Tuesday, October 13, 2009

A question for Dan Barker

Dan Barker is a prolific debater for all things atheist and is one of the founders of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. I have listened to a number of his debates with Christians of various stripes, mostly on the question of whether God exists. In those debates, he has a rote presentation with stock objections, most of which are petty and silly, such as:
  • out-of-context "contradictions" in the Bible,
  • blatant appeals to emotion, such as "walk into any children's hospital and you'll know there is no God", and
  • ridiculous claims to lacking faith in anything, such that atheists are the only purely rational people in the world.
One of the things that infuriates me most about him is his refusal ever to advance the conversation. Whenever one of someone's arguments has been clearly bested, or at least whenever one's opponents thinks it's been clearly bested, isn't it a good idea to refine one's presentation to overcome that objection and/or explain why the allegedly-good rebuttal isn't so good? Well, not Dan Barker! An example of this is found in his first debate with Douglas Wilson, in 1997, wherein the following conversation took place in the cross-examination. Barker had mentioned the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and stated that no good God would allow such an event to happen.
Barker: ...So morals are relative, to the situation...
Wilson: Why, given the fact that there is no God, and no objective morality (as you just told us that morality is relative to the situation)...
Barker: But there is an objective basis, I said, for morality. I didn't say there's no objective morality.
Wilson: OK, what is that basis?
Barker: It's nature, it's human nature and pain. We evolved to require water, for example. What if we'd evolved to require, um, sthg else like arsenic, then this might be evil, but relative to our human nature, to what helps us, what either enhances our life or what causes harm for our life, we can say relative to our human nature, this is sthg that's good. There is no Cosmic Objective Good out in the universe.
Wilson: We also evolved a mechanism whereby we blow up our enemies. So why was doing that in OKC wrong?
Barker: B/c that hurts. It causes pain. If you don't grasp the simple idea that morality is an issue of avoiding pain, blowing up people in OKC was painful, it was tragic, it was hurtful, it was bloody, and you ought to know that there's sthg wrong with that.

Barker never grasped what Wilson was getting at. Listen to his most recent debate on the same topic with James White, 12 years later. He hasn't gotten any closer to explaining why anyone should agree with him that "human nature and pain" is the objective basis for morality. He just asserts it. Thus spake Dan. Ironically, he also is fond of saying things like, in his debate with Paul Manata:
There is no moral interpreter in the cosmos, nothing cares and nobody cares.
When Wilson challenged him in that debate, and in their 2nd debate, Barker both times whiffed badly on the point, retreating to statements like "Well, if you believe that, then you're not healthy" or "you're sick, and we have police and laws to protect us from people like you". How is that even relevant to the question?

Now, consider another dumb argument Barker makes. He likes sometimes to begin his debates with something like
"There are many gods which Christians reject. I just believe in one less god than they do. The reasons that you might give for your atheism toward the Roman gods are likely the same reasons I would give for not believing in Jesus."
Vox Veritatis blows holes in this "argument" here. I'd simply like to ask Dan this question, and hopefully I'll get the chance to when/if he comes to my area in mid-November:

There are many moral systems which "moral atheists" like you reject. I just believe in one less moral system than you do. The reasons that you might give for your rejection of those other moral systems are likely the same reasons I would give for not accepting yours, that "human nature and pain" is the objective basis for morality. Now, without blatantly sidestepping the question by rejoicing that you have the law on your side (for now) and can put me in jail for acting on my beliefs that there is no morality and I can do what I want, please show why your morality is right.


Seth said...

Hmm, pain-based morality. So now I understand... pregnancy is a bit painful and giving birth is really painful. This quote now makes so much more sense:

"Look, I got two daughters — 9 years old and 6 years old. I am going to teach them first about values and morals, but if they make a mistake, I don't want them punished with a baby."

Dr Funkenstein said...

""There are many gods which Christians reject. I just believe in one less god than they do. The reasons that you might give for your atheism toward the Roman gods are likely the same reasons I would give for not believing in Jesus.""

this has always struck me as a poor argument, but it's quite a popular one for some reason - not that I don't think Christian religion is less absurd than that of the Greek Gods etc, but clearly it's different in a lot of respects and you need to argue against those things that are specific to Christianity to make a point not just blanket them all together with all other theisms - after all there are criticisms that are relevant to, say, Hinduism that would have no bearing on Christianity whatsoever or criticisms of Roman Catholicism that wouldn't be relevant to Calvinism.

"blatant appeals to emotion, such as "walk into any children's hospital and you'll know there is no God""

This actually sounds like a weakly worded version of the problem of evil dressed up with a bit of sloganeering, which is actually a very good argument against certain versions of theism (the PoE, not the slogan!)

"ridiculous claims to lacking faith in anything, such that atheists are the only purely rational people in the world"

Sure, people take some things for granted - anyone who says they've got an explanation for absolutely everything they believe and take nothing for granted is just waiting to have their position shot down. However, it's perfectly reasonable to takes some beliefs as axiomatic and in no need of explanation IMO (eg there's no need for anyone to prove that there is existence, since it's a self evident fact and denying it would require it to be true in order to express the denial) or some things might just be necessary truths (ie they couldn't have been any other way than what they are).

On the latter part of the sentence does he actually say that atheists are the only rational people or that atheism is the only rational view? There's a big difference between the 2.

"If you don't grasp the simple idea that morality is an issue of avoiding pain"

That seems like a pretty ridiculous comment by Barker - as Seth, has replied some things that people consider worthwhile require some pain (surgery would be another good example)

I do wonder how so many people (Christian and atheist alike) manage to make a living on the debate circuit despite having quite a lot of really, really poorly thought out arguments - guys like us on blogs aren't getting paid or anything and so it's less of a deal if we're wrong about anything, but you'd figure guys that make money off of it would have to make sure they're at the top of their game like in pro sports and so on.

Rhology said...

On the latter part of the sentence does he actually say that atheists are the only rational people or that atheism is the only rational view? There's a big difference between the 2.

There sure is!
And in my experience, no, Barker's not very careful about mixing the two up.

The Jolly Nihilist said...

I really believe atheists are fundamentally misguided when they attempt to confect some sort of objective moral system. The exercise seems entirely fruitless. I have seen no evidence whatsoever that moral “facts” exist; everywhere I have looked, I have found only moral opinions. (Incidentally, I also have discovered no evidence for universal human rights or any such thing, either.)

Humans, as I have often said, are just another species of animal. We are on the same Darwinian tree of life as are polar bears, iguanas, dandelions, plesiosaurs and fruit flies. If moral considerations do not exist when a polar bear eats its own young, why would such considerations exist vis-à-vis any human behavior? Darwinian evolution explodes most ideas of human “specialness,” as well it should.

Murder, rape, genocide, torture... these things offend me. They disgust me, actually. In my opinion, all of them are deeply immoral. But, again, that is merely my opinion. And that is as strong a moral statement as can be given, based upon the evidence we currently have.

Rhology said...

Well, here you're talking like you're consistent, JN, more consistent than Barker, who says these things but also says in his book Maybe Right Maybe Wrong that humans are just cosmic broccoli.

But as we've documented here more than a few times, you don't act consistently with your comment here. You borrow from the Christian worldview too, but less than Barker does. He does it like every time he opens his mouth.

Seth said...

I don't think the efficacy of borrowing certain things from other worldviews is really a game-breaker. Unless one makes the claim (as you say of Barker) that there is nothing salvagable of those worldviews.

Even the Christian concept of Natural Revelation indicates that an African witchdoctor is bound to stumble onto some reliable "Truth" now and again.

The Jolly Nihilist said...

Sometimes, in my haste to offer a reply or make a post, I might make statements in a clumsy manner. However, I am pretty confidant that, in all my internet postings and related statements, I have never declared anything to be factually moral or factually immoral. I might have said, for instance, something like “Torture is hideous.” However, I believe the larger context of such a statement would make it clear that it was a statement of opinion, much like “Mulholland Drive is the greatest film of the last twenty-five years.”

If you do find any statements of mine that aspire to moral fact--this or that is factually moral or immoral--I take those statements back.

bossmanham said...

Love the blog, brother!

Mariano said...

Three more irons in the Barkerian fire:

First, he argues that rape is not absolutely immoral by appealing to alien rape voyeurs. His "logic" is that nothing is absolutely immoral because he can think of an exception in every case.
BTW: this is what the OKC bomber did; thought of an exception.

Note that he just solved the "problem of evil" since if God has even one reason for allowing evil then--problem solved.

Second, he has stated the following,
I happen to think that we have the illusion of freewill…
I’m a strict determinist. We are natural creatures. The material world is all there is. We actually don’t have what we would call libertarian freewill…
I am a determinist, which means that I don’t think complete libertarian free will exists
What if I am determined to cause harm/hurt?

Third, here is one of his statements about abortion,
I support a women’s right to choose an abortion…
I think for most women an abortion is a blessing in her life, it is a wonderful thing.
Obviously, there is a difference between a fetus that’s the size of a thumb that has, what, what would you put it in a little locket and hang it around your neck?

Apparently, when a beautiful, healthy, innocent and defenseless human baby is out of sight harm/hurt do not count as part of a moral system.


Rhology said...


Is it a fact that people should generally believe that which is true?

The Jolly Nihilist said...

I guess it really depends upon how you interpret the word “should” in that question.

In the prescriptive sense--that is, the sense in which somebody is commanded, obligated or compelled to do (or not to do) something--nobody “should” do anything. A person can do anything, everything, nothing... it does not matter, and there is no objective “should” to direct him otherwise.

If, however, a person has particular desires--and, by definition, a desire is something somebody wants to have fulfilled--there are behaviors consistent with desire fulfillment and inconsistent with desire fulfillment. A person “should” generally believe that which is true if they wish to fulfill their desires, because operating on truth is basically necessary to be a functional individual, and dysfunctional individuals tend to be ineffective in desire pursuit.

If, however, one is apathetic to one’s own desires, such a person has no particular incentive to pursue truth. In that case, even the “soft should” falls by the wayside.

Rhology said...

Well, atheists often act all uppity like people are fools for saying stuff like "If loving Jesus is wrong, then I don't want to be right."
If they were being consistent, they'd just shrug. There's no prescription for believing truth, and no proscription against self-deception.

Now, I grant you your slightly self-congratulatory comment in principle, but like I said, I've seen that you can't live like that. It's significant evidence of your position's untruth, actually.

The Jolly Nihilist said...

I do not know.

More than once, I have concluded that you overemphasize the human frame of reference. That is, you bind up ultimate reality with some such notion as “human livability.”

I am not sure this is compatible with a cosmos in which humans are utterly insignificant--indeed, a cosmos in which our planet, our solar system, our galaxy and, perhaps, our universe are all insignificant. Even supposing there is only one universe, that being our own, there is no real reason to attach importance or significance to it or its inhabitants.

Maybe, in order to boost biological fitness and create functional societies, natural selection drove early humans to construct an edifice--an edifice that, perhaps, includes moral rules. Evolution is rife with these kinds of things. Even though, at the atomic level, a rock is almost entirely empty space, it is useful for us to experience it as “solid.” Genes propagate themselves when humans reproduce, and therefore it was useful for sex to be pleasurable as a means of incentivizing maximal reproduction. (Perhaps, too, the feelings we associate with “love” were useful and, thus, selected.) Males tend to be more promiscuous and females more choosy because, given each gender’s investment in sexual mating, it is in their interest to have those inclinations.

Returning to morality, if a robust edifice vis-à-vis social and personal conduct increased our biological fitness, natural selection would favor it. It is plausible such an edifice is critical for society and civilization to function. Nevertheless, the usefulness or “livability” of a particular worldview, or way of interacting in the world, need not equate, at least in my judgment, with an ultimate reality beyond ourselves.