Review of Atheism – Christianity debate between Christopher DiCarlo and Dave Hunt at the “Decide for Yourself” religion debates in Whitby, ON
For general overviews of the event, go here, here and here. These reviews are all written by humanists who were strongly disappointed by the slanted nature of the event. Put briefly, the event was run by Christian literalists, at a Christian school, with Christian moderators, with questions to the speakers having to be written down so that they could be selected by the Christian literalist organizer, and with numerous other examples of favouritism toward Christian presenters and guests. See reviews for more details. If anyone else would like to submit a review for posting here (good or bad), please send it to theframeproblem [at] live [dot] ca. Read on for the review on DiCarlo vs. Hunt.
Now, the last thing I want to do is come off as flagrantly biased, but I have to say it: DiCarlo simply out-debated Hunt. Now this in and of itself does not mean that DiCarlo is right and Hunt is wrong, but DiCarlo was the stronger debater. And this is not simply my opinion. It is not even just the opinion of the humanists I spoke to. A number of my humanist peers overheard Christian attendees saying the same thing. Most telling, during the break between the debate and the question period one of the humanists’ sons overheard the moderator saying that they will need to get a better Christian debater next time around. One of my humanist peers, who is a former devout Christian and is highly literate in the Bible and Christian apologetics, told a reporter from a local newspaper that Hunt’s arguments were weak by Christian apologetics standards.
The Debaters’ Beliefs
DiCarlo describes himself as an Agtheist. Agtheism, DiCarlo explained, is the disbelief in particular Gods (e.g., the Christian God), but agnosticism with respect to whether or not the universe had an intelligent creator, Christian God or otherwise. Dave Hunt is a Christian of the Young Earth Creationist variety; that is, he believes the Earth to be roughly 6,000 years in age.
The Debate Format
The format of the debate was as follows: each presenter gave a 40-minute presentation, then each had 15 minutes for rebuttal, and then each had 5 minutes for final rebuttals, the tying up of loose ends, and closing remarks. The sequence was as follows: Hunt (40 mins), DiCarlo (40 mins), Hunt (15 mins), DiCarlo (15 mins), DiCarlo (5 mins), Hunt (5 mins). You’ll notice that Hunt spoke first in each portion but the last. The organizers’ thinking on this was that there is an advantage to speaking second and to having the final word, so they gave DiCarlo one of these advantages and Hunt the other. According to DiCarlo, this is not a conventional debate structure. Personally, I see the merit of the organizers’ decision. My only problem is that they never told DiCarlo about this before hand. DiCarlo and the audience were the last people to find out about this arrangement; the organizers, moderator and Hunt all knew of this arrangement before hand.
Review of Dave Hunt
Generally speaking, Hunt was a decent speaker, but not an outstanding one. He spoke well, but not superbly. However, the area that could handle the most improvement is the content of his arguments. Here I will review the arguments made by Hunt. If I have missed any, please feel free to let me know in the comment section or via email.
The New Atheists Hate God
Hunt began by talking about the New Atheists (Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett). He described them as all “hating God”. Now this is just patently absurd. How does one hate that which one does not believe exists? This seems to be an instance of Hunt not being able to step outside of his frame of reference. He seems unable to even conceptualize what it would be like to not believe in God. How else could he confuse disbelief with hatred? One could ask him if he hates Allah, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and Thor. Ironically, I wouldn’t be surprised if he were to say yes, though if he did, it would be due to a confusion of hating the God versus hating that people believe in the God.
The New Atheists Believe That Science Will Explain Everything
While I, too, have gotten the impression of this sort of belief from Richard Dawkins on a few occasions, I have not gotten it from the others. Moreover, I think that any intellectually honest person would admit that there is anything but an assurance that through science we will figure everything out. In fact, I see no reason to believe that we are going to figure everything out using science. However, when it comes to examining the universe, science is clearly the only game in town. Certainly one can investigate the depths of their experience using practices such as meditation, and can probe philosophical issues (e.g., moral-political concerns) sitting on their armchair, but when it comes to studying the world out there, the body, the brain, and other elements of the physical universe, science is the best we have and all that we have. And it is producing valuable findings. It is also a key tool in studying psychological and social phenomena indirectly through self-report.
Entropy: The Universe Moves Toward Increasing Disorder
Hunt cited the thermodynamic law of entropy, which states that unless energy is added, things move from order to disorder. Without a God, then, our ordered universe could never have come to be. This is not a bad argument. It’s also not valid, but it’s not bad. As Victor Stenger, author of God: The Failed Hypothesis, has stated: local pockets of order can form so long as the total system continues to move toward disorder. Stenger gives an example. Imagine that you live in a house and every time your garbage or recycling bin gets full, you just dump them out in your yard. You are able to continue to do this because whenever your yard is filled to capacity you buy more property. In this way, your house stays nice and ordered while the sum total of disorder continues to increase. Similarly, in a large universe which is expanding, pockets of order can form.
Materialism: What Does A Thought Weigh?
Hunt argued against materialism by asserting that ideas are not physical. To illustrate the point, he asked us to ponder the weight of a thought. DiCarlo, to my recollection, never addressed this point. I personally am not concerned by it in the slightest. Why not? Firstly, even if this were a true problem, it in no way necessitates the Christian God. Secondly, it’s not a problem. There are at least two viable ways of looking at the issue of mind and matter. Firstly, one can conjecture that the mental is an emergent qualitatively distinct property of matter. Such emergence of qualitatively novel phenomena is not unprecedented. Consider free market economics. By virtue of self-interested intelligent agents trading limited quantities in an open market, certain qualitatively novel self-organizing economic phenomena emerge. These market phenomena have been termed “the invisible hand”.
Another possibility is that the distinction between mind and matter is not objective, but an illusion resulting from the nature of the human cognitive system. In considering this possibility, consider first that mind and matter cannot be completely distinct. Mind and matter must share at least one plane of co-existence. The reason for this is that they clearly do interact. Mind affects matter (e.g., one’s desire for an apple can lead them to go get one) and matter affects mind (e.g., being stung by a bee hurts). Consider this: how could a non-material entity push a button? And how could something physical affect something non-physical? The laws of force, mass, gravity and so on do not apply to the immaterial. I hope that I have convinced you that despite their apparent qualitative dissimilarity, mind and matter must overlap in at least one way.
The next thing I’m going to ask for agreement on is that humans do not have objective and comprehensive perception. We do not see the world in its objectivity and fullness. Assuming that there is a world out there, we interpret it through our finite senses. Our perception is a distillation and a perspective of the world out there. That is, we do not process everything (this would require infinite cognitive capacity), and that which we do process is not processed in a direct world-to-mind objective sense, but is merely one perspective on what is being processed.
The third point I am going to make is that because our perception is not comprehensive, it is discrete (or categorical) rather than continuous. For example, an experimental cognitive psychologist could vary the wavelength of light being presented to a study participant in a continuous way (e.g., moving up or down one nanometre at a time) but the participant would not experience the change of colour in a continuous fashion. We perceive colour in a categorical sense. We have purple, blue, green, red, orange, and yellow, not simply lighter and darker, brighter and duller, and the like. When the psychologist varies the wavelength within a colour range (e.g., moving within the red range of the spectrum) the participant will perceive very small or no difference. But when the psychologist is making equal-sized changes at a colour border (at the border of red and orange, say) the participant will perceive relatively large qualitative changes. They are perceiving categorically. Similar effects are found in other areas of perception (e.g., phoneme perception). Since we do not have infinite cognitive capacity, our cognitive systems cannot process the world in its full continuous range. It has to simply the world into finite packets. This is well established.
Now lets put this all together. We have established that mind and matter must have at least one common plain of existence. We have also established that the human perceptual system parses continuities into discrete chunks. Could it not be possible that something analogous is occurring with respect to how we conceive of mind and matter? Without a common ground, no amount of feeling hungry is going to result in one moving to the fridge.
What Does Natural Selection Select From?
Hunt points out that the process of evolution by natural selection requires that there be replicating organisms to select from. Evolutionary theory does not explain the origin of replicating organisms. This is true. This issue is addressed next.*
The Law of Abiogenesis: Life Cannot Come From Non-Life
Hunt also argued that life cannot come from non-life. To say that life cannot come from non-life, and therefore God must exist is an argument from ignorance. Not being able to conceive of a natural explanation does not justify invoking the supernatural. One can acknowledge the supernatural as a possibility, but anything over and above that is unjustified.
Next, I ask, what is more far-fetched: extremely simple life capable of replication coming from complex non-living carbon-based structures; or there being an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent God who exists outside of space and time, exists in three forms, has a human form that was born of a virgin, has a special interest in each and every one of us, and for some reason only thought to unveil himself to humanity 2,000 years ago, presumably occupied with other tasks up until that point.
When we talk about the first cell, we are talking about an extremely simple cell—far simpler than any cell in existence today. And we are talking about it developing from relatively complex non-living carbon-based structures. And we are providing millions of years for this event to occur. One might ask why this sort of thing does not happen anymore. First off, who is to say that it doesn’t? More importantly though, the Earth is a lot different than it was millions of years ago. The Earth has an oxidizing (rather than reducing) atmospheric environment, which impedes the building of complex carbon-based structures. Secondly, the current day presence of life could present another obstacle in that living organisms could disrupt the formation of complex carbon structures (e.g., by using carbon-based structures for self-preservation functions). I’d be interested to hear about comparisons between the nature of deep sea ocean vents now versus how they are assumed to have been millions of years ago. Deep sea ocean vents are believed by scientist to offer an environment that is relatively favourable to the building of complex carbon structures.
Over 700 Scientists Dissent Evolution
Hunt notes that over 700 scientists from around the world doubt that evolution by natural selection of random mutation can account for the biocomplexity that we observe. Hunt fails to put this statistic into context. 700 is a stunningly small fraction of the international scientific community. I do not know how many PhD scientists there are in the world today, but I speculate that it is at least 1 million. Even if it were only 100,000, though, that would mean that skeptics of evolution constitute well under 1% of the scientific community. Even the National Academy of Science, an organization of the most elite scientists in America, has over 2,000 members. If we were to bring together all of the world’s evolution-doubting scientists, they would not be able to fill up a single university auditorium.
We must also consider the make-up of this group of evolution skeptics. Who are they? Correct me if I’m wrong, but as far as I know they are overwhelmingly a group of very devout Christians. If there is even a handful of religious moderates in this group of 700, I would be very very surprised. I am essentially certain that there is not a single atheist in the group, as if there were you know that this group would publicize this from the rooftops. I suspect that there might be devout members of other religious commuties (e.g., ultra-orthodox Jews, Muslim literalists). Why, if there is good reason to doubt evolution, is being a devout religionist apparently a necessary precondition to espousing such skepticism? If evolution is so weak, why does one need to be a religious literalist to see this? Where are the moderates and nontheists? And why do a number of religious organizations, most notably the Catholic Church, and many religious scientists, most notably evangelical Christian geneticist and director of the human genome project Francis Collins, stand in strong opposition of Intelligent Design Creationism and old Creationism?
Hunt asserts that Biblical prophecy constitutes evidence for the Biblical God. He first cites a unit of supposed prophecy in which New Testament text confirms text in the Old Testament. Given the lack of evidence from outside of the Bible to further endorse these intra-scriptural proposed prophecies, one can quite understandably be very skeptical of NT-OT alleged confirmations. He also cites supposed prophecy of the Arab world surrounding the Jews from all sides. I must ask, out of 1,300 pages of text supposedly written or directly inspired by the omnipotent and omniscient Creator of the universe, is this really the best that could be done? Wasn’t such an outcome relatively anticipatable back in those times? It wasn’t like the Jews from this time period were without their rivals. Secondly, how many passages that were either irrelevant or contrary to future events have to be skimmed by in order to get to diamonds like this one? And how many internal Biblical contradictions must one digest?
*Note: I do not intend to implicitly suggest that the definition of life is carbon-based replicating organism. The issue of definition life is well beyond the purview of this writing.
Review of Christopher DiCarlo
This is the second time that I have heard DiCarlo speak. He is a very strong speaker and stage presence. Young, good-looking, charismatic, intelligent, knowledgeable, and funny. Understand that I am not trying to butter him up here or to demonstrate bias for the side I favoured. These observations are simply honest, and I’m sure they would be echoed by most other attendees regardless of their religious beliefs. Further, I should say that I also spoke positively of the speaking abilities of Creationist Frank Sherwin in my general review of this event.
Some criticisms that some would make of DiCarlo was that at times he may have come off as unnecessarily derisive or arrogant. In discussing the mainstream scientific worldview versus Hunt’s ascent to Young Earth Creationist, DiCarlo’s words to Hunt were (almost verbatim) “Okay, that’s wrong. This isn’t one of those situations where we can both be right. No. I’m right and you’re wrong” (to which Hunt responded “I’m right and you’re wrong”, and received a fair bit of applause in so doing). I personally do not hold this stance against DiCarlo in the slightest. DiCarlo’s position is one of the most strongly endorsed positions in scientific history. Hunt’s position is flat out contradicted by science and is only believed by those who belief that the Bible is literally true, regardless of what science could ever say.
During the question period, DiCarlo was asked what he thinks the Christian God, should such a God exist, would say to DiCarlo at the end of his life. DiCarlo speculated that God would say something along the lines of “Welcome home dude. Congratulations, you used your brain and weren’t a sheep!” This was a Biblical reference to following Christ like sheep, but the response from a sizeable proportion of the audience was basically that this was a huge slam on the religious.
Onto the review of DiCarlo’s arguments. DiCarlo’s job was a lot easier than Hunt’s, I think. Hunt claims to be on a first name basis with the Creator of the universe and the ultimate arbiter of right and wrong. He makes claims about the nature of the origins of the universe and life which full-out contradict the worldviews backed by extremely strong science. DiCarlo, on the other hand, was very up front with his ignorance. DiCarlo doesn’t know how the universe originated. He doesn’t know if there is a God, though he disbelieves in the truth of the Gods of human religions. All DiCarlo really has to do, then, is find holes in Christianity and Hunt’s apologetics, cite some of the most strongly-corroborated scientific theory in human history, and remind Hunt that the Christian God is not the only possible explanation for everything.
Big Question Knowledge
DiCarlo, as mentioned above, freely admits his ignorance to the big questions (e.g., is there a God, how did we get here, etc.). He also specifies that science does not claim to answer the big questions. Further, he says that he would love to be able to know that there was a God. He would love to be able to know that if he does X, Y and Z, everything will be just fine for him. But he says that he does not know that there is a God, and he argues that neither does anyone else, though they may think that they do. In response to claims that “there must be a Creator”, which he doesn’t see any necessity for in the first place, he points out the lack of necessity for the Creator to be that spoken of by one of our religions.
He claims that all religions have made reasoning errors. A few examples that I can give of this are arguments from ignorance (“I don’t know how X could be, therefore God”), arguments from popularity (“X% of the population believe Y, therefore Y must be plausible”), arguments from authority (“The Bible or this high-status person says X”), arguments from personal experience (“I experienced X in a dream or while awake, therefore Y”; the problem here is that people of all faiths have religious type experiences, as do secular meditators, users of drugs such as LSD and mushrooms, and moreover, religious experiences have been created by altering brain activity in the lab – look up “Michael Persinger God helmet” for more info), arguments from cherry-picked hindsight-informed scripture reading, arguments based on misunderstandings and misrepresentation of evolutionary biology, arguments based on misunderstandings of atheism (e.g., calling the lack of belief in a God a faith claim itself; positive atheism (i.e., the statement that there is no God) is a faith statement; agnostic atheism (i.e., a lack of belief in Gods without an outright decisive rejection of the possibility, similar to a lack of belief in the toothfairy based on lack of evidence) is not a faith statement), and arguments from morality (e.g., “We need a moral code”, or “Where do our morals come from?”; these are arguments from perceived pragmatic necessity and ignorance, respectively; further, there is no need for an objective transcendent morality; there are very plausible cognitive evolutionary accounts of morality involving consideration of kin selection and mirror neurons (I highly recommend looking up “mirror neurons”); lastly, does one really need to be told not to smash someone in the face for no reason other than because they felt like it in order to view it as being inappropriate? The Golden Rule is a good idea regardless of whether it was passed down from divinity, and it jives perfectly well with cognitive evolutionary accounts).
In discussing the issue of what happens after we die, DiCarlo’s position is: nothing. He suspects that post-death will be identical to pre-birth. Now, if DiCarlo says that he knows that this will be the case, he is making a faith statement. None of us truly knows what happens after death, nor do we know if we existed in any form before our birth. But there is no reason to believe in such notions as heaven, hell and eternal souls.
DiCarlo accused Hunt of strawmanning evolution. In describing the law of abiogenesis (life cannot come from non-life), Hunt neglected to mention that non-life can include complex carbon-based structures, and life can be very simple—far simpler than any life we see today, including simple single-celled organisms. DiCarlo admits that Darwin did not talk about the origins of life. However, this does not indicate that a God is needed. See discussion on this matter in the discussion of Hunt. DiCarlo claimed that scientists will figure out the origins of life. Now this, to me, seemed like a pretty strong statement. Perhaps overly strong. However, the field of biology is incredibly advanced and he surely knows more about it than I do. Perhaps biologists are indeed hot on the trail of solving this question. I do not know. DiCarlo recommends checking out Harvard’s Origins of Life Program. I plan to do this. We can all read up on this matter and decide for ourselves (rather than simply trusting him because he has a PhD in the sciences) whether or not we think DiCarlo’s position was overly optimistic.
DiCarlo points out a few examples of bad design. For example, we have a blindspot in each of our eyes’ visual fields because of how the optic nerve connects to the retina. There is a very large repository of instances of bad design that fit very neatly into evolutionary theory, which isn’t after perfection but simply workable advantages based on what is present. In addition to the blindspot humans are prone to lower back problems (this fits well with the notion that we evolved from organisms that were quadripeds, rather than simply being designed to be bipeds), prior to advances in midwifery a substantial minority of mothers died during childbirth, the fact that our respiration and ingestion of food share a common pipe creates a choking hazard, we often need to have our tonsils and wisdom teeth removed, humans known to make systematic errors in reasoning, and the urethra in males passes through the prostate – a gland that is prone to swelling and thus blocking flow through the collapsable urethra. Thi.s is anything but an exhaustive list. One can easily find endless examples of bad design in human and other species online.
An interesting question DiCarlo put forth was Did Adam and Eve have navels?
The Size of the Universe
DiCarlo discusses the size of our region of the universe relative to the totality of the universe. The habitable Earth represents a mere crumb in relativity to the all-you-can-eat buffet that is the universe. That there is one known region in which life as we know it can survive is far less impressive when one considers the vastness of the universe. Moreover, for all we know there are parallel universes with other universal settings and where forms analogous to life as we know it may or may not exist.
DiCarlo went on what was probably more than 90 seconds of unpunctuated (yet not exhaustive) listing of Biblical contradictions.
Can an Omniscient God and Freewill Coexist?
DiCarlo argues that an Omniscient God disallows the possibility of freewill. He says that if God could know thousands of years before you were born that on such and such a day you would think such and such a thing and do such and such a thing, then you do not have free will because your course of thinking and action was determined. Hunt responded to this by saying that God knowing that something will happen does not cause it to happen. This dispute reminds me of a debate I had with a friend a few years ago about freewill. Together, my friend and I came to a compromise position which reconciles genetic and social determinism with freewill. On the one hand, we are determined by our genetics and socialization. On the other hand, the definition of freewill is to be able to do what one chooses. Regardless of whether or not one’s will and predispositions (including one’s will to change one’s predispositions) are constrained by factors beyond one’s own control, as long as one acts in accordance with oneself (i.e., the product of the interaction between one’s genetics and socialization), one is being oneself and acting in accordance with one’s own self-direction. Thus, though oneself may be formed by factors beyond oneself, the individual exercises freewill when one bes oneself. If we call the entirety of the universe God (or a part of God), then we can exercise freewill even if the way we would exercise it was externally-determined. This is a compatibilist position—a reconciliation of freewill and determinism. However, this has major problems for theistic ethics. How can God hold one responsible for their chosen actions if the person that they are was predetermined? If God knows what one is going to do before one does it, oneself is predetermined. Whether one is on a path to heaven, hell or purgatory is pre-determined. According to this notion, we are living in a metaphysical determinist universe.
DiCarlo on Religious Tolerance, and Religion, Moral Behaviour and Social Cohesion
DiCarlo claims to be quite tolerant of religious belief, regardless of whether he views such beliefs as reasonable or not, so long as they do not serve as motivating factors or justifications for antisocial behaviour. As he put it, his rule is “don’t be an asshole”. He says that as long as our religion and non-religion does not divide us or motivate hurtful behaviours, we’re good. DiCarlo acknowledges that religion surely has served as a motivating factor for good as well as destructive behaviours. He cited George W Bush a few times as an example of a Christian behaving badly, and in a number of cases using religious justifications or being empowered by coreligionists to enable socially destructive policies.
As stated above, it seems pretty clear to me, my humanist peers, and a number of overheard religious attendees that DiCarlo had a better showing on this afternoon than Hunt. If I have missed any arguments or if anyone feels that I could have presented certain things in alternative and better ways, feel free to send me an email or specify your suggestions or concerns in the comment section.