Afterthoughts on the creation debate


My thoughts on debates and whether skeptics should entertain challenges

In weeks leading up to the Bill Nye/Ken Ham creation debate I have surprisingly read a great deal of opposition to the debate from atheists, scientists, and skeptics.

As a skeptic, some values I hold most dear are the open exchange of ideas and a commitment to defend my beliefs in an open forum while allowing for those who disagree to present their rebuttals.

I have, on numerous occasions, said that I am both willing to change any and all of my beliefs provided sufficient argument, evidence, and reason are presented. Along with this commitment, I have issued public challenges — mainly to theists — for people to defend their ideas in recorded, open-to-the-public, and formal debates.

Keeping my promise, I have participated in multiple debates and discussions which I thought were tremendously beneficial not only to myself, but also to the community at large even if only hundreds watched [see my discussion with Pastor Dan Nichols, debate with Pastor Michael Brewster, debate with Dr. Rhonda Chervin, and debate with Pastor Marcelle Dotson].

I have invited people to appear on Brave Hero Radio to defend their ideas; appeared at Christian events with intentions to challenge various beliefs by speaking with religious individuals; responded to others’ debate challenges; and even attended the Women in Secularism 2 conference even though the climate was extremely hostile, speakers at the event vilified me, and attendees attempted to ban me from the event. I invited discussion at Women in Secularism 2, but not one person attending or speaking at the conference engaged me in discussion despite my multiple invitations during and before the event and their long-running vilification camapaigns.

"Does the Christian god exist?" debate with Rev. Brewster
“Does the Christian god exist?” debate with Rev. Brewster

Debates allow us to present a thoughtful defense of our beliefs not only to an ‘opponent,’ but also to people who agree with us, disagree with us, or are not sure where to stand on a particular issue. Those with flimsy ideas that may not hold up to close scrutiny are exposed and their ideas are refuted. Rather than suppressing speech or failing to entertain challenges to beliefs, debates provide an excellent vehicle by which to educate and be challenged.

Those who refuse to defend their beliefs when presented with challenges often display doxastic closure – an unwillingness to challenge their beliefs when faced with objections. Some who refuse to defend their beliefs often resort to threats of legal action, campaigns of vilification, and heavy-handed moderation [blocking] on their websites resembling echochambers. Sadly, many individuals like this exist in the ‘online atheist community.’ You know who they are.

I am, though, sympathetic to concerns about debates presenting a view as valid or ‘on balance’ when a perspective is tremendously irrational. Shall we entertain debates with people who argue that arson is justified in any and all situations? Shall we debate those who want to believe the world is flat? Some argue that creationism, being tremendously irrational, is not worthy of debate, but while this may be the face other considerations remain which I think justify a debate.

Live-tweeting from Women in Secularism 2
Live-tweeting from Women in Secularism 2

Creationist views are sadly widespread in society and a great deal of misinformation surrounds evolution. A debate is a great opportunity for those who accept evolution to educate people and challenge the falsehoods of creationism. While not all creationists will be swayed, beliefs will be challenged and many ‘on the fence’ will be exposed to ideas.

At times, a commitment to debate may be difficult and we might not want to argue outside our expertise, entertain just every challenge, or spend time in seemingly endless Facebook threads. I have even banned some individuals on my websites, but only do so in extreme circumstances. All sorts of nonsense invades my social networks and I am simply not interested in responding to everything. More recently, as my lack of activity on this website has suggested, I have been focusing on other matters – especially while working and enrolled in graduate-level classes.

Go forth and debate.

As always, feel free to comment below.

Appearance on Road to Reason

I appeared on episode 38 of  Road to Reason — a public access weekly television program broadcasting throughout Fairfax County in Virginia — to discuss my August 31 “Does the Christian god exist?” debate with Reverend Michael Brewster which had taken place within Mount Zion Baptist Church in Wilkes-Barre, PA (watch video, listen to audio of the debate).

I appear at the 32 minute mark of the Road to Reason episode embedded below. Consider watching the entire video.

Enjoy and, as always, feel free to comment.

More on moral argument, “we can’t understand God”

Earlier this week, I authored a piece elaborating on my response to a variation of a moral argument for God’s existence Reverend Brewster presented in our August 31 “Does the Christian god exist?” debate (watch video footage or listen to an audio-only recording for more context). Since the debate and my piece, Reverend Brewster has engaged in discussion on my Facebook page responding to challenges positing that the Christian god may not be all-loving because of atrocities in the Bible such as God sending she-bears to kill 42 young boys.

Reverend Brewster, in response to Bible passages suggesting the character of God is not all-loving, states that we can’t comprehend morality in its “fullest sense because we are unable to see the end of things.” He also suggests that what we might believe to be immoral now may actually not be immoral in the long-run under God’s plan.

Brewster — rather than relinquishing belief in an all-loving god when presented with evidence to the contrary — implies that God, for all we know, may have some undetectable and incomprehensible reasons for sending she-bears to kill young boys. The ‘mind of God’ is just too big to understand for us humans, Brewster implies.

This position renders theistic belief irrational because any given challenge to God’s existence may be easily ‘excused away.’ Nothing, under this ‘we cannot understand the mind of God’ position, can render belief in God false. Lacking a situation in which God may not exist, the theist is utterly close-minded and unwilling to reconsider their belief; no evidence can serve as reason to disbelieve.

One wonders, under this position, why theists would not be agnostic about the moral character of God because, if, for all we know, there may be undetectable reasons for God committing atrocities — even though he is said to be all-powerful and all-knowing which would allow him to achieve certain ends without sending she-bears to kill children — and atrocities may actually not be so bad after all, we should also be forced to admit that good actions God may command, for all we know, may not be good and are instead part of an evil or not-so-good master plan. The razor must cut both ways.

Worse yet, the ‘we cannot know the mind of God position’ ought to force us to a position of moral skepticism although all of our moral intuitions dictate otherwise. An Indian Ocean tsunami which kills thousands of people may, for all we know, under Brewster’s view, be part of God’s plan to achieve some unknown goal – thus the tsunami is actually a good thing and helping survivors by donating to the Red Cross is interfering with God’s plan. Perhaps those who were harmed should not be pitied and helped, but rather are blessed and should be left to suffer?

If we are going to fail to acknowledge actions are immoral because we may lack understanding although our moral intuitions point to acts being immoral, why stop at God’s plan? Why not say that, for all we know, Hitler may have had really good reasons for ordering extermination of Jews and that we can’t say this is a bad thing because we’re unable to see “the end of things” and can’t comprehend morality in “its fullest sense?” Why would the theist — willing to admit that God may have undetectable reasons for committing atrocities — not also extend this to humans? After all, we may lack information that other humans are privy to just as we — under the theistic view — lack information God is privy to.

Rather than excusing away evidence against the Christian god with an unlimited supply of ‘we just cannot know the mind of God,’ we should relinquish belief in God when contrary evidence is presented.

Response to Rev. Brewster’s cosmological argument

Rev. Michael Brewster (left) and Justin Vacula (right)
Rev. Michael Brewster (left) and Justin Vacula (right)

Reverend Brewster presented a formulation of a cosmological argument during the August 31 “Does the Christian god exist?” debate I participated in (see video and audio-only versions for context). I will address his claims in this piece by re-presenting some objections I put forth in the debate and providing further analysis of his assertions.

Brewster presented the following assertions in his opening statement: (1) what is finite requires a cause, (2) a cause must be greater than or equal to its effects, (3) all effects must have a cause, (4) an effect is anything that requires a beginning, (5) anything that has a beginning must have a cause, (6) the universe has a beginning, (7) God — as described in the Bible — is harmonious with this first cause.

A reformulation of Reverend Brewster’s argument  is as follows:
(1) Whatever is finite and had a beginning had a cause
(2) The universe is finite and had a beginning
(3) The universe had a cause
(4) God, as described in the Bible, is harmonious with the first cause of the universe
(5) God is the cause of the universe

Brewster’s argument fails to point to the Christian god; he merely assumes that the Bible is true in his argumentation and says that God, as described in the Bible, is harmonious with the first cause of the universe. Mere harmony with what Brewster thinks aligns with the first cause of the universe is not sufficient to establish the existence of the Christian god.

Why prefer the Christian god as an explanation when compared to other explanations? Why is the Christian god a better candidate for cause of the universe when compared to a team of gods, an all-evil god, an impersonal creator being with limited powers, or advanced technology such as a computer simulation?

Further problematic, Brewster’s cosmological argument does not allow us to arrive at supposed truths about Christianity such as ‘God sent Jesus to die on a cross for the redemption of sins’ or ‘saved individuals go to Heaven while the unsaved suffer eternal torment in Hell.’ The argument also doesn’t point to an all-loving, all-knowing, or all-powerful god. This cosmological argument, then, as presented, is useless.156604039

Worse yet, Pastor Brewster’s assertions concerning cause and effect are problematic. The principle of sufficient reason (PSR), the idea that all effects have a cause, is an inductive judgment based on events we experience in this world. For instance, we believe that a ship does not materialize out of thin air, but rather is assembled by a team of shipbuilders because of our experience and knowledge concerning ships and shipbuilders. Most of what we experience and know — at a macro level, visible to us — operates under the PSR, but this reasoning breaks down when applied to the cosmological and quantum level.

Much unlike experience and knowledge of ships and shipbuilders, we lack experience and knowledge of events occurring at cosmological and quantum levels. Our knowledge of events occurring at the quantum and cosmological levels — when compared to events at the macro level — is very limited. We can’t simply apply PSR (from the macro level) to quantum and cosmological levels because different rules apply and the situations by which we know of causation are very dissimilar. PSR simply faces challenges when dealing with modern discoveries/theories in science such as quantum fluctuations, quantum foam, and virtual particles. These modern discoveries/theories should lower our confidence in PSR when applied at all levels of reality.

Finally, Brewster’s argument assumes the universe is finite and had a beginning. Brewster, though, does not provide justification for these assumptions. Perhaps the universe is not finite and did not have a beginning. Brewster suggests whatever is finite has a cause, so if we are to assume this is true — for the purposes of discussion — and also assume that the universe is not finite, the universe does not need a cause.

I find cosmological arguments — like Brewster’s — to be unconvincing and based on dubious assumptions such as whatever has a beginning has a cause, all effects require a cause, the universe is finite, and the universe had a cause. At best, cosmological arguments lead us to believe that the universe had a cause and even if we for some reason believe that the cause of the universe is a transcendent being this is a far shot from the Christian god.