Some Thoughts on the Lowder-Turek Debate

I recently watched (or rather listened to) the debate last December between Jeffrey Jay Lowder and Frank Turek on whether naturalism or theism “better explains reality”:

Overall it was one of the better theist-atheist debates I’ve encountered, and I would recommend watching it. The two opponents were intelligent, well-spoken, respectful, experienced, and focused on the issues. I’m not going to evaluate all the arguments in the debate or make a judgment about who ‘won’ the debate (it depends which criteria you apply). I’m just going to make some very general comments about the strengths and weaknesses of the presentations.

I’ve listened to several of Frank Turek’s debates, and it’s impossible not to like the fellow. He’s a highly effective and energetic communicator who makes excellent use of illustrations, analogies, and memorable phrases (e.g., “moist robots” as a description of humans on a naturalistic view). He has a natural sense of humor and deploys it to good effect. Frankly (no pun intended) I envy his public speaking gifts.

Turek’s approach in the debate was to present the arguments from his 2015 book Stealing from God: Why Atheists Need God to Make Their Case, in which he employs the acronym CRIMES in contending that there are six things atheists need in order to argue against the existence of God (Causality, Reason, Information, Mind, Evil, and Science) yet each of these things can only be adequately explained within a theistic worldview. As a presuppositionalist I’m very sympathetic toward this approach — especially from someone who openly advocates classical/evidential apologetics over presuppositional apologetics! (I’ve joked that Turek should have called his book Stealing from Presuppositionalists.)

However, despite my sympathies with Turek’s argumentative strategy, I don’t think he made good on his claims in the debate. Lowder had obviously studied Turek’s book in advance and had carefully prepared responses to each of the six points of the CRIMES. When challenged with Lowder’s counterarguments, Turek didn’t have much more to offer in terms of substance and tended to fall back on his well-worn analogies and catchphrases (“moist robots” etc.). A couple of Turek’s central arguments were duds. For example, Turek claimed that if all our beliefs are physically determined then we can’t trust them to be generally true or rational. This seems to be a common argument among Christians who hold to indeterministic free will, but Lowder rightly pointed out that it’s a non sequitur. (Even a libertarian theist like Richard Swinburne has acknowledged it’s a bad argument.) Determinism, naturalistic or otherwise, doesn’t in itself undermine confidence in the truth-directedness of our cognitive faculties. One might just as well argue that we can’t trust the answers given by a pocket calculator because it’s a deterministic physical machine. (That analogy points us toward a better argument against naturalism, but Turek didn’t make that better argument.)

To be clear: I don’t disagree with Turek’s conclusions or with his general strategy against naturalism. I just think his arguments weren’t sufficiently robust. (See here for my own attempts to argue that atheists need God to make their case.)

I don’t think I’ve seen Lowder in a debate before, but I was impressed with the quality of his presentation and the way he conducted himself throughout the debate. He made some serious, carefully formulated arguments in support of metaphysical naturalism (rather than merely trying to knock down theistic arguments) which is something one rarely encounters in such debates. (It’s all too common for atheists to try to avoid sharing any of the burden of proof.) Lowder had evidently done a great deal of preparation for the debate, and he directly engaged with Turek’s arguments, which made for a much more profitable and illuminating exchange. (In fact, he went so far as to offer his own ‘counter-acronym’ to Turek’s CRIMES: the VICTIMs of Christian apologetics!) Again, one rarely sees theist-atheist debates where there’s a serious, responsible engagement with the other side’s arguments.

To be clear again: I don’t find Lowder’s arguments for naturalism to be cogent. (Obviously, otherwise I’d be a naturalist.) Arguments aside, my sensus divinitatis is just too overwhelming! And even then I have some critical questions about whether naturalism can adequately account for the sort of Bayesian epistemology that Lowder relies on. Still, the point remains: he did his homework diligently and gave a strong presentation.

I also appreciated Lowder’s honesty (e.g., that he doesn’t have a settled position on naturalistic ethics) and his concession, without being prompted, that he thinks there is positive evidence for theism (even going so far as to specify that evidence). Needless to say, I think the evidence for Christian theism is much more extensive than Lowder admits, but my point is this: even that much of a concession is rare among atheists today. Lowder also distanced himself from several bad (but popular) atheistic arguments. So kudos to him for a degree of candor that I suspect will draw some friendly fire from his fellow anti-theists.

As to tone, Lowder came across as very respectful toward Turek and his position, and his self-deprecating humor in response to Turek’s (occasionally corny) jokes was refreshing. All this helped foster an exchange with far more light than heat. I can only hope that Lowder’s presentation will serve as a model for other atheist debaters with regard to its tone, clarity, and precision, and the extent to which it seriously engaged with the other side’s arguments.

Indeed, I’d even say that Lowder is doing a service to Christian apologetics by offering a serious, thoughtful, well-researched case for naturalism that synthesizes material from its most philosophically sophisticated defenders (e.g., Graham Oppy, Evan Fales, Paul Draper). In other words, Christian apologists should be directing more attention to the likes of Lowder rather than the traveling circus acts of the New Atheists and their groupies. There have to be responses to Dawkins and his ilk, for sure, but that’s low-hanging fruit.

In sum: a useful debate that ought to serve as a model for others, both in tone and in content.

4 Responses to Some Thoughts on the Lowder-Turek Debate

  1. theophilus71

    Thank you for the excellent review. I had a good laugh at the apropos “Stealing from Presuppositionalists” rejoinder!

    I agree with your point that Turek relying on mere “determinism” to undermine the atheist is ineffective. I’ve seen too many use that truncated argument.

    In my mind, the more fundamental issue for the materialist (naturalist, physicalist and so on) is the bundle of presuppositions of materialism, uniformity of nature, and human consciousness and rational autonomy (among others). Uniformity of nature and “in the beginning matter obeying physical laws” is not compatible with the rational autonomy espoused by most atheists. To hardcore atheists the first two are not subject to revision and some thereby jettison rational autonomy. Nonetheless they are then left with an epiphenomenal “consciousness” and “mind” and also the problem of logical laws of thought that can be violated yet somehow determined by inviolable properties (laws) of matter.

    One final comment. When we speak of “determinism” in the atheist worldview we should be clear to point out that for the atheist all motions of matter are “determined” in the sense of being entirely dependent upon and following from the physical properties of matter. (A purely functional dependence when written in terms of the equations of physics.) However, the processes (as conceived by the atheist view of Quantum field theory, say) are a dualism of (1) necessity (think, for example, of the equations of the standard model) and (2) irreducible chance (that irrationally produces random outcomes compatible within that structure of standard model). For the atheist then, this ultimate irrationality is the font of all of his random “free” “thoughts.”

    • Thanks for the comments. I agree. No combination of physical determinism (necessity) and physical indeterminism (chance) can generate consciousness and intentionality (never mind moral/rational norms).

  2. Jonathan

    Thanks for the review.

    I’ve created an argument map of Lowder’s opening argument here: http://tinyurl.com/m2wglfj

    Will map out the rest of the debate as I have time.