Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Ali vs. Husain in Westminster, UK

This debate is worth hearing at least twice, because it deals with issues rarely addressed in debates between believers and unbelievers, or for that matter, in any context.  Essentially, this is a debate over whether Islam should be revived, reformed, or refused.  Ed Husain says, “I’m not here to defend Muslims, I’m here to defend Islam,” while Ayaan Hirsi Ali counters with “I am not here to defend Islam, I am here to defend Muslims.”  This is to say that Husain is a liberal believer and former fundamentalist who claims that his faith may yet undergo an ideological renaissance with serves to elevate the thinking of Muslims throughout the world, while Ali is a humanist and former believer who would prefer individuals who identify as Muslims to elevate themselves by choosing reason over faith.

It seems obvious enough to me that both Ali and Husain are correct on most of the vital issues they discuss, such as civil rights and secular law, and they disagree only on whether faith itself is worth having and maintaining.  I consider this an open question, although it seems clear enough to me that secular democratic societies cannot liberalize unless the religious faiths of the citizens do so as well.  The foreign policy question for us westerners must be how best to encourage majority Muslim nations to allow for both liberal faith and religious infidelity, in other words, how to create free and open civil societies rooted in the cultural context of Islam.  I do not know how to address this quandary, though I am fairly certain that bombing people into the Stone Age (a common enough sentiment here in the Bible Belt) is not the answer. 

Interestingly, Husain and Ali seem to agree that there is a narrow path which might allow for Muslims to create their own free, open, civil societies, by focusing on earlier textual traditions within Islam.



Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Blackmore vs. McGrath in Bristol, UK

In this debate Susan Blackmore sketches out the basic concepts and implication of memetic theory, and points out that religious ideas have evolved to closely emulate a set of ideas as efficient self-replicators.  She also sketches out a bit how the memetic imperatives may make humans act even more violently than they ordinarily would in the competition for scarce resources. 


Alister McGrath, meanwhile, makes the claim that the Christian worldview allowed him to make sense of the world whereas he found his previous life as a freethinker unsatisfying.  He defends faith-based religious ideology against Blackmore’s arguments by invoking the favorite tu quoque of theistic apologists, that is, the faith-based irreligious ideology of Marxism.  This mouldy old trope gets more mileage than my 1978 300D (which to my knowledge is low-riding around Albuquerque to this very day).


The rebuttal periods are all too brief.  Just as each speaker revs up to really lay the boots into the other’s arguments, someone’s Timex goes off with a most annoying series of beeps.  Alas!  Altogether, this debate has the feel of a friendly back and forth over tea and scones, which is a nice change of pace from Hitchens’ relentless abuse or Craig’s incessant calling out drops. 


Overall rating: 3.5 stars






Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Harris vs. Wolpe in Los Angeles, CA

This event was not so much a debate as a lightly-moderated relatively rapid back and forth between the rabbi and the skeptic, which makes for a nice change of pace.  They argue for quite a bit over which sorts of knowledge may be validated or falsified, and at one point Wolpe makes the fascinating and revealing claim that Agnesë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu could not have been nearly quite so morally exemplary without her (presumably false) belief in Jesus Christ.  I say ‘presumably’ here since the fact that Jesus was not the Messiah has to be on the short list of socially relevant propositions which one might reasonably expect a Jewish rabbi and a religious skeptic to agree without any contestation.  I know, right? 

It should also be noted that Rabbi Wolpe never quite made an argument for the existence of any god, although he staunchly defends the idea that certain metaphysical claims should be respected in the absence of evidence.  These guys go back and forth on ethics and metaphysics for about an hour until the Q & A, at which point the audience starts lobbing rotten fruit on the stage.  This isn’t the very most insightful dialogue ever  recorded, but it was entertaining in about the same way as a welterweight bout.  Enjoy!


Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Hitchens vs. Roberts on the radio

This radio segment from Hugh Hewitt’s radio show is not particularly lively or insightful, but it was quite cordial and covered a good deal of ground related to Hitchens’ original polemic against religious belief.  Worth a listen if you are unfamiliar with Hitchens and if you prefer conversational back-and-forth to formal debate.


Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Price vs. Knight in Minneapolis, MN


This is debate focusing on the resurrection of Jesus, between Dr. Robert Price and Rev. Dwight Knight.  There is plenty of back-and-forth here, since the format of the debate included cross-ex following each opening statement, kudos to the organizers for that. Also, Robert Price goes into Lewis Black style rant mode a couple times, which is fun to watch.

The general theme running throughout this debate is that one side uncritically accepts pretty much everything in the gospels while the other hypercritically rejects them at every major point. Not a whole load of common ground worth fighting over between these guys, so it turns into a series of projectile artillery volleys.  Nonetheless, there are good arguments pressed on both sides and plenty of direct attempts to refute opponent's premises.  Good stuff!

  • Unbeliever rating: 4.5 stars

  • Believer rating: 3.5 stars 

  • Overall rating: 4.0 stars

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Poling vs. Herrick in Seattle, WA

This debate, I’m sorry to say, is not quite worth the 15Mb that it takes up on my mostly blank 250Gb HDD.  It centers almost completely upon the cosmological argument framed in terms of necessary being as opposed to contingent being, and even so fails to elucidate whether this distinction is coherent and may be validly applied to the cosmos as a whole.  Moreover, both debaters misconstrue the nature of the Big Bang, and fail to relate their arguments to developments in modern cosmology.  The best that can be said about this exchange is that it overloads your rebuttal buffer, like listening to political talk radio.





Thursday, March 1, 2007

Atkins vs. McGrath in Edinburgh, Scotland


Contra the dittoheads over at Dawkins website, this debate notably lacked coherent arguments for the positions being taken by each speaker. Mostly, the theist and the atheist spent most of the time demonstrating inconsistencies or flaws in the other side's worldview, instead of making an argument for their own.


Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Levin vs. Alexander in Cambridge, MA

This debate is among of the best I’ve heard on deep matters of metaphysics, though it strayed a fair bit from the topic question at times.  Muchos kudos to the Veritas Forum for bringing together two presenters who were articulate, brilliant, cordial, & downright erudite, for good hearty intellectual jousting. 

Since I’m an unregenerate cynic, thought, I’ll start with the low point of the event.  Probably the worst argument of the talk was this one from Dr. Alexander:

  1. Memes are (by definition) ideas which spread primarily due to characteristics other than rational persuasiveness.

  2. If some ideas are memes, then all ideas must be memes, including the idea of memes itself

  3. :. Meme theory cannot be rational, and implodes in a paroxysm of self-contradiction

Of course, he fails to make premise #2 explicit in his argument, presumably because if he had done so he would have seen this argument as unsound and not bothered to utter it aloud.  Perhaps there is some way to salvage this argument by recasting as inductive, but I cannot see how right at the moment.

For the most part, though, this debate is a fine exchange of worthwhile arguments and pointed counter-arguments.  Definitely worth a listen or two. 

  • Unbeliever rating: 5.0 stars
  • Believer rating: 4.0 stars
  • Overall rating: 4.5 stars

p.s. I’ve developed a bit of a crush on Jenna Levin.  Why didn’t we have any girls like that in my old physics department?

Friday, February 23, 2007

Dennett vs. McGrath in New Orleans, LA

This debate could have been better than it was if only the speakers had been given more of an opportunity for direct cross-examination.  As it was, they only went head-to-head on a few issues, most notably that of the validity of meme theory as a viable paradigm for the social sciences to research.  McGrath manages to sound fairly erudite when talking on such matters, as when he quite cleverly quipped that memetics is not awaiting its Watson and Crick, but rather its Michelson and Morley.  Of course, a thoroughgoing scientist would have to leave both possibilities wide open, but McGrath seems to disregard the former altogether when he peremptorily rejected memetic theory (along with religious unbelief more generally) without first examining its rational foundations.

Dennett (alas) doesn’t fully elucidate the key point at issue here, which is that while some genes and memes may be merely parasitic others are far more symbiotic with their hosts.  Just as we humans cannot live without our inborn intestinal fauna, so also we could not thrive as ultra-social civilizational beings without any number of meme-complexes, such as language, ethics, and law.  However, just as many protozoa are not particularly helpful to human hosts, so also there are ideas which, while spectacularly successful as self-replicators, are not particularly helpful to human minds and bodies (e.g. capital punishment for apostasy, blasphemy, carving deities, etcetera).  Such parasitic ideas as these survive not by conferring survival benefits directly upon their host, but rather by creating strong incentives for memetic replication along with threats of reprisal against those who fail to adopt them. 

McGrath utterly fails to appreciate the distinction between adaptive (symbiotic) memes and maladaptive (parasitic) memes, and thus cannot see how it might be that some memes spread because they are true and useful to their hosts, whereas others will spread merely because they well-designed to do so.  The lesson here is that a little humility goes a long way in allowing one to see the full import of a novel and difficult idea.  Perhaps more importantly, one ought not create straw-man simplifications of one’s opponent’s views and then crow proudly about burning them down.

Overall, though, this was a good exchange between two deep thinkers who manage to keep cordial even as they are lobbing rhetorical barbs.  Not a bad listen.

Overall rating: 3.5 stars