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The Big Debate: Comments on the Barker-Carrier vs. Corey-Rajabali Team Debate


Richard Carrier

On May 8, 2004, I debated the existence of God before an audience of a thousand. It was a team debate, and my colleague was my good friend Dan Barker, against two theists, respected Muslim scholar Hassanain Rajabali and Michael Corey, author of The God Hypothesis.[1] It was a fantastic event. Organized by the Tawheed Institute for Islamic education and the Young Muslim’s Association of Dearborn, Michigan, it was a massive enterprise, and excellently run. People actually came from all over the world to attend, including Africa, England, and Canada. Dan reports that FFRF members from several states attended, and from Toronto as well. After the event Dan and I received gracious hospitality from the Humanists of Michigan, especially Art Hogan and Thelma Murrell, who drove us all around the area.

Impressions of the Event

Technical Assessment

Getting the Facts Straight

The Truth about Smolin Multiverse Theory

The Truth about the Wistar Institute

The Truth about Intelligent Life in the Cosmos

The Truth about Singularities

The Truth about the Natural Selection of Intelligence

Accountability in Practice

Confusing Analytic with Synthetic Propositions

The Problem of Method



        (1) Is God Hidden or Obvious?

        (2) Can an Infinite Sequence Get Started?

        (3) Is the Suffering of Animals Good?

        (4) Is the Cup Half Empty?

        (5) Does Atheism Cause Depression?

        (6) Are Atheists Morally Unaccountable?


Impressions of the Event

Though the event was hugely attended by Muslims (Dan and I estimate only fifty or so freethinkers to maybe nine hundred or so Muslims, with maybe a hundred or so Christians), everyone I met there was incredibly nice. These were conservative Muslims. Their women were covered, and required to sit in separate rows at the debate (and separate tables, at a dinner held in our honor after the event). They were very sensitive about anything they took as ‘ridiculing’ God or his Prophet. They were meticulous about prayers and ritual observances–such as never touching the text of a Koran or always speaking the right phrases aloud when certain words were spoken in public (like the name of the Prophet).

So if these were Christians, I would have been a bit scared–my treatment by Christians this conservative has often been unkind, even threatening. But not these folk. Every single one of them was kind and friendly and respectful, and treated me humanely despite my being ‘The Infidel’. They were generous even to a fault. And they were all very patient and obliging in answering my many questions, so I learned a lot about Islam and the perspective Muslims have on everything from religion to politics, in dinners and lunches and other occasions besides the debate, including the hour I spent talking to people who came up to the stage afterward with nothing but kind words and sincere questions and concerns. In all, I gained a lot of respect for the Muslim community. These were sincere people, who really believed in trying to do the right thing, and they were usually correct about what that was: living a life defined by compassion and honesty. I do still think they have a lot of weird beliefs and practices, based on a lot of fallacious reasoning, and are much too sensitive and uptight about certain things. But as Al Franken wrote of the staff and students at Bob Jones University, they were nevertheless really, really nice. So there is a potential there to get along despite our differences.

The only time I felt hated or disrespected (though never threatened or in danger) was on stage, and only by Michael and Hassanain, though a bit by the audience’s unkind reactions to their rhetoric as well.[2] Indeed I was shocked–very shocked–at how hostile, mean, and rude the two theists seemed to get in this debate. I had never seen that before, in numerous debates I’ve read, heard, or seen, and it took me by surprise. They disparaged us in many ways, I thought–with heated, raised voices, essentially calling us liars, potential murderers, inevitable suicides, irrational incompetents who ‘don’t know what they’re talking about’, who can’t read and have no reason to live. In other words, all the worst, bigoted things we already hear from the Christian right. It seemed to me they were sometimes mocking or derisive, especially in the cross examination period and Q & A. By the end, I felt mistreated. I did everything I could to comport myself as a gentleman–as calm as I could manage, collected, always speaking without raising my voice, never attacking their intelligence or competence or honesty or moral character, or even their religion (I never mentioned Islam or Islamic beliefs, for example–I stuck only to the point: whether a god existed). I did everything a gentleman should do. But I did not feel I was treated like a gentleman.

Michael used words like “laughable” to describe our arguments and disparaged our intelligence and competence by claiming we didn’t understand science or didn’t know what we were talking about or didn’t understand what we had read or hadn’t answered questions that in fact we had. In all, it seemed to me his treatment of us was disdainful. As for Hassanain, he said of us (quoting the Koran) that “they create lies just to fool you with no substance,” in effect calling us liars. He also said we were “angry” even though he was the only one who raised his voice and gave the distinct impression of being outraged, while we remained calm and reasonable throughout. He even said in his closing that to accuse someone of being angry is “very improper,” so I do wonder why he called us ‘angry’ against his own advice. The only evidence he had to offer that ‘we’ were angry was something only Dan had said (which hadn’t struck me as angry), plus a conversation with some unnamed woman before the debate–which had no bearing on what Dan or I felt or believed.

Hassanain also laughed at our expense more than once, and said our beliefs were “preposterous.” He said my belief in being good was merely “spurious,” that an atheist will inevitably “become a regressive creature,” that when you reject atheism “you become a better person” (hence, believers are better people than us), and he even mocked my moral beliefs. I had explained how a moral life was good for each individual’s own happiness, an argument he ignored–instead, he belittled what I said with a mocking voice, suggesting he thought I was insincere. He said we don’t value our existence and even “belittle” it, yet presented no evidence to support such a claim about Dan or myself. He said atheism is “deadly” and suggested it leads to crime and depression. He claimed we “deny everything,” even though my entire presentation, in opening and rebuttal, was primarily about what we affirm. He even implied that atheism entails killing sick children in a hospital to save them from misery–and thus he essentially called us potential murderers, an implication he repeated again in his closing statement.

Hassanain also questioned our moral character with the false charge that both our rebuttals were “very misquoting, and this is probably the reason why, when you don’t have accountability, you strike under the belt.” He gave no example of this from anything I had said, and only one example from what Dan had said: his argument from religious confusion. Dan argued that different theists hold different beliefs, and each considers the other heresy–which is true, even if he was in error about what actual beliefs Michael held. At this Hassanain said Dan was just being “schismatic” and trying to come between two people–as if what Hassanain was doing wasn’t coming between atheists and theists by alleging we were devoid of moral character. He also claimed Dan’s argument was “a lie, a public lie,” and an ad hominem, even though it wasn’t either. Dan was mistaken, not lying, and he never attacked anyone. He only said that (he thought) Michael and Hassanain disagreed on a fundamental point of religious doctrine, which even if not true, was true in general: there are Christians who hold the belief Dan was talking about (that God begat a son), and Hassanain did regard that belief as essentially blasphemous. Dan’s point was: How can we believe in a god when no one can even agree which god it is supposed to be? That is a valid academic argument–it is formally called the Argument from Confusion–which is not an ad hominem.[3]

The moderator said personal attacks would not be allowed, but it seemed to me (as evidenced above) that Dan and I were both attacked quite a bit on a fairly personal level. Dan called them “kind and learned men,” but his courtesy was not reciprocated. Instead, I felt we were basically treated as immoral incompetents. The Koran says “reason with them kindly” (16:125), but there were few kind words on stage that I could see. The respected Imam Muhammad Shirazi wrote some very excellent words on this subject, in one of the many books our Muslim hosts gladly gave me (an example of that wonderful generosity I spoke of earlier). Shirazi notes that verbal non-violence, refraining from verbal assaults and slander, is very hard to practice because it is rarely punished and so “the tongue is free to say anything unchecked,” yet “it is imperative that those involved in the invitation to Islam practice it,” no matter how difficult it may be, for “the strongest of all those who respond” to aggression “is he who, when faced with a barrage of insults and accusation, seeks refuge in silence and abstains from responding likewise,” but instead answers even insults with “praise and compassion.”[4] Hassanain intimated that he felt Dan’s approach insulting and perhaps accusatory, but even were that so, it was wrong of him to respond with a verbal assault against Dan’s honesty and character. And I certainly never said anything that was insulting or accusatory (or so at least several Muslims told me after the debate, who even expressed appreciation for that fact), so it was even more unkind to treat me that way–as Hassanain did by saying “they” tell lies and “they” misquoted, and specifically naming both Dan and me several times. As the Koran says, “argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious” (16:125) and “respond with that which is better, so that he, between whom and you there is animosity, shall be like an intimate friend” (41:34). That is how Hassanain behaved with me in private, but not before the crowds.

Dan was disappointed with the moderator, Riyaz Datoo, for failing to enforce his own rule against personal attacks. “They should have found a truly neutral moderator,” he told me afterward, “certainly not one who considers Rajabali to be a spiritual authority.” I thought the moderator did a fairly good job, given how difficult a job it was. But Dan may be right that a more neutral and perhaps more experienced moderator might have stood up for us. Riyaz later said he didn’t want to enforce his rule by imposing himself, but by giving us additional time to respond. “I felt,” Riyaz told Dan and me, “that allowing each of you to explain yourselves would be fair and hold much more weight than me stepping in.” I don’t think that is the correct way to handle personal attacks–it only takes up even more time to no valuable purpose and derails what is supposed to be a reasonable debate free of calumny and irrelevant defenses of one’s character. More importantly, such a tactic does nothing to reprimand anyone for violating the rules.

Michael apologized at dinner that night–he seemed at least a bit bothered by his own behavior. So did Hassanain, who didn’t exactly apologize, but he seemed a bit contrite to me when he intimated that things got a little too hot on his side of the table. But the audience ate it up, and I found it a little insulting that they would rabble-rouse the audience that way, leaving a very bad, even disdainful impression of us and our beliefs, then play nice in private. That certainly did more harm than if they had acted the other way around. As a persecuted minority himself, I had hoped a Muslim like Hassanain would appreciate the importance of not spreading stereotypes and a general derision of our views, abilities, and moral character, to a public audience that obviously looked up to him and greatly respected his opinions. I did have the consolation that many Muslims came up to me after the event and said they now had more respect for atheists after having heard my case and seen my composure, and they were glad to have the opportunity to put a human face on an often demonized minority. But I can only conclude this result was in spite of Michael and Hassanain’s behavior, which I fear may have made things worse for us in the minds of some.

To be fair, there was a question about Dan’s approach being offensive. The general consensus from those I spoke to, Muslims and atheists, was split on that question. Some regarded his style as fun and honest and inoffensive, while others took him as ridiculing faith and god. But even so, he never attacked Michael or Hassanain personally–he never disparaged their sincerity or competence or character, as they did ours. But he did use humor and poke fun at things, which I know really gets some people’s goat. I wasn’t offended by Dan’s approach. It just wasn’t mine. I think it is more diplomatic and effective (and more within my skill set) to avoid criticizing any specific religion in a general debate about god, so I did flinch sometimes at Dan doing that, but to an extent he had to, to make a valid point about religious confusion. Likewise, I am used to believers having no sense of humor, so I tend to avoid that, too. But that means my style is, by comparison, at least a bit boring–and (as some outright said to me afterward) too intellectual. And it doesn’t satisfy those atheists who want us to ‘stick it to them’. So there is no way to really win here. Each of our approaches pleased some and displeased others–often the exact opposite people.

But I must say one thing in Dan’s defense, and I say this with all kindness and sincerity: those who were offended need to lighten up. Let’s face it: Dan was funny. I think when you cease being able to laugh at something, you die a little inside–and take another step toward fanaticism, haughtiness, and intolerance. Believers say fear of the lord is the beginning of wisdom. I disagree. I think the beginning of wisdom is the ability to laugh at yourself. If you don’t understand what I mean, then I think you have a lot yet to learn. And laughing at ourselves includes laughing at our own beliefs and conceits. Ultimately, according to either Christian or Muslim doctrine, it is impossible that I should be a better person than God, and yet I can be made fun of and still laugh along with those laughing at me, without offense. Indeed, ‘the roast’ is an American tradition. And even if I take offense, from humor that is bitter or bigoted, I still never develop any desire to hurt anyone. So surely, a fortiori, God cannot be offended by anything we say, nor would any harm come to us if he was. That is the defining trait of a good heart, something we should all admire, and seek to cultivate.

Technical Assessment

There is no doubt in my mind we won on technical merit, even despite the fact that the debate was stacked against us in its fundamental organization: twice our opponents got both the first and the last word, there was only one rebuttal instead of two, and the debate was formulated to improperly lay the burden on us (a point Dan made in the debate). Of course, every friendly observer afterward said we’d won, and though I am very self-critical and take such reports with skepticism, I distinctly recall observing during the debate how poorly it seemed our opponents were doing in formal terms. This is largely because, in my own humble opinion, they had few real arguments, even less evidence, and generally just belabored the same points again and again; they addressed almost none of my own arguments or evidence directly, so much of what I said stood unrebutted (Dan tells me he made the same observation about his own arguments); and most of their own case rested on misunderstandings of ours, and on a number of fallacies.

For example, Hassanain failed to understand my argument from cosmic evolution and tried to rebut it with invalid analogies–as anyone who listens to the debate closely can see. I never claimed that the universe just ‘popped’ into existence like a magic bullet or fingerprint, but said quite clearly and in detail that we have evidence supporting the conclusion that it evolved through natural selection over untold time from a beginning far simpler than the beginning they were alleging (God), and that until this hypothesis was ruled out, no other hypothesis (like “God exists”) can be asserted. Neither Michael nor Hassanain understood the actual point of this argument, and it was never rebutted with any evidence of any kind throughout the entire debate. Nor was that the only argument I made. Yet my cosmological argument was again the only argument of mine Michael directly addressed. My argument was that Smolin’s multiverse hypothesis cannot yet be ruled out and predicts observed features of the universe that are unexpected on theism. But Michael addressed this simply by dismissing it with a “I refuted that in my book” charge, even though I had carefully crafted my version of the argument to nullify his book’s rebuttal. So he never actually ‘rebutted’ what I actually presented. In the end, as best I recall, every substantial, relevant argument they made we at least offered a rebuttal for (whether decisively or not I’ll leave others to judge), but they did not score the same against us. Indeed, they ignored most of what we said, and most of what they did address, they got wrong.

Even so, we still would have ‘lost’ by a very large margin on any audience ‘poll’. One Muslim BBS after the event said we were crushed, routed, that Dan would probably never debate again, and other such astonishing observations. I am sure that was a common sentiment in the largely Muslim audience, who were quite vocal in reacting positively to the theists and negatively to the atheists. And that was probably because our opponents played to the crowd. In my opinion, they both acted a lot like preachers. Hassanain especially, I thought, with rants, fallacies, and all sorts of popular diatribe, all aimed at rousing the crowd to condemnatory hisses and wild cheers. If this had been a Christian audience, I might have feared for my life. Michael was thankfully more subdued, but still seemed to be delivering a sermon more than making a comprehensive case, and he resorted more and more to condemnatory hyperbole as time went on, with a fervor and conviction I felt was more suited to the pulpit than a reasonable debate. I could be wrong, but it seemed to me that clever quips aimed at winning the audience prevailed over actual argument and evidence.

Getting the Facts Straight

I made only one mistake that I can recall. I confused Barrow & Tipler for Bradley & Thaxton, another B & T pair I had recently written about for Biology & Philosophy, so evidently my brain got its wires crossed. The error only occurred to me on my flight back to California, so I apologized to my opponents by email, and suggested a correction be added to the video (though they decided to make no such changes, except perhaps to include my correction in the published transcript, if they ever produce one). Unlike Bradley & Thaxton, Barrow & Tipler are not creationists to my knowledge (though Tipler is a theist of some unusual variety). Likewise, Dan had been informed before the debate that Michael was a Christian, which turned out to be incorrect. But that was an honest mistake, for which he apologized in the debate itself, and it wasn’t really as important as Michael and Hassanain made it out to be–especially since to this day, despite repeated requests by Dan, Michael still has not stated what his views on the divinity of Jesus actually are. But as Dan himself said, he could just as easily have made the same argument without naming anyone in particular–and his actual argument was never adequately addressed in my opinion.

The Truth about Smolin Multiverse Theory

In turn, I believe Michael made several false claims. He kept resorting to blanket assertions that I was relying on “fringe” scientists and theories regarded as “laughable” by the scientific community. Of course, that was moot: I did not rest on any authority but on independent argument and evidence, none of which Michael actually addressed. And his charge was false. I don’t think a cover story in a mainstream science magazine can be condemned as “fringe” science held as “laughable” by the general community of scientists.[5] It would never have been printed were that so. I was clear even in my opening that I was advancing only a plausible hypothesis, not something we regard as a proven fact or a consensus position, and I made this even more clear later on in the debate, and yet all Michael could say was that it wasn’t science–that, in fact, “everyone” in the scientific community regarded it as “laughable.” I tried to get Michael to name some scientists who thought that, and I did get some names out of him. So I contacted them personally about this, and of course they did not concur with Michael.

To quote exactly, Michael said that “Lee Smolin is a fringe element to be sure,” his theory has been “laughed off the table,” and as for “the multiverse, there is no evidence for it–it is not a scientific proposition.” Yet I did provide evidence for it, which Michael ignored, and Smolin’s multiverse theory is without doubt a real scientific hypothesis taken seriously and now under consideration by the scientific community, among many other theories like it.[6] Smolin’s theory was published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, other scientists have published articles in support of it, and even Paul Davies himself regards it as plausible, including it in a list of viable multiverse theories that he surveys in his own peer-reviewed scientific article, where he wrote “some version of a multiverse is reasonable given the current world view of physics” and “the multiverse idea has probably earned a permanent place in physical science.”

That soundly refutes Michael’s assertion that Paul Davies was among those who regard Smolin’s theory as “laughable.” Indeed, despite Michael’s claim that everyone thought this, I have yet to find a single cosmologist who does.[7] Even Frank Tipler, a theist who otherwise thinks Smolin’s theory is false, told me in a personal communication that he did not regard Smolin or his theory as laughable or “fringe.”[8] John Barrow, whose opinion Michael praised to the skies, has recently written favorably of multiverse theories, including Smolin’s, portraying them as plausible, scientific hypotheses.[9] So has Martin Rees, Astronomer Royale of England, who, like Davies, argues that some multiverse theory is probably true.[10] As I made clear in the debate, the multiverse theory is not a proven or consensus position, but neither is it “fringe” nor has it been “laughed off the table” as Michael falsely claimed.

The Truth about the Wistar Institute

Michael also appeared to claim the Wistar Institute had concluded that “evolution on its own could never account for…life the way we have it.” I have asked him for evidence of this, and he still has not provided it. I am fairly certain only Murray Eden made any such claim at a Wistar conference–nearly thirty years ago–and yet he retracted his statement before the Wistar Institute itself, in the very same publication.[11] Michael even tried to claim in email after the debate that “the whole point of the Wistar Institute was to show that, mathematically speaking, evolution could not have arisen by blind chance alone,” even though the Wistar Institute is actually a disease and genetics research center, and to my knowledge has only once held a conference on mathematical problems with evolution theory, a conference in which it was concluded there was no mathematical refutation of evolution after all.[12]

Once I pointed all this out to Michael, he changed his story. In the debate, Michael’s exact statement was: “the Wistar Institute, uh, and so forth, mathematically it was decided a long time ago, that evolution on its own could never account for…life the way we have it.” That is ambiguous enough that Michael eventually backtracked after the debate, and claimed he meant only that a conference held by the Wistar Institute had decided that–even though he never mentioned any conference in the debate (much less that it was thirty years ago). But even with his reinterpretation of what he said in the debate, his claim is still false: to my knowledge, no Wistar conference has ever reached such a decision, and Michael has presented no evidence otherwise.

The Truth about Intelligent Life in the Cosmos

Michael also claimed that nontheistic evolutionists have concluded there is no other intelligent life in the entire universe, but I am not aware of any confirmed nontheist who is an expert on the subject who literally believes that.[13] Michael named Francisco Ayala, but I suspect he is a theist (he won’t say, but he has published papers on theology). As for myself, I agree with the thesis of the book Rare Earth by Ward & Brownlee, which argues that complex life is rare (though simple life is common) in the universe. But even they do not believe we are alone–only that our kind of life is rare (hence the title). They argue we may be the only intelligent species in this “quadrant of the galaxy” (pp. xxiv & 283), and are therefore only “virtually unique,” not literally unique. They do speculate whether we may be alone in this galaxy altogether, or the visible (not the entire) universe, but their actual thesis only extends to our galactic quadrant. There are over a trillion known galaxies. Therefore, their idea of ‘rare’ still allows for billions of planetary civilizations. And as far as I have seen, that seems to be the most common view among relevant experts today (even if it wasn’t twenty years ago).

Michael seemed to imply the atheist and evolutionary biologist C. Owen Lovejoy was among “the atheistic evolutionists out there” who think there is no other intelligent life in the entire universe, but in a personal communication with me Lovejoy said he only argued that such life was extraordinarily rare. He distinguishes intelligence and consciousness–but the latter requires, he argues, the independent evolution of language and symbol use, so the development of consciousness, he concludes, is not necessarily unique, just “exceedingly rare.”[14] In a paper he wrote for NASA, Lovejoy argued that mammals probably represent the limit of any biological trend toward greater complexity, and that this trend is driven by the economics of environment-exploitation, rather than being an innate outcome of natural selection by itself. In other words, greater complexity is a selectable trait only within obvious limits and circumstances. He argues the same for both intelligence and consciousness. This does not mean these things cannot be produced by natural selection, only that they are relatively rare and have practical biological limits. I agree. For example, the total biomass devoted to complex organisms is far smaller than that devoted to simple ones, so higher-order complexity is rare even on this planet–but there is still a lot of it.

The Truth about Singularities

Overall, it seemed to me that Michael had more trouble with the science than we did. For example, he didn’t understand the difference between a black hole and a singularity–he kept asserting we know for a fact there are singularities, even though no one has ever seen one, and the only evidence we have is of black holes, which can exist without singularities. Likewise, in his closing he assumed a black hole always entails a singularity, and outright asserted that “they are not different things.” When I did corner him into stating his reasons for believing this, all he had was that singularities were entailed by Relativity Theory–which was true thirty years ago, but no longer.

Following contemporary science, I stated the fact that Quantum Mechanics contradicts relativity by making singularities impossible, a point Michael never rebutted, nor did he even seem to understand it. The best he could muster was to claim I “didn’t understand” what I had read–referring in particular to the Scientific American article I brought as a visual aid, which says “researchers have reexamined the reasoning that led them to infer a singularity” and “one of the assumptions” that led to that inference “that relativity theory is always valid–is questionable” because of Quantum Mechanics, and in fact “accepting the inevitability of the singularity amounts to trusting the theory beyond reason.”[15] Did I not understand what I was reading? You be the judge. I have read far more on the subject than just this article, and all my reading confirms the same conclusion. Even John Barrow and Stephen Hawking, whose opinions Michael held in the greatest esteem during the debate, agree with me.[16] In his closing, Michael claimed the Scientific American cover story “explained nothing” and that it “will be profoundly criticized.” I humbly await the appearance of this predicted criticism in any respected scientific periodical. But I won’t hold my breath.

For Michael is simply wrong. An analogy would be something like this: gravity entails that objects always experience freefall, unless they run into something that stops them, like the earth, in which case they experience acceleration effects but generally remain stationary. So, too, relativity entails that mass at a certain density, defined by the Schwarzschild Radius, will collapse into a singularity, unless it runs into something that prevents it, like the Compton Radius–the point at which quantum effects override and cancel out relativistic effects. On current science, there is no known way to produce a singularity. What happens in a black hole at the Compton Radius is not presently known, but it is known that whatever happens can’t be predicted by relativity–only a theory of quantum gravity will give any answers here, and there are only three going theories: Lee Smolin’s quantum loop gravity theory, Superstring M-Theory, and Hawking’s no-boundary theory, none of which involve a singularity.

Only Hawking’s theory comes close, and yet even he denies the existence of a singularity in his most recent work. In The Universe in a Nutshell, Hawking explains why he has abandoned the original Hawking-Penrose Theorem because of recent work in quantum gravity, and has replaced it with his new nutshell cosmology, eliminating the singularity with his “no-boundary” theory of imaginary time. Joseph Silk, a renowned cosmologist and perhaps the world’s leading expert on the Big Bang theory (he is the author of what is still the standard introductory textbook on the subject, The Big Bang, now in its 3rd edition), sums up Hawking’s new theory:

Here is where the nutshell cosmology enters. The flaw in the deduction about the past singularity is that the theory of general relativity made no allowance for quantum gravity. According to Hawking, quantum gravity mathematically (thanks to imaginary time) provides a dual and singularity-free description of the universe, in which the roles of space and time are reversed. Time has no boundaries, nor does space.[17]

Hence even Hawking’s theory is “singularity-free.” In the debate, Michael said that “to put Stephen Hawking on the same page as Lee Smolin is an insult to the people of this audience” (which was more of an insult to Lee Smolin), yet even Hawking no longer believes there are singularities, and for the very same reason Smolin does not, and the very same reason Barrow does not, and the very same reason I gave in the debate: every going theory of quantum gravity, including Hawking’s, eliminates them.

The reasoning is simple, as Hawking and Barrow both explain in their most recent works. (1) Quantum Mechanics has proved that at the Compton Radius, matter and energy no longer have any definite location, but exist at any random location within that radius at any given time, as defined by the appropriate wave function. Therefore, if there is no fixed location but instead a cloud of probability-space, there can never be a singularity, which entails a single fixed location. (2) Quantum Mechanics has proved that all energy is quantized, in other words it is not infinitely divisible. Gravity is a form of energy, therefore it must be quantized. But if gravity is quantized, then there must be a smallest space and time over which gravity can act, such that when you get smaller than a single “graviton” the force of gravity no longer functions, which means the gravitational force will stop operating before a singularity is produced.

In the words of John Barrow: “the idea that the Universe began at a singularity of space and time…is no longer regarded as the most likely because of the studies that have been made of quantum cosmology” and “our observational evidence does not compel us to conclude that the expanding universe had a beginning in a state of infinite density.” To the contrary, “the observed universe is compatible with all sorts of other behaviours as the apparent beginning is approached, none of which involve encountering a singularity.”[18] Barrow conveys in clear terms the same reasoning Hawking states more briefly in The Universe in a Nutshell. As Barrow puts it, “the logic of the singularity theorems is that if their assumptions hold then there must be a singularity in the past,” but “if the assumptions do not hold, as we now believe is most likely,” then there is no longer any support for the existence of singularities. “Thus the old conclusions of the singularity theorems are no longer regarded by cosmologists as likely to be of relevance to our universe,” since “crucial assumptions in those theorems–the attractive nature of gravitation [at all scales] and the truth of Einstein’s general theory of relativity all the way back to the earliest times when energies are so high that quantum gravitational effects must intervene–are no longer likely to be true.”[19] That is exactly the position I defended in the debate, and that Michael attempted to deny even by disparaging my competence, proving that Michael’s knowledge of the science of cosmology is considerably out of date (and, it seemed to me, that he would rather hit me below the belt than admit this).

The Truth about the Natural Selection of Intelligence

Michael also made an ill informed argument against the natural selection of intelligence that ignored the argument I had actually presented, and is refuted by any good college textbook on evolution. He claimed that large brains were too deadly to mothers in childbirth to ever evolve by natural selection. But I had already demonstrated that this was actually proof that our brains had evolved without intelligent planning. And as I then stated in my closing, any attentive student of human evolution knows that there were hominids with larger and smaller brains, and that those with larger brains died out, very likely because the gains realized from a larger brain were finally exceeded by the death-rate, thus reducing differential reproductive success, whereas those with smaller brains also died out, since the gains from intelligence realized by larger brains were greater than the gains realized by a lower death-rate, so hominids with larger brains out-competed them and won the struggle for dominance.[20]

Thus, our brains are an optimal size: both small enough and large enough to give us a greater edge even despite a higher death-rate. The same applies to the length of human childhood: the advantages of enculturation and socialization are exceeded by the disadvantages of a long childhood. Michael claimed this was “simply not the case” and that his contrary view was “established beyond question” and yet all the leading literature on the evolution of intelligence does not support him.[21] Michael claimed in the debate that C. Owen Lovejoy supported his claim that nature would only select for smaller brains and shorter childhoods, but Lovejoy told me personally that “this is only true in the face of strong competition under unstable environments–which is usually the rule, but not always,” and wasn’t the rule when hominids started evolving higher intelligence, which he argues began significantly later than the evolution of bipedality.

Likewise, Lovejoy told me that though the circumstances favoring the development of human intelligence are rare, they nevertheless did occur, so nothing he has ever said “should be construed to alter [his] opinion that humans emerged by the same rules and processes as did shellfish.” In fact, he said he agrees with me that “it is the capacity to acquire knowledge that has been the subject of natural selection leading to cognition” and that “under stable environments, elastic knowledge of one’s environment,” meaning what we acquire by learning, “improves one’s capacity to compete with other conspecifics–therefore both IQ and prolonged learning can be favored” in the right circumstances.[22]

This agrees with his published work. Lovejoy writes that “strong social bonds, high levels of intelligence, intense parenting, and long periods of learning are among factors used by higher primates to depress environmentally induced mortality” and “such factors also require greater longevity (for brain development, learning, acquisition of social and parenting skills)” as well as greater brain size, and only when an organism is “approaching the effective limit” of the ability of higher intelligence to depress mortality will there be pressure to reduce brain size or child development. And this is in fact what happened as our brain size and developmental period were optimized: Lovejoy argues that they are as large as they can be and still provide a differential reproductive success (as history proves more than amply). In the end, he concludes that “intense social behavior would seem the most likely single cause of the origin of human intelligence if one origin must be isolated” and “further elaboration of this adaptive strategy is the most likely ’cause’ of…the further development of intelligence.”[23]

As Lovejoy put it in his earlier conference paper for NASA:

An increased association capacity in the nervous system represents a reproductive liability both pre- and postnatally and may therefore be expected to undergo positive selection in only rare instances. [But] Primates represent such an instance, because encephalization in this order can be accounted for directly by feeding strategy and locomotion at the first level and by reproductive cooperation at the second.[24]

Although Lovejoy believes key developments were accidental (e.g. he argues that language was probably developed by exploiting the accidental advantages provided by bipedalism and unrelated changes in dental structure), this is true of most evolutionary adaptations (the development of feathered flight, for example, or the elephant’s trunk), and at any rate the accidents he believes necessary did demonstrably occur (as we can confirm in the fossil record, for example), and so his theory actually supports the argument that human intelligence evolved naturally, without any intelligent planning, and that large brains were naturally selected. Yet when I claimed that papers like Lovejoy’s existed, confirming my very point that intelligence can be and was selected for despite its liabilities, Michael said “that is simply not the case.” Well, Michael, it is.

Lovejoy writes in his NASA paper that in those “rare instances” where intelligence “enhance[s] the locomotor or feeding strategies of mammals,” as it did in our case (with advanced socialization and communication and tool use strategies, for example), then it will be “favored” by natural selection. And even though “the phenomenon of ‘cognition’ is quite distinct from that of intelligence and may be expected to be exceedingly rare,” this does not mean it is unique, especially since, even though every species in the universe is probably truly unique, any of its separate features or capabilities may not be, as in the more common phenomena of the independent evolution of flight, sight, etc.

During the debate, Michael also appeared to include Dr. Francisco Ayala of UC Irvine as among those who believed it was “established beyond question” that human intelligence could not have evolved naturally. So I contacted Dr. Ayala. He provided me with a lengthy bibliography refuting the claim, and wrote the following reply for the record:

I am amazed that Michael Corey would claim that I support the view that human intelligence could not have evolved naturally, since I have published many papers (and two books in Spanish) about human evolution, including the evolution of the hominid lineage, the origin of modern humans, the evolution of our large brain, and much more, always as natural developments, all evolved by the same process of natural selection, mutation, and others that guide the evolution of other organisms as well. [Moreover] I argue that those believers who attribute to God the ‘design’ of organisms (including humans) and their features are, in fact if not in intention, being blasphemous, which is why many theologians and religious believers have welcomed evolution as the natural process that accounts for the deficiencies, dysfunctions and cruelties (as well as human evil), which pervade the living world.[25]

I do not believe Ayala is an atheist, and yet he fully supports the view that human intelligence (and its required large brain size) is the outcome of natural selection. He does believe we are probably unique in the universe, but not because (as Michael alleged) it has been “established beyond question” that “intelligence did not evolve by natural selection” (for Ayala believes it has) nor because (as Michael also alleged) scientists like Ayala “know intelligence cannot arise by natural selection” (indeed, no evolutionary biologist to my knowledge claims any such thing).[26]

Once again, in email after the debate Michael denied having made such an argument, evidently “hearing” his own words differently than everyone else. You can decide for yourself. Michael said in his rebuttal, and I quote: “they must not have read the facts, the facts speak very clearly, that intelligence is not the product of natural selection,” and that “if natural selection were going to be working, it would be selecting people with smaller brains, not bigger ones, and this is not my idea, this is an independent idea by a nontheistic evolutionist, I might add,” meaning Owen Lovejoy, and “since they know intelligence cannot arise by natural selection…the atheistic evolutionists out there…do not believe that intelligence exists anywhere else in the entire cosmos.” In Q & A he repeated the same arguments: “we’ve already established…that intelligence did not evolve by natural selection.” A little later on I said published papers argue that it did, but Michael responded, and I quote, “that is simply not the case,” and that it “has been established beyond question” that “selection would choose for beings with…a shorter childhood” and (I think he meant) a smaller brain, “and this…is why the world’s leading nontheistic evolutionists do not believe intelligence can be found anywhere else in the cosmos,” asserting that Dr. Francisco Ayala “would not argue with this.”

I don’t know about you, but that sure sounds to me like he said that human intelligence “cannot arise by natural selection” (his words) and that biologists “know” this and that this is “why” Ayala believes there is no intelligent life on other planets. In email, Michael denied all this, and attempted to claim that he “meant” by “natural selection” the natural selection of the laws of the universe, but that is clearly not what he said or even meant in the debate. He stated that natural selection would not select for our large brain size, and would always select for smaller brains–which is plainly talking about biological selection of anatomical attributes, not cosmological selection of the laws of physics. Yet Michael refuses to acknowledge what he actually said in the debate was wrong.

Accountability in Practice

What I found telling is that though both Dan and I readily apologized and corrected our mistakes (I even requested that my correction be included in the debate video), Michael has adamantly denied he said anything false and refuses to include any correct statements of fact in the video or transcript. This despite the fact that he clearly did not tell the truth: I have first-hand, irrefutable proof that Davies does not think Smolin’s theory is “laughable” but in fact he believes it is “reasonable”; Ayala has never believed it was “established” that large brains or intelligence could not have been produced by natural selection nor is such a belief “why” he doubts the existence of alien intelligence; Lovejoy never argued that large brains didn’t (much less couldn’t) develop by natural selection but in fact argued exactly the opposite; and the Wistar Institute has never concluded that evolution could not account for current life. That’s a whole lot of mistakes. Michael won’t own up to a single one of them. He even asked in his closing that we present him with any published article proving that Smolin’s theory “even has any sense of rationality to it,” and I presented him with three, one by Davies himself, who says therein that Smolin’s theory is “reasonable.” That’s exactly what Michael asked for. Will he concede the point? No.

I have observed that basing their beliefs on falsehoods and exaggerated distortions of reality is disturbingly typical of many ardent theists, and here I think we have a positive example of that. Indeed, it is ironic that Hassanain made such a big deal throughout the debate about accountability, and how atheists had none and thus would do whatever they wanted. And yet only the atheists in this debate have held themselves accountable, admitted their mistakes, corrected them, and apologized for their errors. If a lack of accountability damns a belief system to the dust bin, as Hassanain essentially argued, then what is there to say for Michael’s belief system? Not much, I guess. Indeed, Michael (unlike Dan) made a big show of promoting and selling his book at the event, and kept berating us for not having read it (even though I had), clearly expecting that it was irresponsible of us not to, by way of preparation at least. But when Dan asked Michael if he had read Dan’s book, he said no, and that he doubted it would make any difference. In other words, we were expected to read Michael’s book, but Michael was not expected to read Dan’s book. So whatever Michael’s ethical standards actually are, they apparently do not include the Golden Rule.

Confusing Analytic with Synthetic Propositions

While Michael was making dubious statements about science, Hassanain made a repeated argument against the common falsifiability challenge that confused analytic with synthetic statements. That was a blunder any philosophy major would be unlikely to make–a point I was going to voice, but I ran out of time in Q & A, and then forgot to raise it again in my closing. A Muslim BBS later praised this argument of Hassanain’s, indeed it was the only argument mentioned there, declared to be a decisive refutation of atheism. The fact that it was fallacious never seems to have dawned on anyone. So evidently we need to make sure to point out such flaws, no matter how obvious they may seem to us.

The argument in question went something like this: there are propositions that cannot be falsified, therefore it is illegitimate to insist that the proposition “God exists” be falsifiable. Hassanain gave only one example as I recall: the proposition “the whole is greater than the part” cannot be falsified. And he presented this with a lot of showmanship, like asking Dan in mid-rebuttal to reply to a confusing example of this general proposition drawn from a book being greater than its individual pages, asking him how he would falsify that. Dan can be excused for not getting the point, since it was confusingly presented (as several observers later agreed), but he made a decent show of attempting a response anyway, and when Hassanain revisited the issue in cross I was just about to slam him on it, but we were cut off for time.

The fallacy is this: “God exists” is a synthetic statement. “The whole is greater than the part” is an analytic statement. The latter is true by definition. The former is not. That is why you can never have any “evidence” that falsifies the latter–it can only be falsified by changing the definitions of the words in the proposition, which is what Dan tried to give an example of, but Hassanain didn’t understand Dan’s point and mocked his reply. Indeed, Dan had already covered this in some detail in his opening (and covered it again during Q & A), but Hassanain apparently didn’t understand that, either. I did get one direct rebuttal off myself that applied to the point, when I spoke of eliminating alternative hypotheses as a necessary step to asserting confidence in a proposition like “God exists,” but I doubt anyone in the audience connected the dots there. So I should have done better to make that connection clear.

In short, since “God exists” does not belong to the set of propositions Hassanain was alluding to, it was fallacious of him to assert that what is true of those statements was true of this statement about God. Indeed, it wasn’t merely fallacious, but demonstrably false, since “God exists” shares the same property of all hypothetical statements that it can in principle be false, unlike “the whole is greater than the part,” which only possesses the property of unfalsifiability because it is true as a consequence of human linguistic convention. I assume Hassanain did not intend to say that “God exists” is merely a tautology, whose truth is invented by humans and not an objective property of the world outside human language. Yet only that would rescue his claim that “God exists” is unfalsifiable because propositions like “the whole is greater than the part” are.

Indeed, unlike Hassanain, who adamantly denied it, Michael concedes in his books that the God hypothesis can in principle be false–though he never confessed this in the debate and thus appeared to endorse Hassanain’s denial of his own position. Michael even showered elaborate praise over the opinions of John Barrow, yet Barrow also disagrees with Hassanain here, noting that some say “there can exist concepts like that of a Supreme Being whose very conception necessitates their existence,” but “this seems particularly dubious when one tries to conceive of how there could exist some entity whose non-existence would imply a logical contradiction.”[27] Indeed, Hassanain never explained how the denial of a deity was inherently self-contradictory. He only ever said it contradicted the empirical fact of our existence, which I had argued–more than adequately in my opinion–was not true, since our existence only entails that some fundamental entity existed, not that it was a god.

The Problem of Method

It seemed to me as if neither of our opponents understood the basic rudiments of method. Both Dan and I discussed the two most essential ones (Scientific Method and the Law of Large Numbers) at least a few brief times. But one thing I have definitely learned from this debate is that we assumed too much, of our opponents and the audience, regarding rudimentary knowledge of method. Obviously more time needs to be spent in basic education of the audience on this point in future debates–you cannot assume they understand scientific method, for example, or its relevance to securing the merits of your case. So too for statistical axioms.

For instance, Dan tried to connect the dots that I hadn’t time for when I made my opening, by explaining how a multiverse explains order in the cosmos without design, due to the Law of Large Numbers (though Dan did not use that phrase). But it did not seem this point was understood by Hassanain. After the debate, at dinner, Dan finally got Hassanain to understand it, using the example of a lottery: if only one ticket to a lottery is ever bought, then it would indeed be amazing that it should just happen to be a winning ticket, but if you buy a thousand tickets, that one of them should be a winner is less amazing–and if you buy all the tickets, that one should be a winner is inevitable. No design is needed. Therefore, a multiverse theory can, at least in principle, explain all the order in the universe without appealing to God. Therefore, “God exists” must be a synthetic statement, and therefore can, in principle, be false (even if it isn’t false), and therefore must, of necessity, have falsification conditions.

This connected with the other important methodological issue: the scientific method. Neither opponent seemed to grasp either the fact that it was not necessary to know what the explanation for the universe was, or the fact that we were not claiming to know it. As I pointed out in the debate, if there are viable alternative hypotheses on the table, it doesn’t matter if they remain unproved: they must still be ruled out–actually disproved to a reasonable certainty–before we can assert any remaining hypothesis true. Thus, if there is any plausible hypothesis that has not been disproved, which explains all the order in the universe (and indeed for which there is at least some indirect evidence), then we cannot claim any alternative, like the God Hypothesis, is true. That is how science works. And that was the point of my pressing the multiverse theory, which, in Smolin’s case, has actually accumulated evidence in support of it over the last five or ten years, only some of which I presented, and all of which Michael ignored. Instead, Michael and Hassanain seemed obsessed with the “you can’t prove that” rebuttal, which means they didn’t get the actual argument at all (that we weren’t even claiming to have proved it, and it doesn’t have to be proved for it to make our case against belief in God), and consequently they never really rebutted my case against theistic cosmology.

I should have articulated in more detail that the scientific method works by adducing a hypothesis, then deducing observable consequences of that hypothesis that would not be observed on alternative hypotheses, and vice versa, and then looking for which consequences appear, and building up evidence for an inductive argument for the theory being true or false.[28] Belief is only justified at the end of this process. You can’t skip steps. That is why Michael and Hassanain do have to articulate falsifiability conditions if they want to claim “God exists” is a valid scientific hypothesis, which must be established before we can even test whether that hypothesis is true, much less claim to know it is true. They were asked for but presented no such conditions. Therefore they failed to establish that “God exists” was a valid scientific hypothesis, much less a true one. Of course, maybe they didn’t want to. At one point in Q & A Dan asked them, “Are you more in love with your tradition, than you are with the pursuit of scientific knowledge?” And Michael replied, “Yes.”

Every scientist agrees that if you gather evidence and all you find is evidence that equally supports two different hypotheses, you cannot declare one true and the other false (a point I made in the debate). This is the formal basis of agnosticism. Dan and I went beyond that and actually presented a lot of evidence that supported our hypothesis and that seemed improbable on their hypothesis, evidence they barely addressed at all, whereas they presented no evidence that was improbable on the hypothesis we advanced nor any evidence for God that was not already predicted by our own theory–so we actually won the debate by establishing atheism, even though we could have won by establishing the weaker position of mere agnosticism (i.e. the verdict of “we don’t know either way”). This is why I believe we won this debate by a large margin, on any purely technical measure.

Another point of method that seemed ill used was Michael’s deployment of Occam’s Razor, which holds that theoretical entities are not to be multiplied unless they are necessary (necessary, that is, to explain all observations). He misstated the rule as a preference for the simplest explanation, but that is not correct. Chemists would surely prefer the days when we thought there were only four elements, rather than over ninety of them, and contemporary solar system theory is far more complicated than even Ptolemy could have imagined, involving advanced calculus, parabolas traversed with inconstant velocity, and both relativistic and nonlinear dynamics. Even at the most fundamental level, though only five or so particles are needed to explain all observed matter, there are actually over fifty fundamental particles, to the great annoyance of physicists everywhere. So simplicity is not a measure of truth. Rather, the correct formulation of Occam’s razor is that entities are not to be multiplied beyond necessity. The formal justification of this rule is that we cannot assert what we do not in fact know.[29] This is the underlying humility of science: we only assert what we actually have some proof for. Hence, if you do not need a particular entity to explain all that we observe, then you cannot claim observations support that entity’s existence. For all we really know is what must be true for those observations to be made.

In this sense, Hassanain’s position was at least true to Occam’s Razor in a way Michael’s position was not: Hassanain believed God was a necessary entity, because he thought no other entity could ever possibly explain certain observations (such as that he existed), and if Hassanain were correct, then Occam would support him. In contrast, Michael’s position was actually undermined by Occam: since we had shown (even if he didn’t understand how) that the same observations he advanced can be explained in other ways, and therefore God was not a necessary theoretical entity, Occam’s Razor certainly cuts away the God Hypothesis. This was even more so given the point I tried to make in the debate that the God Hypothesis fits no known precedent and proposes a very strange, complex entity that has never been observed, and which they had no explanation for (e.g. why that particular deity with all those particular properties?), whereas the Smolin multiverse theory fits known scientific precedents, and proposes a very basic, simple entity: a sea of random fluctuation with no inherently fixed order, which will necessarily produce many areas of fixed but simple order as among its random products, getting Smolin’s theory of cosmological evolution started, just as in the evolution of life from simple to complex organisms.

Indeed, Smolin’s theory, by starting with pure randomness, explains all fixed order–because it starts with pure disorder, which necessarily entails the accidental production of some simple order (just as a million roles of a die will inevitably produce several very long runs of consecutive sixes, order is an inevitable outcome of randomness). In contrast, our opponents gave no explanation at all for the tremendously fixed order of a single, intelligent, unchanging God with many amazing and convenient properties. So Occam definitely favored us, not them. This was a point I think Dan and I could have made clearer than we already did, but part of the problem was Michael’s failure to correctly answer my question on this point. Instead, when I asked it, he went on about sufficient reasons, never explaining what the sufficient reason was for the existence of God, or by what logical argument the first principle (that which has no sufficient reason but the necessity of its existence) had to be a highly-ordered intelligence, rather than a chaos. I made that point in the debate, but all Michael had to say in return was that it was mere ‘desperation’ to resort to a large number of universes to ‘explain away’ God–as if it wasn’t equally ‘desperate’ to resort to a remarkably convenient God to ‘explain away’ naturalism, and avoiding the issue of how he could know our supposedly ‘desperate’ hypothesis wasn’t nevertheless true. Again, he never answered any of the evidence I offered in support of it, never presented any evidence against it, and contrary to his denials, cosmologists like Paul Davies regard multiverse hypotheses as not only reasonable, but increasingly supported by developments in cosmology.

In his book Anthropic Coincidences, physicist Victor Stenger put it this way:

The existence of many universes is in fact consistent with all we know about physics and cosmology. No new hypotheses are needed to introduce them. It takes an added hypothesis to rule them out–a super law of nature that says only one universe can exist.[30]

To which I would add that Smolin’s theory doesn’t even really propose multiple universes. In actual fact, it proposes only a single unified ultraverse (to coin a term), which stretches through tunnels of space-time into different regions with different properties, but all connected as a single whole and sharing the same fundamental nature: relativistic geometry combined with random quantum potential. All leading multiverse theories are similar. For example, the hypothesis that Paul Davies believes to be correct holds that different regions of the same inflating universe acquire different fundamental characteristics–so, again, only one actual universe is being proposed here. The term “multiverse” is therefore a misnomer, employed out of necessity to convey a distinction from previous “universe” theories. At the same time, in every going theory today, this “ultraverse” has theoretical support from science and can be deduced from a fairly simple origin that is far less complex than God–so one need not ‘posit’ multiple universes: one need only posit a single, relatively simple underlying theory which necessarily entails multiple universes. That was a point I don’t think Michael ever understood.


In the end, I have no hard feelings. I think Hassanain and Michael were both very nice people, and I suspect they just got carried away, and forgot their mission of seeking compassion, fellowship, and understanding–and perhaps exaggerated a bit too much. Dan and I had no illusions about swaying an audience of nearly a thousand conservative Muslims to concede our victory anyway. The most I had hoped for was to put a human face on atheism, and present the best and clearest case for why we believe what we do, in the very limited time available to us, so that some in the audience would at least come away with some of their prejudices stripped away, holding more respect for atheists, even if they disagree with us. And I got the strong impression that we had succeeded at that, from my many conversations with Muslim audience members after the debate.

No matter who you think won, this was a very exciting and interesting debate, almost unprecedented in many ways–not least because it is an example of a team debate. With two of us up there, each with our own focus and style and body of knowledge and experience, I found we were twice as effective at making the case for atheism than either of us would have been alone. Dan used more humor (which worked both for and against him at points) and was more down-to-earth and enjoyable and easier to understand, while I was more matter-of-fact and a bit boring by comparison (but that’s just me). The advantage I brought to the table was the amount of information I conveyed to the audience, in as clear and simple a way as so complex a subject could allow. But as a result, I am told I did lose some audience members, who couldn’t follow some of what I said (it seems our opponents didn’t, either). In terms of material, Dan and I agreed beforehand to “split the chores” so to speak: he would take the wholly negative case (including items like the argument from evil), and I would tackle the positive (the case for naturalism). Therefore, he handled most of the logical questions and disputes, while I handled most of the scientific questions and disputes. That plan worked extraordinarily well.

In terms of production value, though I have not yet seen the video, I am certain it will be much more interesting than the usual. They had the forethought to employ at least three cameras (if I remember correctly), which took liberty to swing about or zoom as needed on whatever object of interest came up, which will provide them with material to edit together something a lot more exciting and informative than the usual talking head in a never-moving-frame. They also had very professional equipment and staff, who were creative and attentive. So even without having seen it, I already highly recommend the video.[31]

All in all, it was a superb time. I learned a lot, not only from the debate, but even more from my hosts and all the people who took the time to speak with me before and after. Indeed, what I learned there was more valuable to me and ultimately more important in the end than the debate itself, and that is saying something, because the debate was already remarkable and worth attending, for the experience, and the opportunity to educate that it afforded me. I have already thanked in person those who bore most of the burden of bringing this event to fruition–most especially Renee Abdulhadi and Ali Khalfan and his son, who all worked very hard. But I extend those thanks again here, and to all those who worked so hard but whom I didn’t get the chance to meet or thank in person. It was an excellent experience, an excellent event, and I am honored so much money and time was devoted to actually bothering to fly me out there all the way from California, put us both up in an expensive hotel, and hear us defend a belief they certainly didn’t share. And then honor us with a feast and gifts afterward! Peace be upon you.


There were a few points we did not rebut because they weren’t entirely germane, or because they were made in their closing arguments, which by concluding the debate we never had the opportunity to challenge. I include this appendix to fill in that gap, for those whom I’m sure will bombard me with questions about these issue later.[32]

In the former category (things not germane to the actual positions either side took in the debate):

(1) Michael’s assertion that we have “not just evidence” but “an amazing plethora of evidence” amounting to “overwhelming support” for the conclusion that God exists, that there is an “overwhelming preponderance of evidence for which the only rational conclusion is that of an omnipotent, omniscient designer.”

Michael even said that the “odds” of an unintelligent origin of the cosmos “are so ridiculously remote that they’re laughable,” so laughable you would not bet “your souls, your lives, your minds, your future” on any alternative theory. This somewhat contradicts claims in his books that God has to keep his existence concealed to avoid violating our free will, which cannot be true if God’s existence is so “overwhelmingly” obvious as Michael insisted it was. One might ask whether God has violated Michael’s free will by giving him so much evidence. Indeed, even in his book The God Hypothesis he says that “the scientific evidence for Intelligent Design is truly overwhelming” (p. 211), and that “it is positively irrational to believe in an accidental evolution of the biosphere” (p. 222), which, incidentally, amounts to calling us irrational. But the point to make here is that this leaves no room for God hiding himself.

I did not raise this point, since I usually prefer to stick to what has been argued in the debate, rather than dragging in material presented elsewhere. For all I know, Michael has changed his mind or isn’t sure about his hidden god argument, or didn’t want to make an argument against his colleague but instead to present a single coherent case to the audience, or who knows what. And it is an ambiguous dispute, since it isn’t clear where the bar has to be drawn between “too much” and “too little” evidence, especially given the need for this bar to justify other things (like divine silence and natural evil and so forth), a point that Michael did not raise in the debate. So this would have gone too far off track, in my view. But Michael might want to consider for future books or articles how the two doctrines are to be reconciled.

(2) Michael’s argument that an infinite sequence has no beginning and so can never get started.

This was moot in the debate, since I never advanced an infinite sequence argument. I actually proposed an origin at a finite point or sea of random potential, and so he wasn’t rebutting any argument I had actually made. Dan did field a rebuttal anyway (though not one I’m sure I agree with), but I could have added that Michael himself agrees you can have an infinite series without contradiction.[33] Since there is no time outside of time, the existence of the multiverse is a static fact, just like the number line, and so Michael’s objection fails even against an eternal cosmos. As Michael would agree, to insist that the number line “begin” in time in order for any particular number on it to exist is fallacious, because the number line is eternal. All numbers on the line exist, regardless of the fact that there is no beginning of them. So, too, for an eternal universe: even if there was no beginning, that would not prevent every point of time from existing, nor would it prevent some but not all of those points of time having populated universes on them, just as some but not all points on the number line have whole numbers on them.

This is in fact the standard view in physics today, since it is entailed by relativity, wherein time is relative, not absolute–whereas Michael’s argument assumes an absolute time frame. Ultimately, according to relativity, the ‘beginning’ of something is always relative to the observer, not an absolute fact. William Lane Craig recognizes the devastating nature of this problem, and hence has been forced to argue for a complete reinterpretation of relativity theory–against mainstream science–in order to make sense of his own Kalam Cosmological Argument.[34] I imagine Michael will find Craig’s books on cosmology and time very informative, even though Craig’s ‘solution’ to the problem Michael wasn’t aware of runs explicitly counter to the current scientific consensus.

(3) Michael’s charge that my suffering-of-animals question is moot because it “anthropomorphizes the suffering of animals.”

That, of course, did not address my question, since I asked about the mere kind treatment of animals, as an act of compassion by God, not their treatment as human beings. But more importantly, I found it odd that at dinner that evening Hassanain elaborated how it was immoral in Islam to cause unnecessary pain or death to any animal. His doctrine in that regard was quite admirable and enlightened. Even swatting a fly was evil for one who is on a pilgrimage, because in such a state you are supposed to be in a higher mode of moral existence. I wish I had heard that from him before the debate, because I would have pointed out the evident contradiction here. Hassanain said God “is all good” and Michael said God is “omnibenevolent.” But Dan and I pointed in various ways to the question: How do we know that? If we never see God act, and all we can see are some alleged effects of his actions, many of which are actually morally questionable–like the misery of animals, their unnecessary pain and death, which even Hassanain agrees is immoral to cause–how can anyone claim to know God is good at all, much less “all good”? (Whatever that is supposed to mean–Hassanain has said God is outside human categories, which if true leaves little room for a sentence like “God is all good” to have any intelligible meaning).

In the latter category (things stated in their closings which we could not rebut):

(4) Hassanain claimed we see ‘the cup as half empty’ just because the universe is imperfect.

But that does not follow, nor did either of us say any such thing. If he had taken the trouble to ask (and he was not averse to asking us questions even during his podium time), he would know that in fact I say the cup is half full. Yet it’s still half a cup. As I would have pointed out, Hassanain is not someone who sees the cup as half full. He is someone who believes a cup that appears half full is actually full to the brim with invisible ethereal water. I don’t see that special magic water. So am I to be condemned for saying all I see is half a cup of water?

Certainly there is a problem with his argument. But worse is the fact that he repeatedly assumed, despite my previous assertions to the contrary (that we love life, for example), that we only view the universe and life negatively, seeing the cup ‘half empty’ as he puts it. To simply ignore what we say and declare we hold a position we explicitly denied seems quite improper to me. It is even worse to say derisively that we will inevitably become “regressive creatures” as a result. For the record, we believe everything that is good is better to have than if it did not exist at all. But that does not mean everything we have is the best that could be or that this world is perfect. It seems to me only Hassanain boxes himself into the dangerous place of insisting that everything is perfect, no matter how gratuitously horrifying or unnecessary.

(5) Hassanain claimed atheism entails hopelessness and depression.

Hassanain presented no real evidence of this, and of course the argument is fallacious anyway. Maybe the truth really will be depressing and bad for our health. That would not make it false. I don’t personally believe the truth is depressing or bad for our health, but even if it were, it would still be the truth. But even his facts were not in order. Hassanain cited an article reporting that religiosity helps some cope with depression, yet he skipped a crucial sentence in the article abstract he read. Hassanain read the sentence “religious belief…was a significant predictor of lower levels of hopelessness and depression” but didn’t read the following sentence: “there was also a small direct positive association of belief with depression.”

In other words, fewer nonreligious persons ever get depressed in the first place. The study thus supports our position: that only nonbelievers who lack “a cognitive framework for finding meaning in a negative event” are likely ever to become depressed at all.[35] So the study he cited proves the opposite of the point Hassanain wanted to make: though depressed atheists tend to be more depressed than certain depressed believers, if you want to avoid depression in the first place, atheism is actually better for you! As the article itself states, “religious variables added significantly to the prediction of depression and to the prediction of hopelessness beyond the variance accounted for by demographics,” and, at the same time, “some persons with stronger beliefs are more depressed than some [depressed people] who do not have religious beliefs.”[36] In other words, the study showed that unbelievers are less likely than believers to be among those who are depressed at all, and some of those who report strong religious beliefs were more depressed than other depressed people, whether believers or nonbelievers. Meaning: too much belief sometimes makes depression worse than having no belief at all, and the authors recommend therapists “address religious beliefs that might be harmful for some individuals.” Hassanain did not inform the audience of any of these facts.

It is also fallacious to argue that just because religious belief helped some to cope with depression, that therefore there are not also atheist philosophies that have the same effect. The authors of the article Hassanain cited agree:

One limitation of the study is found in the measures of religion that we used. Specifically, the SWB was developed using a sample of Christian college students and may not be an ideal measure for a more religiously diverse sample. Its items imply a belief in a personal God and, therefore, are not appropriate for all groups. Efforts should be made to develop and use more inclusive measures of religion in future studies.

In other words, the authors admit their study did not measure the effect of positive atheistic philosophies (those that lack “belief in a personal god”), and so we cannot draw the conclusion that Hassanain wants. I know first hand many atheists who have positive world philosophies, which help them cope very well with all manner of tragedies and problems.

Moreover, the authors explain in their conclusion that they could not prove the direction of causation: so it may be that depression caused atheism in some subjects, not the other way around. Indeed, this would readily explain the study’s findings–for surely, extreme depression is expected to cause some subjects to abandon belief in God. Yet if depression causes some people to disbelieve (which would account for the correlation between extreme depression and unbelief, the only significant outcome Hassanain was relying upon to make his point), they would not be comparable to those of us who disbelieve only after rational deliberation, and so the study’s findings cannot be generalized to atheists like Dan and me.

(6) Hassanain claimed we believe in no accountability.

He stated this even though I had said we are directly accountable by the effects our behavior have on our own lives and the social environment in which we must live (in addition to our accountability to society and family and friends and neighbors). He even implied again in his closing that our belief system entailed becoming murderers, even though I had not only denied this explicitly, but gave reasons why it was not true, reasons neither he nor Michael refuted. But to make matters worse, the entire argument is fallacious: I don’t believe atheism entails amorality, but even if it were true that atheism did, that would not mean atheism was false. The facts of the universe are not necessarily what we want them to be. But if we don’t like them, we can change them: if life would suck without a moral society, then we already have a more than adequate reason to promote and preserve morality by every successful means we can invent, including the exclusion from society of those who are dangerously uncompassionate or dishonest. That is inherently reasonable. No appeal to God is necessary. Such a moral society won’t be perfect, but nothing ever is. We can only make the world a better place, not a utopian one.


[1] The video is informally available for purchase as a high-quality DVD and for free as a low-quality video at YouTube. For the previous debate between Barker and Rajabali, which I attended, see: Richard Carrier, Review of the Barker-Rajabali Debate (Secular Web, 2003).

[2] For those who listen to the debate without seeing it, there is a point when the moderator is forced to repeatedly admonish an audience member to sit or be removed. I assure you we were never in any danger. The impolite imposer merely stood, in the far back of the room, with his hand raised in an attempt to ask a question (and perhaps shouting–I’m not sure), which had been explicitly forbidden by the rules explained to the audience. It seemed to me it was an atheist, or at least not a Muslim. Either way, I did not appreciate his conduct. It was an unnecessary and inappropriate interruption that only scared the hell out of my wife and parents, and a few colleagues, who could only hear the live feed thousands of miles away.

[3] See the Secular Web Modern Library section on Arguments from Confusion.

[4] Imam Muhammad Shirazi, “Verbal Non-Violence,” War, Peace & Non-Violence: An Islamic Perspective, 2001, pp. 116-19.

[5] G. Veneziano, “The Myth of the Beginning of Time,” Scientific American 290.5 (2004): pp. 54-65.

[6] Nor is Smolin a fringe scientist: he holds a long-term research position at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, has been invited to speak at numerous conferences to present his theory of cosmological evolution, and has published over a hundred papers in peer reviewed scientific journals over twenty years on his research in quantum gravity, ten of which are now classified as “famous” (having been cited hundreds of times in peer reviewed literature: see SPIRES list). More can be learned about him at QGravity.org.

[7] Lee Smolin, “Did the Universe Evolve?” Classical and Quantum Gravity 9 (1992), pp. 173-192; in support, e.g.: Damien Easson & Robert Brandenberger, “Universe Generation from Black Hole Interiors,” Journal of High Energy Physics 6:24 (2001); Paul Davies, “Multiverse Cosmological Models,” Modern Physics Letters A, 19:10 (2004), pp. 727-743.

[8] Email from Frank Tipler to Richard Carrier, 12 May 2004.

[9] John D. Barrow, Between Inner Space and Outer Space (1999): pp. 250-59; The Constants of Nature (2002): p. 286; The Book of Nothing (2000): pp. 250-58.

[10] Martin Rees, Before the Beginning: Our Universe and Others (1997): pp. 247-57 (to which Stephen Hawking himself wrote the foreword), and Our Cosmic Habitat (2001): pp. 157-81 (his preference: pp. 162, 164). Both Rees and Davies personally prefer a version of the Inflationary Multiverse hypothesis to Smolin’s, but show evident respect for Smolin’s hypothesis all the same.

[11] See my discussion, “Murray Eden and the Wistar Institute,” in Are the Odds Against the Origin of Life Too Great to Accept? (Secular Web, 2000).

[12] It also took place almost thirty years ago (1966), and thus was based on obsolete science anyway. For the actual purpose of the Wistar Institute, see the Wistar Institute Website, especially the Wistar Institute History, and the Wistar Institute Overview. The relevant conference was published in 1967 as: Paul Moorhead and Martin Kaplan, eds., Mathematical Challenges to the Neo-Darwinian Interpretation of Evolution, a Symposium Held at the Wistar Institute of Anatomy and Biology April 25 and 26, 1966. Eden’s retraction is on p. 15, and Waddington’s refutation on pp. 95-96. Many creationist websites lie about the content of this conference. I recommend everyone actually read the conference materials themselves, especially the panel discussions following each paper, the opening words by the editors, and the closing statement by Waddington–in their actual entirety.

[13] Michael cited an eighteen-year-old old book by Barrow & Tipler (Rare Earth is based on more recent science), but failed to mention that even this source actually says intelligent life in the cosmos is “unlikely” (which is not the same thing as saying there is none): John Barrow & Frank Tipler, The Anthropic Cosmological Principle (1986): pp. 130-33.

[14] Email from C. Owen Lovejoy to Richard Carrier, 18 May 2004. Quote from: C. Owen Lovejoy, “Evolution of Man and Its Implications for General Principles of the Evolution of Intelligent Life,” paper delivered at a 1979 NASA conference, CP-2156: Life In The Universe (updated and published some years later; quotation from p. 327).

[15] Veneziano, n. 5, pp. 56-57.

[16] Besides the quotes to follow, see: John Barrow, Impossibility: The Limits of Science and the Science of Limits (1998): pp. 182, 205; Stephen Hawking, The Universe in a Nutshell (2003): pp. 43, 61, The Future of Spacetime (2002): p. 94, with the glossary entry for “singularity” at the end of the book; Stephen Hawking and Roger Penrose, The Nature of Space and Time (1996): pp. 76, 86-87, 103.

[17] Joseph Silk,”Rave Review for Hawking’s New Book” (PhysicsWeb, 2001). Silk also writes: “it may well be that the ultimate theory of cosmology will have anthropic ramifications” but “we are some way yet from this promised land,” which is exactly the point I made in the debate: because we cannot yet rule out viable alternatives, we cannot conclude that the universe was intelligently designed for man.

[18] John Barrow, Between Inner Space and Outer Space (1999): pp. 224, 250.

[19] John Barrow, The Book of Nothing (2000): pp. 290-91.

[20] For example: Monroe Strickberger, “Evolution of the Human Brain,” Evolution, 3rd ed. (2000): pp. 500-05. Average human cranial size is 1350 cc’s, while the average Cro Magnon cranial size was 1550 cc’s (Harry Nelson & Robert Jurmain, Introduction to Physical Anthropology, 5th ed. (1991), pp. 557-62), and the average cranial size of the most intelligent, tool-using Homo erectus was 980 cc’s. Yet only the mid-sized Homo sapiens prevailed. See: Noel Boaz and Russell Ciochon, Dragon Bone Hill: An Ice-Age Saga of Homo erectus (2004)

[21] For book treatments: Julian Paul Keenan, et al., The Face in the Mirror: The Search for the Origins of Consciousness (2003); Nicholas Humphrey, A History of the Mind: Evolution and the Birth of Consciousness (1999); A. G. Cairns-Smith, Evolving the Mind: On the Nature of Matter and the Origin of Consciousness (1996).

[22] Email from C. Owen Lovejoy to Richard Carrier, 18 May 2004.

[23] C. Owen Lovejoy, “The Origin of Man,” Science 211 (23 January 1981), pp. 341-50 (quotations from pp. 344, 345, 348), where he advances the theory that the selection of human cognition was originally driven by sex-role differentiation. His theory is elaborated in much more detail in: C. Owen Lovejoy, “Modeling Human Origins,” D. T. Rasmussen, ed., The Origin and Evolution of Humans and Humanness (1993), pp. 1-28.

[24] Lovejoy, “Evolution of Man, p. 324 (cf. p. 326).

[25] Email from Francisco Ayala to Richard Carrier, 18 May, 2004. He cited sixteen books and articles where he argues the same point, including: “The Myth of Eve: Molecular Biology and Human Origins,” Science 270 (1995): pp. 1930-1936; “The difference of being human: Ethical behavior as an evolutionary byproduct,” H. Rolston, III, ed., Biology, Ethics, and the Origins of Life (1995): pp. 113-135; “So Human an Animal: Evolution and Ethics,” T. Peters, ed., Science and Theology: The New Consonance (1998): pp. 121-135; “Human Nature: One Evolutionist’s View,” W. S. Brown, N. Murphy, and H. N. Malony, eds., Whatever Happened to the Soul? Scientific and Theological Portraits of Human Nature (1998): pp. 31-48; “Arguing for Evolution,” The Science Teacher 67 (2000): pp. 30-32; “Evolution and Rationality: Natural Selection, Teleology, and Novelty,” F. Facchini, ed., Scienza e Conoscenza: Verso un Nuovo Umanesimo (2000): pp. 137-149; “Intelligent Design: The Original Version,” Theology and Science 1 (2003): pp. 9-32; “Human Evolution: Biology, Culture, Ethics,” J. B. Miller, ed., The Epic of Evolution: Science and Religion in Dialogue (2004): pp. 166-180; “The Evolution of Life on Earth and the Uniqueness of Humankind,” S. Moriggi and E. Sindoni, eds., Perche esiste qualcosa invece di nulla? (2004): pp. 57-77.

[26] Ayala’s actual reasons (presented in some of the papers cited in the previous note) have to do with certain mathematical assumptions about statistical phenomena that I find dubious, but that’s a matter for future debate.

[27] John Barrow, Theories of Everything: The Quest for Ultimate Explanation (1991), p. 27.

[28] See my online essays, “Test Your Scientific Literacy!” (Secular Web, 2001) and “Proving a Negative” (Secular Web, 1999).

[29] See the entry for “Occam’s Razor” at Wikipedia and “William of Ockham” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Online. Occam never explicitly stated the rule named after him, but he did make exactly this argument about the humility of assertion: we ought to limit our declarations to only what is necessary to explain observations. “Occam’s Razor” is therefore a compact statement of his actual position.

[30] Also stated in Victor Stenger, “The Anthropic Coincidences: A Natural Explanation,” The Skeptical Intelligencer 3.3 (July 1999): pp. 2-17.

[31] My debate with Michael Licona at UCLA on the “Resurrection of Jesus” will also become available on video soon, and should also be interesting, given that we both used slide shows, and the editor will be integrating our slides with the video feed. I believe I did very well in that debate, too, though my victory was less certain in technical terms, given that (unlike the Michigan debate) there were several important arguments I never found time to rebut.

[32] In his closing argument in this debate, I believe Hassanain also misrepresented what I said in my review of the Queens debate about agnosticism, but you can judge for yourself by reading what I actually wrote: Richard Carrier, Review of the Barker-Rajabali Debate (Secular Web, 2003). There was also a questionable claim regarding the Koran predicting the Big Bang expansion, which I discuss in Richard Carrier, “Predicting Modern Science: Epicurus vs. Mohammed,” (Secular Web, 2004).

[33] Michael Corey, The God Hypothesis, p. 183. He also affirmed this in the debate itself.

[34] On fallacies in the argument that infinite time is impossible, see Quentin Smith, “Infinity and the Past,” Philosophy of Science 54.3 (1987): pp. 63-74. On the current mainstream scientific understanding of the physics of time: Paul Davies, About Time: Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution (1995); Huw Price, Time’s Arrow & Archimedes’ Point: New Directions for the Physics of Time (1997); Robin Le Poidevin, Travels in Four Dimensions: The Enigmas of Space and Time (2003); and Victor Stenger, Timeless Reality: Symmetry, Simplicity, and Multiple Universes (2000). For Craig’s attempt to defy the scientific consensus (to which I shall be responding briefly in my forthcoming book Sense and Goodness without God): William Lane Craig, Time and the Metaphysics of Relativity (2001), and both The Tenseless Theory of Time: A Critical Examination and The Tensed Theory of Time: A Critical Examination (2000); also relevant: Divine Temporality and the Special Theory of Relativity (1990) and God, Time, and Eternity: The Coherence of Theism II: Eternity (2001) or Time and Eternity: Exploring God’s Relationship to Time (2001).

[35] Patricia Murphy, et al., “The relation of religious belief and practices, depression, and hopelessness in persons with clinical depression,” Journal of Consulting & Clinical Psychology 68.6 (December 2000): pp. 1102-06.

[36] Ibid., p. 1103, 1104.

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