Help Me In My Unbelief

An unbeliever's first steps into a faithless world

Debates, technique, and bad analogies

I don’t often get a chance to watch recordings of debates, but I happened to watch a recent debate between Christian apologist Frank Turek and American Atheists president (and meme) David Silverman, which you can see here.

One of the reasons I don’t like watching these debates is that I so often see intelligent people with the right position utterly fail to make their position convincingly. Even the late Christopher Hitchens, a remarkable wit in his own right, did a disappointing job when he debated William Lane Craig, in part because Craig managed to set the terms of the debate, rhetorically speaking. (These debates also generally happen with atheists on the defensive, both in terms of the debate setup and the venue: the Craig/Hitchens debate was held at Biola University, a prominent Christian college; the Turek/Silverman debate was held in a Baptist church in Louisiana.)

Another thing that really bugs me is how ultra-prepared the Christian debaters are and how comparably unprepared the atheist debaters are. It’s not so noticeable in settings without technology, but Frank Turek had a slide (or, in one case, a video clip) to help illustrate practically every point he had, even during his rebuttal (although technology didn’t work very seamlessly, which was awkward). He also used mnemonics (the acronym CRIMES for the evidence for God – Cosmos, Reason, Information, Morality, Evil, Science – which was so memorable that I only had to look up one of those after watching the talk once), and his presentation was remarkably compelling, if you ignored the huge flaws in his reasoning and evidence, especially in regards to design arguments (he used a variant of the 747 argument, apparently entirely ignorant of the disanalogy with evolution). But if you were sympathetic at all to Turek, he mostly had the upper hand. The one thing he did that I think seriously undercut his rhetorical approach was to retort “But it’s all just relative!” every time David Silverman brought up moral arguments; another more subtle deception was to sarcastically attack Silverman’s inclusion of evolution, saying that evolution is irrelevant to the question, when he had in fact brought evolution into the debate when he started talking about the design of life and the “information” in DNA (never mind that he, like most creationist/ID proponents, obviously doesn’t have a clue about information theory).

One of the other big disadvantages that the atheist debaters have going into these debates is the frame of reference for the question. David Silverman obviously went into this debate thinking that he was going to be arguing against a specific conception of God, the Christian one (a reasonable assumption for a debate in a Baptist church); Frank Turek argued for a vague deity with some of the same attributes as the Christian god, which meant that he could act like Silverman wasn’t really engaging his arguments when Silverman inevitably brought up the Bible. If I were ever in a position to participate in a debate like this, you can bet that I’d require that the terms be set out in advance for a broad question like this; arguing about theism or atheism broadly gives the theist too much wiggle room, and the atheist is stuck with the difficult task of nailing Jello to the wall.

But perhaps the most remarkable thing to me was during the cross-examination, when Silverman made what I think was his strongest point. He was able to get Turek to talk about the problem of evil – which even the church’s pastor admitted, rightly, is a difficult issue – and brought up free will in connection to God’s placement of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden. In an attempt to argue that God didn’t actually negate Adam’s free will by placing the tree there with the full, complete, certain knowledge of what Adam would do, Turek made what is, in my opinion, one of the strangest analogies possible to get around the problem of foreknowledge and free will (clip starts around the 1:38:20 mark):

Turek: Let’s assume you [Silverman] love NFL football, which I know you do, okay? One day, Sunday, you’re away from the TV, so you’ve got TiVo, so you record a whole bunch of games while you’re away. Then, on your way home, you hear the scores on the radio; you go, “Oh, I didn’t want to hear the scores!” Right? But then you come home and you elect to watch the Giants and the Patriots – and we know how that’s going to turn out; it always turns out the right way every time, right? [some audience laughter] Now as you’re watching the game, you know what the score’s gonna be, but does that mean you’re causing the players on the field to do what they do, or do they still have free will?

Silverman: They don’t have free will.

T: They don’t have free will? The players playing football don’t have free will?

S: On the recording? No, on the recording, they don’t have free will; they’re fictional; they’re just a recording. I know the answer; I know the score.

T: Yes, you know the score, but while they were playing, they had free will.

Yes, ladies and gentleman, you just heard it: the argument from TiVo. I’ve heard some very novel analogies invented on the spot, but this one takes the cake.

First, Silverman is absolutely right to note that the players on the field and the players on the recording are not the same entities. Second, seeing a recording of an event or hearing about the outcome afterwards is not foreknowledge – by definition, something known after the fact cannot be foreknowledge. But even worse, Turek is trying here to argue that the atemporality of this specific conception of God avoids the problem, but it doesn’t, since God (according to Turek’s theology) is acting in a specific moment in time before Adam’s actions with the knowledge of the specific consequences. If God can act temporally, then he can be judged for those actions within the course of time – in fact, he would be more culpable given that he (as an omniscient being) would know every possible outcome and could mitigate harms in a way that someone with an incomplete knowledge of the consequences could not.

But I doubt that the audience picked up on what a horrendously illogical analogy this was, by and large – at least not the theists. And that perhaps encapsulates why I get so frustrated watching debates: they just seem so pointless. Still, I know that they can be useful in exposing especially unsympathetic audiences to the other side of the equation, and perhaps there’s some utility in that.

What say you, readers? Are debates worth it? Who came out on top in this one? Have you ever come across a debate that really seemed like a worthwhile exchange? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

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6 responses to “Debates, technique, and bad analogies

  1. pansypetals April 27, 2013 at 3:53 pm

    “Are debates worth it?” Well, it depends on the purpose of the debate and how you rate success. You are unlikely to illicit a reasonable response from a theist in a public forum when the point of a debate is to convey two sides to an issue. The debate is more likely to affect the audience. I wouldn’t call a debate a failure if it causes someone to re-evaluate their beliefs. Theists are sure of themselves, so they do well at debates. They use terrible arguments, of course. Atheists are more comfortable with not knowing, so they tend to make less stuff up as they go along. So to the uncritical observer, it appears that the theist is making a lot of points for which the atheist has no rebuttal. The real issue is that the theists always have flawed premises. Ignore the argument which follows. Point out how wrong the premises are and the arguments are void.

  2. TCC April 27, 2013 at 6:58 pm

    I entirely agree that debates are done for the spectators, but that’s part of my question, in a sense: Are debates a good way to get at the facts rather than merely an effective way to persuade others with deceptive tactics and rhetoric? I would argue that a sympathetic spectator may have difficulty in locating questionable premises in the mire of misleading rhetoric and flashy slides (as Frank Turek used).

  3. TCC April 27, 2013 at 7:17 pm

    BTW, love the handle.

  4. pansypetals April 27, 2013 at 9:15 pm

    Debates are about presenting a case: much as in a courtroom, there is only one truth but each side has invested interests. Unlike a courtroom, there is no standard for evidence and no opportunity for objections. The format needs to be changed somehow – the conversation at the end is more productive, I think. It’s much better to deal with one point at a time, and move on when it has been resolved. It would be interesting if the moderator could stop the speakers when they misrepresent evidence. I cringed when Turek equated DNA with words made out of cereal. Almost more horrifying is that Silverman never explained the difference.

  5. pansypetals April 27, 2013 at 9:42 pm

    My apologies to Silverman. It was briefly corrected.

  6. Maverick Atheism July 22, 2014 at 8:55 pm

    Are debates worth it? I actually wrote a blog article on this very topic! The short answer: it depends. It depends on how both sides perform, but done right, debates can be very useful indeed for several reasons.

    First, it is useful for one to listen to what both sides have to say, and the philosophy student might well be curious to see how each side responds to the arguments of the other.

    Second, it is potentially a good opportunity to introduce people to both sides of a topic that they might not otherwise do, since many people have confirmation bias, absorbing only those books, blogs, lectures, and YouTube videos that already confirm what they already believe. A debate makes it more likely that people of both sides will listen to what the other has to day in a fair manner (both sides get equal time).

    Third, I also think back-and-forth intellectual critiques helps produce better arguments for both sides, and thereby aids in intellectual advancement.

    Yet what I think is more valuable than oral debates is _written_ debates. An oral debate provides very little time to create an adequate response, whereas in a written debate one has weeks or months to prepare. What might be worthwhile is for people to do written debates well researched in advance, and then each side gives their oral presentations to the audience. I think we’d have debates of far higher quality.

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