Thursday, October 27, 2011

Atheists, creationists and the pitfalls of public debate

"WTF?" Richard Dawkins in
conversation with a New Age
I've a piece on the ABC today, 'Atheists, creationists and the pitfalls of public debate'.

I'm sympathising with Richard Dawkins, but pointing out the pointlessness of many public debates.  A sample:
If their purpose is to persuade, they usually fail: there is no common ground. If their purpose is merely to inform the audience, this is often stymied by conflicting ideas of what the important information is, and what to do with it. This is worsened, for spectators, by the adversarial mood. If their purpose is to entertain, perhaps they achieve this – though sometimes at a high cost to the dignity of the debaters. Arguing against the brick wall of incommensurability can be damned frustrating. Perhaps the best outcome is a morale boost for one camp or another – the joy of seeing one's vague ideas in a more bold, crisp or witty form. But even this is a vicarious pleasure, which can sometimes replace independent thought with spectacle. 
As with pugilism, many of the more illuminating confrontations are away from the limelight: in cafés, pubs, seminar rooms, offices. They occur because of incommensurability, not in spite of it. And they are ongoing struggles, not one-off bouts. They are attempts to comprehend, rather than simply to persuade, inform or entertain. This requires, not simply more scientific facts or apologetic logic, but a greater interest in the minds involved.

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