Tuesday 18 October 2011

Does God Exist?

Does God Exist? How long have learned men gathered together to ask this question? It’s easier to count the time in millennia than centuries. In all those ages the question still remains unanswered for certain. One day there might actually be a final solution to this perennial conundrum; if and when that day comes I want to be there to see it! I want to be able to tell my great-grandchildren that I was there on the day that we finally knew!

For this reason I attended the Does God Exist? debate in London, one of two events that I’m going to on this subject. The debate was between two men: a famous Christian theologian from California called William Lane Craig and the in the Atheists’ corner, Oxford philosophy professor Stephen Law, whom HPANWO has encountered recently before, see: http://hpanwo.blogspot.com/2011/07/skeptical-renaissance.html and: http://hpanwo.blogspot.com/2011/09/british-humanist-association-conspiracy.html Here’s the website all about Craig’s tour of Britain, of which tonight's event was a part: http://www.bethinking.org/the-reasonable-faith-tour-2011/who-is-william-lane-craig.htm . The event was held at the Central Methodist Hall in London, a squat and intimidating building in the heart of Westminster, right in the shadow of Big Ben. The ornate grandeur of the interior made me feel small; it looked like a cross between Oxford Town Hall and the Taj Mahal. I’m not able to enjoy that kind of Neoclassical-stroke-Victorian architecture any more; like so much else in London it reduced me to a tiny little human ant, a sick and tired Winston Smith, gazing up in awe at the edifice of the Ministry of Truth. From what I gathered from eavesdropping on their conversations, nearly all the people attending were Christians, on Craig’s side. There were a few Humanist/Skeptic types; indeed they had a stall, but the home fans were definitely dominant. I felt a little strange occupying a neutral position; not just neutral in the way most Theists and Atheists perceive and understand neutral on the issue: ie an Agnostic, but neutral beyond even that. There was an attractive stall displaying all of Craig’s 30 plus-books with titles like Reasonable Faith and The Case for Christ. See here for his website: http://www.reasonablefaith.org/site/PageServer . There was a book which caught my eye called Why God won’t Go Away by Alister McGrath. This was because I’d read another book with that same title by the neurologist Andrew Newburg. McGrath is one of Richard Dawkins most stringent critics, or “fleas” as Dawkins calls them; see: http://hpanwo.blogspot.com/2008/04/god-delusion-by-richard-dawkins.html . I settled into my seat under the stucco dome of the opulent conference hall and waited for the debate to begin. I sat next to a lady who was, almost paradoxically according to some, both a scientist and a Christian. We had a good long talk about religion and got along despite our differing viewpoints. Like many people who are firmly pro or con religion she seemed to find it hard to understand my own ideas. We nevertheless discussed the film The Robe very eagerly; it’s one of my favourites, one that I actually learned to enjoy when I was an Atheist myself, see: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0046247/

Craig took the stage first. He is a genial American with a middle-aged Hollywood look, perfect for dealing with the public in a way that Americans are superlative at. “My case is based on the truth I have discovered: that there is far more reason to believe in God than to not believe in Him” he began. “There are fewer reasons against God’s existence than for His existence.” The debate was structured into three rounds of rebuttals and counter-rebuttals followed by an armchair discussion with audience questions. Craig said that there were four main areas of study which reveal this supposed good sense to believe in God: philosophical, historical, scientific and moral. He then went on to explain various infinity paradoxes and problems with mainstream cosmology, but when he turned to the moral section he launched the rocket that became the core structure of the debate and the one which Stephen Law spent most of his time trying to shoot down. Law leapt eagerly up to the podium and explained how his main argument against God’s existence was that cruelty and suffering were intrinsically woven into the fabric of the universe. Sure, a lot of suffering is man-made, but just as much is natural: earthquakes, hurricanes etc; but the best evidence is in biology. Law sites the case of a nasty beast called the Komodo Dragon, a huge land-dwelling reptile that resembles a living dinosaur with a massive bulk and sharp teeth. It’s a predator and its hunting technique is not to risk attacking a fit, strong animal that might fight back, but to give it a quick bite in order to poison it with the lethal bacteria that it deliberately cultivates in its mouth. Then it follows its prey until its victim falls foul of toxic shock and collapses; then the Dragon eats it alive. Law also pointed out that throughout the hundreds of thousands of years of human existence between a third and half of all children have died before their fifth birthday; causing an incalculable amount of grief to their parents. “God knew about this!” Law emphatically proclaimed “And He let it happen… for thousands and millions of years! Why? For reasons that He decided upon!” The churches have come up with a whole series of very convoluted and vague explanations to explain the presence of evil in our world. These explanations impress Law so little that he has come up with a parody of them: The Evil God Hypothesis. This reverses all the metaphysical equations and states that God is really evil; it’s just that there is still good in the world because He gave us free will etc etc etc. Craig was ready for this, being obviously familiar with Law’s views. He said that the presence of evil in the world is not used by Christians to question their faith (Really? I know a few for whom the existence of evil enormously undermines their faith.) We live not for today but for Heaven! The Great Hereafter! At this point I thought Law was going to say something that would win him his MBA (See: http://hpanwo.blogspot.com/2011/02/deathbed-mbas.html), but unfortunately he just went back to his Evil God Hypothesis, an argument that he would repeat throughout the evening a little too much I think. However Craig made a pretty big gaff when he said that the suffering of animals didn’t matter so much because all animals, with the exception of higher primates like humans, have no self-awareness, due to their lack of a prefrontal cortex in their brains. The subject of animal consciousness is extremely controversial and there is research which contradicts Craig’s assertion. There’s the “spot test” in which animals have a spot painted on their faces and are shown a mirror to see if they recognize themselves by being aware of the spot, in other words: self-awareness. I think over a hundred species passed the test; not just the great apes, but dogs, horses, elephants and many others. These animals have no prefrontal cortex, but still have self-awareness. This not only calls into question the ethics of current animal rights, but also debunks Craig’s theories about how God made these animals.

I should mention that the audience was in general very much behind Craig as I expected. They were very well-behaved, but a few people called out during the speakers’ sessions and Law got a few “boo’s” every time he took the floor. The debate became a bit entrenched and frustrating towards the second half of the evening as the two speakers repeated similar points over and over and little progress beyond them was made. Both the speakers accused the other of failing to respond to each other’s arguments. There were a few breakaway parties though, one or two adventures beyond the heartland. Law used the word “onus” three times, so fulfilling an important Skeptical obligation, see: http://hpanwoforum.freeforums.org/the-hpanwo-guide-to-being-a-forum-skep-dick-t912.html . There was also a moment when the debaters both explored the idea that God was neither good nor bad, but neutral. They also asked whether there might be more than one God behind the universe, in so doing they dabbled with Gnosticism, the idea of Lucifer or the Demiurge working alongside Yahweh, the Biblical God. Craig also pointed out the Atheist philosophers who have questioned Atheism like Frederick Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre and Bertrand Russell (I was a bit disappointed that they didn’t mention the greatest philosopher that the world has ever seen! Ludwig Wittgenstein!.. Oh alright, I’m biased of course, see: http://hpanwo.blogspot.com/2011/07/hospital-porters-who-changed-world.html) I spoke earlier of William Lane Craig’s gaff over animal suffering, but in fact the biggest clanger of the evening by far was dropped by Stephen Law. He related a story that he also mentions in his book about a UFO sighting over a nuclear power station in 1967 which was hyped up into a massive Close Encounter event. Policemen and other responsible witnesses described it as being an enormous saucer-shaped craft the size of a football field with little grey aliens inside etc, and then later it turned out to be just the planet Venus. Maybe Law was counting on there being no UFOlogists in the audience; in which case he counted wrong. I’ve not heard of this particular case, which is surprising if it was such a major UFO-related occurrence; but if it were true it was definitely not representative of the UFO phenomenon, the witnesses to it or the people involved in researching it. He does himself no favours by bringing this anecdote up.

So did we get a final answer, one to terminate the endless centuries of wrangling? No. It was a complete stalemate. As with Douglas Adams’ Deep Thought, see: http://hpanwo.blogspot.com/2010/11/meaning-of-life.html we were just left with our own “42!” The scope of the debate and the enterprise of the participants was slightly lacking and I came away feeling a bit disappointed. If anything I’d say that William Lane Craig may have slightly got the upper hand, but this doesn’t mean he proved Stephen Law wrong, nor does it mean I’m about to become a Christian from listening to him! Still, I’m going to see Craig live again at the Sheldonian Theatre here at home in Oxford next Tuesday where he’s supposed to be debating Richard Dawkins; if Dawkins turns up! In fact Craig’s supporters have satirized Dawkins indecisiveness and his unwillingness to step up to the table by putting adverts on Oxford’s buses saying: “THERE IS PROBABLY NO DAWKINS SO ENJOY A LECTURE INSTEAD”. This is a satire of the famous Atheist Bus Campaign of several years ago, see: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bSrSwRpBdHk The good news is: you can decide for yourself over what went on this evening because the entire Craig-Law debate will soon be available on the Unbelievable podcast: http://www.premier.org.uk/unbelievable

One thing I’ve learned from this event and others like it is that there’s a great deal of difference between proving somebody wrong and winning a debate. Debating is a skill in itself regardless of the content of what’s being debated. In the beginning I found this revelation rather shocking and distasteful. It sounded to me like people were employing sophistry when persuasive reason failed them, but I’ve come to accept it and even admire those who excel in this verbal art-form. The grandmaster has to be the great Christopher Hitchens. Here he is at work: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S6P1NQ7PkG4 Hitchens has made a niche so deep for himself in this field that he is almost the founder of his own genre, never mind the grandmaster. This leads me to question his sincerity. Does he really believe in everything that he’s preaching? Or is he just like a very smart lawyer? His opinions seem to be very convenient, tailor-made in order for him to disagree with virtually everybody! He’s a Leftist who supports the War on Terror, he’s an Atheist who opposes abortion; he truly is the universal contrarian. He’s also made some very contradictory statements on the status of the Armed Forces. However this is not really a criticism; as I said, I just enjoy this wonderful new spectator sport. As Deep Thought said in the original radio and TV show on Douglas Adams’ Hitch-Hikers’ Guide to the Galaxy: “The Neutron-Wrangler could talk all four legs off an Altairian mega-donkey, but only I could persuade it to go for a walk again afterwards!”

Latest HPANWO Voice articles: http://hpanwo-voice.blogspot.com/2011/10/big-b-rubber-is-watching-you.html
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Jay44 said...

Excellent review. One of the better reviews of a debate I've read in a while. The whole issue of animal self-awareness is fascinating and quite honestly I still don't know what to make of it. How much self-awareness does a living thing have to have in order to be considered a moral agent which posesses intrinsic value? I don't know but depending on the answer to that question a lot more than just theology will be affected.

Anyhow, looking forward to the audio of this debate. By the way, how was the attendence for this event? Was it packed? It's hard to tell from the pictures.

Anonymous said...

Can't wait to hear the audio!

Ben Emlyn-Jones said...

Hi Christian JR4. Thanks for you comments. It bergan as virtually a full-house. The gallery you can see in the photo is empty there, but it quickly filled up. However there was a bit of a hole in the bucket because after about an hour a few people started leaving.

I suppose it's impossible to know what it's like to be a particular animal species unless we ARE one. However anybody who has owned a dog will tell you that their pet exhibits all the behavioural, intellectual and emotional traits that lead one to suspect it has, if not cognitive abilities, then a level of consciousness and self-awareness similar to our own. You're right, this is revolutinonary as regards animal rights. I've already stopped eating non-free range pork because pigs have very similar brains to dogs and factory farms treat pigs with immense cruelty.

Ashwini Damani said...

Check this interesting story on God's Existence between a Science Professor and his students...Loved it