Thursday night’s debate on the Problem of Animal Suffering (PAS) is in the history books. Overall, it went very well. It was challenging, perhaps the most ambitious debate I’ve ever done, biting off a quite a lot to chew. I’m still chewing on it right now too.
At the University of Texas, Arlington Campus, I faced off against Phil Halper, aka “Skydivephil”, a self-taught science guy and skeptic who’s established an online presence with his videos on Cosmology and the Multiverse theory. He’s also waded into the subject of animal suffering leveling heavy critique against William Lane Craig and against Michael Murray, author of the landmark text on the Problem of Animal Suffering, Nature: Red in Tooth and Claw.
Phil proved to be an able opponent, a fast talker, and a sharp wit. He kept me on my toes and reminded me of the existential and persuasive challenge we theists are facing in the emotionally-charged PAS. But, hopefully, some of my arguments led him to reflect on his own views too and reevaluate the implications of his own position. The audience got a good sample of the richness and depth of this difficult problem. I’ll post the video of the debate as soon as it becomes available.
Overview: “So how did it go?”
The debate prompt was: “Does animal suffering justify rejecting the Christian God?” Phil went first, representing the “pro/positive” position, and I, representing the “con/negative” position, went second. We had 20 minutes each for our opening statements. Then came 10 minute rebuttals followed by 2 planned questions each, with 15 minutes each question to discuss those questions. And the rest of the night was Q&A from the audience.
Phil started by restating the problem of animal suffering: one should not believe in God because there are lots of cases of animal suffering which, he thinks, doesn’t fit well within typical Christian theodicies (i.e., “justifications of God”). Then he proceeded to give a series of examples to support his this argument.
He mentioned tar pits, skimmed through some theistic arguments (design arg., first-cause arg., moral arg.), and then mentioned cases of animal suffering in the slaughter of the Amalekites, the great flood, the animal sacrificial system, the exorcism of Legion, etc. He also addressed the inscrutability defense and skeptical theism (which are important features in the literature on the PAS).
But, a lot of his opening statement was spent discussing tangents about neo-cartesianism (which neither he nor I affirm), the pre-frontal cortex, conjectural theology about religious pluralism, and whether hypothetical alien races might be conducting astro-sociology experiments on us. I cannot remember all the material he brought up in his rebuttal, and question time though I do remember that he dabbled in philosophy of mind, in evolutionary ethics, and metaethics. And he got some pushback from the audience about his views on naturalistic morality. But his overall strategy remained the same: presume that the PAS is sound and then give a long list of claims and interpretations which fit his views.
Overall, Phil had clearly done some research into the subject but it is evident that he is not a professional or formally trained philosopher or theologian as seen in his blurring between (1) well-established and heavily vetted theological systems versus (2) bald conjectures. He showed a general dismissiveness towards theology entire, while showing no particular skill in handling subtle theological concepts nor philosophical distinctions. He seemed too rushed and abrupt to demonstrate that he has done his due diligence seriously considering the view he was attacking (Christian theism). While there were some provocative and important points he raised, and he touched on some key challenges to the Christian faith, nevertheless, I did not detect a singular, focused, or formally stated argument for his position. Instead, I had to devise an approximate sense of his overall argument and aim my responses at that. I tried to be charitable but rigorous. I welcome Phil’s response in the comment section below if he feels like I have misrepresented him in any way.
After Phil gave his opening statement, came my case. I utilized five lines of argument to demonstrate reasonable doubt regarding Phil’s atheistic conclusion. My aim was simply to establish, for fair-minded rational audiences, that the PAS is inconclusive. I spent about 5-8 minutes framing the debate since I’ve found that audiences and even debating opponents, do not always understand the aims and operations of a formal debate. For example, I granted some preliminary concessions early – animal suffering is real, it constitutes a genuine ethical challenge to theism, and biblical Christianity has a lot of animal suffering to explain (I mentioned all the examples Phil did, except perhaps the exorcism of Legion). Furthermore, I clarified that both of us have a burden of proof but Phil needed to establish reasonable certainty (sufficient to justify “rejecting the Christian God”) whereas I only needed to establish reasonable doubt (demonstrating that the PAS is inconclusive).
My lines of argument were: (1) the Moral Argument for God’s existence, (2) the Natural Law/Nomic Regularity Defense, (3) the doctrine of the Imago Dei, (4) the Two Falls – Adamic and Angelic, and (5) Clay Jones’s theodicy which I call the “Eternal Perfection Theodicy.”
I did not have the time to address every libelous issue that could be launched at Christianity, so I focused my opening statement on establishing a broad framework where even a great amount of animal suffering could be expected in light of other outweighing goods. In the rebuttals and the Q&A I was able to speak about the slaughter of the Amalekites, the influence of fallen angels, Genesis 3 and the Garden of Eden, the Great Flood, the sacrificial system, and Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac. Please bear in mind, that I have 2-3 hour long presentations, and research length articles on these kinds of objections, so if my responses in the debate seemed rushed it’s because they were. Phil opened many cans of worms all at once, dumped all of them on the table, knowing that there’s no realistic way I could sort through all of them thoroughly in the time frame I had. But neither could I leave them entirely unaddessed since that would seem like evasion. My strategy then was to show those objections a measure of respect, admitting their rhetorical and logical force, but point out 1-2 ways that each of those might have outweighing goods tied into them.
Phil and I were able to exchange opening statements in advance so we could plan our rebuttals in advance. I have a copy of his opening statement below, with my critiques interspersed. Those who attended the debate only got a small sample of that response, since it was impossible to give a thorough response to the dozens of issues he raised, without going over my time limit. It’s far easier to ask the question than to answer it, and it’s simpler to make a claim than to defend it. But first I’d like to offer a few of my own impressions on how the debate went.
- I honestly think I won the debate because I demonstrated reasonable doubt regarding the debate prompt. The phrasing of the debate prompt was carefully chosen, and agreed upon by both Phil and I. Phil did not seem to realize, or perhaps appreciate the implications of the debate prompt, so he seemed content to establish why it’s POSSIBLE that the Christian God doesn’t exist. But I conceded that in my opening statement. I was not arguing that the Christian God exists, I was arguing that the PAS doesn’t justify rejecting the Christian God. Phil’s position required more than mere possibility, more than reasonable doubt about Christianity, more than merely rational coherence within his view. He needed to demonstrate that animal suffering justifies REJECTING the Christian God; that’s a knowledge claim. And typical skeptical/atheist posturing about “non-theism” and “no burden of proof” does not fit with the prompt of the debate.
- Phil failed to overturn any of my 5 lines of argument, but I established potentially outweighing goods for every one of his major objections. Phil dismissed about 4 out of 5 of my key arguments. He made comments about all of them, but for lack of formal argumentation or a step-wise demonstration that his interpretations were superior to mine, he effectively dismissed at least 4 of the 5.The one argument I remember him seriously engaging was the moral argument for God’s existence. When I asked him a follow-up question about naturalistic ethics, whereby he might avoid the succumbing to the moral argument for god, he literally side-stepped the question, inserted a totally different question and then proceded to answer that different question. Bear in mind, this was during the planned question time between us debaters, so we had to answer each other’s questions. Only after he finished his scripted response did he look up and find me asking the same question again since he totally ducked the question the first time around. His efforts, however, were ineffectual since he was not able to establish that evolutionary naturalism has the ability to distinguish between morally good survival traits and morally evil survival traits. Nature does not filter for morality, but only for survival. Empathy, for example, happens to be useful for the survival of our species but it could be a morally neutral trait, or even amoral (wherein morality is devoid of meaning), and there is nothing in evolution or nature which dictates that humans SHOULD survive.Phil, even conceded that according to his view of ethics, evolution could have made us such that rape, killing the elderly, and eating our young are all “good.” Once he admitted this, he left evolutionary ethics tainted and unpersuasive. Plus, he had no solution for the circularity problem for moral knowledge: “My brain is a reliable moral judge, according to my brain.” Phil did attempt to speak to my key arguments, but if I’m remembering correctly, he largely just said that he disagreed and then steamrolled me with more of his own undefended/unsupported claims.Phil would have made a stronger case if he had successfully framed his lines of evidence in such a way that we are rationally compelled to favor his interpretation. He could have strengthened his overall case by restricting himself to fewer key points, and a deeper defense of those points. He could have achieved that with formal arguments. But whenever evidential lines are simply stated, without sufficient framing, they are always vulnerable to alternative interpretations.
- Phil’s strongest attribute in the debate was quantity. Phil had a plethora of examples to draw upon in emotionally and existentially swaying the audience towards his position. He did not hold back either. He seemed to use every example he could think of from Scripture. But neither did he sharpen his point either. Instead of restricting his fire to a few well-targeted shots, he employed a shot-gun blast method of argumentation, scatter shooting across a range of objections. He covered the whole map, citing every key example that he, apparently, could think of. There’s an informal fallacy operating here (Steam Rolling), but I don’t want to discard the fact that any one of those core examples he cited from Scripture were valid inclusions in the debate. It was perfectly fair for him to mention the Slaughter of the Amalekites, the Great Flood, and so on. But when he listed a bunch of different objections, without supporting those objections, the overall effect was somewhat shallow and presumptuous. To be fair, he did reached some measure of depth regarding the moral argument. But it was not clear to me that he understood what kind of demonstration was needed to disprove all the possible outweighing goods I addressed. He seemed too quick in reaching his conclusions and too reluctant to guide anyone else through the different rational steps needed to join him there. But that’s to be expected with scatter-shot arguments.
- A whole lot of steamrolling but not much digging. It is simply impossible to address every issue Phil raised. I think he knew that. So when he cited a laundry list of grievances, I have to believe he wasn’t interested in leaving a realistic opportunity for any fair and reasonable answer to his objections. Either he assumed there couldn’t possibly be a reasonable response, or he wasn’t interested in abiding by the conventional rules of formal debate. This tactic, by the way, is called the Steamrolling fallacy. It’s an informal fallacy where someone verbally overwhelms an opponent by presenting far more material than they can realistically address in the alotted time. Even after I called him out for steam-rolling, he used the same steam-rolling tactic in rebuttal and Q&A (perhaps because he stuck to a scripted rebuttal and answers). Astute audience members should have picked up on this fallacy, but I suspect that many in the audience there, or in the video audience later, might not recognize the poor sportsmanship involved in steamrolling. One of the side-effects of his steamrolling tactic was he did not, himself, engage in much digging. His case showed some rhetorical force, but was lacking in philosophical depth. For example, he did not seem to understand the difference between the inscrutability defense and skeptical theism. He was casually dismissive and in some cases, unaware of, competing scholarly theories regarding (a) the difference between pain and suffering, (b) moral facts, (c) critiques of relativism, (d) critiques of evolutionary ethics, (e) theories about the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, (f) different kinds of justice, and so on.
- Phil didn’t seem to seriously engage with the different outweighing goods I brought up in my opening statement. His line of critique was surprisingly thin, despite the bounty of grievances he mentioned and the speed of his delivery. He seized upon the moral argument and made a serious effort to rebuff its advances. But he never seemed able to show that his conception of morality has any truth-value beyond the arbitrary whims of personal opinion, mindless instincts, and private psychology. Phil’s method seemed to be primarily offering couterpoints, without first discrediting my points. Yet, those counterpoints did not by themselves discredit my case they can instead point us toward a more complex moral landscape than we might normally think. In fact, that’s precisely my point. Moral rubrics that evaluate simply for pain and pleasure (hedonism) can easily discredit God’s existence, but since pain and pleasure are not the only morally weighted values at play, we have no great reason to ascribe to such a simplistic rubric. In my opening statement, I made that very point, acknowleding that the PAS does theists a great service by discrediting shallow idolatrous gods like “Buddy Jesus,” and “Santa God.” Those characters are easily disproven by the Problem of Evil and the Problem of Animal Suffering. Fortunately, those characters are not the biblical portrait of God. They are action figures and puppets, not the all-mighty God over creation.
- Phil was not a philosopher or theologian. Now I’ll be reviewing the video when it becomes available, so Phil may have had a stronger grasp of my points than it seemed to me at the time, but at this point, my impression is that Phil’s case lacked the nuance one should expect from a philosopher or theologian. he seemed to struggle at seriously engaging with my points, perhaps for lack of philosophical and theological training (at the collegiate or graduate level). Now, I don’t mean this as an ad hominem attack. He was certainly sharp and witty, but if he has not practiced the craft of theology of the art of philosophy, he might not know how to construct a well-framed argument, or how to disassemble an opponents argument.Mostly, it seemed like he was saying, “Nuh uh! But what about this? Or that? Or this? Or that?” If his lack of formal training was merely an aesthetic or secondary matter I’d leave it aside. Great ideas can be stated by amateurs, newbies, or even by accident. So, Phil does not necessarily need to have any scholarly credentials to be a trustworthy or credible scholar. Nevertheless, his lack of formal training may have interfered such that I’m not sure he understood how to interact with the arguments beyond a surface level. Phil did have some strong lines of evidence but seemed unequipped to formulate these in terms of a sound argument. This meant he was left implicitly saying, “I interpret this evidence this way, and you should too.” Without situating his evidence within a formal argument, he failed to establish that his interpretation of the evidence was the only interpretation or even the best interpretation.
- He was stuck on a pain-pleasure metric for moral goods. He seemed to be calculating all his moral equations entirely in terms of animal pain and pleasure and did not seem willing, or perhaps able, to calculate for the range of other values that I defended in the opening statement (corporate justice, representative authority, perfection in heaven, nomic regularity, biodiversity, ecology, free will, etc.). This meant that his case was somewhat shallow, and did not apparently rebut several of my key claims.
- This was the most ambitious and hardest debate I’ve done. I’ve debated the problem of evil, God’s existence, and abortion before. The problem of animal suffering was a harder topic than all of these. And Phil was strong opponent. I would not say Phil was the most skilled opponent, but he has a talent for raising the energy level of the debate and maintaining a quick wit even into the third hour of the debate. I found that Charles Hermes and Sally Parker Ryan were the most scholarly and competent scholars I’ve debated. Matt Dillahunty was the most skilled rhetorically (with an “everyman” demeanor that is subtly persuasive and winsome). David Smalley and Zach Moore were challenging in their own ways. I learned a lot in all of these debates, but I think I had the most ground to cover and had to sharpen my theological and my philosophical tools to prepare for this debate with Phil Halper. Good show!