Monday 3 January 2011

Does the Universe have a purpose? — a debate in Puebla, Mexico

This debate was part of the International Festival of Great Minds conference that took place in November 2010, at BUAP Benemerita Universidad Autónoma De Puebla on the theme of “The Origins of the Future — A Life Experience: Rebirth.”

Notable for its fortuitous placing of Richard Dawkins against William Lane Craig — an opposition that Dawkins has hitherto vocally declined — this debate had probably the weirdest format I've ever seen. The participants gave their speeches in a boxing ring!

On the "No" side (the universe does not have a purpose) were Matt Ridley, Michael Shermer and Richard Dawkins, and on the "Yes" side were Douglas Geivett, David Wolpe and William Lane Craig. Michio Kaku provided a kind of commentary towards the end, declaring both sides wrong.

Craig doesn't change; his style of debate doesn't vary from one event to another. As usual he restated the motion, declaring what his side believes, and (in a characteristic effort to erect a suitably inflammable straw man) what the other side believes, and stated what the other side must prove, and what his side would show. As usual he shifted the burden of proof, declaring that it was up to the other side to show that the universe does not have a purpose. Pardon me for being stubborn, but if I'm told that something I can't detect is in fact there despite my inability to detect it, I tend not to change my mind about its existence unless shown compelling evidence.

On the contrary (and as expected), Craig took the existence of a purpose to the universe as the default position. He did concede, however, that if God does not exist, then the universe does not have a purpose. Unfortunately for the legitimacy of his argument he took the flip side of that premise to be that if the universe does have a purpose, then the God of Biblical theism exists. For someone who claims to be a philosopher this false dilemma was a disingenuous tactic. In his usual manner Craig also ran through ten arguments for the existence of a Creator in one of his rebuttals, claiming they were persuasive when in fact they were nothing of the kind — all ten have been long since repeatedly refuted, but that doesn't stop him trotting them out on demand.

This particular debate format was bad enough that it tended to limit speeches to superficial point-scoring. The maximum time allowed for the six initial presentations was six minutes each, with subsequent rebuttals at less than two minutes — hardly enough time to refute even one fallacious argument for the existence of a deity, let alone ten.

Whether or not the universe has a purpose, I'm not sure what purpose this debate served. To my biased sensibilities the "No" side won hands down, but the whole affair was less than edifying. One good thing to come out of it, however, was further exposure of William Lane Craig's empty rhetoric.