John Shook vs. Doug Geivett debate review

by Luke Muehlhauser on February 2, 2011 in Debates,Reviews


In 2009, John Shook and Doug Geivett debated the existence of God (video, audio).

Doug opens, presenting the debate like so: Which worldview, naturalism or theism, offers the best explanation for what we observe? If you read my blog you’ve probably noticed this is exactly how I frame the question, too. Unfortunately, Doug never explains what it is for some potential explanation to be the best explanation, so the audience may have been left with the impression that ‘best explanation’ means something like ‘best-sounding story.’

Doug opens with the kalam cosmological argument, saying that theism offers a good explanation for the Big Bang because God is presumed to be transcendent, powerful, intelligent, and so on. The cause of the universe can’t be physical because the universe is everything physical.

Doug also says God is the best explanation for the fine-tuning of the universe for intelligent life.

Doug’s third argument is that God offers the best explanation for (1) abstract moral imperatives, (2) personal moral agents, (3) moral knowledge, and (4) contra-causal free will.

John opens by explaining what skepticism is, and then he responds to the cosmological argument. John says whatever caused the universe might be natural because our universe might be just one tiny corner of all that exists. This criticism is relevant because Doug did not give the cosmological argument in a more careful form like William Lane Craig does. Anyway, John concludes that we’ve reached a ‘skeptical standoff’ since we don’t have much evidence either way about the origins of the universe.

John gives some additional rebuttals to arguments that Doug did not present, which is a waste of time and actually damaging to John’s case because in order to offer his rebuttals, John has to spend his valuable time doing the theist’s job of offering theistic arguments.

Concerning the fine-tuning argument, John says that it is “precariously” based on current scientific knowledge that may be later overturned. Also, he notes that the apparent precision of fine-tuning may just be an effect of our choice for unit of measurement. For example, we could say that “If Michael Jordan had been one part in 1016 of a light year, he would not have been so great a basketball player.” But though this sentence may sound interesting, it becomes quite boring once we note that this amount is equal to one meter. Yes, if Michael Jordan would have been one meter shorter he wouldn’t have been an NBA superstar.

John says that some of these fine-tuned constants can’t be ignored due to unit of measurement, but says that scientists are finding that actually we could tweak some of these constants by as much as 15% and still develop intelligent life. But even here, the necessary conclusion is that intelligent life is highly improbable, and so John’s responses to the fine-tuning argument miss the point, I think.

Better, John points out that if you’re going to infer a designer from the physical universe, then any imperfection will be some evidence against a perfect designer. From this he transitions to the argument from evil.

John also points out that the usual defense against the problem of evil – that actually, all the evil we observe must serve some higher purpose we just can’t understand – undermines the theist’s ability to say that we know good from evil, for apparently the theist thinks that millions of things that seem clearly evil to us are really good.

On the moral arguments, John says his morality is ‘objective’ in that most people agree on certain moral propositions. He also challenges Doug to explain why there must be unchanging, absolute moral principles.


Doug rightly points out that his argument doesn’t depend on whether or not there’s “more nature” outside our “local” universe. If the totality of nature that exists began to exist, it seems it must have a transcendent cause.

John had said that a “skeptical standoff” justifies atheism. Doug says a skeptical standoff would justify agnosticism instead. This is important because John defends naturalism, defining it as the position that “Nature is all that exists.” That sure sounds like a positive position that requires just as much defense as an opposing positive position.

John had said that scientific theories about cosmology and fine-tuning may be revised, and may then be less friendly to theology. Doug points out that John seems to be praising science when it seems to support his conclusions, and falling back on science’s fallibility when it seems to support theism.

On the problem of evil, Doug gives the skeptical theism reply, and then says that evil really just brings up the moral existence for God.

In John’s rebuttal, he explains that he a skeptical standoff does justify naturalism because we already know nature exists; the question is whether or not we have reason to add supernatural things to our ontology. But if that’s what he means by naturalism, he should have said that from the beginning, and not write things like “Naturalism is the view that nature is all that exists.” It seems John’s definition of naturalism should be more like “We know nature exists, and we don’t yet have good reason to think anything else exists.”

Next, John starts moving toward the most relevant point of the debate: whether or not theism could offer a successful explanation of anything. He says:

We haven’t heard from Doug… how a supernatural God could create physical matter… It’s relatively easy for the human mind to understand causal relations between natural things… but we’re being asked to accept some mysterious causes between something that is unnatural and in order to create, maybe even out of nothing. I’m not sure what story Doug is going to offer, but I’m sure it’s going to be a mystery. We understand causal relations between things that share something in common… So we await some reasons to think that God could even create the universe.

Here, John has asked Doug for an account of what it means to offer God as an explanation, and I’m glad he raised the question, though I think it could be addressed more clearly.

John explains that he has not contradicted himself about science. There are many things about which scientists are fairly certain, but at the “edges” of research, such as with fine-tuning or cosmogony, it’s the scientists who point out that they’re quite unsure about their theories on these subjects.

He then gives a rant about morality, one that doesn’t engage the arguments Doug gave.

Some Final Thoughts

Doug and John go on for a few more short rounds and then take questions from the audience.

But I’ll stop here and say that yet again, both debaters are so unclear in the form of their arguments, and so consistently talking past each other, I might actually have an easier time reviewing a high school LD debate, which usually features two kids talking so fast you can barely understand them – but at least they give structured arguments and respond directly to each other’s points.

I have complained before about debate performances. So perhaps instead of complaining I should explain what I think a good debate on the existence of God would look like, and what I would do in one. Stay tuned for that.

Also, let me say that live debate is really hard, and probably requires years of practice that almost nobody ever receives. I often complain about debate performances, but I’m definitely not saying I could do any better without years of experience in debate.

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{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

The Atheist Missionary February 2, 2011 at 4:45 am

Luke, which theist would you like to debate, why and where? I am hoping you won’t suggest WLC because I wouldn’t want to pay what I am sure would be an extravagant appearance fee.


Paul Crowley February 2, 2011 at 5:32 am

AFAICT you can cover all the arguments for God that get brought up in these debates with one rebuttal, because they all have the same form.

Here’s a tricky philosophical problem: it seems that every X (event, moral assertion, belief) has to have a Y (cause, moral justification, epistemic justification), but that Y is itself an X that requires a Y. This chain can’t go on forever. However, God provides a gigantic carpet we can stick the problem under, because God provides an X that needs no Y, because God is infinitely confusing so no-one can work out what sort of Y God’s X would call for.


obijuan February 2, 2011 at 5:54 am

I’d like to see Luke debate Vox Day on video. They’ve gone back and forth on the blogs, but it’s not the same.


Martin February 2, 2011 at 9:36 am

It seems like you’re saying that not knowing the mechanics of an explanation means that the explanation is no good.

I’m not sure that’s right. It seems to me that QM physicists have all sorts of situations where they don’t understand the underlying mechanics (spooky action at a distance, the slit experiment, etc) but the explanation is still a good one because it accounts for all the effects.


Steven R. February 2, 2011 at 9:43 am

What I still don’t understand about the Cosmological Argument as presented here is that the cause can’t be physical because the universe is everything physical…and then they go and argue that therefore, God exists. Okay, but how did God create everything physical? It seems to me that since nothing physical exists, it would have to be creation ex-nihilo or, I suppose, that there are also transcendental things surrounding God that somehow can be turned into physical matter and that’s what God did. Now, if the theist argues for the former, then God isn’t really an explanation, now is it? Nope, the explanation of how everything came about is from nothing. If its the latter, then really, the necessary thing isn’t God but the transcendental things and then you’d have to argue that only God can make those transcendental things into physical matter. Given this, I fail to understand how God even comes close to being an explanation.

Luke, you pretty much summarized all that can be said about this debate.


Thomas February 2, 2011 at 10:41 am


like I pointed out in my brief response to the “problem” of theism and explanation, I don´t understand why you don´t interact with Swinburne´s work on this. Swinburne does a huge effort in explaining how the hypothesis of theism can explain a diversity of different phenomena. A good explanation, according to him, is the simplest one which leads us to expect many phenomena with accuracy, when no other explanation does so. And if The Existence of God too laborious, then interact with Is There a God?. That is concise and nice summary of Swinburne´s case for theism as the best explanation.

If you´re going to complain that ‘God did it’ is a terrible explanation and all that, then you must say how and why the best defence of theism as an explanatory hypothesis fails. And Swinburne´s stuff is the best in this context.


cl February 2, 2011 at 10:42 am


Great post. These types of posts are exactly what I was alluding to when I said this blog used to be way better. Quite honestly, I think you’re at your best when you present stuff like this. If my opinion is worth anything, I say keep these types of treatments coming. They are what initially attracted me to CSA.

I’ll be back with commentary on the debate after I read the post a second time.


Rob February 2, 2011 at 8:00 pm


Yeah, like Thomas said, read Swineburne’s Is There a God? He makes an attempt to defend “god did it” as an explanation, but as I recall he makes his definition of “explanation” so impotent as to be worthless. It’s a great example of really bad apologetics masquerading as philosophy.


Eric February 2, 2011 at 8:53 pm

Thomas and Rob:
The subject of this post was not whether or not God can be a good explanation. He has had plenty of posts on this. THIS post had to do with whether or not Doug Geivett actually gave a good argument for how God could be a good explanation for anything.


Thomas February 2, 2011 at 10:19 pm


yes you are right my comment was a bit offtopic. Sorry about that.


oh my oh my. Does that even merit a response? Richard Swinburne is “really bad apologetics masquerading as philosophy”?? Have you looked at The Existence of God? You can disagree with what someone says while still appreciating and respecting it, like most of the critics of Swinburne do.


Rob February 3, 2011 at 3:08 am


I have only read Is There a God? I’ll try and dig it up and find the bit about “explanation” that I found so lacking. I do recall my overall impression was extreme surprise at how horrible the book was, as he is so touted by Christians.


Thomas February 3, 2011 at 6:51 am

Ok Rob, fair enough. But try to give it a fair reading. And remember that Is There a God is only a popular version from the The Existence of God. To me it´s just unbelievable that someone like you can call Swinburne “really bad apologetics masquerading as philosophy”, especially since his views about the justification of explanation aren´t even so controversial (expect maybe his heavy realiance on simplicity) among philosophers.


Keith J. February 4, 2011 at 7:03 am

The one part of this debate that I found kind of odd was when Geivett was talking about how science really doesn’t tell us much that we can be sure of and even the scientists (physicists in particular he was talking to) admit that it doesn’t. While surely the case is that at the furthest cutting edge of science speculation exists and it is difficult to say too much with certainty, I think Geivett stretches the truth a bit. There are so many scientific discoveries and understandings that have stood the test of time, like Newton’s Laws, etc. I just don’t get him.


cl February 11, 2011 at 4:01 pm


To me it´s just unbelievable that someone like you can call Swinburne “really bad apologetics masquerading as philosophy”, [to Rob]

Well, remember, provided this is the same “Rob,” he also says it is his opinion that “neuroscience has falsified Christianity,” so I wouldn’t be too surprised.


Martin February 11, 2011 at 4:18 pm

neuroscience has falsified Christianity

Hilarious. He’s never heard of van Inwagen, I suppose. Or even listened to any of the interviews on this very blog, where many Christian theists reveal that they are… materialists of the mind!


Eric February 12, 2011 at 12:15 am

John should’ve realized that Christianity cannot be falsified. It will always find a way around facts.


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