Christians 0, Lions 0

I’ve just watched the debate I mentioned a few days ago: between Christopher Hitchens and Dinesh D’Souza on the topic Is Christianity The Problem? It was as interesting as I had expected; these are two sharp minds.

People have learned that a tactic you should avoid when debating religion with Hitchens is to presume the authority of Scripture, and although D’Souza complained about this in his online promotional remarks about the debate (leading me to hope he’d give it a try), he, like Al Sharpton before him, wisely made no appeals to the Bible to support his position.

These things are always unsatisfying. What you really want is to get the two parties to spend an evening together at your house, ply them liberally with good food and strong drink, and let them simply talk to each other for a few uninterrupted hours, with you, as host, interjecting as necessary to keep things on track. But these public debates have such a rigid format that areas of contention are never explored in any depth, and certainly not with the extended interplay of point and counterpoint that would be possible in an evening’s conversation. Instead we have single-shot matchups of statement and rebuttal; the effect is more like a game of “Rock, Paper, Scissors” than a Socratic dialogue.

Kevin Kim, who got a look at the video before I had a chance to, made some good points about it at his own website. Here’s one:

One point that D’Souza made, and to which Hitchens should have responded more strongly, was about the nature of natural “laws” and whether they admit of exceptions. Although D’Souza never used the term “inductive reasoning,” his argument at that point in the debate was hammering on the fact that the “laws” of nature we have discovered are known to be true only insofar as we have tested them, i.e., we don’t know them to be universally applicable. D’Souza gives the example of the speed of light, and even employs the decidedly atheistic David Hume to argue that, even if we were to test a phenomenon 50 million times, we could not be said to have established that a natural “law” is truly universal. In other words, there might be times when the speed of light in a vacuum might vary, or there might be regions of the universe where light behaves differently from what we know.

Had I been the one debating D’Souza, my reply to this would have begun as Hitchens’s had: I would have conceded that inductive reasoning cannot lead from specific cases to the establishment of universals. But I would have gone on to ask D’Souza why it is that people feel justified in basing their feats of design and engineering on those natural/mathematical principles.

D’Souza’s larger point is that, if we cannot verify whether natural laws admit of exceptions, then miracles are at least possible. But I would reply that if the laws we have discovered seem to apply with rigorous consistency to the behavior of matter all across the known universe††, then the burden of proof lies on the theist to tell us just how open those laws of nature are, and what empirically verifiable miracles have occurred. This is, after all, something the miracle-believing theist wants to do: to make an empirical claim about miracles — or, more precisely, about the miraculous power of the divine. This is what leads to such beliefs/claims as “prayer cures cancer,” etc.

D’Souza starts out with a disingenuous expression of surprise that unbelievers would have anything to be militant about: he doesn’t believe in unicorns, he explains, but hasn’t felt the need to write any books on the subject. (Presumably he is untroubled, as a Christian, by the influence of creationists on school curricula, for example.) Hitchens does respond to this, but in more global terms than I would have liked; there is plenty for a non-believer to militate against right here.

In his opening statement D’Souza argues that the lawfulness of the Universe is evidence of the rationality of God. In particular he asks how it could be that the physical processes in our brains could model such lawfulness. This is no problem for the theist, he says, but is a hard one for the atheist.

Well, it isn’t. This is the same argument that C.S. Lewis called “the cardinal difficulty with naturalism”, and I have written about it here. what D’Souza overlooks is that our brains model the world, and make sense of its regularities, as well as they do because they have been tuned to do so over aeons of evolutionary development. Hitchens passes over this important point altogether. Why are the laws of nature mathematical? Because mathematics is the way that human minds model the world. The regularities of Nature created our minds in the first place, and so embedded are we in the layers of abstractions we use to model and predict those regularities that we are inclined to assign them a mind-independent, Platonic existence.

Hitchens lands some solid blows. He points out††† that modern humans, Homo sapiens sapiens, have been around for about 100,000 years, during which our ancestors — anatomically no different than we — were born, lived brief and trying lives, and died. In order to believe the Christian message, Hitchens reminds us, you have to believe that for 98,000 years “Heaven watched that, and after 98,000 years, decided that it may be time to intervene — and the best way of doing that would be to have a filthy human sacrifice in a very remote part of Palestine.”

In response to D’Souza’s claim that morality is anchored by religious faith, Hitchens asks us to consider that view’s corollary:

Is there anything that is forbidden to anybody who says they have God on their side, who says that they have God with them? Is there any evil that they forbid themselves to do?

… I’ll take the case of the Shi’a Muslims — whose claim to a God, and to His being the spokesman of morality is just as valid as that of any other religion, as far as I can see. Well, in their religion it’s forbidden to execute a virgin, whatever crimes she may have committed. In Iran, you can’t be executed as a virgin. But, if sentenced to the death penalty and still a virgin, she can be raped, by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards, and then executed, because she isn’t a virgin any more — a piece of sadistic ingenuity that would not have disgraced Torquemada or the practitioners of the Inquisition, and does show, does it not, that not just in the name of religion, but rather, I would say, more honestly, precisely because of faith, and the certainty that it gives of a divine endorsement, that things are done, and done all the time … that no decent secularist, no convinced atheist humanist, could countenance for a second.

D’Souza presses the question of the apparent tuning of the constants of the laws of Nature to just those extremely precise values as to make life possible. This is, it is fair to say, a thorny question, and Hitchens, no scientist, bobbles it††††. He manages to make two errors in a single sentence, first saying that we live in a solar system “at the edge of the known Universe”†††††, with a sun that is going to flare up into a “red dwarf”†††††† and boil us alive. His response is simply to look at all the inhospitable places in our solar system alone, and to say “Quite some design. Quite some designer.”

Yes, it is fair to ask that if the Universe were created just for life, why is so much of it so forbidding? (Another question worth asking is why the Universe sat around for so many billions of years before we finally showed up.) But it ignores the real question, which is why the many physical constants are so delicately tweaked. If any of them — the value of the charge of the electron, say, or of the gravitational constant — were different by as little as a part in a million, we wouldn’t be here. There are various suggestions that have been made — read about the Anthropic Principle, or about the “fecund universes” theory of cosmology advanced by Lee Smolin, if you’d like to learn more — but Hitchens’s response here was disappointing.

Finally, D’Souza, in a remark that Hitchens had no opportunity to rebut, flatly annouces (citing Steven Pinker as an authority, who must be aghast) that there is no evolutionary explanation for human morality. This, I think, is quite wrong, but we’ll save that for later.

So who “won”? Nobody. I wonder how many people are swayed by debates like this; I imagine that most folks just watch them to cheer for their side. It will come as no surprise to readers that my sympathies here are with Hitchens (and not just because he speaks in a beautifully accented, rich and resonant baritone, while D’Souza sounds like Eminem).

An amusing irony in all of this, of course, is that Hitchens’s name, Christopher, means “bearer of Christ”.

Anyway, you should take the time to watch it for yourself. You can find it here.

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  1. Which is, of course, exactly how the process unfolded in the writings of Plato, with time-tested effect. I should pitch this idea to some TV-biz acquaintances of mine…
  2. †† Kevin, in a footnote, adds “See, for example, the observations we have made about galaxies millions of light years distant; the behavior of those galaxies seems remarkably consistent with what we know about physics.”
  3. ††† This comes at about 26:30.
  4. †††† This is just before the 43-minute mark.
  5. ††††† Quite impossible, if you think about it, as we are obviously at the center, looking out in all directions. We live at the edge of the Milky Way galaxy.
  6. †††††† He means red giant.