Repost: Shameless Self-Promotion of My Debate with Phil Fernandes

This is a re-post.

Please pardon the shameless self-promotion, but the video of my 1999 debate with Phil Fernandes on naturalism vs. theism was uploaded to YouTube some time ago. If you haven’t already seen it, I invite you to view it here:

About Jeffery Jay Lowder

Jeffery Jay Lowder is President Emeritus of Internet Infidels, Inc., which he co-founded in 1995. He is also co-editor of the book, The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave.

  • Dathinkingman

    i have seen a lot of theism vs atheism debate including most of the WLC debates. and i must say this debate showed one of the best atheist performance i have ever sense. I think it was due to the fact that you choose to give cumulative case against god instead of passively responding to positive arguments for theism. This is something very rarely seen from atheist side – furthermore ur presentation of the counter-arguments etc was very persuasively – u r a very skilled debtor: quick, continuous, and precise . i wish if you can engage in more debates in the future.

  • Leo

    Jeff, is there a transcript of that debate ? Thanks!

  • Jeffery Jay Lowder

    No, sorry.

  • Bradley Bowen

    Thank you for sharing the link to this debate.

    You made a persuasive case for Naturalism.

    I think it is interesting to note that six out of your eight points were basically variations on, or aspects of, the problem of evil.

    More specifically, six out of eight points involve personal explanation, esp. an appeal to our intuitions about how a perfectly good person would act, or about the choices that a perfectly good person would be likely to make, or not to make:

    3. The biological role of pain and pleasure
    4. The fourishing and languishing of sentient beings
    5. Tragedies
    6. Divine silence during suffering
    7. Religious confusion
    8. The reasonableness of non-belief

    So, your case against theism/for naturalism provides some support for Richard Swinburne's view that arguments for and against God are basically arguments involving personal explanation.

    The first point, however, does not fit well into that category:

    1. Physical dependence of minds

    Since God is supposed to be a bodiless person, you argue that there is good reason to believe that minds (and thus persons) require brains (or some sort of physical mechanism). Thus, this is an argument for the impossibility of a bodiless person.

    Your second point about evolution is actually two different arguments, one of which does seem depend upon personal explanation:

    "Moreover, given that 99% of the species that have ever lived on Earth are now extinct, evolution seems like a pretty strange way for an all-powerful being to create living organisms."

    I think this point requires some sort of assumption about God's character and purposes, thus making this point dependent upon personal explanation.

    The other point concerning evolution is that God could have brought about living organisms in many other ways (that did not flow from natural laws). This point has some force independent of personal explanation.

    Part of the force of this other point, however, is that God could have better revealed himself by using supernatural power to bring about living organisms rather than using purely natural means. This aspect of the idea that God could have used many other methods to bring about living organisms depends on personal explanation, and assumptions about God's character and purposes.

    Although the evolution argument can, I think, be divorced from personal explanation, a significant part of the force of this section of your case relies on personal explanation.

    So, Swinburne may be wrong in suggesting that ALL plausible arguments for and against God are based on personal explanation, but he is not far off the mark, at least based on your case against theism/for naturalism.

    One other comment. Swinburne says that atheists have basically just one positive argument: the problem of evil disproves or disconfirms God's existence.

    Your case suggests that there are many different aspects to 'the problem of evil' and thus counting this as a single argument seems to be stacking the deck in favor of theism.

  • Jeffery Jay Lowder

    Hi Bradley — Actually, following J.L. Schellenberg, I don't think it's accurate to characterize reasonable nonbelief as a variation of the argument from evil. And my argument from religious and ethical confusion is better characterized, I think, as a metaethical argument than an argument from evil.

  • Bradley Bowen

    Jeff –

    I'm happy to set aside my characterization of those arguments as being variations on the problem of evil.

    I'm more interested in the question of whether the arguments involve or require personal explanation.

    Here is a key comment you make that supports my view that your 'Reasonableness of Non-belief' argument (RON) depends on personal explanation:

    "…if theism is true, we would expect non-belief in God to be unreasonable. Whatever reason Jane may have for not revealing herself to you do not apply to God. God is not shy. God is not busy, and so forth."

    Our thinking about Jane clearly involves personal explanation. We imagine various beliefs and purposes that Jane might have and try to understand her behavior in terms of those beliefs and purposes.

    In drawing a comparison between how we think about the actions of Jane and how we should think about the actions of God, you imply that God can be appropriately understood or thought about in terms of personal explanation (explanations of the actions of God in terms of the beliefs and purposes of God).

    Concerning your argument from Religious Confusion (ARC), you make a comment that has similar implications:

    "On theism we would expect God to clearly reveal his plan for salvation, so that there would be no confusion about which religious path to take."

    Why would we have such expectations about God? Presumably such expectations would be based on the assumption that God is a perfectly good person, and our intuitions or beliefs about what a perfectly good person would be likely to do or not to do in such-and-such circumstances.

    Do you agree that these two arguments, RON and ARC, are based on personal explanation? Do you agree that they are grounded in assumptions about the beliefs and purposes of God, if there were a God?

  • Jeffery Jay Lowder

    Hi Bradley — Yes, I think it's fair to say those arguments involve the concept of personal explanation. Since we're talking about atheological arguments, though, perhaps a better label would the concept of "personal mystification," where mystification is the opposite of explanation! JJL

  • Jeffery Jay Lowder

    Quick follow-up comment: if my debate with Fernandes is any indication (and at the risk of over-simplifying arguments for and against theism and naturalism), I have this idea. Most theistic (anti-naturalistic) arguments focus on "how" questions relating to naturalism: how could this have happened by chance? how could this have happened at all? In contrast, most naturalistic (antitheistic) arguments focus on "why" questions relating to theism/God: why would God allow this? What are God's morally sufficient reasons for doing this? Etc.

    I'd be most interested in feedback on this idea.

  • Bradley Bowen

    Jeff Lowder said…

    Most theistic (anti-naturalistic) arguments focus on "how" questions relating to naturalism: how could this have happened by chance? how could this have happened at all? In contrast, most naturalistic (antitheistic) arguments focus on "why" questions relating to theism/God: why would God allow this? What are God's morally sufficient reasons for doing this? Etc.

    That makes sense to me. 'How' questions relate to the view that the universe is a series of events resulting from random, purposeless, mechanical forces. So, theists challenge naturalists to provide plausible explanations (of phenomena that appear to be purposeful) in terms of random, purposeless, mechanical forces.

    The 'Why' questions relate to the view that the universe was created by and has been continually guided by a perfectly good person for some purpose or set of purposes. Atheists and naturalists challenge theists to provide plausible explanations (of apparently evil or purposeless phenomena) in terms of the purposes of a perfectly good person.

    One point to note here is that polytheism and pantheism and non-theistic supernaturalists are less subject to the challenge (described here) made by atheists and naturalists. Western theism makes a strong claim in asserting the existence of a perfectly good person of unlimited power and unlimited knowledge. Such a person must necessarily be involved in everything that happens, and leave obvious evidence of his/her activity.

    Polytheism, pantheism, and non-theistic supernaturalism don't make this sort of strong claim, and are thus more compatible with evil and apparently random events.