(Originally posted by Pat on 10/12/09)
At least, that's what he seems to be claiming, since he is a professed Christian, a professional apologist with a doctorate in apologetics, and the author of a book and star of a TV show each called I don't have enough faith to be an atheist. The image this gives me is of some sort of cartel of dogmatic atheists, hell-bent upon the destruction of truth and moral values. Either that, or an incredible degree of ignorance not only among the world's general population (of which the majority are of course neither Christian nor atheist nor anything in particular), but specifically among the intellectual elite, since 95% of the National Academy of Sciences and Royal Academy of Sciences are atheist or agnostic. In Turek's view, apparently elite scientists are ignorant and/or dogmatic, and only preachers and apologists understand the truth. If only those scientists were wiser or less dogmatic, they would see that it's obvious that a first-century Roman mystic created the world and then millennia later was born of a virgin and rose from the dead to sacrifice himself to himself for the sins of all humanity, and he loves us so much that he offers us eternal bliss, but if we reject his offer he will punish us with eternal torment.
I'm writing because last Thursday Campus Crusade for Christ sponsored Turek in delivering a lecture at Angell Hall. (I would have posted sooner, but first I lost my login info and then I came down with H1N1 influenza. It's too bad that we can't really transcend our chemical and biological bodies; I'd much prefer to do so at the moment.) I along with several other members of the Umich chapter of the Secular Student Alliance attended this lecture and challenged Turek in the ending question-answer period. (The lecture was at 20:00, so the timing was perfect; our regular SSA meeting time at 19:00 allowed us to plan an hour in advance.) Let me give credit where it is due: Turek was a wonderful speaker, extremely well-prepared, persuasive in his style, quick-thinking on his responses, a commanding presence in the room. He does everything right in terms of style and delivery. I'm told he destroyed Chris Hitchens in debate, and I'm sure he could spar on even terms with Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins. If he chose, he could probably run for President and gain a substantial following as a Republican front-runner.
On the other hand, his arguments are facile and fallacious, and despite speaking for about ten minutes in the question-answer period, I wish I'd been given more of an opportunity to dissect the myriad ways in which his claims were false and his inferences were illogical. Fortunately, I have a fairly good memory and took good notes, and I will now go through my notes and memories and reconstruct what I wanted to say.
I should admit that I interrupted the lecture on one occasion. It seemed a little rude, even to me, but the statement Turek had just made was simply false, on a basic level of factual knowledge everyone should have. He said "The second law of thermodynamics: Everything is running out of energy, until there will be no energy left." Basically, he fails physics 101. Energy is conserved, and this is a basic principle of physics that applies in every domain. In fact, energy is locally conserved, meaning that loss of energy in one point in space is always accompanied by a proportional energy current connecting that point to other points where a gain of energy takes place—the strongest possible sense in which a quantity can be conserved without being uniformly constant (and by the way, that's the first law of thermodynamics). This is if anything evidence that in order for God to make the universe, he had to send out energy pulses corresponding to the amount of matter in each location to every location in the universe—and presumably would lose energy in the process and could not make the pulses travel faster than the speed of light. (But God is magical, so science doesn't apply to him, right?) Entropy is the subject of the second law of thermodynamics, and it increases over time in a statistical fashion in closed systems. After interrupting I finally got Turek to admit his mistake and replace it with "Everything is running out of order over time", which still isn't strictly true but isn't an insult to the intelligence of anyone who has ever studied basic physics. But in order to make the error, Turek either needed to have no understanding of science whatsoever, or be intentionally misleading; either way this damages his credibility severely, and I felt obligated to point it out.
We arrived early and sat near the front in our "Evolution is only a Theory" ("Just like gravity!") tee shirts; several of the Cru people recognized me from previous events and welcomed me back, which is at once quite flattering and a little unsettling. They know who I am. Anyway, all the Christians in the audience—there were many—were very congenial, and we actually received applause for our attendance on behalf of the secular community. This too was a little unsettling; they think we're going to suffer eternal punishment and damn well deserve it, but they welcome us with open arms and wide smiles. Perhaps this is similar to the sort of congeniality a doctor gives to an Alzheimer's patient; their world is so distorted and their life so lacking in meaning, one cannot help but feel pity and sympathy for them. Yet I would never suppose that an Alzheimer's patient deserves their suffering, so the analogy can't be quite right.
Turek began the lecture with a discussion of truth, and several logical arguments in defense of absolute truth, if not of the possibility of actually knowing said absolute truth. This portion was basically sound, and would generally be in agreement with the views of any mainstream philosopher. The one exception was when he attributed to Dawkins the claim that "Only science can produce truth", and then argued that this is not itself a scientific statement, and hence is self-contradictory. As far as I can tell, Dawkins never uttered these words exactly, but if he did say something like this, it's clear to me from Dawkins' positions on various issues that he must have meant by "science" something like "reason and evidence", since Dawkins has never attacked the disciplines of history, philosophy, or mathematics, and indeed has great respect for them. In that sense, then "only science can produce truth" is in fact sound, and is indeed itself a "scientific" statement—since it is based on reason and evidence. Maybe this was sloppy on Dawkins' part—or maybe it was a willful distortion by Turek—but it certainly does not undermine the point that reason and evidence is the only way to obtain truth. Indeed, this latter notion seems to be one that Turek agrees with, at least in lip service, since none of his arguments were based upon emotion or faith, only on claims about facts and logic. In any case, we all agree that truth exists, and that postmodernist attempts to undermine absolute truth are absurd and self-defeating.
Next Turek propounded three arguments for the existence of God, two of which he called "scientific" and the other he acknowledged as philosophical: The cosmological argument, the teleological argument, and the moral argument. These he espoused as knock-down arguments that render atheism logically untenable.
Of course, they are nothing of the sort. The cosmological argument is questionably sound, since it presumes that all events have causes—including the origin of the universe itself, a fortiori the origin of time. Normally it seems reasonable to presume that events have causes, but to presume that time itself has a cause is at best problematic—Turek made much of a distinction between "ontologically prior" and "chronologically prior", but it is not clear to me that this means anything, since every other case of ontological priority is also a case of chronological priority, and the causal structure of the universe depends upon this. At the very least I can say that there is something very odd about the origin of the universe, and perhaps it is legitimate to talk of a "cause" of that origin—but there is no reason whatsoever to think that this "cause" is anything like a personal benevolent being, much less the immaterial incarnation of a first-century Roman mystic.
The teleological argument is clearly unsound; in fact, I'm not even sure it's logically self-consistent. Paley's original argument hinges upon the difference between beaches of sand and clockwork watches, and then turns around to assert that because we can see design in the watch, we see the same design in nature, and so the universe—and hence the beach—must have an even greater designer. I think I agree that we can see design in the watch, though I'm cautious about this, since part of how I know about the design in the watch is that I know what a watch is for and what sort of people make them and how; it's not clear to me that an ammonia-based lifeform from the Andromeda Galaxy would be able to discern that a watch was designed by an intelligent being. But even Paley must admit that we do not see design in the sand on the beach, which undermines his entire claim that design is evident in the structure of the universe itself.
Furthermore, almost immediately after Paley invented his argument from design, David Hume undermined it, showing that the inference from complexity to a designer would require an infinite regress of ever-more-complex designers. The Christian response is to say that the buck stops at God, but Hume rightly realized that there is no coherent way to say so, since in order for God to be the designer of everything he must be an actual infinite, the termination of an infinite regress—a construct that almost everyone agrees cannot exist.
This left the world in the awkward position of saying that design doesn't really make sense and chance doesn't really make sense, so we need another option—but no one could think of another option. This was how things stayed until Lamarck, and then Wallace, and above all, Darwin realized that complex life could arise gradually by a process of random change combined with natural law. Darwin managed to construct an empirically verifiable and mathematically sound scientific theory of the development of life by gradual processes, which has since been expanded with advances in genetics and verified by multiple lines of evidence in geology, chemistry, biology, and psychology. The teleological argument received its seminal and total refutation upon the publication of the first edition of the Origin of Species—today its coffin is not only nailed, but buried and beginning to rot. Anyone who would resurrect the same facile argument a century and a half later is either incredibly ignorant or willfully dishonest—given Turek's education, I vote the latter.
The crux of Turek's argument for the Cross, however, clearly lies in the moral argument. The cosmological argument vaguely suggests that something maybe caused everything, and the teleological argument makes us feel like perhaps there was a designer involved; but only through the moral argument can you actually argue that God is a personal and benevolent being deserving of our worship.
So, here is the moral argument as presented by Turek: People vary in their level of moral goodness (Turek puts Hitler at the bottom and Mother Teresa at the top. I mostly agree with the former but not the latter, but this is beside the point). Without God, we have no absolute measure for this moral goodness, and so we have no basis for saying that any person or action is moral or immoral—hence, atheism is tantamount to nihilism. Turek made the analogy to measuring length: Without a standard ruler, we cannot say that anything is longer than anything else.
We spent a great deal of time debating about the length analogy, which was mostly my fault—I should have attacked the moral argument directly. As I pointed out, we've been able to agree that some things are longer than others for thousands of years without having a standard ruler, and only recently have scientists actually devised a formal system for defining length measurements under the SI. Officially the definition of "meter" was changed in 1983 to the distance that light travels in exactly 9,192,631,770/299,792,458 times the period of the radiation corresponding to the hyperfine transition in the caesium-133 atom at rest at absolute zero in zero gravity. Needless to say, shoe sizes and building codes were unaffected.
But as I should have realized sooner at the time, this is only tangentially relevant to issues of morality. A much better argument againxt the moral argument for God is the Euthyphro dilemma: Is good good because God likes it, or does God like it because it is good? If the former, good is arbitrary and God is a Supreme Fascist; if the latter, morality exists prior to God and does not need God.
Turek was obviously familiar with this argument, and repeatedly stated an argument that "God is the standard, God is good by definition"; we questioned this from several angles, and rather than addressing our objections Turek simply repeated the same statements over and over again. Finally, I got fed up and asked, "How is that not word salad?" Turek gave no answer, but moved on as if he had.
I pointed out that Turek, like most of us, considered Hitler's genocide to be terrible and monstrous, among the worst behaviors any human being has ever done. I then pointed out that genocides very similar to Hitler's were condoned in the Bible and even commanded or performed by God himself. His answer was pathetic, and I think even the Christians in the audience realized this: He said basically that the Canaanites and Amalekites and Sodomites were so terribly evil that they deserved what they got. In fact, he criticized atheists for asking why God doesn't solve evil and then complaining when he does—as if the only conceivable way to stop evil actions was to devastate the entire civilization in which the perpetrator resides. On this reasoning we would punish a convicted murderer by detonating a nuclear warhead upon the city in which he resides. Moreover, it is not at all clear that these civilizations were actually immoral; our only evidence from this comes from the people who killed them, and they have no chance to offer a rebuttal. But even if it's true that people were performing terrible evils in these nations, I shouldn't have to explain why the solution was not utter devastation and the systematic slaughter of thousands of people.
Turek then asked me, "What is the ultimate standard of morality?" I gave the only answer I could, given the time constraints: "It's complicated." He asked again, saying "It's a simple question"; I answered, "No, it's not a simple question! It's one of the fundamental questions of human existence!" I stand by this statement, but I don't think it was persuasive to the audience, and I don't think I articulated my stance very well. Essentially what I was trying to say was this: Deep truths are complex; they are nuanced; they are difficult to discover and understand. Anyone who thinks they have a simple answer is delusional, for there cannot be a simple answer. A question like "What is the ultimate standard of morality?" cannot be answered in a single syllable! "God"—without further explanation of what God is, how he exists, and how he serves to answer the questions of morality—is no better an answer than "me" or "nothing" or any other answer. In the exchange I mentioned utilitarianism as one proposal; I'm not actually a utilitarian, and I admitted as much; but Turek didn't seem to understand what was intended by utilitarianism, and seemed to shoehorn in arguments he had previously prepared against hedonism and some sort of vague consequentialism. In the former case he asked why Hitler's pleasure doesn't justify his genocide; the utilitarian answer is trivial, namely that the pain of so many others outweighs this pleasure. In the latter case he asked what "the greatest good for the greatest number" means, and when I explained "the sum of pleasure minus pain" he didn't seem to understand, and went back to hedonism. Essentially I get the impression that Turek has never read a single work of ethical philosophy that was not written by Christian apologists, and therefore has very poor understanding of utilitarianism, Kantianism, and every other mainstream ethical philosophy.
Turek also challenged materialism, saying, "Was Hitler just a chemical imbalance?" I answered, as any good neuroscientist would, with "Arguably, yes." There is a deep sense in which all that we are is defined by chemical interactions, and Hitler was no different. A sound account of morality must explain how beings made of chemicals can be moral or immoral; it cannot deny that we are made of chemicals, for plainly we are.
Those were the arguments that, however incompletely, I got the chance to make; there were others I did not have the chance to make, at least not with the audience listening. The most important was the fact that the entire event was orchestrated around three false dichotomies: Christian versus atheist, Divine Command versus hedonism, God versus chance.
Obviously, Christian and atheist are not the only options; there are an infinite range of possible beliefs systems, many thousands of which are actually believed by thousands of people, and a few of which are believed by millions. In the false dichotomy, arguments against atheism can seem like arguments for Christianity; but when you realize that the dichotomy is ridiculous, you find yourself wondering how a moral argument for God can distinguish Christianity from Pastafarianism, much less from Islam or Hinduism. (And of course even the arguments against atheism are singularly weak.)
Basically the entire field of ethical philosophy is dedicated to developing moral systems that are neither Divine Command nor hedonism, since both of these have been completely discredited by centuries of compelling arguments. There is no clear consensus on the foundations of ethics, but there is a clear consensus on the fact that morality doesn't require God and that raw selfishness is not the answer. Some philosophers might say that God can influence morality—but not fundamentally ground it; others would say that an enlightened and tempered self-interest is a sound moral system—but this is hardly unfettered hedonism.
Finally, the "God versus chance" dichotomy was precisely what Darwin's theory of natural selection was devised to escape. The whole point of evolution is that it explains how a combination of chance and law can produce results that are supremely well adapted, without recourse either to magical beings or extremely improbable coincidences. It requires deep time to do this, millions, even billions of years; fortunately for science, geologists have gathered plenty of evidence that the Earth is plenty old enough to allow this.
The next major point I didn't get the chance to make was that Turek kept saying that DNA is a message, akin to "Take out the garbage – Mom" or "In the beginning God created the heavens and the Earth". He spoke a great deal about how improbable it would be for such messages to arise by chance, which is of course correct.
But DNA is not a message! DNA is scarcely even similar to a message! A better analogy would be to a program—DNA is a sequence that actually does things, not a sequence that needs to be written and read by some intelligent being. It's also an active chemical, and obeys chemical laws just like any other. It is the things that DNA does that natural selection acts upon; no one needs to read the message, and hence there is no improbability associated with the presence of a message.
Furthermore, Turek advanced his argument against evolution based upon the complexity of an amoeba. To the uneducated, the amoeba seems like a simple life form, the sort of squishy primordial goo from which life must have emerged. Turek correctly noted that the amoeba is an extremely complex system, with many interacting components and massive amounts of genetic data.
But whether he failed to realize this or simply failed to acknowledge it, no biologist would ever say that the amoeba was the first form of life! Nor would any assent to the notion that the amoeba is even similar to the first form of life. The amoeba is an advanced creature, a eukaryote like us; it arose about 1 billion years ago, while the first life arose at least 3 billion, possibly 4 billion, years ago. For at least 2/3 of the time life has existed, nothing so complex as an amoeba has existed.
A far fairer comparison would be to archaea, which are basically lipid bubbles with DNA and a few proteins in them, or viruses, which are literally protein packets full of short strands of DNA. Even then, it would be necessary to acknowledge that all the archaea and viruses which exist today are the result of billions of years of evolution, and that the first living organism is long-since extinct and far simpler than these.
Most of his arguments were for theism generally, but Turek also defended Christianity in particular. His evidence basically focused upon the historical accuracy of the Bible, combined with emphasis of the pain and suffering that Christian martyrs were willing to undergo in defense of their beliefs.
This would be hilarious if millions of people didn't actually seem to find it convincing. Martyrdom is evidence of sincerity, not accuracy; and people have sincerely believed all sorts of ridiculous things for all of history, and many people continue to do so today. So some Christians were eyewitnesses who martyred themselves; do the names "Heaven's Gate" or "Branch Davidians" ring a bell? So the Bible is fairly consistent with known history and archaeology and full of accurate details; so are the Iliad and Harry Potter, but that doesn't mean that Athena is real or that magic is possible. Turek tried to defuse the argument that Muslim martyrs prove Islam, because naturally he realized this would undermine his entire position; but the fact that Muslims will martyr themselves centuries later is in fact evidence against the idea that the sincerity of ancient Christians proves Christ's divinity—if even people centuries later can be sincere enough to die for their beliefs, then surely eyewitnesses duped by a charlatan can! People are duped by charlatans all the time; think Jose deLuis deJesus, L. Ron Hubbard, Uri Geller. I don't know whether Jesus was a liar or a lunatic, or some combination thereof; but given the number of liars and lunatics that people believe with utmost sincerity, it is simply ridiculous to think that he was Lord. Only someone completely ignorant, or trained only in defending Christianity, could think such arguments plausible; anyone with a thorough understanding of the history and psychology of religion—much less the methodology of science—rightly finds this kind of argument absurd.
I'm glad we showed up; it increased our visibility and attracted a few new people to our group. But it was definitely frustrating to debate such inanity. And of course I doubt we changed many minds last night, least of all Frank Turek.