The Cooke-Aijaz Debate: Closing Remarks from the Moderator (2003)

Richard Carrier

As moderator for the Cooke-Aijaz Debate I feel compelled to register my disappointment with both sides. Cooke's approach was generally flippant and often insulting to his opponent, and to the religious generally. I would never recommend him for a debate again. Indeed, he largely ignored his opponent's arguments until his closing statement, and that is very impolite for a debate--giving Aijaz no chance to reply. Cooke's arguments were also, in my opinion, often confusing, poorly defended, inadequately supported, or irrelevant to what Aijaz was actually arguing. In contrast, Aijaz presented a clear and sober case, but lacked any apparent awareness of or attention to all the literature devoted to his core argument (an amalgam of the Kalam Cosmological Argument and the Fine Tuning Argument). Consequently, Aijaz said nothing new that hasn't already been thoroughly refuted already, and Aijaz did not answer any of those refutations (many of which are right here on the Secular Web: see The Cosmological Argument). In conclusion, this debate was a huge waste of time and not worth anyone's time to read. It contains nothing new or educational or entertaining.

Some Specific Problems with Cooke's Case

(1) Contrary to Cooke's claim, Aijaz does not depend on a circular argument by importing the assumption of God's existence. Instead, Aijaz formally defines an entity, then presents evidence for that entity. That is proper procedure. Aijaz openly disavows making any distinction among gods, so our inability to ascertain "which god" has no effect on Aijaz's argument: that we can ascertain there must be some god (i.e. some sort of personal being who created the universe). Yet Cooke uses the irrelevant "which god" argument again and again, despite its irrelevancy. This is comparable to fallaciously arguing that the Big Bang theory must be false because we can't determine which Big Bang theory is correct. Aijaz's argument purports to prove that an intelligent being probably created the universe--that's all, but that is all it takes to refute atheism, by any relevant standard. So this argument must be addressed. Bickering about any other attributes of that being, or what he should be called (like whether 'god' or something else), is irrelevant, yet Cooke obsessed on such moot details. That wasn't at all helpful.

(2) Cooke falsely criticizes Aijaz for positing a false dichotomy (which Cooke calls a "binary") between "personal" and "mechanical" causation. That would be a formally significant rebutter if Cooke had proven it rather than merely asserted it. To show it is a false dichotomy, Cooke must identify at least a third possibility excluded by the other two. In other words, Cooke was obligated to show the audience the excluded middle. Without having done that, his rebuttal is unsupported and thus a failure. No atheist should repeat such an error: every claim in a debate must be evidentially supported (and a series of rhetorical questions doesn't count as "evidence"). Worse, I even doubt Cooke could have done that, since Aijaz's argument remains valid if "mechanical" is defined as "nonpersonal" and therefore there is no false dichotomy here as far as I can see.

(3) Cooke accuses Aijaz of importing the idea of a "will" as an "anthropocentric presumption," but that is a false accusation. Though Aijaz may indeed have been wrong to introduce that, or he may have failed to successfully support it, Cooke did not demonstrate either point. Thus, Cooke did not rebut him at all--he merely asserted that the argument was inadequate without showing it to be. An assertion is not an argument. And since Aijaz actually offers purported support for his importation of "will," Cooke's accusation of "presumption" is obviously false: Aijaz did not presume, he argued. Cooke should have rebutted what Aijaz offered as support for this move, rather than merely asserting the move a failure.

(4) Cooke conceded a key element of Aijaz's argument without explanation, admitting that the universe is "finely tuned." Indeed, this was the only option Cooke provided in his rebuttal, and he did more than accept it as possible: he implied it was the only plausible conclusion. Cooke didn't even mention that the premise itself is widely challenged, not just the conclusion. This concession all but handed the debate to Aijaz. For "fine tuning" strongly implies (indeed, the term itself linguistically signifies) deliberate manipulation toward a goal--in other words, if the universe is finely tuned, it is (almost by definition) created. Cooke could only have recovered by explaining that he meant something different by "finely tuned" than everyone else, but he didn't do that. I suppose he might have meant that what we observe as fine tuning is illusory or merely apparent, that it is really just, say, a fortunate accident. That is one way to argue--although "tuned or accidental" is itself a false dichotomy: there are other possibilities, and I even told Cooke about my paper on this (see below), yet he never attempted to recover from this or to discuss any of the available work on the fine tuning argument.

(5) In actual fact, it seems Cooke doesn't even know what the fine tuning argument is. He says "the argument from fine-tuning proclaims the ubiquity of the algorithmic laws of the universe [yet that says] nothing whatsoever about powerful, intelligent beings." That is a false characterization of the fine-tuning argument in general, as well as Aijaz's particular presentation of it. Fine-tuning certainly does make a prima facie case for intelligent design. For it is not about the "ubiquity of algorithmic laws." Rather, it proclaims just what it says: the (indeed, extreme) fine tuning of those "ubiquitous algorithmic laws," seemingly to the end of producing intelligent life. You would think Cooke didn't know that. He certainly never rebutted the actual argument that the universe appears finely tuned.

(6) Cooke mainly rests his case on the fallacious argument that theism is false because it entails an "anthropocentric conceit." This is not a formally valid objection to theism. After all, conceited people can be right. Indeed, we can't even say they are less often right than unconceited people. Cooke does rightly argue that this is an alternative explanation for theistic belief other than truth, but that in no way entails that theism isn't true, and Cooke openly admits exactly the same charge can be addressed to atheism. He even lists his own ulterior motives, which include, besides moral disdain, a desire to feel superior to theists with his claim to being more grown up and mature. Therefore, the score is even here, and neither side gets anywhere. In fact, in my opinion this amounted to little more than a bigoted exchange of ad hominem, especially given the snide and discourteous way Cooke presented the argument.

Given these failures and fallacies and Cooke's disdainful treatment of his opponents, I will never again moderate a debate with such a man representing atheism. And I must apologize to religious readers who may be offended or disgusted by his approach. He in no way represents me or the Internet Infidels, and as far as I am concerned he is no spokesman for our cause.

Some Specific Problems with Aijaz's Case

Aijaz made his case on primarily nine statements. Of these, five had problems I wanted to see addressed (indeed, that was one of the very reasons I accepted the role as moderator of this debate), yet Cooke all but failed to address any of them, and Aijaz thus was never prompted or obliged to answer them--or not permitted to: Cooke's only clear and substantial rebuttal inappropriately appeared in his closing statement, though vaguely and confusingly referred to earlier.

(1) Whatever begins to exist has a cause of its existence. That is not a necessary truth. The law of causation is derived from observation and not a priori reasoning, and therefore, like all empirical conclusions, the law of causation could be false. Yet it is unclear what the proposition would mean, much less what good it would be in Aijaz's argument, if it was posed as a merely probable truth. This is all the more so since we cannot even guess at the probability of it being true when discussing a unique event like the origin of a universe. For no statistics derived from events within a universe have any categorical analogy to the universe itself, which is drastically different from its parts. For example, the origin of the universe marks the beginning of time, yet we have never observed anything comparable to a beginning of time, and it seems self-evidently incoherent to propose that time had to have a cause, since "cause" seems to be an inherently temporal concept, void of meaning outside the context of time itself. Aijaz never addresses this problem, because Cooke never raised it until his closing statement.

(2) The universe began to exist. How sure are we of that? Not very. Though we have good evidence that the observable universe began about 14 billion years ago, we know nothing at all about what existed before then. For example, a leading contender to standard Big Bang theory today is Brane Theory, which posits that the Big Bang was just a Local Bang in a much larger metauniverse. On that theory, which is entirely consistent with all current scientific evidence, the universe could have been around for an eternity before that event occurred--and in fact, such events might happen all the time, like every few trillion years. Other theories posit that the Big Bang was a "bud" from another universe, and that in fact there are an infinity of interlocking and budding universes, stretching back endlessly. And so on. Not only are such theories consistent with empirical evidence, they are coherent. Therefore the proposition "the universe began to exist" is not necessary but only true to some measure of probability. How probable? The likelihood of it being true is inscrutable to us, because we lack the information we need to assess probability here. Therefore, any conclusion derived from this premise shares the same inscrutable probability. In short, it gets nowhere better than agnosticism: we just don't know. Aijaz never addresses this problem, because Cooke never raised it.

(3) The first cause is not mechanical. This premise was very poorly defended. Cooke only tried to refute it in his closing statement, where he finally referred to the current scientific case that the cause of the Big Bang was mechanical. And he is right. Several current scientific models fully explain the "cause" of the Big Bang without appealing to any sort of personal agency (Brane Theory, again, being the easiest example, though even many pure Big Bang theories manage to account for everything mechanically, like Hawking's theory of quantum time). Again, Aijaz never addresses this, because Cooke never pointed it out until it was too late to hear how Aijaz would respond.

(4) A universe exhibiting fine tuning is not improbable under the theistic hypothesis. This is probably true, although fine tuning is not exactly expected on theism, either. For what need does a god have for it? He could more easily make a universe bio-friendly without any "fine-tuning" of its attributes. For example, the universe could be like a living cartoon, or an organic entity without fixed laws, or with laws that can vary greatly without undermining its robustness for producing life, or indeed the laws of the universe could have made life impossible, thereby proving the existence of life a miracle. Likewise, since heaven presumably is not described by physical laws, yet is (by definition) fully conducive to life, it seems obvious God can make such worlds, and in fact we would sooner expect a god to do so, unless he had some limitation upon his power, or some ulterior motive. Therefore, using this as evidence for a god leads to some very serious questions that could well undermine all standard theology. Cooke does allude to this problem, though he never ramified it.

(5) A universe exhibiting fine tuning is very improbable under the atheistic hypothesis. Is it? Aijaz never demonstrates this. How does he know the probability of getting the physical laws and constants that we actually have? Unless he is ready to win the Nobel Prize for the greatest discovery in the history of physics, he cannot possibly know how the laws and constants came to be what they are or why they are what they are. Yet we must know those things before we can even attempt to calculate the probability of any particular outcome (see Richard Carrier, "Response to James Hannam's 'In Defense of the Fine Tuning Design Argument'" (2001). It may well be that no other set of laws and constants is possible. Or it may be that this set was among the most probable conjunctions possible. Or it may be that there are only, say, six possible conjunctions of laws and constants so the odds against ours are only a manageable 6 to 1. Or it may be that there are or have been many tries (consider the bud theory again) and thus many sets of laws and constants. Yet without knowing how many trials there have been you cannot know the odds against any one outcome among them. And so on. In short, Aijaz cannot know this proposition is true, therefore he cannot know if any conclusion derived from it is true. Again, Aijaz never addresses this problem, because Cooke never raised it.

(6) So Aijaz's argument, though formally valid, does not produce knowledge of anything, much less of a god's existence. In other words: (a) Therefore, the universe has a cause of its existence. This is a formally valid conclusion, but since it is derived from premises whose truth is unknown, the conclusion is likewise unknown. (b) Therefore, the first cause is personal. Also a formally valid conclusion. But the premises from which it follows aren't adequately supported, and thus there is no reason to believe it is a true proposition. (c) Therefore, a universe exhibiting fine-tuning is evidence for theism over atheism. This, too, is a valid conclusion from the given premises. But as we have seen, those premises are indemonstrable as empirical facts, and therefore so is this conclusion.

None of this is new. It has all been said before, in many articles and books. Aijaz thus seems unaware of any of the actual discussion in this field, and consequently all he does is advance arguments that have been repeatedly refuted in print already. I had hoped Cooke would point this out early on and thus start an educational and informative dialogue that would advance both of their thinking and provide useful resources and references for theists and the freethought community, by which the whole of society could advance its mutual dialogue and understanding. Instead, nothing useful at all came out of this debate. What a shame.