The debate was held as a "Darwin Day" feature which, to my mind, was an unfortunate choice because of the implication that evolutionary biology is for atheists only. Here is my report on the debate, with my own rebuttals in italics and red.
Pastor Wilkinson started the debate by disputing the definition of "faith" as "belief in the absence of evidence". He said that the bible says that faith is knowledge based on reason, on evidence. Next, he disputed the view that scientific evidence is the only legitimate evidence. Many things, he said, are known and proven, but not based on science. Four of them are the existence of numbers, the laws of logic, morality, and personal self-consciousness. He stated that the belief in naturalism is not based on evidence and claimed that scientific knowledge is actually based on men. Is science based on evidence you personally have seen and tested? he asked. He quoted Guth to the effect that scientific phenomena are not directly observed.
He then claimed that the Christian god is an objective reality which is empirically provable, and unbelief is inexcusable. The Christian world view is true because its negation is impossible. He presented an argument which he called the "transcendental argument": the laws of logic are necessary for all rational argument. Therefore, you must maintain that the laws of logic are real and invariant. But in a materialist world there cannot be laws of logic because logic would be contingent and not universal.
Next, he claimed that materialists have a problem with induction. They observe phenomena and deduce rules, but this assumes the uniformity of nature (future will be like the past), and there is no logical justification for induction.
Finally, he said that in a materialist worldview, there is no objective view of right and wrong.
I thought many of these points were very weak. While it is true that some Platonic philosophers maintain that numbers have an independent existence, this is not agreed to by all philosophers, and it's certainly not "known and proven" as Wilkinson asserted.
It's true that we often use "laws of logic" when we argue. For example, when one reasons about mathematical objects, one uses rules such as "either the proposition A holds, or its negation holds". But, in fact, we don't have any guarantee that this kind of reasoning will never lead to absurdities such as 1 = 0. For Gödel proved that any sufficiently powerful mathematical system is either inconsistent or incomplete, and furthermore we can't carry out a proof of consistency within that system. (We might be able to in some more powerful system.) I think most mathematicians believe that mathematics is consistent but incomplete, but we don't actually know for sure. It could well be that the "laws of logic" lead us to unresolvable contradictions.
Wilkinson referred repeatedly to the "laws of logic" as if these have some independent existence. But it seems likely to me that the mathematical rules we think of as "laws of logic" are just models of physical existence, and those models may not accurately reflect the complexities of the world. For example, consider the propostion "electron e is at position p at time t". Can this really be said to have a single truth value, true or false? Or how about the proposition "Mary is a good person"? Maybe Mary pays her taxes, but once beat her husband. Can she really be said to be either "good" or "not good"? Furthermore, mathematicians have explored other kinds of logics, such as multi-valued logic, and fuzzy logic, and so I don't think there is one set of "laws of logic" agreed on by all people. After all, the continuum hypothesis is independent of set theory, so we can, according to our preference, choose it to be either true or false.
My view of the "laws of logic" are that they are a useful abstraction that has often proved reliable in the past in many situations. But they don't need to be elevated to "universal" or "immutable" in order to be useful, and we need to recognize their limitations.
I also don't see any problem with the fact that induction can't be justified through logic alone. Why should this trouble us? Most of our knowledge is empirical, not derived through logic. In the absence of other evidence, rough uniformity of the future against the past seems like an entirely reasonable assumption.
Wilkinson seems unaware that morality can be investigated through the scientific method. As for "personal self-consciousness", Wilkinson seems unaware of the work of Gordon Gallup, who devised a scientific test for animal self-consciousness.
Finally, I strongly dispute the characterization of science as "based on men". Yes, it is true that I have not personally performed experiments in subatomic physics that verify the existence (say) of positrons. But anyone with a university or even high-school science education will, in fact, have performed many experiments verifying many aspects of science. The thing that makes science different from religion is that its conclusions are, in principle, verifiable by everyone with enough interest and time. And furthermore, science is self-correcting in a way that religion is not. Really fundamental results are verified over and over by different teams, each with a strong incentive to prove the other guys wrong. The history of science shows this self-correcting aspect clearly (consider the case of N-rays).
Chris diCarlo spoke next. He said his presentation would be divided into four parts:
- What can be known about God?
- Such beliefs fall short of what we call "knowledge".
- It is epistemically irresponsible to believe in a universe specially created by the Christian god.
- Gods are no more real than the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus.
1. He said he was an "agtheist", that is, someone who is atheistic towards all known religions, but agnostic on the question of whether the universe itself came into being through an intentional act. As for what can be known about god, he pointed to the paradox that the more you say about god's attributes (omniscience, omnibenevolence, etc.) the more inconsistencies develop. His view is that god was fashioned by people to provide (a) an explanation of causality in nature (b) a guide for moral behavior and (c) the illusion of immortality.
2. He argued that we evaluate whether something constitutes "knowledge" based on criteria such as consistency, coherence, simplicity and reliability.
At this point Prof. diCarlo's time was up, so he saved points 3 and 4 for later, and the cross examination began.
Prof. diCarlo asked Pastor Wilkinson, "How old do you think the universe is?" Wilkinson replied that he agreed with everything in the bible, and based on the biblical account, the universe is 6000-10000 years old. Wilkinson argued that the scientific view of the age of the earth is based on naturalism and the uniformity of nature (radioactive decay rates are unchanged). But the very existence of logic and the scientific method assumes god exists and endowed nature with uniform laws, so this argument is self-defeating for the materialist. He quoted Patricia Churchill (I think he meant "Churchland") as saying that reason has developed only because it has survival benefit. Thus, in the evolutionary view, logic is geared towards survival and not truth claims. Atheists support abortion, homosexuality, and euthanasia.
The scientific method certainly does not assume that god exists; it is completely silent on the question. We date the earth as 4.6 billion years old not because we assume that decay constants are really constant, but because we have good reason to think so: experiments were done early in the history of radioactivity to try to influence decay rates through explosions, changes of temperature and pressure, inducing strong magnetic fields, etc., but only very small changes were observed. See Dalrymple's book, The Age of the Earth. So I think it is dishonest of Wilkinson to maintain that decay rates are unchanged is merely an assumption.
In any event, it is Wilkinson who is maintaining that the uniformity of nature is only explicable to the theist, so as a theist, he should be more convinced by uniformitarian arguments than the atheist. Thus, his argument is self-defeating.
The second part of his claim is a reworked version of Plantinga's argument against evolution: evolution only endows us with reason enough to reproduce efficiently. But then we have no reason to trust our mental faculties that came up with the theory of evolution. I find this argument silly, because it assumes a certain black-and-white view of our mental faculties: either they are entirely reliable, or they are not to be trusted at all. No one who has read history can believe that man is never capable of folly; the whole history of the world is the history of folly. And yet an evolutionary development that gave us an entirely bogus picture of the world would not likely ensure survival. So I think we can provisionally trust in our reason, but always be alert to the ways it may deceive us.
Prof. diCarlo spoke again. He said it was epistemically irresponsible to believe in the Christian god, since the evidence we have is not sufficient for the claim. He went on to his point 4:
4. The inherent tension in belief of the god of the bible: (a) the tension between an all-powerful, all-knowing god, and human free will (b) specifying one particular god among an indefinite choice is divisive and leads to conflicts (c) the tension between human biology and the doctrines of Christianity, e.g., masturbation and (d) the problem of evil. (He put up a slide with a picture of the tablet that would normally have the 10 commandments on it, but instead had "Thou shalt not masturbate". This was pretty funny, especially because when it was Pastor Wilkinson's turn to speak, the slide stayed up behind him.)
Pastor Wilkinson spoke again. In the materialist world view, he claimed, there was no objective standard of morality, or right and wrong. No god implies no morality. Hitler based his world view on Darwin's view of natural selection. If the materialist world view is correct, there is nothing wrong with Hitler's murders. Evolutionary biologists agree that the theory of evolution arose because people want to get away from traditional sexual morality (he quoted Huxley).
Next, there was some final cross-examination. Prof. diCarlo got Wilkinson to admit that God hates all believers in other religions except Wilkinson's brand of Christianity. In particular, Wilkinson explicitly stated that God hates Muslims! Now that was a rather explosive claim, but entirely missing from the Record's account of the debate by religion reporter Mirko Petricevic. I have observed that Petricevic constantly slants his coverage to favor the religious point of view, and this is just another data point.
Prof. diCarlo also made some effective points about the incompatibility of the Christian god with human free will. The Christian god's view of us is the same way: since his is omniscient and created the universe, he already knew 14 billion years ago whether we would be saved or not. We can do nothing to defeat his knowledge and so don't have free will. He made an analogy with the movie "Jaws": you can watch it as many times as you like, but the shark always dies at the end. God watching history unfold is the same. Pastor Wilkinson had no good response to this argument.
In his closing remarks, Pastor Wilkinson made the point that only Christianity, among all religions, must be true because in no other religion is there justice. In particular, Islam does not provide justice for evil deeds during life. But I felt he contradicted himself, since he made two claims: Christianity provides justice, but one can also be saved if one repents on one's deathbed. In other words, Hitler could be in heaven if he repented and asked god's forgiveness at the last moment. So how is that justice?
At this point the debate ended, and I will now give some comments without resorting to red and italics.
First, both speakers had polished presentations. Pastor Wilkinson's closing remarks, in particular, were an earnest sermon about man's need for Christianity, and they were well-received by many of the believers in the crowd. Prof. diCarlo's brand of sardonic humor succeeded in making many points, particularly about Wilkinson's condemning Jews, homosexuals, and Muslims to hell.
On the other hand, both speakers could have addressed the other's arguments in more detail. It was almost as if we had two parallel presentations which, despite the opportunity for cross-examination, didn't interact all that much. Prof. diCarlo, for example, never really addressed Pastor Wilkinson's point about the "laws of logic", which was really his main argument. Also, while I admired his wit and intellect, I felt Prof. diCarlo sometimes came across as a little too flippant and arrogant. It sometimes seemed like he treated the audience as a philosophy class where he was the instructor.
After the debate, I asked Pastor Wilkinson the following question: "You say the earth is 10,000 years old. Yet there are ice cores in Antarctica that give an unbroken record of 190,000 years. How do you explain this?" He had no good answer, mumbling about "uniformity" and "assumptions". But the ice core record we have agrees with data in the recent past, and there is no reason to believe it does not actually represent a record of history. When pressed, he suggested a comet might have exploded in the atmosphere and just happened to put down a series of layers that exactly correspond to our historical record. But, of course, this is just pure fantasy. Where is the evidence for this comet? How did it happen to put down a series of layers that exactly matches our historical records? I made the point to him that no thinking person is going to subscribe to Wilkinson's version of Christianity if it causes him to deny the evidence of his own senses.
For me it was an entertaining evening, but probably not one that changed many minds.