Would You Help Out
On Our Debate Forum?

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From: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "unknown"
Subject: Re: Help at a debate.
Date: November 24, 2001 12:21 PM

I don't even understand what they're saying about me. I never said anything about a majority of anybody being sympathetic to creationism. That isn't even true. Most Americans are evolutionists. Most under-30 Americans reject Evangelical Christian creationism hands down (they all played with toy dinosaurs as kids; now, many of them can talk circles around me when it comes to defending evolution).

Typical of my views on this whole subject is the only Editorial column that comes to mind which deals with the subject: "Where's the Watchmaker?" In it, I practically laugh at the efforts of Christian creationist William Dembski's effort to repackage the product out of what appears to be desperation.

Nothing else that I've written on the subject (that comes to mind) can be called an "article." I have done two Interviews, one with particle physicist Victor J. Stenger and the other with molecular biologist M. Reza Ghadiri. Perhaps it is this latter piece to which they refer, but still, fewer than half of the people were creationists according to that piece. And these studies have since been shown to be somewhat flawed (as far as I can tell).

Meanwhile, what appears to be the moderator comes on in the very next panel and urges readers to study videos of creationism debates:

Purchase a few videos and look at them (really examine them carefully). If you do, you will find that it is only creation and a worldwide catastrophic flood that can properly explain what we see in the field.

Wow! What confidence! These debates prove that creationism and the worldwide flood are the only possible explanation for what "we" observe!


This one line is all it takes for me to completely write this man off as somebody that I would ever trust in a philosophical discussion.


Simple: My opinion in this respect, my readiness to actively distrust this individual in a philosophical discussion comes from my attitude toward the whole debate phenomenon, which is summarized in my Reply to the Letter "Wanna Debate Bob Enyart?" In it, I say,

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... To me, staged debate involves trying to introduce more confusion into a discussion than one's opponent can introduce within a pre-set amount of time. Somebody who is practiced at the art of staged debate and who takes the position that the Earth is flat could run circles around even Stephen Hawking taking the position that the Earth is a globe. How forcefully or gracefully one enunciates one's position is not a test of the truthfulness of that position. Staged debates are more about self-promotion than they are about discovering truth or even giving air to the issues.

Besides, I have nothing to say to theists other than, "Practice your religion in private and leave us the fuck alone about it! I am an atheist. Get used to it. Okay?"...

... staged debate is not my style. Life is not a contest but is our only crack at existing -- ever! If you think gods exist, good for you! I've heard all the sales pitches and none of them sway me in the least.

If someone wishes to write to our Forum, I'd be glad to address specific questions and take challenges, but I have zero respect for the staged debate game. Always have; probably always will.

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What your nemesis on Public Debate Australia was telling his youthful followers (who obviously have at least an inkling of respect for the debate game, seeing as how they've logged onto a web site called Public Debate), is the canard that the art of debate has something to do with discovering truth.

No. Take it from somebody who never goes to debate forums in his free time: debate has absolutely zero to do with discovering truth.

Debate does have some good points: Most importantly, debate is a convenient way to expose oneself to some (but not all) of the various arguments involved in a given issue. If you want to learn what some of the points are that each side makes, then go attend a debate on that topic. Absorbing the information put forth at a debate is the equivalent of knowing that such-and-so highways run through a certain city.

Afterwards, when you go home and study essays written by proponents of both sides, you will at least have an idea of what the important issues are and a little about how those issue apply because you attended the debate. But the debate is not a way to reach a conclusion about anything other than which debater has the best debating skills. Its only usefulness is to give you an overview of some of the points that each side makes.

Debate, as it exists on the Internet, has one other usefulness: you can use the debate board for the purpose of practicing your delivery of your position statement. You can also (in a very limited sense) use these board to submit your views to the scrutiny of others (that's one of the things I do with the PAM Forum: I want to know which of the points I make are the weakest and which (if any) are even being understood (or -- gasp! -- misunderstood).

However, I am most interested in practicing my writing and presentation skills, making it so that (hopefully) almost anybody who reads what I write can at least get an inkling as to what I am trying to say -- even if they barely speak English and must depend heavily on software or a dictionary.

Once I was writing to a Spanish-speaking gentleman. He asked a question and what I had to say as a response was very complex and had to be written with great precision. It would have been so easy for this to be misunderstood at several points, and I had to make sure my main points were getting across. So, I wrote my reply and ran it through an English to Spanish translator. Then I ran the result of that back through the Spanish to English translator (one written by a different company). A proposed statement went into this letter if and only if I could translate it into Spanish and then from that Spanish translate it back into English. I knew then that I could I trust that my reader would be able to understand what I had written no matter what he did with it! I even explained to him what I did, how I did it, and why.

Mostly, though, a debate is a great way to find out each side's favorite lies! Why? Because given the format of a debate, you don't have the luxury of unraveling your opponent's convolutions, and he does not have the time or the atmosphere needed to unravel any of yours. Since the debate is not about finding truth but about winning the debate, you are more likely not to find the various proponents' attempts to discover truth but rather the proponents' attempts to pull a fast one -- on the opponent, yes, but mainly on the audience.

It is only later, while reading and grasping the essays, and even later than that, while working out the logic problems, that people seeking truth will start admitting that their own position is "merely a strong argument" or "a good case that is rather compelling" and "not necessarily 'the gods' truth' on the matter." The moment you hear language such as this coming from a philosopher, you know that you are dealing with someone who at least has the potential for self-honesty. But if all you hear is "what I say is the truth" and "what my opponent says if falsehood," if that's the only language you hear and you never hear any doubts or probabilities, then you're probably dealing with someone who also thinks that staged debate is a good way to discover truth.

In short, the best help I can offer in the debate game is to help people see it for what it is: intellectual sportsmanship. It's almost all for show and very little of it is about finding truth. The quest for truth is personal, and that quest is called philosophy. Each student of philosophy must cover all the ground that's been covered by the great philosophers and decide for herself whether she agrees with each point the others have covered.

The mark of a skilled philosopher is that she can describe to you the steps she took in coming to any opinion she holds on any subject. The mark of an honest philosopher is that she admits that her current opinion is the nothing more than best she has been able to come up with, given her current level of education and assessing the current knowledge that has been shared between the scientists of the world. All honest philosophers (and scientists, by the way), admit that everything they think they know is subject to revision and that everything that humankind thinks we know is subject to being overthrown. Some of this knowledge is so utterly unlikely to be overthrown that to mention the possibility will bring on a few chuckles in some circles. But this is, nevertheless, the mark of an honest scientist and philosopher.

In my opinion, if what you want to do is learn how to discover truth, then the best thing you can do for yourself is to take a break from your search and learn all you can about Liberal Scientific Method. You can find a lot of what I know about it by entering that phrase into our (Positive Atheism) search engine, along with the words "browse about new previous next return letters" in that order. (This will set the search so almost all of the files returned are Letters and Forum files.) However, the best you can do with the least amount of money and time is to find a book called The Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought by Jonathan Rauch. This book is about Political Correctness run amok, in the form of postmodernism and other fads recently making the scene at the "soft" end of the University campus. However, chapters 2 and 3 are simply mind-bogglingly concise, clear, and simple descriptions of Liberal Scientific Method (my caps, as a gesture of my respect for the concept).

If you check out a few things that I've said about Liberal Scientific Method in our Letters section, then you will be familiar enough with the concept to discuss it with me and we can explore this concept as a method for discovering truth.

I think learning Liberal Scientific Method as a skill is one of the most important things one can do for oneself, if one of the things one wishes to do with his or her life is to discover truth -- even in a limited way. It is my opinion that Liberal Scientific Method is the single most effective method for discovering truth and for ferreting out truth from falsehood. It is also my opinion that although there may be other methods that divide truth from falsehood, we humans have yet to discover them: in other words, Liberal Scientific Method is the way to do this that we know of.

Cliff Walker
Positive Atheism Magazine
Six years of service to
     people with no reason to believe

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