I recently had the pleasure of viewing Jeff Lowder’s autumn debate with Frank Turek on the question: naturalism or theism? You can view the debate here. I’ve offered my own reactions below in the form of eight impressions.
However, be sure to watch the debate for yourself rather than just skimming my impressions. As you will see, there is ample content in this debate for further reflection. This debate is not merely a rehash of a million other debates over the cosmological and design arguments and the problem of evil. Rather, these debaters — Lowder in particular — seek to stake out some fresh ground. And that makes for an interesting and worthwhile exchange.
Impression 1: Excellent Debate Question
I love the way Lowder and Turek set up the debate. Quite frequently debates of this type focus on a question or debate resolution concerning the existence of God: i.e. “Does God exist?” or “To be resolved: God exists.” This is a perfectly fine approach, and I’ve done public debates of that type. But in my opinion, this approach tends to favor the atheist by creating the impression (sometimes reinforced by the atheist debater) that the theist has to do all the heavy-lifting while the atheist merely needs to express the obligatory degree of incredulity toward the theist’s arguments.
By contrast, the “Naturalism or theism?” approach provides a refreshing parity for our debaters: each one has the task of defending a worldview over-against that of his opponent.
Impression 2: Lowder over-prepared for the debate (and that’s not all bad)
Not only is it not all bad. Some of it is good. Let’s start with that good, beginning with the fact that Lowder clearly researched Turek’s work, particularly his most important book I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist coauthored with Norman Geisler. Further, Lowder brought a wealth of material to engage Turek point by point. As a result, Turek pointed out that Lowder is a brilliant fellow and I don’t think there is a person in the room who would doubt that after watching the debate.
The importance of Lowder’s achievement in this regard cannot be overstated. As Lowder pointed out, Turek claims in his above-mentioned book to have established the truth of theism beyond a reasonable doubt. I don’t think a person who views this debate could retain that view. Even if they didn’t follow all Lowder’s arguments — and I suspect many folks didn’t — they would nonetheless need to concede that Lowder has evidence and supporting arguments for his naturalistic views. In short, he is a reasonable disbeliever.
What is more, Lowder was pleasant and irenic throughout the debate even to the point of noting evidence he thought supported theism. Consequently, the Christian inclined to attribute all disbelief to sinful rebellion would have a hard time applying that analysis to Lowder.
But there was a downside as well. Lowder had so much material that he was forced to cover some weighty conceptual analysis and important arguments at a rapid pace. As a result, those points did not have the impact they should have. This is a classic case of less is more. Had Lowder pared down his material, included more powerful illustrations, and repeated points for emphasis, he might have said less, but he would have communicated more.
Impression 3: Lowder Majored on Substance
Early on, it became clear that Lowder and Turek have very different approaches to debate. Lowder focused on substance. He had interesting arguments that deserve to be chewed on … like steel cut oats. But remember, if you’re going to eat and digest steel cut oats, you need to boil them for a long time and then give each mouthful a good thirty chews. Lowder’s arguments likewise require adequate time to set up and chew. (See impression 2 for further explanation!)
This became most obvious with Lowder’s opening statement that begins with definitions of “naturalism,” “supernaturalism,” “theism,” “hypothesis,” and “intrinsic probability.” That’s a lot to chew on right at the beginning. I think Lowder would have been better to focus on two definitions — naturalism vs. theism — and to focus his appeal to evidence by simply invoking — and repeatedly reiterating — the jellybean illustration, while emphasizing along the way how each of his lines of evidence was a red jellybean.
The fact that Lowder passed too quickly through his Bayesian opening was evident in the cross-examination when it became clear that Turek had not quite grasped the jellybean illustration given at the beginning. And if Turek had not grasped it, one can assume that many audience members did not as well.
Speaking of Lowder’s cross-examination, he devoted a significant amount of time to questioning Turek on his writings and it wasn’t entirely clear for much of that time where Lowder was going. This would have been a fascinating exchange outside of a debate. But within this context I would have much preferred Lowder to ask pointed questions about Turek’s opening statement which certainly had ample material to which he might object.
Impression 4: Turek Majored on Style
If Lowder gave the impression of an ivory-tower academic, Turek came across as a skilled preacher and public speaker. Let me hasten to add, I don’t say that as an insult by any means. Indeed, in some key respects it meant that Turek was more effective as a debater. He’s an excellent communicator who knows the importance of image and story.
Let’s start with an example of Turek’s use of metaphor. Turek hammered on the point that naturalism entails an unpalatable reductionism, most perspicuously as regards the nature of the human person. To make the point, he kept referring to the naturalistic account of human persons as “moist robots” (though I prefer Minsky’s reference to computers made of meat). At one point, Turek even observed jokingly that the audience would not be able to shake the moist robot image. And he’s right. I suspect long after the arguments have faded into a blur, many lay people will still recall an association between “naturalism” and “moist robots.” And that may be enough for them to eschew naturalism as having unpalatable implications.
The most effective use of story came when Turek addressed the problem of evil. As y’all know, this is typically presented as a major objection to theism. So Turek sought to block that path in his opening statement by telling the story of man who came to one of Turek’s events. The man then shared that his daughter had been sexually abused for years by a family friend. As a result, the young woman’s two brothers had become atheists. Turek then segued from the powerful story to his argument: without God, there is no moral value, nor is there a guarantee of justice. And so, he concludes that evil in fact presents an argument for God rather than against him.
Along with the moist robots metaphor, I suspect many people who watch the debate will retain that story in their memory.
This is where Christopher Hitchens (one of Turek’s past debate opponents) would have a rhetorical leg up on Lowder. In 2009 I saw Hitchens debate in Dallas, TX. When it came to the problem of evil, he told the horrifying story of Josef Fritzl who kept his daughter a prisoner under his house and raped her for close to thirty years. Hitchens described how Fritzl’s daughter would hear him coming down the stairs to rape her and God never responded to her prayers. Did you notice that I still recall that story eight years later? Hitchens could meet Turek as a storyteller point by point — and then some — and he could draw the exact opposite conclusion.
Lowder could have done the same thing here. He could have asked the audience to consider Turek’s terrible story again, but from the perspective of God standing by impassively while a child was raped for years. He could then pose the rhetorical question: what kind of God is that? Fight fire with fire, I say. If Turek is going to play on emotional reactions to a horrible story, Lowder could do the same.
And after all that, is Turek’s story really an effective rebuttal to the problem of evil? That brings me to my next impression.
Impression 5: Several of Turek’s Arguments are Underdeveloped
The short answer is no, not in its current form. For one thing, Lowder points out that many atheists and naturalists accept the existence of objective moral value. Thus, they can likewise accept the powerful moral intuitions human beings have to the objective evil of this young woman having been sexually abused. And Lowder himself expressed his own openness to an objective morality.
That’s a fair point. Naturalism is a sufficiently vague concept that it could, in principle, be expanded to encompass the ontological demands of objective moral value. (We’ll come back to this below when I consider Lowder’s definition of naturalism.) On the downside, expanding one’s naturalism to encompass objective morality would arguably turn the invisible gardener objection back on naturalism. (From an epistemological point, the naturalist who adopts moral objectivism would also need to explain how adaptive pressures furnish the human species with truth-tracking moral faculties.)
Several of Turek’s claims make for good talking points, but they were not developed with any rigor and consequently I am doubtful that they will survive a closer critical analysis. For example, he repeatedly invokes the law-giver analogy: just as a government must exist to establish civic and state laws, so Turek claims, God must exist to establish natural “laws” (e.g. gravity), moral “laws” (e.g. “Do not murder”) and logical “laws” (e.g. the so-called Law of Non-Contradiction).
Note first that in each case we’re dealing with an analogy, and if we are to assess the analogy we must first identify how it is intended to function. This is a big problem since there is an enormous difference between regularities in nature like the “law of gravity”, absolute moral prohibitions like “Do not murder”, and the conditions of coherent utterance like “No statement and its negation can be true simultaneously.” Suffice it to say it isn’t clear at all whether any (let alone all) of these phenomena requires something like a “law giver.”
Impression 6: Turek’s selective use of scientific consensus
This is one of my pet peeves with many contemporary conservative evangelical apologists: they enthusiastically embrace the broad scientific consensus on Big Bang cosmology while dismissing (or denying) the broad scientific consensus on Neo-Darwinian evolution. To challenge the latter, they will typically point to some ongoing debates among contemporary evolutionary biologists and then extrapolate that the theory is “in crisis”. Turek suggested as much.
The fact is, however, that just as evolutionary biologists debate various aspects of evolution, so cosmologists debate various aspects of the Big Bang model. In neither case does this entail any sort of crisis. Scientific theories are expansive theoretical frameworks for explaining a wide range of disparate data, and as such there are always in-house debates about the theory and its application. Exploiting this fact to try to justify some kind of skepticism about one particular theory that otherwise enjoys a broad consensus (Neo-Darwinian evolution) is unjustified and misleading.
Lowder effectively and succinctly presented several lines of evidence that are supportive of Neo-Darwinian evolution. But I wish he had gone the next step of pointing out the selection bias evident in accepting the consensus in one area of science while rejecting it in another. (Let me add, I’m not assuming that theologians are obliged to follow a particular scientific consensus lockstep. But if one is to reject a consensus, one should have good reason. And appealing to intramural debates among the very theorists who form the consensus is not a good reason.)
Impression 7: Lowder’s definition of naturalism needs work
Lowder is to be commended for providing clear definitions at the very beginning of his talk. But I have some important questions and concerns about his definition of naturalism:
“the physical exists and IF the mental exists the physical explains why anything mental exists.”
First, note that Lowder doesn’t define the physical. You might think this is unnecessary, but I think it’s quite important because the very nature of that which we call physical is up for debate both among scientists and philosophers. Is Lowder affirming the existence of a particular kind of substance? If so, what is it? What are its properties? Or is it a Lockean something-we-know-not-what? Is it essentially spatially extended? Does it come in discrete atomic (i.e. indivisible) units? Or is it expansive like a field? If Lowder wants to claim that everything else that exists comes from this thing he calls “physical” he surely owes us some minimal definition of its properties.
Let me cut to the chase: I suspect Lowder is unable to offer any confident definition as to the essential properties of this metaphysical ground-level of reality that he believes gives rise to the mental. But if it’s true that he can’t even define it, then what gives him the confidence that everything else is explained by it?
Before wrapping up, let’s consider one more problem with Lowder’s naturalism. Here we can turn back to the fact that Lowder claims the existence of objective moral value (and obligation?) is (are?) consistent with his version of naturalism. At first blush this might seem surprising. Remember, Lowder defined naturalism as follows:
“the physical exists and IF the mental exists the physical explains why anything mental exists.”
If we assume that the moral is encompassed by the mental, then Lowder would be committed to saying that the physical explains the moral. Suffice it to say, I don’t see that to be a promising avenue … as the work of Sam Harris unwittingly illustrates.
However, Lowder could avoid this consequence by stating that the moral is wholly different from the physical and the mental. But if he does that then his naturalism is reduced from being an account of what exists to being the mere assertion that the mental supervenes on or reduces to the physical. And if that’s all he’s arguing then he isn’t offering a competing worldview over-against theism.
Impression 8: Reason does not require free will
Turek repeatedly hammered on an argument from reason that depends on libertarian free will. I think there are some fine arguments from reason out there: Plantinga’s argument first presented in Warrant and Proper Function is a good example. But I don’t think Turek’s argument is effective because the premise is false. The ability to reason simply does not require libertarian free will. Think about it, on Turek’s view, my ability to reason requires my ability to exercise my will in believing the reason or disbelieving the reason. Not only is this kind of doxastic voluntarism false (we don’t have that voluntaristic control over our belief), but it is also wholly unnecessary for proper reasoning. Rather, what reason requires is the ability of an individual effectively to track the relationship between propositions, their logical relationships, and supporting evidence. And there is no inconsistency between believing that such abilities can exist in a deterministic universe.
Lowder offered his own interesting response to Turek’s argument which — if I understood him — alluded to the central importance of one’s ability to track the truth effectively. But he didn’t emphasize the more basic point that the entire assumption that reasoning requires voluntaristic control of our beliefs is spurious to begin with.
Who Won? The Final Verdict
So who won this debate? Lowder? Or Turek?
In one sense, that depends on how you score debates. If your focus is the clarity and rigor of argumentation then this was Lowder’s debate, hands down. But if your focus is on effective and winsome communication punctuated by vivid metaphors and engaging stories — and lots of jokes — then Turek hit it out of the park.
As for me, my verdict is that the real winner is the rest of us. I really enjoyed the exchange and when I teach my next seminary apologetics class in May I plan to showcase this debate to the exclusion of all others. (Sorry Bill Craig.) Lowder and Turek have provided us a fascinating exchange of ideas and style which explores a range of issues and topics that often get overlooked or underemphasized in the God debates. In addition, both gentlemen have an irenic, pleasant manner which provides a model of civil exchange in this age of increasing sectarianism and polarization.