Saturday, March 14, 2015

The Rauser/Scheiber Debate: An Early Impression of Randal's Arguments

Last Saturday afternoon, I drove up to Edmonton to watch a debate between Randal Rauser and Justin Scheiber. The topic of the debate was : does the god of classical theism exist? Today, I'm going to share my thoughts on Randal's arguments in favour of the existence of God.*

Randal argued for three claims. You can hear him summarize them here.

1. It is rational to believe in God without any evidence or argumentation because God belief can be directly justified (aka, properly basic) by, for example, revelation or something like it.

2. God can, in principle, be a legitimate explanation for certain phenomena or evidence.

3. God is the best explanation for our perception of objective, moral truths. The faculty we have for perceiving these truths is our moral intuition. I interpretted Randal as taking an 'objective moral truth' to be one that is true regardless of the opinion or thoughts of cognizers. So for example, if Randal is right, our strong intuition that rape is wrong would remain true even if every cognizer in existence disappeared in the same way that the existence of the Golden Gate Bridge would still be true even if every cognizer in existence disappeared.

I was immediately struck by what odd choices (1) and (2) were considering the debate topic.

Firstly, The idea that God-belief can be rational does nothing to help prove that God exists. Maybe it is rational to believe in God based upon personal experiences and in the complete absence of evidence and arguments, but we were at a debate about the truth of God's existence where one is expected to provide evidence and arguments, so I was left seriously confused about why Randal bothered spending perhaps a third of his opening 20 minutes on this seemingly vain effort.

I suppose that (2) was useful in setting up (3), but by itself, it also does nothing to help prove that God exists. I think that Randal would have been better served by saving this argumentation for a rebuttal if Justin (or an audience questioner) had challenged the idea that God can act as a legitimate explanation in principle. Accordingly, Randal really put all of his eggs in one basket, so to speak, with (3), a version of the moral argument for the existence of God. Justin could have tied the debate by not even refuting this argument and having only one of his three arguments survive. (In reality, I think that he did better than that.)

Regarding (1): I have presented a rationality defeater for the direct justification of God belief here. Accordingly, I conclude that Randal's first argument fails: it is emphatically not rational to believe in God in the absence of evidence and argument because of the common knowledge of the defeater I presented. Moreover, as I mentioned above, this line of argumentation in a debate about the existence of God is like bringing a donut to a gun fight: tasty treat, but useless.

Regarding (2): I agree that God can, in principle, represent a legitimate explanation for certain phenomena or evidence. However, as I have written here and here, I think that God is, in practice, a horrible explanation for probably anything.

Regarding (3): I'm not convinced that the kind of objective moral truths Randal claims to be perceived by moral intuition actually exist, and I'd like to hear him make the case that they do. My recollection is that he did not do that, but I'm keen to explore how one might. It seems to me that if one can't plausibly establish that such objective moral truths exist, the argument that we must have a God-given faculty to perceive them falls apart.

Moreover, I have previously argued that God is a horrible explanation for our moral intuitions and that naturalism is a much better one. On naturalism, one would predict that because the gene is the unit of selection, our moral intuitions would lead us to care most about the well being of those most genetically similar to us, and this is precisely what we observe. We care most about our children, our closest relatives, our community members, and least for those who are distant, unrelated, and outside our in-group. We even tend to choose friends who are genetically close to us - as close as fourth cousins, in fact. This is a very surprising fact on the hypothesis that we were created in the image of a morally perfect and perfectly loving God. So I don't deny that we have moral intuitions, but I think that they're better explained by naturalism than theism, and on a naturalistic explanation, they don't point to the kind of objective moral truths that Randal is talking about. (If you're interested, I have also argued that God simply cannot ground objective moral truths in the way that believers think he can, here.)

So you see, I wasn't swayed one bit by Randal's arguments. I doubt that anybody there was swayed by the other side much, if at all. Debates aren't really places where people change their minds. For me, this debate was part of a long-term process of seeking out the best arguments that a smart and well-versed individual like Randal would come up with because it's important to me to understand the best arguments and evidence that counter my beliefs and to wrestle directly with any cognitive dissonance that they might create. That's a logical consequence of being open to changing my mind. It was also about seeing how an equally smart and well-versed opponent like Justin would publicly make the case for atheism, defend it against Randal's best arguments, and whether those ideas would align with my own or be novel. That's a logical consequence of being open to the best evidence and argumentation out there.

Soon, the video of the debate will be available and it will serve as an excellent example of how debaters should interact. Both presenters were polite, respectful, and a pleasure to listen to. I hope that their enthusiasm will cause theists and atheists alike to delve more deeply into Philosophy of Religion.

If you're an atheist, I would urge you to follow Randal's blog. Although the arguments he chose in this debate didn't sway me (yet, at least - I still have to watch the video), I have both learned a great deal and enjoyed being challenged by his thoughtful work over there.

If you're a theist, I'd encourage you to follow Justin online here, at his YouTube Channel, "Real Atheology" here, and to familiarize yourself with Reasonable Doubts, the podcast he co-hosted. Justin has done more than 20 similar debates and has gotten to know the evidence and arguments on both sides very well. He's a great communicator of all that he has learned on this subject. He didn't convert from Christianity for nothing, and if you're having doubts about your faith, you owe it to yourself to look into how Justin evolved.

*Warning: my recollection of this event is poor. Not only that, my own personal bias as an atheist, coupled with my background familiarity with some of the arguments, means that I would have surely formed memories based on certain parts of the debate while other parts that I might have been paying less attention to are not available to me for this commentary. It'll be interesting to see how inaccurate my recollection is when the video of the debate becomes available.

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