bookmark_borderIndex: The Lowder-Vandergriff Debate: Naturalism vs. Christian Theism: Where Does the Evidence Point? (2014)


Note: The rules for the debate did not impose a limit on the words per minute (WPM) ratio for each speech. Because of the quantity of arguments and objections in this debate, each debater had to balance the desire to be understood with the desire to answer as many arguments as possible. Mr. Lowder elected to keep his speaking rate at a modest pace because this debate was originally an audio debate for a podcast. Mr. Vandergriff elected to speak at a much faster rate in order to make as many points as possible, but after the debate many listeners complained that they were unable to follow him. (As explained here, Vandergriff did not cheat by doing so.) Readers of this transcript should keep in mind the differences in speaking rates as they read the transcript.

bookmark_borderLowder-Vandergriff Debate on God’s Existence Now Out!

I’m pleased to announce that my debate on God’s existence with Mr. Kevin Vandergriff is now out! Here are the options for accessing the debate.

Topic and Format
The topic and format for our debate was as follows.
Topic: Naturalism vs. Christian Theism: Where Does the Evidence Point?
Mr. Lowder’s Opening Statement: 20 minutes
Mr. Vandergriff’s Opening Statement: 20 minutes
Mr. Lowder’s First Rebuttal: 15 minutes
Mr. Vandergriff’s First Rebuttal: 15 minutes
Mr. Lowder’s Second Rebuttal: 10 minutes
Mr. Vandergriff’s Second Rebuttal: 10 minutes
Mr. Lowder’s Closing Statement: 5 minutes
Mr. Vandergriff’s Closing Statement: 5 minutes
This debate was not a live debate but was instead recorded over a series of many weeks. Once I recorded my initial opening statement, each speech was due within a week of the previous one being available to the other debater. Once all of the speeches were complete, the crew at Reasonable Doubts merged all of the files together into a single file for the podcast. As an added bonus, both Vandergriff and I provided PowerPoint slides for each and every speech, which should make it that much easier to follow the debate.
Summary of Mr. Lowder’s Case for Naturalism:
First Contention. Naturalism is a much simpler explanation than Christian theism (where simplicity is defined in terms of modesty and coherence).
Second Contention. Naturalism is a more accurate explanation than Christian theism.
2.1. Physical Matter
2.2. Intelligibility of Universe without Appeal to Supernatural Agency
2.3. Cosmic Hostility
2.4. Biological Evolution
2.5. Biological Role of Pain and Pleasure
2.6. Flourishing and Languishing
2.7. Triumph and Tragedy
2.8. Mind-Brain Dependence
2.9. Types and Distribution of Moral Agents
2.10. Limitations on Human Freedom
2.11. Nonresistant Nonbelief
2.12. Ethical Disagreement
Note: some of these lines of evidence were not mentioned until after Mr. Lowder’s opening statement, specifically, 2.2, 2.9, 2.10, 2.12, and 2.14.
Summary of Mr. Vandergriff’s Case for Christian Theism:
First Contention: Naturalism is not significantly more simple than Christian theism.
Second Contention: Even if naturalism is significantly more simple than Christian theism, it doesn’t matter because God exists necessarily.
2.1. Origin of the Universe
2.2. Why There is Something Physical Rather than Nothing
Third Contention: Christian theism is a more accurate explanation than naturalism.
3.1. Discoverability of the Universe
3.2. Applicability of Mathematics
3.3. Evolution
3.4. Formational Economy of the Universe
3.5. Self-Aware Beings
3.6. Embodied Moral Agents plus Fine-Tuning
3.7. The Connection between Moral Beliefs and Necessary Moral Truths
3.8. The Connection between Necessary Moral Truths and Flourishing
3.9. Worthwhileness of Life
3.10. Resurrection of Jesus
Note: some of these lines of evidence were not mentioned until after Mr. Vandergriff’s opening statement, specifically, 3.3 and 3.4.
Related Topics Discussed in This Debate
1. The differences between metaphysical naturalism and the “hypothesis of indifference”
2. The Anti-Creation Ex Nihilo Argument
3. Neo-Aristotelian Ethical Naturalism, namely, Larry Arnhart’s version as defended in his book, Darwinian Natural Right
4. The Bayesian Interpretation of “Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence” (ECREE) and the Bayesian Anti-Resurrection Argument
5. Physical cosmology, including the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin (BGV) Theorem and quantum indeterminacy
6. God’s relationship with time
7. Animal pain
Major Selling Points and Drawbacks for this Debate
I think this debate is fairly unusual, if not unique, for theism and atheism debates for a number of reasons.
Selling Points

  • I think both debaters were pretty evenly matched in terms of speaking ability or, at the very least, the delayed audio format gives that appearance. (That is, in fact, a major point of the delayed audio format.)
  • Both debaters treated their opponents with respect. Anyone who was watched or listened to a number of these debates knows that this does not always happen, which is unfortunate.
  • Both debaters approach the question, “Does God exist?”, as an empirical question. This means that, for the most part (but not entirely), they avoided a priori, deductive arguments and instead gave evidential arguments. (Thomistic scholars like Ed Feser and other critics of “theistic personalism” won’t be happy.) Furthermore, they both adopt a Bayesian approach to evidence.
  • The naturalist debater actually attempted to present a positive case for metaphysical naturalism. Mr. Lowder provided nine (9) lines of evidence for naturalism in his opening statement, and five additional lines of (understated) evidence in later speeches.
  • As mentioned above, the theist debater actually attempted to provide theistic explanations for (alleged) naturalistic facts, rather than appeal to so-called “skeptical theism.” In other words, the theist actually attempted to defend a theodicy.
  • In fact, for the most part, I think both sides defended their position using arguments and objections which are representative of the best scholarship on both sides. I think both debaters avoided the typical blunders we see from both sides in these debates. (Mr. Lowder in particular is proud of the fact that he pretty much ignored every piece of the horrible debating advice offered by the late Victor Stenger.) For example, both debaters avoided making positive arguments which many, if not most, philosophers of religion would say have been discredited: the naturalist debater did not use the Lack of Evidence Argument (LEA) for atheism and the theist debater didn’t defend an ontological version of the moral argument (which claims that God is required as the ontological foundation for moral values and duties). Along the same lines, both debaters avoided using some more of the dubious objections to their opponent’s arguments: the naturalist debater didn’t respond to alleged cosmic ‘fine-tuning’ by appealing to the multiverse hypothesis and did not respond to the Resurrection argument using simplistic arguments for Jesus mythicism. The theist debater did not respond to the argument from biological evolution by denying the fact of common ancestry and he did not respond to various arguments from evil by appealing to so-called “skeptical theism.”[1]

On the other hand, I think this debate has one, maybe two, major drawbacks.
First, Vandergriff and I discuss a large number of arguments. If you didn’t like the number of arguments in my opening statement for my debate with Phil Fernandes, then you’re probably going to be very unhappy with the number of arguments in this debate. (I think the grand total by the end of the debater was somewhere around 23-25.) I don’t think this ever would have worked in a live debate but, given the unique “audio swap” format, we mutually decided beforehand to debate more, rather than less, arguments on each side. I hope that the PowerPoint slides will make the debate comprehensible.
Second, both debaters spoke faster towards the end of the debate and our speaking rates probably pushed the limits of what is reasonable. For people who listen only to the audio (as opposed to watching the YouTube version), this will make it hard to follow.
Vandergriff Did Not Cheat
Several people on the web noticed that Vandergriff used audio editing software to artificially speed up his speaking rate and to edit out the natural pauses in at least some of his speeches, in order to cram more content into his speeches. Based on that, they have accused Vandergriff of cheating.
I can see why listeners might reach that conclusion, but Vandergriff did not cheat and I want those accusations to stop.  Not only did he not cheat, but  I fully believe that Vandergriff neither had any intention to cheat nor did he believe at any point that he was doing so. Why? The rules for the debate did not impose a limit on the words per minute (WPM) ratio for each speech. They definitely did not prohibit the use of audio editing software. I have no doubt that Vandergriff chose to speaker at a higher WPM ratio because of his collegiate debate background, where it absolutely the norm for debaters to exceed 300 WPM in their speeches. (This convention is the primary reason I decided against participating in undergraduate debate, despite my university debate team’s attempt to recruit me.)
The problem, in my opinion, is that there is a huge disconnect between the way competitive debaters do debates and the way the general public thinks about debates. I believe that speaking faster than 190 WPM is a huge turn off for the general public, whether for a podcast or in a live debate. Even if Vandergriff had not edited the audio file and instead chose to speak (naturally) as fast as possible, I predict that many listeners still would have complained about the fast delivery. I can see how the use of audio editing software might lead people to think Kevin had cheated, but that conclusion is mistaken. He did not.
Operating from a collegiate debate perspective, Vandergriff opted to increase his WPM ratio as needed in order to address every single in the point in every single speech. Some people call that the “Gish Gallop” approach but, as anyone with high school or college debating experience can confirm, that’s the way they do it in that style of debating.
In contrast, my approach was to speak at a more comfortable pace (< 190 WPM). Of course, that meant I could not include as much content into my speeches as Vandergriff included in his. Instead of simply “dropping” arguments, however, my strategy was to “group” various arguments together in a way so that one objection could apply to many of his arguments at the same time. If our debate were judged by collegiate debate judges using collegiate rules, it’s quite possible they may have voted for Vandergriff as the winner. Since this wasn’t a collegiate debate, however, and since I did respond to all of his points at least indirectly (through grouping), I don’t care how a collegiate debate judge might vote. My courtroom was the court of public opinion and my intended “judge” was the judgment of the general public.
The real risk is that, once transcripts of the debate are made available, they may give Vandergriff an unfair advantage insofar as it will be much easier for readers to understand a written transcript of his speed talking than it is for listeners to understand an audio recording of his speed talking. I think that we can manage risk that by putting some sort of note at the beginning of the transcript which explicitly addresses the WPM issue.
Lessons Learned
In my opinion, this debate is a “lesson learned” for all parties involved. If I could go back in time, I would have proposed the following:
(1) No cap on the number of arguments because I think the only way to truly test both worldviews in a debate is to actually debate this large number of arguments.
(2) A modified time limit structure, such as 25 minute openings, 20 minute first and second rebuttals, and 15 minute closings. These longer speeches would provide both debaters more time to address the points raised by their opponents.
(3) A strict cap on the maximum allowed WPM, which I would probably set at 190.
(4) The use of audio editing software to manipulate WPM would be allowed, but rendered irrelevant by rules 2 and 3.
Vandergriff and I have already talked about the possibility of having a re-match in the future using the above proposal or something similar. I think I can speak for both of us when I say that we both hope this re-match happens. For my part, I greatly appreciate his informed, thoughtful, and novel approach and think it deserves a fair hearing by everyone interested in pursuing a deeper understanding of these topics.
We’d love to know your reaction to this debate; please feel free to leave your reviews of the debate and/or debate the arguments yourself in the combox!
[1] I recognize that several of the claims in this paragraph will be controversial. For example, some theists deny the truth of common ancestry. Even more important, in my opinion, is the fact some theistic philosophers believe that God is required as the ontological foundation for morality and that skeptical theism is a good response to arguments from evil. I obviously disagree, but I’m not going to attempt to defend my perspective in this blog post.