Monday, June 9, 2014

God or No God? Schieber v. Symington

A Christian walks into a debate full of himself, giving a very one-sided story, and dissolving into emotional appeals... stop me if you've heard this one before.

Recently Justin Schieber of the Reasonable Doubts podcast met with Scott Symington to debate the question God or No God? While Justin serves on the advisory board of the Michigan chapter of the Center For Inquiry, co-hosts a popular podcast examining religious and philosophical claims, and has prior debating experience, the most I've been able to find about Scott is that he has a degree in educational leadership and currently works as a "medical physicist". During his opening speech, Scott admits this is his first debate, yet it doesn't prevent him from making some rather bold moves.

Schieber begins by noting that the god he wants to argue against is the god of classical theism, eternal, all-powerful, all-knowing, and perfectly loving. To make his case, he contends that three observations about our world are more likely if metaphysical naturalism is true, as opposed to supernaturalism being true. Metaphysical naturalism is the view that the natural world is all that exists - there are no gods, no angels, no souls, no afterlife. The three observations Justin puts forward are non-resistant unbelievers, pointless suffering, and the hostility to life in the universe.

Scott begins by attacking the 'negativity' of atheism, denouncing the fact that non-believers rarely propose explanations, or a positive worldview, of their own. This criticism is often directed at atheists, but over the years I've increasingly come to suspect that it may be disingenuous. Do we not know that it isn't true that any old suggestion is better than none at all? If we think about the pre-scientific idea of illness being caused by demons, it's easy to see how certain hypotheses can be harmful and may distract inquiry from where it needs to go to find the truth. There is likewise nothing inconsistent about refuting a hypothesis before one has an equally compelling alternative to put in its place.

Believers in the paranormal make the same criticism of skeptics, insisting that all we do is tear things down. Of course, skeptics frequently do offer explanations for paranormal phenomena, such as a trick of lighting, a lens flare on a camera, or fraud, and complex psychological ideas like cognitive dissonance and terror management theory are hallmarks of their work. Nonetheless, these alternatives seem rather mundane and unexciting compared to ghosts, aliens, government cover-ups, and the like. What believers are concerned about is not really that skeptics propose no 'positive' explanations, but that the explanations being discarded are the ones they want to be true. Justin gave three observations in his opening speech, and he offered the explanation he thinks is best suited to them. Perhaps the actual root of Scott's complaint is just that it differs from his own view.

One of the more astounding comments made by Symington is that if something is outside of nature, it's supernatural "by definition". Certainly this is the understanding of some people, but it is confronted by the long-debated problem of what we mean by nature. It's commonly thought that the natural world is synonymous with the physical world, but not all naturalists are physicalists. Does nature include just what the laws of physics describe? If there is another universe outside our own, would it be part of nature, too? Philosopher John Shook has cataloged nine varieties of naturalism, including reductive physicalism, liberal scientism, and eliminative pluralism, to name a few. [1] There are naturalists who prefer a strict definition and naturalists who prefer a broad definition. Some even define naturalism as the view that nothing supernatural exists, which would make Symington's simplistic statement circular.

The problem is that Scott needs his naive definition of supernatural to make his first cause of the universe resemble something more like a god and less like... well, a mysterious cause. Countless times throughout the debate, he claims that "all" of science shows there was a beginning to the universe. Although Justin counters by noting that the spacetime boundary is better thought of as the point where our current scientific understanding breaks down, by citing the reservations of physicist Sean Carroll, and questioning the usefulness of the god concept in explaining our origins, Scott plows relentlessly ahead, as if enough repeated assertions will make his one-sided portrayal of a hotly disputed interpretation of science into an indisputable reality. When Justin references a Hebrew scholar who argues that Genesis 1:1 shows a creation from pre-existing material rather than creation ex nihilo, Symington contests that the Hebrew words shamayim and aretz constitute a compound word that means "all natural things in the universe."

I haven't been able to locate any sources confirming Scott on this, but it may be a moot point anyway. As John Walton, Professor of Old Testament at Wheaton, explains:

...the lexical analysis suggests that the essence of the word that the text has chosen, bara', concerns bringing heaven and earth into existence by focusing on operation through organization and assignment of roles and functions... Matter was not the concern of the author of Genesis. The authors concerns were much like those in the ancient Near East. There the greatest exercise of the power of the gods was not demonstrated in the manufacture of matter, but in the fixing of destinies. [2]

If Professor Walton is correct, the act of creating heaven and earth was not seen as bringing everything into existence out of nothing, but something more like assigning a role to, or organizing, heaven and earth, perhaps as separate realms formed out of pre-existing material. Surely this sounds like pure heresy to the religiously conservative, but the fact that it also accords with the cosmological beliefs of other ancient Near Eastern cultures - which have been shown to have had an influence on the Bible's cosmology, despite Mr. Symington's careless dismissal of the Epic of Gilgamesh - makes it hard to refute without falling into special pleading.

Another argument Scott hammers on repeatedly is the resurrection argument. He refers at least twice to a survey of scholars taken from 1975 to the "present" that establishes four facts. Though he doesn't mention any names or further details, the survey is clearly one conducted by Gary Habermas and published in the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus in 2005. [3] To my knowledge, Habermas has not published any recent updates of his study, which would mean the data is nine years old now, but there's plenty of better objections to it.

For starters, the survey doesn't poll a random sample of scholars, instead it chronicles scholarly publications on the subject of the resurrection. It includes articles in English, German, and French, yet there is no exact number given for how many Habermas documents in his study. He mentions that there are "more than 1400" publications on the resurrection, and then says in the next sentence that he "tracked these texts". The only figure Gary provides on any of the so-called trends in scholarly consensus is that "approximately 75%" of scholars - from some number that may or may not be 1400, who have published articles on the resurrection in English, German, or French between 1975 and 2005 - favor "one or more" of the arguments for the empty tomb chronicled in the study. Needless to say, this flimsy excuse for research, which holds up so many resurrection arguments made by apologists, is rife with problems.

Last but certainly not least, Scott fills out the debate with lots of digs at Justin. When he's not decrying speculation and subjectivity at every turn, Mr. Symington is accusing his opponent of thinking he 'knows better than god', of getting overly emotional, and of sitting in god's lap "to slap him in the face". He seems to think that only alternative explanations for every claim he makes, meeting all the evidence in all the right ways he wants, would be able to challenge the Christian worldview. Though I can appreciate the frustration of dealing with someone who just wants to criticize everything you say, this is not always what the debate between theists and atheists looks like, and it is not how things go in "God or No God?" Schieber presented his own arguments for atheism and addressed many of Scott's claims from a variety of angles, but Scott was apparently unsatisfied, even while he let plenty of important points slip by him unanswered.

Overall, this one was a clear win for Justin, though I think he could have responded better to the resurrection argument and fine-tuning. Scott's performance is exactly what Schieber hints at a couple times: arrogant, disrespectful to opposing views, and downright juvenile at times. He reminds me of the youth pastor who relies on bad jokes, over-confidence, and thinly-veiled ridicule to keep the attention of his audience. Hopefully this first debate will be a learning experience for him.

1. John R. Shook, Naturalism and Science (2007).
2. John Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament (2006), p. 183.
3. Gary Habermas, Resurrection Research from 1975 to the Present (2005). 

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