About Me

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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Dan Barker vs. George Pell

I'm just having a look at this debate from last year. Dan Barker certainly put up a more impressive performance than George Pell, but fine - Pell doesn't have to have the sort of personality that wins people over in debate. These kinds of debates don't necessarily prove a great deal. They're largely beauty contests. An articulate, physically attractive, well-coached actor would "win" such a debate each time.

That said, Pell certainly resorts to a lot of obfuscating and fillibustering. It's not a lot of fun to watch. He doesn't have a talent for this kind of debate. He's no William Lane Craig - though he did have a pretty good support squad there.

More importantly, however, I'm amazed that he simply denies that Antony Flew ended up becoming a kind of deist rather than a full-fledged theist, and that he relies on the title of Flew's book - There Is A God - as evidence. Yes, a deist is also going to say "There is a God [of sorts]" (leaving aside the fact that titles are chosen largely on commercial grounds and don't necessarily give much indication of the detailed thesis).

Flew believed what he believed, and you just have to accept it. You don't get to make up your own facts.


Margaret said...

I was at that debate (one of the on Barker's side of the aisle, and was really quite shocked at how deceitful Pell was in his deliberate misinterpretations of what Barker said. While I disagree with Pell on many subjects (religion, gods, climate change), I naively thought that he'd at least have the moral fibre to debate honestly. I was wrong.

Stewart said...

Funny Flew coming up again just now. I was over at R.J. Hoffmann's a bit now in the wake of the kerfuffle at Ophelia's and he's just put this up: http://rjosephhoffmann.wordpress.com/2011/03/28/theology-and-falsification-the-hijacking-of-antony-flew/

Spencer Troxell said...

In a lecture not long after the one you're referring to (it's on youtube too, Barker said that Pell either refused to shake his hand or refused to have his picture taken with him after the debate (I don't remember which one). He knew that he got trounced.

James Sweet said...

I'm pretty sure Anthony Flew was a closet Muslim.

Russell Blackford said...

Well, anyone can get "trounced" in the sense of losing the beauty contest aspect. Maybe it'll happen to me some time, even today - who knows?

But if Pell did behave like that it's pretty bad (with the usual disclaimer for people who worry that moral error theory prevents us making judgments of "good" and "bad"). Dan Barker went out of his way to praise Pell during the debate itself. You'd hope that his courtesy would be reciprocated.

Spencer Troxell said...

I agree with you that a win in presentation isn't necessarily a win in substance, but I think Dan trounced all around.

But you're right. Sportsmanship is key. I've always liked the idea of ideological opponents going out for a drink after the show. The best part of that Collision movie about Hitchens and...that other guy (I forget his name) going at it wasn't the arguments--I've heard them all before--it was the two of them quoting Wodehouse back and forth at each other, clearly enjoying each other's company.

That's the good stuff.

Good luck at your beauty pageant, by the way. I saw the announcement on facebook.

And be sure to buy your opponent a drink afterwards.

Russell Blackford said...

Michael Jensen - my opponent in the debate earlier today - seemed like a very nice bloke, but, alas, I didn't get to buy him a drink afterwards. We were both mobbed by people wanting to talk to us, and he may have been gone by the time that bit was over for me - and then I had a long drive home so I didn't hang around for, like, super long.

It was an interesting experience. I don't want to say a lot about the debate itself - not because it went badly from my viewpoint (it didn't), but (1) because I'm not really the person to say a lot about how it went; and (2) because I feel somewhat ambivalent about the value of such debates. I enjoyed it, found it valuable from a purely self-interested viewpoint to do the exercise of preparing the arguments and a strategy, and I believe I put some points that should have troubled the Christians in the audience ... but I'm not sure whether these sorts of public spectacles really change anyone's minds very much.

Hopefully it was entertaining, at the very least. :)

A separate blog post coming up, but I'll be wanting to raise that issue of whether such debates are worthwhile. I may be asked to do more of them if I'm thought to have performed well this time - or maybe I won't be if, y'know, not so much. ;)

In any event, let's talk about their value (but on a separate thread that I'll go and start).

Scote said...

Wow, Dan Barker is really good at this kind of debate. He's prepared, he can adjust his arguments on on the fly and he fearlessly and calmly points out his opponents blatant obfuscations.

I think we've seen with William Lane Craig that public debating is a skill unto itself, one which requires not only knowledge but also practice. I think the latter is something that many atheists find out the hard way when they are trounced by a theist in debate by the use of well honed debating tactics (sometimes style really does work over substance). So, it is great to see an atheist who can work that game, too.