Despite claiming that he would never debate William Lane Craig, Richard Dawkins recently appeared in a three-on-thee face off against Craig at the La Ciudad de las Ideas conference; the Spanish equivalent of the TED Talks. And though there is a video of the event posted online, the Spanish voice overlay is so loud that it practically makes it unwatchable (UPDATE 12/01/10: full English audio here). So, hopefully this review and summary will be helpful to those who don’t want to waste two-hours pressing their headphones into their ears and trying to read everybody’s lips. But, who knows, maybe the theatrics typical of Hispanic television, such as the mock-boxing ring around the podium, make up for it.
The debate itself was like a tag team event. Richard Dawkins, Micheal Shermer, and Matt Ridley faced off against William Lane Craig, Rabbi David Wolpe, and Douglas Geivett (plus Michio Kaku arguing against both sides) concerning the proposition, “does the universe have purpose?” While this may sound epic, it was actually pretty bad. Because there were so many people, practically nobody had any time to make any points.
His argument simply came down to the claim that we mistake patterns (like the complexity of life and the progress of civilization) for a purposes. However, he says these are bottom-up processes, meaning that simple things can create complex systems. There is no need to invoke any God for these things because “it is possible to have order without ordaining it.”
Craig, as typical of his debates, was extremely organized. Even so, you could tell the allotted time (about 5 min) was simply not enough. He began by stating two main contentions. (1) If god does not exist, then the universe has no purpose. And (2) If god does exist, then the universe does have purpose.
He argues for contention #1 by pointing out that we’re all doomed to death and the universe too will someday end. Because there is no immortality on the atheistic view, this means that life is without purpose. He then quotes Dawkins on this point.
For contention #2, Craig argues that according to the biblical world view, life does not end at the grave. I understand where he’s trying to go with this, but his argument is so truncated that it makes little sense. He then claims that, “the purpose of life is the profound and personal relationship with the holy and loving God.” Thus theism provides a means for an objectively purposeful life, and apparently atheism cannot provide this.
He then makes an argument very similar to his moral argument: If there is a purpose to the universe, then God must exist. There *is* a purpose in life, he claims (without evidence), so then God must exist. Therefore, he wants his opponents to prove that God does not exist before they try to claim that the universe has no purpose.
He then refutes the only arguments given so-far in this debate against the existence of God: The problem of evil (which Ridley barely even mentioned). He uses this to make a counter-argument. If evil exists, then that implies a purpose because purpose and morality determine how things ought to be. So, then in order to say there is no purpose to the universe, his opponents must apparently argue that evil does not exist.
Finally Craig states five arguments for God. (1) God is the best explanation for why there is anything rather than nothing, (2) the beginning of the universe, (3) the fine-tuning of the universe, and (4) objective moral values. Also (5) that “the very possbility of God’s existence entails that God exists.” He never actually presents these arguments, but simply refers the audience to his book.
He begins by saying that the belief that the universe has a purpose has bad consequences, specifically that it makes people think they are the center of the universe and deserve everything they want. Shermer says the whole thing is just “wishful thinking.”
He then offers a challenge: If Christians pray to God to restore the limbs of amputeed Christian soldiers, then he would seriously consider changing his mind if they are successful. If there is purpose, he says, then we should have at least one sign like this. I don’t follow this reasoning.
Shermer then asks what our purpose is according to his opponents (didn’t craig answer this already?). Shermer seems to believe that purpose is about happiness, and suggests four things to increase happiness: (1) Hold deep love and commitment toward family and friends, for which he attempts to shame his opponents for not allowing homosexuals to do this through marriage; (2) meaningful work/having a career; (3) being productive (4) being involved socially; (5) a sense of transcendence – not necessarily religious
He summarizes by saying that if there is no afterlife then what matters is the here and now, and the simplest way to happiness is to do good.
He begins down the “fine-tuning” path saying that the universe is fine tuned for minds to exist who can understand purpose. We can comprehend science, so then… he lost me. The world operates according to laws, “that lone should awaken our wonder.” Okay? He then rebukes Shermer’s challenge because, he says, religion is not supposed to be like science. However, he says we all rely on something other than science. We all ask questions like “why are we here?” which is not a scientific questions.
He says that in order to believe that the universe has purpose, you must believe that the universe has a “purposer,” however, we may never know or understand this purpose (a point which seems contrary to Craig’s).
Wolpe ends with a rather odd statement: “You should sometimes, just sometimes – about the central questions in life – you should believe what you believe.”
Dawkin’s begins with an anecdote summarizing his position: “The ‘why’ question is a silly question.” We tend to assign purpose to living things, such as ‘birds have wings for the purpose of flying.’ People often resort to the idea of design, but Darwin showed that this explanation is not necessary. Therefore, according to Dawkins, this idea of purpose is illusory.
In regards to fine-tuning, he says that before Darwin, theologians focused on design in living organisms. But since that’s now well-understood in light of Darwin, they focus on things like fine-tuning. His answer: physicists are working on it, and he’s is confident that it will be figured out. But even if science doesn’t have these answers, Dawkins asks, “What on Earth makes you think that Religion has?”
Geivett’s entire statement seems to be a rehashing of Craig’s opening (but not as well-presented). In response to Shermer’s four suggestions for happiness, he simply asks “what is distinctive about the atheist point-of-view?”
He says that if the universe is an accident, then there is no purpose, no goal. Without God, atheists can’t explain why we value things like altruism and freedom. He argues that his opponents’ rebellion against God is a rebellion against ultimate purpose and that evolution can’t explain the desire for human purpose. Nothing too interesting.
Craig complains that there have been no arguments against the existence of God, and reasserts that if purpose exists, then God exists (and vice versa). He then complains that they haven’t refuted all the (extremely abridged) arguments for God’s existence. He then expresses that Dawkin’s perspective of “why?” questions being silly is “reprehensible,” because if you miss God’s purpose in life, then that would be the “ultimate tragedy.”
He simply says that Craig’s is throwing up straw men. He doesn’t agree that purpose exists if God exists. Also, he says that’s possible to live a purposeful life without God. A bit confusing.
He states that this all comes down to what we believe about ourselves. If we are only material beings, then we must believe that the universe has no purpose. If we believe there is something “special” about us, we “might actually have a poetic and spiritual understanding of what it means to be a human being.” He then accuses his opponents of trying to rob people of this. He ends on another odd note by saying that he doesn’t believe the universe is a “puzzle” to solve, but a “mystery” which “we’ll never figure it out.”
He agrees that “the universe” doesn’t have a purpose, and aptly points out, “we’re not debating whether there’s a God or not.” Besides. he says their argument is a ‘God of the Gaps.’ Articulates it as something like ‘you can’t think of the source of purpose, then there must be a God.’ But that really wasn’t their argument.
He goes on to say that we should give ourselves purpose outside of God. Asks his opponents and the audience, if there is no God, do you really think we have no purpose? Would you stop doing the things you enjoy?
Again nothing too interesting: He says the notion of “progress” which Ridley expressed is a value, and values require purpose, and that Ridley gave no argument for why purpose and God aren’t connected. This is true, but did anybody really give an argument why they are connected? He then seems to agree that bottom-down explanations are possible, but that this doesn’t mean they are true.
He essentially says that his opponents’ case is emotional rather than intellectual – Craig is just playing on heart-strings by bemoaning death and the end of the universe. Then Dawkins seems to make an inverse emotional argument: the fact that we evolved in such a universe is amazing. Finally. he restates that the question of ‘why the universe exists’ is “nonsensical.”
Michio Kaku’s Comments
Kaku comes in as a person who apparently disagrees with both sides. About Dawkins, et al. he says that they are “100% certain that the universe is pointless, meaningless, that there is no God” He then claims that Craig, et al. are similarly certain about their contentions. But as far as I can tell, none of them ever made this claim. Kaku’s entire point is simply that the question at hand is “undecidable.”
They all had about a minute each for a closing, so really very little of interest was said. Craig repeats his claim that “if God does not exists, the universe does not have a purpose” and says his opponents agree (although Shermer and Ridley both said that they didn’t agree). Craig then complains again that no arguments were given by his opponents about God’s existence. Other than that, Shermer tried to correct Kaku on a point. Wolke gave a quick emotional anecdote, and Dawkins called him on it.
After that there was a bunch of commentary from various people. Kaku also gave another quick response to the debaters who were then each given 30 seconds for a final statement – the only interesting one was Craig who pretty much just accused his opponents of “scientism” and “anti-religious bigotry.”
Overall, the debate was even more unproductive then they usually are. Because each person was so limited on time, they had much difficulty in making their points. Next time, they really must cut out a few people.