By Peter S. Williams
A fascinating debate of significance took place recently in Mexico between a team of atheists (Matt Ridley, Michael Shermer and Richard Dawkins) and a team of theists (Christian philosophers William Lane Craig and Douglas Geivett together with Rabbi David Wolpe) as part of the third annual International Festival of Great Minds.
The Significance of the Debate
The debate was about significance, in that the formal topic was ‘Does the Universe have a Purpose’; but it was also a highly significant debate, principally because it saw Richard Dawkins (stepping into a vacancy left by Michio Kaku) enter into debate with William Lane Craig for the first time, despite Dawkins’ prior refusals so to do (cf. here & here). For example, invited to debate Craig in 2007 Dawkins replied:
‘I’ve never heard of William Craig. A debate with him might look good on his resume, but it wouldn’t look good on mine!’
Now that Dawkins has heard of Craig, and has participated in debate with him (despite the perceived damage to his CV!), it will be interesting to see how he responds to future invitations to debate with Craig.
Craig describes meeting Dawkins:
‘I am currently in Mexico to participate in a conference called Ciudad de las Ideas, which is a conference modeled on the TED conference in the US. It features lots of high tech people, sociologists, psychologists, economists, scientists, etc. As part of the conference they´re having a panel of six of us debate on the question “Does the Universe Have a Purpose?” Well, to my surprise, I just found out that one of the three persons on the other side is Richard Dawkins! It´s true! I met him the other night. When he came my way, I stuck out my hand and introduced myself and said, “I’m surprised to see that you´re on the panel.” He replied, “And why not?” I said, “Well, you’ve always refused to debate me.” His tone suddenly became icy cold. “I don’t consider this to be a debate with you. The Mexicans invited me to participate, and I accepted.” At that, he turned away. “Well, I hope we have a good discussion,” I said. “I very much doubt it,” he said and walked off. So it was a pretty chilly reception!’
Watch/Listen to the Debate
The video is available in two versions: English version (but no translation of the introductions) & Spanish version (introductions in Spanish and then a Spanish translation over the top of the English speakers)
You can also listen to the debate audio sans translation here (the introduction is in Spanish, but the speeches are all in English)
Commentary on the Debate
You can read Douglas Geivett’s post-debate commentary here – concerning Dawkins and Craig appearing in the same boxing ring (literally!), Geivett issues his own invitation:
‘There has been considerable commentary about the “Craig vs. Dawkins debate” as a result of this event. Prior to this debate, Richard Dawkins had refused all invitations to debate Bill Craig. It’s for this reason that Bill was surprised to learn that Dawkins had agreed to participate in this debate. This, clearly, was the safest venue for Dawkins to appear in debate with Craig, since it was a three-on-three debate with unusually brief allocations of time for each speaker. But Dawkins was not debating Bill Craig only. He was in debate with three theists, in partnership with two fellow atheists. There was nothing the least bit threatening or intimidating about Dawkins on this occasion. I would happily debate him in a one-on-one situation. So if he prefers not to debate Bill Craig, for whatever reason, he’s welcome to debate with me.’
The debate’s format of very short speeches (Craig describes it as ‘pithy, brisk, and focused’) meant there was little room for anyone’s arguments to be developed at any great length, which opened the door to some unfortunate accusations about ‘arguments from ignorance’. Nevertheless, the theistic side clearly put forward the most arguments (at least ten!) relevant to the contentions they wanted to defend, whereas the atheist team spent most of their time addressing red herrings (repeatedly confusing subjective purposes, values etc. with objective ones) and attacking straw men.
Moreover, the atheists contrived to advocate the incoherent position that ‘why’ questions are meaningless ‘silly questions’ and that the answer to the ‘why’ question posed about the universe was that it had no objective purpose! On the one hand, if ‘No’ was a sensible answer to the debate question, then the question cannot have been a silly one. On the other hand, if the debate question was a ‘silly’ question, then ‘No’ cannot have been a sensible answer.