Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Debate Review: Justin Schieber vs. Max Andrews

If you're like me then you probably already subscribe to the Reasonable Doubts Podcast and you've seen the latest RD Extra episode which is a scripted audio debate between Justin Schieber and Max Andrews.

If you haven't already I highly recommend giving it a listen, but be warned - you will have to do a lot of work to follow these two.

I wanted to put out a few of my thoughts on the whole thing.

It's all Steak

Did you ever go to some kind of unassuming little restaurant and then order a reasonably priced steak, only to have the waiter come out with a giant slab of beef served with a tiny bit of vegetable and potatoes on the side?

That's this debate, it's all steak.

This debate is probably geared more towards those who are philosophically inclined and are already pretty familiar with the kinds of arguments you would find in a debate like this.  I think the initial arguments are very easy to understand on both sides, but when it got to the rebuttals things get turned up to 11.

Both of these guys know their philosophy and the underlying topics that sit at the heart of their arguments, so when it comes time for rebuttals they don't waste time going through standard objections to which each side already knows how to respond.

This means it was all hard argumentation as soon as we get out of the opening statements.  It's all meat and it's going to take some time to get through.

On one hand, this is fantastic. I get so sick of listening to debates only to see them play out like a game of tic-tact-toe where it ends in a stalemate because the moves are already known and the time restrictions end the discussion before an argument can be run to it's course.

On the other hand, this makes the debate challenging to follow.  Pausing and re-listening to each rebuttal section is going to be required if you are really going to get an understanding of what each person is saying.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing however, as it will probably end up educating a listener far more than any Christian vs. Atheist debate you will likely watch online.  Justin has mentioned that a transcript will be made available on his blog, which I think will help a ton for those who are looking to learn more about these kinds of arguments from this debate.

The Arguments

Both debaters were limited to three arguments, which is great since it prevents a Gish Gallop. Max went with a Thomistic cosmological argument from contingency, the fine tuning argument, and an argument for the ressurection.

Justin used his argument from the existence of non-god objects, the problem of hell, and finally an argument that states if a Christian believes god has morally sufficient reasons to allow evil, then the Christian has an insurmountable epistemic problem with the bible since god could have morally sufficient reasons to lie to us.

I'd rather not re-hash the debate here, you'll really want to give it a listen.  I think Justin really knocked this one out of the park, particularly in his rebuttals.


Justin turned Max's first argument around and flipped it into yet another argument against theism.  He points out that an atheist is perfectly willing to accept the existence of something that is metaphysically necessary, so long as it is not something that is an agent.  He then goes on to show the problems that come up when you try to post an agent-cause of the universe given what we already know about agent causation.  This leaves us with the idea that if there is something that is metaphysically necessary, it very likely is not some kind of an agent cause.

Max's version of the fine tuning argument was of the form that "If there was a fine-tuner then this is the kind of evidence we would expect."  The problem with this is that even in an abductive argument you can't front-load it like this unless you have other, independent reasons to posit the part you're front loading.  When Justin pointed out this technical problem, Max took it as some kind of attack on abductive arguments in general which it wasn't.  Justin responded with the hardest smack down of the debate by quoting noted apologist Robin Collins (the leading proponent of the Fine Tuning Argument) from his entry in the Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology where Collins himself points out exactly this problem with front-loading an abductive argument in this way.

In addition to this Justin brought up another technical problem that plagues all fine tuning arguments - the fact that we can't place probabilities on the values of various constants in physics since the upper limit on many of these values is infinite.  What this means is that when you try to do the math to calculate probabilities it becomes impossible to establish a probability since we can't normalize the problem (ie. make the sum of the probabilities add up to 1).  The upshot of this is that it means an apologist is in no position to make any claims as to the probability of the fine tuning of the constants in physics.

Finally, Justin was able to dismantle Max's argument from the resurrection by attacking Max's reliance on the death of the apostles.  What Max probably didn't know was that Reasonable Doubts just did a massive three part series that goes into extraordinary detail about why this kind of appeal to the death of martyrs is problematic.  First, because we have worse evidence for the martyrdom of the apostles than we do for the supposed resurrection, and second because it rests on the extremely problematic idea that the apostles could have escaped their deaths by confessing it was a lie.

In addition to this flaw in Max's argument Justin had probably the best rhetorical line in the debate that I'll just have to quote:

"Assuming the truth of the existence of a first cause who created the universe and finely-tuned its constants, and absent any argument showing that there is a statistically significant correlation between an interest in tuning-based activities and the practice of necromancy among an acceptable sample size of deities, I see no reason whatsoever to expect that a deity fond of fine-tuning should also be fond of raising first-century preachers from the dead."
This is one of the more understated problems with arguments for the resurrection.  Even if we granted the apologists arguments about there being a transcendent cause of the universe, we have no reason to believe that this being would raise Jesus from the dead any more than we have reason to suppose that being performed the miracles of other religious traditions.


The debate is technical, and you can tell each participant was straining to respond to all the points and counter points brought up through the exchanges that were packed with detailed argumentation.

I highly recommend giving the debate a listen.  I'll put a link up to the transcript once it's available.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    1. I don't normally delete comments, but I prefer comments to be on the topic rather than a completely unrelated list of evangelist talking points that ends with "follow my blog".

  2. You brought up Justin's technical problem with the fine-tuning argument. I'm certainly not in Justin's class as a philosopher, but as a layman, that one seemed unconvincing to me. Granted, the inclusion of infinities does make it impossible to normalize the total...but, intuitively, that seems to make any given result infinitely improbable, which supports Max's position. Is it really necessary to be able to assign exact probabilities to assert that they are vanishingly small?

    I thought Justin's comments to the effect that we don't know if the probabilities of each result are evenly distributed more convincing. I don't think we really know enough about all these cosmological numbers to reasonably claim knowledge that they are unrelated, nor that the limits on each one are at all broad. Of course, I'm a layman in cosmology, too...

    1. If you're not convinced it's an important point when brought up by someone somewhat hostile to theism, how about when raised by a Christian philosopher?

      This podcast covers that issue, and the linked paper "Probabilities and the Fine-Tuning Argument: A Skeptical View" also does so in more detail.


      The money quote from the paper:

      "The point of the argument was supposed to be that objective results in modern cosmology virtually compel disbelief in a chance origin of the Universe. If, at a
      critical point, the argument turns on a subjectively variable sense of which assessments of probabilities are reasonable, a sense that cannot be adjudicated in terms of any more fundamental criteria, then the FTA is effectively forceless. To retreat to the point where the argument rests on unargued intuitions is to deprive it of anything more than devotional significance."

    2. Thanks for that link, I didn't know Lydia McGrew was interviewed there.

      I think the greater point here, which I hope addresses BobApril's issue is that trying to assess probabilities in this case just isn't a valid application of the idea.

      It's kind of like Victor Stinger's criticism where we try to work out the probability that you specifically would exist by accounting for the probability that the specific sperm made it to a specific egg on a specific night of copulation between two people who in turn might never have met, etc.

    3. @Spinkham - since I, myself, am an atheist, the Christian formulation doesn't add any special cachet to the idea. However, the paper you noted goes into much more detail than either Max or Justin had time for. My intuitive objection seems well-stated in the paper as such - "A small area in a larger finite region, like the bull’s-eye at the center of a target, is relatively less likely to be hit (at random) as its size diminishes in relation to the rest of the target. If we think of an infinitely large target with a finite bull’s-eye, we seem to have the limiting case of low probabilities. Even if we cannot represent this as a ratio of areas in a strict probabilistic sense, are we not entitled to take the “ratio” of a finite to an infinite measure as a basis for the FTA?"

      The response, invoking a "Coarse Tuning Principle," doesn't do much to relieve my intuitive objection, but it does demonstrate to me that my objection is a failure in my own knowledge and understanding of the concepts. Infinity is a tough thing to wrap the mind around - showing that the FTA can be expanded to an arbitrarily large "ball" of combinations of different parameters makes it clear that my intuitive objection is just one more case of me not being able to comprehend infinity. Demonstrating the uselessness of calculating probabilities vs. infinity makes me accept the argumeent even without being fully able to grasp it.

      That also confirms Our Kind Host's assertion that the probability assessment Max is claiming simply isn't valid...and again, the extra illustration of the CTA makes it more emotionally satisfactory than the bare claim that was all Justin had time for.

    4. I think the FTA fundamentally falls apart for a mixture of reasons, one of which Justin appealed to. IT does, as Andrews utilised it, utilise a notion that life is important and the one main thing that is 'aimed for' in such a design. But this seems to attempt to argue that life is good and difficult to achieve and so the constants had to be just right. That it is good is open to debate - the value of life seems to be built into the theistic argument such that there are hints of circularity.

      But on fine-tuning, all we have to do is find the most uncommon thing in the universe. Something more / less common than life, and we can use the FTA to say that the universe appears fine-tuned for that. Thus the only non-arbitrary criteria for life being fine-tuned is this apparent value that life supposedly has. But Andrews never showed this to be the case.

      Moreover, and critically so, he even used the term 'carbon-based life' as if this exact form of lif eis the only form of life that could possibly exist.

      For the FTA to even remotely get off the ground, he needs to define 'life' - what is it, and what could it possibly look like in another universe? Changing the constants might prohibit life like we know it, but all you need is some kind of replicating organism of any kind and you have life. And since we have no idea whatsoever of the probabilities of life developing in these weird and wonderful universes of varying parameters, the whole argument is entirely defunct, as far as I can see.

      If physics was completely different, then one might imagine that biology, which supervenes on physics, might be entirely different.

      It just seems like a god of the gaps style argument which was not well argued.

    5. I was also annoyed that Justin had clearly researched some of Andrews' work, and yet Andrews hadn't even bothered to check out the 3 part series, only very recently on RD, debunking martyrdom as understood by orthodox Christians.

  3. Hi, I find this was a great debate.

    Justin Scheiber seems to be quite a nice person, unlike many nasty religious fundamentalists and antitheists.

    Now my comments about Justin's arguments:

    - the NT gives us different perspectives on the afterlife which cannot be reconciled. Eternal torment would only be one of them, but I believe that the concerned texts can also be well interpreted as meaning "total destruction".

    - the lying God objection is an interesting argument against Biblical inerrancy and conservative Protestantism

    - the problem of non-God object is a serious one. I find this argument pretty challenging, because it is impossible to say that God can be God if he is less than perfect.
    For the moment, I haven't any appropriate answer.

    Lothars Sohn - Lothar's son


  4. I might also point you to the Rationally Speaking podcast which has a good episode on fine tuning, called I believe the Teleological issue. That podcast is excellent for helping me with learning some of this technicalitiness of philosphicatationisn.

  5. The FTA is a curious argument to use to logically derive god. An everything-generating god must exist outside of that which the god generates - that is the god must be unbound. An unbound god would not be limited by any laws inherent in the creation. This everything-generating god could create an universe without any laws, with this law and not that, or that law and not this etc. [Indeed, if the bible is to believed, god suspends the laws of the universe on occasion (Resurrection as an example)]. So we would anticipate universes under any of these conditions if there is indeed an everything-generating god. So a law-governed universe would not constitute a special case or unique evidence.

    If you follow the argument that it is unique evidence then this leads to an everything-creating god that is constrained by the inherent properties of its creation. Perhaps an analogy would illustrate the point i am driving at. Take baking for example. There is a recipe to be followed, both in the quantity of the ingredients as well as the baking time. Now if one was to add too much or too little of an ingredient (outside of the tolerances), or bake it for too little or too much time (again, outside of the tolerances) then the end product would not be the end product supposed by the recipe. This is due to the physio-chemical properties of the ingredients; it is not intrinsic to the baker. Now if the baker was supernatural then the baker could relax the tolerances and still derive the correct end product. If the everything-creating god is constrained by the tolerances of the physical constants of a law-governed universe that supports human life then by definition this god is not an everything-creating god because whence cometh the boundaries for the physical constants?