Monday, December 04, 2006

The Tabash-Swinburne debate

Recently, Eddie Tabash sent me a copy of his debate with Richard Swinburne, asking me to review it. Previously, I'd given brief comments on his debate with William Lane Craig. The Swinburne debate has previously be reviewed by James Lazarus. Lazarus reported a general consensus that Eddie had gotten a decisive victory, but thought that Eddie's margin of victory was somewhat smaller. Lazarus doesn't go into detail into the specific arguments whoever. To my knowledge, this will be the first more detailed review of the debate.

Swinburne's opening statement

Swinburne opened with a fairly long discussion of confirmation theory and the definition of God. This took up something like 8 minutes of his total time, a mistake, I think. Swinburne apparently did not expect the debate to go into such depth, which may have been why he spent so much time on introductory issues. At any rate, once that was done, he argued that the God hypothesis predicts exactly the world we encounter: a world of free agents with a suitable environment, the ability to make important moral decisions, and the like. This constituted his single argument for the existence of God.

Tabash's opening statement

Tabash opened with a solid set of atheistic arguments:
-Problem with immaterial minds
-The curious lack of observable miracles today
-Problem of evil
-The improbability of God using evolution to create life
-The problem of divine hiddenness
-The problem of religious confusion

The number of arguments bordered on being too many to keep track of, but in general the presentation felt intuitive rather than rushed. Eddie's speaking speed was also slowed down a fair amount from his debate with Craig, which made for a much more effective presentation (talking about your mother's experiences at Auschwitz isn't something to be rushed through).


In general, I thought both participants did a poor job of addressing eachother's arguments. Eddie's main objection to Swinburne's argument was lack of reason to consider supernatural hypothesis. Swinburne countered with the example of the scientific belief in quarks, saying it wasn't because of some kind of direct proof that we believe in them but because the theory explains the observations. Eddie tried to say that we had scientific confirmation that such things as subatomic particles as a general class existed, but this is problematic because the question could be changed to the discovery of the first subatomic particles, in which case Swinburne would take the day.

I think what Eddie should have done--what would have given him a decisive victory--was to frame his arguments against theism as reasons why we would not expect this universe on theism. This would have allowed him to simultaneously rebut Swinburne's argument while presenting his own, all the while keeping Swinburne on the defensive.

The problems with Swinburnes rebuttals are not so technical. They just didn't make any sense. On miracles, Swinburne said the reason God doesn't do them today is it would be very hard to confirm them. Tabash responded by explaining again how we could confirm them, something he had actually done in his opening statement. I can only think of this section of the debate as embarrassing to Swinburne. Swinburne's responses to the problem of evil immediately became absurd when applied to specific instances.

On divine hiddenness and religious confusion, Swinburne suggested that if God exists, we would simultaneously expect a revelation and for God to leave some uncertainty about religious matters. Eddie delt with this well enough, though he missed a chance to be really devestating. On this issue, it was obvious to me that Swinburne was just looking at the world around him and persuading himself, once he had the data, that it was the data we'd expect on the God hypothesis. Eddie's failure to point this out was rather unfortunate.

Swinburne's response to the problems with immaterial minds failed to grapple directly with the arguments, but he provided a seperate argument for dualism which was not delt with so well. Swinburne cited various issues with clones, split-brains, etc., arguing that there must be a person that goes somewhere in those cases. These arguments, I think, assume an erronous view of the self; I would have argued that point using Hume's ship analogy, but that never happened.

On evolution, Swinburne made an interesting point that God, being infinite, need not worry about inefficiency. I fear, though, that this rather undermines the argument from design, as it suggests an enormous disanalogy between God and human designers.

Unlike Lazarus, I don't think Swinburne got a whole lot of ground in the Q&A--things felt like they were winding down by then. I would say that in spite of some issues with his rebuttals, Eddie won this debate, in large part because his mistakes were more technical that Swinburne's, and he managed to keep things focused on his arguments for most of the time.

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Lance Duval said...

Is the debate available for download anywhere?

Hallq said...

Not that I know of--I saw it because Eddie sent me a CD.