Sunday, August 25, 2013

Are Debates Worthwhile?

At 1:32:40 in the William Lane Craig versus Rosenberg debate, Rosenberg seems to be saying that debates like the one he’s participating in aren’t worthwhile (which leads one to wonder why he’s participating in it!). Here’s what he says:
But that’s the problem with this kind of debate and with this kind of format, it doesn’t work. It doesn’t work because what I would like to be able to do is to ask William Lane Craig a question and formulate a reply, and listen to his answer and give a view, and listen to his question; which is the way in which philosophical dialogue proceeds and which enables us to at least find out where the crucial issues are between us and how we could mutually agree to adjudicate these matters.

There is something to be said with the sort of dialogue Rosenberg is describing here, but I think there is also something to be said with two sides intellectually critiquing each other for a number of reasons. First, when discussing atheism versus theism (or any other controversial philosophical topic), it is useful for one to listen to what both sides have to say, and the philosophy student might well be curious to see how each side responds to the arguments of the other. I think this can give valuable insight to those who want to learn more about the topic. Second, it is also a good opportunity to introduce people to both sides of a topic that they might not otherwise do. Many are guilty of confirmation bias, absorbing only those books, blogs, lectures, and YouTube videos that already confirm what they already believe. A debate makes it more likely that people of both sides will listen to what the other has to day in a fair manner (both sides get equal time). Third, I also think back-and-forth intellectual critiques helps produce better arguments for both sides, and thereby aids in intellectual advancement.

So are debates useful? My answer is actually this: it depends. It depends on the debate in question and how well each side does their position intellectual justice. All too often I’ve seen atheists drop the ball when it comes to intellectually defending atheism against the likes of William Lane Craig, but there are times where I’ve seen atheists do a pretty good job. One example is the book, God?: A Debate between a Christian and an Atheist. Here the atheist, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, had an advantage that atheists in oral debates didn’t, which is one of the reasons why I think this debate went so well. First, consider the sort of things needed to do well in an oral debate:

  1. Be prepared ahead of time. You better research your opponent well so you have potential rebuttals ready, since once your opponent says something, you won’t exactly have very much time to research your response because you’re up after the other guy finishes.
  2. Think on your feet. Related to #1, you’re going to have to think of a rebuttal fast (especially if you come up against an argument or objection you have not heard before), and you don’t have very much time to do so.
  3. Watch the clock. You’re going to have to be careful about giving an extemporaneous rebuttal within the time allotted.

Craig is a master at all three of these things, which is one of the reasons why he’s so difficult to defeat in an oral debate. But now consider a written debate in book form where each side has ample time to prepare a good rebuttal (think weeks or months instead of mere minutes!) and fit the rebuttal within the allotted space. The result can be something of much improved quality indeed—not so much for Craig, since he’s an excellent debater and has mastered his craft in written and oral form—but an improvement in quality I think for many atheist philosophers who would wish to debate Craig. The result in God? was that Craig is about as good as he is in his oral presentations, whereas the atheist philosopher did a job that is substantially superior to most atheists I’ve seen who engage Craig in an oral debate.

An Idea for Better Debates

What might be worthwhile is for people to do written debates well researched in advance, and then each side gives their oral presentations to the audience. The result, I think, would be better for atheists overall—and it’s something that William Lane Craig might even appreciate. Here’s Craig talking about the written book debates he’s done:

I invite anyone to read these [debate] books and see if he thinks my arguments hold up. In fact, I wish people would read these books! I’m troubled that some people seem to know me only through [oral] debates which are often frustratingly shallow because my opponents rarely bring up any good objections.

Craig might be wrong about how well his arguments hold up, but in oral debates against Craig the pro-atheist side often is frustratingly shallow to some thinking atheists (e.g. Luke Muehlhauser, who laments, “When debating him, atheists have consistently failed to put forward solid arguments”) and evidently to Craig also. Considering how video debates on the internet are (alas) more popular than reading books nowadays, I’m hoping this idea of preparing all statements in advance will catch on. In the meantime, it might be worthwhile to check out the debates-in-book-form talking about Craig talks about, including the one I mentioned earlier with Walter Sinnott-Armstrong.