But theists typically describe their god as an immortal, indestructible, deathless and unchanging being whose existence is entirely unconditional. Which could only mean: it would not face the fundamental alternative of life vs. death, it would not need values, it would not need to act in order to continue existing; in fact, it could sit on its hands for all eternity doing absolutely nothing and nothing about it would change.
So while man clearly needs morality, and the very essence of values is determined by his biological needs, the being Christians worship would never need morality, nor could its nature in any way provide the metaphysical basis of a moral system suitable for man’s nature and needs. But theists never seem to realize this, and if it’s pointed out to them, expect the mindless chatter of a series of “But… but… but…” as they stumble over themselves to salvage their sinking vessels from certain doom.
I could go on, but I don’t think there’s really any need to. I’m far less impressed with Turek’s debating performance than Anderson is, and this difference speaks for itself. I realize that any time a Christian goes up against an atheist, Anderson’s going to be rooting for the Christian, and if the Christian underperforms, well there’s got to be some redeeming reason for this, right? (I’m reminded of Van Til’s desperate plea: “The argument for the existence of God and for the truth of Christianity is objectively valid. We should not tone down this argument to the probability level. The argument may be poorly stated, and may never be adequately stated. But in itself the argument is absolutely sound” - Common Grace and the Gospel, 62.)
But satisfying this weak curiosity of mine was not my primary motivation for sitting through two-plus hours of debate and cross-examination and running my iPad down to 11%. Rather, I was intrigued by Anderson’s positive comments about Lowder’s performance in the debate. I have seen Lowder debate before – namely his debate with Phil Fernandes from back in 1999. Unfortunately, I cannot find a copy of the debate on the web now, and the Secular Web page linked here indicates that it’s “temporarily out of stock”; I do have a copy of it on my hard drive, but it’s some 365 mb in size, and I wouldn’t know where to begin if I wanted to upload it somehow to YouTube or some other portal, or even if I’d have the copyright permissions to do so – which I don’t! But it was, incidentally, in this debate where Phil Fernandes gave us the howler, included in my first collection From the Horse’s Mouth: “I just believe that we are very good about lying to ourselves, and only accepting, uh, or interpreting the evidence the way we would like to." Yes, I take it that he’s first speaking for himself here.
In both debates Lowder champions “Naturalism,” which as far as I can tell is a catch-all term whose primary significance is apparently its distinction from any form of “supernaturalism.” Philosophically, it’s not at all a promising position given the fact that it seems to mean something quite different depending on who’s defending it. And while it is clearly a secular position and expresses a cozy warmth for science, it’s not entirely clear what naturalism holds when it comes to metaphysics and epistemology. What does Naturalism hold as its starting point? What does Naturalism have to say about the relationship between consciousness and its objects? What does Naturalism have to say about the nature of concepts? What does Naturalism have to say about the metaphysical basis of values? These are just the initial questions that I would have for Naturalists, but in examining debates by proponents of “Naturalism,” I’ve garnered little hope that it offers much substance on these and other critical philosophical issues. Naturalism seems to market itself without the benefit of stable definitions, for as Lowder himself suggested at one point in the debate, naturalists can subscribe to a wide variety of ethical theories and still be rightly considered naturalists.
In such a way “Naturalism” seems to be akin to what “Libertarianism” has become – a sort of refuge for everyone from pot smokers to pedophiles, from disenchanted counter-culture hipsters to MGTOW dropouts – people who have gathered in one tent because no one else will take them in, and yet they insist on belonging to something, anything. I hope I’m mistaken in this, and if anyone wants to educate me otherwise in the comments section below, I’d be happy to have my optimism restored. But I’m not hopeful for Naturalism.
Why, for example, doesn’t Lowder ever raise fundamental epistemological questions in response to Turek’s claims about a supernatural being? How does Turek know that his god is real? Does he have direct awareness of it somehow? If so, how? What mode of perception gives him this direct awareness? In what form does this mode of perception give him such awareness? If I’m holding a small object concealed in my fist right in front of a theist such that he cannot tell me what I have right here in front of him, why should I believe that he might have some mode of perception which gives him awareness beyond “material reality” of supernatural things that I have no awareness of?
Or, perhaps it’s just an inference? But from what? From the assumption that the universe had a beginning? That the universe had a beginning is not something any of us can directly perceive. It would be a conclusion available to us only as a result of a long series of very delicate inferences which could only be carried out in light of scientific discoveries which themselves are not accessible to the untrained. And even then, the Big Bang theory itself is still only a hypothesis, and one that I’m far from convinced is true. And as we saw above, it does not hold that matter came into existence from nothing or that before the universe there was nothing. So even the widely diverging interpretations that splinter off from this long series of delicate inferences suggest that differentiating between speculation and evidence is at best highly strained at times.
If it is just an inference or series of inferences which tell Turek that his god is real, what is his starting point in this whole venture? Where did he begin if he did not set out with the conclusion that his god exists already settled in his mind? What convinced him? I ask because in reviewing his side of the debate, I found nothing at all persuasive here. And I’m already highly suspicious that he does not guide his thinking by the standard of the primacy of existence.
And what about the undeniable role of imagination in religious belief? This topic never comes up in the debate. Lowder never raises any question about the role of imagination, and Turek never anticipates any questions about imagination. Specifically, Turek never explains, in spite of the fact that we have no alternative but to imagine the god whose existence he claims to be vindicating when he presents his case, why we should not suspect the activity of the imagination in any of that case. It’s as though both Lowder and Turek take for granted the assumption that imagination could not possibly have any part of this. But why is it then that, whenever I contemplate the theist’s god-belief claims, I find that I cannot do so unless I engage my imagination? Is there something wrong with me, or are thinkers such as Lowder and Turek simply not aware when they are using their imagination?
Now I do agree with Anderson that Lowder did come quite prepared for this debate. In fact, I think at one point Lowder even quips that he was over-prepared. Regardless, I think his rebuttal to Turek’s opening statement left no question that the apologist’s case stood no chance of recovery, and for that I give Lowder the credit he’s surely due. He clearly did his research and anticipated Turek’s every move. I quite suspect that Turek realized this, but he did what he could to push this offending truth safely out of mind in order to muscle his way through the rest of the debate. I suspect Anderson recognizes this too, for in his review there is one moment when he signals clearly that he’s had to throw up his hands – namely when he exclaims:
Arguments aside, my sensus divinitatis is just too overwhelming!
by Dawson Bethrick