Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Debates are pretty useless

Many prominent apologists and skeptics often engage in public debates on the subject matter of religion and other related topics. These debates tend to be quite popular, especially when the debaters are "celebrities" of sorts.

There are rare instances where such public debates are actually meaningful and useful. For example there was a televised debate between two people supporting the existence and activities of the Catholic church vs. the late Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry who argued that said church has done much more harm than good. This was a superb debate, where arguments were clear, concise and easy to understand, and directly to-the-point (especially, and unsurprisingly, those by Hitchens and Fry) and which did not sink into arguing about minutiae and terminology, muddling the whole issue. There was a public opinion poll before and after the debate, and the result was quite radical.

However, those kinds of debates tend to be more the exception than the norm. In the vast majority of cases such debates are an exercise in futility. They might start with clear statements (which have often been previously written by the debaters), but as arguments are thrown back an forth, the whole thing usually sinks to a senseless arguing about small things, such as the meaning of words (as I have mentioned in previous posts, apologists really love to play with words and commit all kinds of fallacies related to that) and all kind of wordplay and hypotheticals that have little to no relevance to the actual question in hand. The opponent's counter-arguments will seldom, if ever, be acknowledged and accepted.

One big problem is that most of these debates have a format were each debater has a large amount of time (like for example 10 minutes) to flood the discussion with dozens and dozens of claims, concepts and terms. It can be quite difficult to respond to all of them while at the same time presenting new arguments. There also tends to be a great disconnect between claims and their responses when there's over ten minutes of rapid-fire argumentation in between them. It's basically impossible to stop a chain of logic from the very start, if it starts from unjustified (or even outright false) premises.

Also, the end result tends to be that no listener changes their opinion. Usually the supporters of one debater will claim that he or she won, while the supporters of the other debater will do the same. (Also, rather obnoxiously, sometimes at least one of the debaters themselves will later claim that he/she clearly "won" the debate. I have noticed that this seems to be much more common among apologists and theists than among skeptics, who tend to remain much humbler.)

Some people argue that debates are a good way to get information and answers to arguments. However, this is not something that requires a debate. The most useful parts tend to be the opening and closing statements, which are most often pre-written by the debaters. This is something that you can read from blogs and wikis. You don't need a debate for that.

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