Saturday, September 16, 2006

The Lowder-Fernandes Debate

This is a review of the Lowder-Fernandes debate, whose posting on the internet I noted previously. A summary of the opening statements is available here (Scroll to bottom. Reading it may help following this critique.)

General comments

First, two words: fourteen arguments. Yikes. This was a 90 minute debate, so we're talking about just over 6 minutes per argument. Both Lowder and Fernandes could have strengthened their presentations by cutting arguments. Fernandes' claim about the failure of naturalism was not defended at all, so it was a mere assertion. In Lowders' case, I had trouble remembering what all his arguments were even after listening to the debate multiple times. Lowder would have done beter organizing his debate under four headings: physical dependence of minds, evolution, evil, nonbelief/religious confusion. He could have kept most of his material while organizing it better and making it easier to follow.

A related problem was that the delivery often felt unnatural. I understand that reading statements is often necessary to make sure that every word counts, but both speakers should have tried to make the delivery better... maybe by memorizing their opening statements so they could at least make eyecontact.

I wonder who their presentation was aimed at. Both of these things might not have mattered if their audience were just forensic judges. However, it seems their audience was a mix of college students and academics who had come for a conference. If I couldn't keep track of all the arguments after multiple listenings, I doubt other students would be able to keep track after one. There's even better reason to cut down the number of arguments for academics: most have heard the arguments, so the best approach is to develop one or two in detail.

Another thing that irked me is that Lowder began scoring his own debate while it was in progress, saying "this argument would flow to me." Pointing out that an argument hasn't been refuted isn't a bad strategy, but using technical forensic terms sounds weird to laypersons, and I'm not sure professional debate judges would appreciate it either.

Lowder's arguments

Physical dependence of minds

Fernandes said no theist would dispute that there's some dependence without answering Lowder's argument that it's evidence for naturalism. There he seemed not to grasp Lowder's argument, but he also cited some brain research that was supposed to show that decision making did not happen in the physical brain. Lowder said he wasn't familiar with the research Fernandes cites, so he wouldn't deal with this in the debate.

Winner: Fernandes, by a small margin


Fernandes attacked the fossil record by quoting a palentologist in a way that was exposed as being out of context. He also reitterated Behe's claims without responding to Lowder's criticisms.

Winner: Lowder, by a large margin

Flourishing and languishing of sentient beings

Though Fernandes didn't respond here, this is an argument that could have been dropped. With so many other arguments out there, it just didn't add to Lowder's case.

Winner: nobody

Biological role of pain and pleasure, Tragedies, God's silence in the face of pain

Fernandes said Lowder couldn't know that they don't serve a higher purpose because Lowder isn't infinitely wise. However, Lowder dealt with this objection in advance by making clear that he was presenting a probablistic argument and saying that God might have extra reasons we don't know about for preventing these things. Fernandes argued God uses pain to draw people to himself. Lowder resonded with the best line of the night: "That's like saying in order for my life to love me, I have to beat the crap out of her." Fernandes ignored the failure of God to confort people in the face of suffering.

Winner: Lowder, by a large margin

Argument from religious confusion

Fernandes claimed that this commits the mistake of assuming that if five people disagree, they must all be wrong. Lowder pointed out that Fernandes had misunderstood him again; if God exists he could prevent such confusion.

Winner: Lowder, by a significant margin

Reasonableness of nonbelief

Fernandes responded that Christian theism denies that unbelievers are honest and cites Romans. This begs the question in favor of Christianity. Lowder didn't deal with this so well in later rebuttal, though.

Winner: Nobody

Fernandes' arguments

Origin of universe

This is William Lane Craig's Kalam argument. Lowder objected that the universe just is, and things only need arguments if they need to exist in time. He also said that the theistic alternative was no better, implying the idea of creation ex nihilo was absurd. Fernandes largely ignored these points, inspite of some bold pontificating. Lowder brilliantly deflated all of this by saying "Science has found God" was a product of Templeton's money, that he (Lowder) believed in the Big Bang as a theist and a naturalist and never thought it was important either way, and that Fernandes had misrepresented the views of atheists. Fernandes complained that naturalism treats the universe as a brute fact, Lowder countered that Fernandes had God as a brute fact. This last attempted defense was particularly bad.

Winner: Lowder, by a large margin.

Continued existence

Lowder argued that just because each part of the universe is dependent doesn't mean the entire thing is. Fernandes insists this is true, but the reasons aren't clear. Lowder actually should have pointed out that there are thingsy that don't depend on anything as far as we can tell, for their continued existence: i.e. stones. Fernandes is the one that has to make the argument work, though, and he dug his own grave when he brought up the possibility of an independent part of the universe only to say, vaguely, that it "sounds like God."

Winner: Lowder, by a slight margin

Design argument

Lowder had three objections:

1) Fernandes really doesn't know the probabilities involved. He quoted an scientist saying the numbers are pulled out of thin air. Lowder said the origin of life probabilities were based on a false assumption of randomness.

2) The universe isn't particularly probable on theism, especially because of bad design.

3) There are other explanations other than theism: multiple universes, life transported to Earth meteor

4) Behe is wrong to claim there are irreducibly complex systems. Apparently IC systems may have evolved indirectly. We don't know enough to prove evolution couldn't have worked, so the conclusion is premature.

Fernandes' main response was to reasser the old arguments. He complained that alternate universes were pure speculation.

Winner: Lowder, by a significant margin.

Moral argument

Here, Lowder cited Swinburne to show objective morality is consistent with naturalism. God's commands could not create moral obligations unless there was an already existing moral obligation. Fernandes didn't have much of a response.

Winner: Lowder, by a significant margin.

Absurdity of life without god

Lowder rightly got Fernandes here for making an appeal to emotion. Fernandes' response to this was to say "it's important," which doesn't make it a valid argument. One wonders if he's ever had this fallacy explained to him. Lowder did poorly here when he said there was no ultimate meaning but there could be personal meaning. It would have been better to say that when theists talk about God having a purpose for people, they are ultimately talking about the sort of purpose a screwdriver has, which no one really wants.

Winner: Lowder, by a small margin

Failure of naturalism

As noted above, this was just assertion. Lowder pointed out that it was premature to say that naturalism had failed when he hadn't adressed the arguments.

Winner: Lowder, by an embarrassing margin.

A cumulative case?

Lowder objected that not all of Fernandes' arguments showed God exists, so his cumulative case isn't cumulative. He compared it to a stack of leaky buckets, unable to hold water. Fernandes said that the arguments move in the direction of theism, though he never explains how this works.

Winner: Lowder, by a significant margin.

Closing statements

Fernandes just reasserted a lot of old positions without defending them. Lowder made far better use of his time, talking about his personal movement from creationism to atheism, and telling the students in the audience to keep reading because the debate only scratched the surface (elsewhere, Lowder has complained that unfortunately some will decide on one debate, so this was a wise move).

Question and answer

Again, easy to sum up: ouch. There were scientists getting up saying that Fernandes had misrepresented data. I swear, these things are won in the Q & A.

Final assessment

There are a few things I wish Lowder had done better, but he handled many points better than I could have. Also, except for catching Lowder unprepared with the brain research claim, Fernandes didn't carry a single point, and that point resulted in a challenge in the Q & A. There's no question that Lowder won, though I'd be curious to hear exactly what impact it had on audience members new to these issues. The effect could not have been too slight, though.


Anonymous said...

Amazing the lengths to which people will go to ignore their own conscience.

Hallq said...

1) Read the comment policy

2) Does it occur to you that not everyone's conscience tells them the same things that yours does?

Anonymous said...

Have you thought to limit the scope of truth to yourself?

If truth is too broadly applied, then it falls subject to internal inconsistency through unresolvable self-reference. Do you set a limit on what you think you can ever know?

Jesus said that misunderstandings come from failure to seek the will of God in your own life ... one such error would be to seek that will for someone else. We cannot know the mind or conscience of another for sure, but we can have part of the mind and spirit of God revealed to us regarding our own life, so long as we seek it.

Do you think that truth for you is the same as for everyone else? Do you expect the truth you find within to be truth for the next person? Is a hobby of looking for truth for others really just a way to avoid looking for our own truth, and it will it lead us into confusion?

Anonymous said...

Do you want to be a good person? If so, where do you find yourself backing away from your desire to be a good person in harmony with your conscience? Where is the line where you seek your own desire? Or do desire and practice agree for you? If not, how do you resolve the conflict?

Bill Snedden said...

As it happens, I was in the audience at this debate and I remember being literally amazed at Fernandes' poor performance. Your assessment pretty much mirrors my own, although I wonder why you thought that Fernandes "won" the "physical dependence of mind" portion. Even though Lowder failed to respond to one piece of specific research Fernandes raised, the overall case Lowder made went almost wholly unanswered by Fernandes.

grynne said...

Can you explain "God's commands could not create moral obligations unless there was an already existing moral obligation" from the "moral argument" section? This is strictly curiosity and in no way a loaded question.

Hallq said...

Ah, sorry, it would have been more complete had I said "there was an already existing moral obligation to obey God."

grynne said...

Oh. Thanks. It makes more sense now.