Cheerleaders and Analysts

April 9, 2011 at 5:38pm

I've been reflecting on the debate with Sam Harris the past couple of days, and what has struck me is the force of the three criticisms I lodged against his view in the second contention I defended.  I characterized the first criticism as a "knock-down" argument, and so it was.  But it occurs to me that the second and third were equally devastating:  science cannot derive an "ought" from an "is," and in the absence of free will moral responsibility and duty is impossible.  These are, I think, simply unanswerable objections.  Couple these criticisms with the almost obvious truth of my first contention that theism, if true, gives us a sound foundation for objective moral values and duties, and you have what I think is the most powerful affirmative case I've ever presented.


So how can some atheists fail to see this, I ask myself.  One reason, I think, is that some people don't know how to judge a debate.  They think that the winner is the person who delivers the one line zinger like "Senator, you're no John Kennedy."  In fact, you properly judge a debate, first, by weighing whether a debater's contentions, if proven, support the proposition which is the topic of the debate and, second, by determining whether the arguments presented in support of the contentions have been shown to be sound and undefeated by objections raised by the opponent.  Because some people don’t understand how to score a debate, they cannot properly judge it.


But my friend Dennis has pointed out something else to me:  there are cheerleaders and there are analysts.  The role of a cheerleader is to support the team, no matter how badly it is losing.  If a team is getting drubbed, the cheerleaders don’t lay down their pom-poms and give up.  They keep cheering to the end.  That’s their role.  By contrast, an analyst, even if he has a personal opinion, makes a determined effort to set it aside and to judge the event on its own merits.  If the side he likes does poorly, that’s too bad, but it doesn’t change his assessment of which side won the contest.  


Many of those in the free thought subculture are clearly cheerleaders, not analysts.  They are prisoners of their own perspective and incapable of judging objectively.  There is no hope of getting from them an accurate assessment of the debate.  That’s not their role.  They are there to cheer.


Our aim in a debate should not be to win over the cheerleaders.  It is to win those in the audience who are still seeking for truth and are open-minded to argument and evidence.  Their good opinion should be our concern, not the opinion of the cheerleaders.