Sunday, September 16, 2007

Todd Friel: Master Debater?

Hi folks, BoxerShorts here. I'm the newest member of the WOTM Watchdog team. Check out my own little corner of the web, The Underblog, for a different take on evangelical Christianity from an atheist perspective. There isn't much there yet, but I have plans. Oh yes, I do.

Anyway, now that introductions are out of the way, here's what you came here for:

Even among atheists, Mr. Friel has a reputation for being a skilled debater. While this is somewhat justified, it is mostly undeserved. Yes, he appeared to hold his own admirably against Dan Barker, and while I haven't heard the Eddie Tobash debate (I really need to download that one of these days), rumor has it he did pretty well there, as well. But appearances can be deceiving. Todd Friel is not a skilled debater.

Actually, let me qualify that. I don't know if Mr. Friel is a skilled debater, because I've never heard him debate. At least, not honestly. What he is skilled at is cheating at debate. I merely suspect, strongly, that he lacks skill at honest debate, because otherwise he wouldn't have to cheat.

Take a look at the Encyclopedia of Logical Fallacies. For all intents and purposes, these are forbidden in formal debate; a debater who uses them excessively automatically loses the debate by virtue of having used them. Likewise, they should be avoided in informal debate, but the rules there aren't quite as cut-and-dry. Let's take a look at a few that Mr. Friel uses frequently.

Arguments from Ignorance: Mr. Friel frequently challenges atheists to prove God doesn't exist. Well, in the most general possible sense, we can't. But we don't have to. As Isaac Asimov once said, "I don't have the evidence to prove God doesn't exist, but I so strongly suspect he doesn't that I don't want to waste my time."

Irrelevant Appeals: Mr. Friel uses these often, usually in the form of appeals to fear, pity, or wonder. While these can be persuasive, they have little to do with the matter at hand. In addition, they are irrational by their very nature, as they are designed specifically to exploit the listener's irrationality. Every time he brings up Hell, he's making an appeal to fear. This tactic is especially dishonest considering that the very existence of Hell is a subject of the very debate he's engaging in. Which also makes it an example of Circular Reasoning, also known as Begging the Question, a phrase that Mr. Friel frequently misuses, much to my annoyance.

Straw Man Arguments: Mr. Friel has a different Theory of Evolution than modern biologists. His version addresses the Big Bang, the formation of the solar system, and the spontaneous origins of life on Earth. The real Theory of Evolution has nothing to do with any of that, it addresses one phenomenon and one phenomenon only: The changes of populations over time in response to environmental pressures. The origins of the universe and of life on Earth are covered by other, separate (though related) theories. Todd's version of evolution also predicts that dogs can give birth to cats and monkeys to humans. Again, the real theory says nothing of the sort (rather, it states that monkeys and humans -- and cats and dogs, for that matter -- had a common ancestor, which is a much different claim). In fact, if either could be shown to have happened, they would disprove the Theory of Evolution as we know it. This is a Straw Man Argument: Todd claims that the Theory of Evolution is absurd, and indeed his version is. But since it in no way resembles the real theory, his argument has no relevance.

These are just a few examples of logical fallacies Mr. Friel has (knowingly, I suspect) engaged in. So how to we counter it? Well, that's the $64,000 question. As I said earlier, Mr. Friel is very good at cheating. He's very slick at sneaking these fallacious arguments past people. If I go through one of his shows line by line, I can catch a lot of them, but I'm not skilled enough to do it in real-time. We need to find someone who is, and send them off to go toe-to-toe with Todd.


uk said...

To whoever takes on this job, I suggest watching and/or listening to as many of Mr. Friel's debates as you can and cataloging Mr. Friel's fallacies along the way. Study his mistakes. He probably makes a lot of them but commits only a few kinds, which he varies to prove different points. BoxerShorts lists three in this post and the Encyclopedia of Logical Fallacies should help with the rest.

Another idea is just to catch and point out all of Mr. Friel's assumptions, asking for clarification each time. This will slow down the debate and make Mr. Friel look irrational.

Geoffrey said...

I'm going to defer to the Dawkins-Gould argument for not debating creationists ... though for a slightly different reason then the aforementioned Drs. suggested.

(To clarify, Dawkins and Gould didn't want to give creationists - whether YEC, OEC or ID - the satisfaction of being able to claim that an actual scientist gave them a platform to espouse their lies and distortions. This was not because they thought they'd lose per se but because being brought to the table is as clsoe to winning as they could ever get ... In otherwords, "it looks good on their CV, not mine".)

My position is that debates are not acceptable venues for the discussion of complex issues - esp. scientific issue such as the theory of evolution or, say, the theory of anthropogenic global warming. They are, pardon my language, 'swinging dick sessions' were the worst forms of polemic and rhetorical dishonesty are used to superficially damage an opponent. A dishonest person can win a debate because (1) ultimately debates are subjective encounters & (2) debates are not venues where complex issues and claims can be checked against the evidence. I can claim something that is completely false in a debate, which sounds reasonable, a get points for that, only to be proven wrong by a respectable method of inquiry after the debate has let out (often months later) - namely, the scientific method (methodological naturalism), peer-review, double-blind testing, etc.

Evolution, an ancient earth, an ancient universe, the Big Bang - these are successful theories (and facts) because they have passed muster in the competitive market place of science - not because someone won a three hour debate on youtube. The debate, if you will, happened over the course of months and years, with attempts to falsify theories, or with new evidence coming in ...

All over the web, on message boards, youtube comments, etc. you see things like, "Oh man, my christian friend could school you in a debate!" or "Oh man, my atheist friend could pwn the shit out of you in a debate" or "C'mon dude, let hime have it ..." This is not how knowledge progresses - its the equivelent of middle school bullying and patriarchal male aggression & I'd be happy if I never see another "evolution-creation" debate again ...

smoke said...

why do atheists do "Does God Exist" debates if they can't prove that He doesn't? Todd is right when he says that all atheists bring to the debate is gripes about Christianity. Your dislikes towards God/Christianity do not prove that God doesn't exist. And since those aren't valid arguments, why even debate?

Geoffrey said...

Well, for one, it's impossible to prove a negative - like having a "Does Zeus exist" debate between a Greco-Roman Pantheist and a American Evangelical/Fundamentalist and chiding the Christian for not being able to prove Zeus doesn't exist ... & gripes about Christianity are valid if the debate is centered around whether, for instance, 'Christianity is a force for good or bad' or the topic 'Just how immoral is Christianity" ... but, like I said above, debates are not helpful.

Anonymous said...

Hey! Thanks for playing the WOTM Radio clips on your show. I'm an evangelist and you're a real help! Thank you sincerely for your work in spreading the gospel.

good luck buddy. you will have no excuse.