David Silverman Debates Frank Turek – A Focus on David’s Argument From Evil

David Silverman vs Frank Turek
David Silverman Debates Frank Turek – one of the highlights, 1:25:15 into the video, is David’s argument from evil. He’s quite adamant about getting a satisfactory answer. I don’t think he was satisfied.

David Silverman, the current President of the American Atheists and Frank Turek, a Christian author and public speaker, recently debated on the subject of whether theism or atheism best explains reality.  I will post the video within this article, though as it runs for two hours and twenty one minutes, for the sake of brevity I’m going to examine one element of the debate I found to be both the most entertaining and hard hitting.

Is It Possible To Watch This Type Of Debate With Complete Objectivity?

Now of course I’m biased towards David Silverman’s viewpoints.  I’m an atheist, one with nuanced views when it comes to spiritual experience and on the subject of consciousness, but I do not accept a god, or the supernatural.  I preface this because I like my biases to be clear.  We all have them.  When you watch the debate you’ll see the audience clearly has a bias in favor of Frank, hence the timing of the applause and laughter, and of course the fact this debate took place in a church.

I do my best to watch these debates with an open perspective and not to allow my biases to filter the arguments too much.  I do this by trying to cultivate a semblance of a meditative stillness that does not immediately judge what each speaker says.  I fail a lot.  When I hear arguments that know to be incoherent, disingenuous, and sometimes outright lies – watch the whole video, let me know your honest opinion as to who seemed more genuine and truthful in the comments if you like – the voice in my head immediately demands to be heard.  Often I’ll pause the video and turn to my wife and counter the argument – in this case Frank’s – and then hope that David Silverman will respond adequately.  In this debate, for the most part, he did a good job.  But there was one area that I thought he did a brilliant job, and on this I will focus.

While I encourage any readers to watch the whole video to formulate your own viewpoint in fairness to the breadth of perspective a debate of this length has in comparison to the point of focus I’m choosing, you can skip ahead on the below video to the 1:25:15 mark precisely. 

Moral Objectivity And Moral Relativism – Misconstrued by Frank So Repetitiously I Feel Compelled To Point It Out

To give context, at the start of the video Frank Turek tries to dispel any notion that David Silverman could use the argument from evil to make any convincing points.  There is also a running theme throughout the entire debate of Frank deflecting arguments by using the fact of David’s declaration of moral relativism.  When faced with a difficult question, or when ever David makes a statement regarding morality, he’ll mock David.  What he fails to appreciate, or outright consciously misconstrues, is that David’s advocating of moral relativism does not mean there’s no good or evil, right or wrong, but simply that it’s not objective, and it’s fluid, and it’s decided by me and you, and by culture and society overtime.

Personally I see Sam Harris’s argument for a science of morality to be compelling, but that is apples and oranges in comparison to the theistic argument for an objective morality, using god as the standard from which all actions must be judged, and in the absence of, there can be no credibility to Man’s ability to judge others for deeds such as genocide, murder or rape.  Frank also uses the Hitler card about 100 times – probably more, I didn’t count, but nor am I grossly exaggerating much, if at all, during the debate.  The Hitler card should really be removed from the deck by now.  But I digress, as I knew I would, so I’ll save that for another day.

And Now, At Last, The Point Of Focus – David Silverman’s Argument From Evil

David Silverman challenges Frank Turek on the fact that if god is omnipotent and omniscient, he knew that if he placed the tree of knowledge in spot ‘X’, that Adam would eat of its fruit, and that the fall would transpire.  This argument hinges on the repeated question of, ‘Why does god need babies to be born with cancer?’ David hammers Frank with this question again, and again, at varying angles, demanding a satisfactory answer.  Frank actually appeals to a minute and a half video – not even made by him – to try and give the best explanation, which is basically that god gave us the gift of free will, because without free will there can be no love, and it was Man who sinned, creating the fall, and bringing evil into this world.

David returns again, and again to the fact that if god knew with 100% certainty – which Frank does not dispute – that if he placed the tree of knowledge in point ‘X’, in oppose to point ‘Y’ – or just didn’t put it anywhere within reach – that we could have avoided the billions sent to hell, and childhood leukemia, babies born with cancer, and of course you can add a near never ending litany of horrors and sufferings to that list.

Frank does some real mental gymnastics when he can’t revert to his slides and videos.  He claims that it simply just might not be possible to create a world where agents with free will can avoid sin – the limits of god’s omnipotence? – and claims that god knows the end from the beginning.  David asserts, again, and again, that it was god who kicked Adam and Eve out of the garden – of course David doesn’t believe any of this happened, he’s just doing battle on Frank’s ground – because god knew with 100% certainty that by his own actions – placing the tree in spot ‘X’, that Adam was going to eat the apple, and therefore Adam had no free will in the act, and well, David basically asserts that would make god a villain and an ass.

If you have the interest, patience, and endurance to watch the whole debate, I once again encourage it.  If not, perhaps just go to the spots where they’re allowed to have their back and forth and have a Q&A.  Those parts of debates are always infinitely more interesting than the ‘you get your fifteen minutes, then i’ll get my fifteen minutes, then you get your ten minutes, then I’ll get my ten minutes’, portion of the debate.

15 thoughts on “David Silverman Debates Frank Turek – A Focus on David’s Argument From Evil”

  1. I just finished the debate, and enjoyed it immensely. I describe myself as atheist.

    Your discussion here is also very good.

    I’d like to add something about morality that I find to be very important to your comment discussion. In fact, David Silverman mentioned the word in the debate: Empathy.

    Empathy, I believe, is the key to human morality. It has evolved in us for a reason, and I don’t believe it is limited to humans. There is a clear benefit to caring about what happens to our offspring, our family, and the people in our community. Our success in society depends on empathy. We can feel to some extent the suffering of those we care about. When we feel negative empathy for others, we call that evil, or bad, or wrong, or unjust. When we have positive empathy for others, we also internalize that as happening to us, and call it good.

    The evolution of human societies are somewhat diverged. In the US, it is generally immoral to force a couple into marriage against their will. We do not believe that is just and don’t want that to happen to us. In other cultures, they perceive that arranged or forced marriages are for the greater good. Is it immoral to eat beef, or not? What of justice? It depends on your particular culture. Is it wrong to kill someone for breaking into your home? Is it wrong to kill the son of your architect if your roof collapses and kills your son? These things have evolved over time and have changed. There is nothing absolute about it.

    Why is eating a house cat wrong, but veal not? Why is the reverse true in Asia?

    I think empathy is a very simple and likely explanation for the existence of morality. A supernatural being is certainly not required in this world-view.

    And personally, I was disgusted by Frank Turek. He is clearly in the game of deception and word games for the sake of “the ends justify the means”. There is no way conceivable to me that such a sharp person can not grasp the simple concepts being presented to him. Why not eat your baby? There is no morality. Indeed. At least Mr. Turek being forced to lower and lower levels of integrity to defend his backward logic will help with our cause.

    -Read your bible.

    1. “Empathy, I believe, is the key to human morality. It has evolved in us for a reason, and I don’t believe it is limited to humans.” I agree with you entirely. Thanks for your thoughts.

  2. Interesting, definitely a debate I’ll have to watch.

    Coming from a Christian point of view, in the 9th chapter of the Biblical book of Romans the apostle Paul makes it very clear that God is free to have mercy on whom He wills and harden whom He wills. While God is certainly in control of all things, all humans are under the curse of sin through the fall of Adam and justly deserve eternal separation from Him. So while God is sovereignly in control, humans are still responsible. The truth of these propositions remain even though it is hard to wrap our heads around this notion.

    I’m sure atheists like David aren’t a big fan of how God has done things – but this is no surprise. Unbelievers are in active rebellion against God in keeping with their rebellious nature that they have inherited through the fall of Adam. This is why it is so vital for people to turn from their ways and believe upon Jesus for forgiveness and to receive new life through His name.

    It seems that the most David is able to claim is that he personally feels that God is a villain. I personally do not think that God a villain. In the atheistic worldview, who is correct? Can there even be a ‘correct’ morality in this view?

    1. Thank you for taking the time to read my article and give your thought response. Regarding the question, ” Can there even be a ‘correct’ morality in this view?” – in reference to an atheistic worldview, I can offer you a couple of answers. Ultimately, both end in yes. The first is an argument that leans on Sam Harris’s ‘The Moral Landscape’, establishing the the idea that through science we can establish an objective morality, or at least an idea of morality that is scientific, especially when measured against theistic morality. Let’s put it this way: in the bible, we knot it endorsed slavery, genocide and rape – and we can infer god’s morality is thus that he would punish BILLIONS of people because Adam ‘sinned’. Why punish the child for the father’s actions? And continue on, throughout history? And why must the fall be so far. Imagine if we exacted that type of wrath upon our children for disobeying us. Anyway I digress – I always do, tis my way – back to your question. There’s that theistic morality – or at least from my perspective – and there’s the morality we can establish through science. How? Sam Harris, and I concur, argues if morality has any meaning, it has to do with the well being of conscious creatures. We can measure what types of behaviors are best for ourselves, our fellows, and society as a whole, through the sciences – psychology, sociology, neuroscience, and on we go. We can use EEG and MRI to see how the brain responds from behaviors of others and to our own thoughts – a whole book can be written just broaching this subject, and it has – by Sam Harris. I’m sure other books on the subject will follow, as it’s a budding science at best. That’s your first answer – that in a scientific fashion atheists can have objective morality if science can prove it, and if we choose to adopt it. OK – I think i’ll do a new post for my next thoughts. —

      1. Alright, point two about the atheistic morality in answer to your question as posed above. Now we’ll look at relativistic morality, as explained by David Silverman. The fact that morality is relative – you have your opinions about it, and I have mine – allows morality to be fluid. Back in the biblical days it was moral to stone gay people, moral to commit genocides if ordered by god, moral to own slaves. Today, at least in most of the world, this is not acceptable conduct. In the US, or Australia – countries I have lived – these are activities would bring death upon you, or life imprisonment – or at least a long sentence – by the judgments of humans, humans who are using relativistic morality dependent upon their societal structure, as it evolved. So sure, we can have ten people in a room and all ten might claim to see genocide in one light or another – but there will be a common consensus that can be reached — let’s say in room ‘A’ the consensus is it’s the wrong thing, definitely not good. In room two a similar experiment is done, and the people come to a conclusion that genocide is actually a good thing. Room 1 says no, room 2 says yes. Then who is right, if everything is an opinion? Well, the population surrounding these two rooms will decide – and hopefully they will have a more evolved primate morality than the people in room 2, and condemn them for their bigotry and potential evil. I don’t know if this is coherent or satisfying to you, but to simplify – it’s disingenuous to infer that without ‘god’ as the perfect moral law giver, we have no basis to judge morality. In the scope of common sense, that crumbles to dust. We judge who is moral and who is not – are we right, or are we wrong? Well, we ascribe values to right, and to wrong – for me, compassion, cooperation, love, gratitude – these are good values.. I won’t go into more detail on that, or what ‘bad values’ might be – just my opinion? Sure, but maybe science can quantify I’m right – and even if not, and you say, “Well how do you know that being compassionate is good?” I can just shrug and smile at you, and does nothing to infer any basis for your god, and does nothing to enhance the argument that morality in relativistic terms is ‘meaningless’.

        1. Thanks for the in depth yet succinct response, I appreciate the discussion.

          It still seems to me that there can be no such thing as ‘morality’ of any kind in this view. Sam Harris has decided to pick ‘well-being’ as his standard – but who is to say that increasing overall well being is morally right? It is just another subjective preference that cannot have any bearing upon anyone else’s subjective views. Furthermore, I’m sure good cases could be made that some ‘honour killings’ that occur in certain Middle Eastern areas actually increase overall well-being when the whole community is considered. Does this make it morally acceptable in that viewpoint?

          You also seem to say that consensus determines what is moral. Consider the ramifications of that view in the example above as well. If the majority of people agree in ‘honour killings’, does this make it morally acceptable in this view? Along with this, who has the right to say that consensus should be followed?

          Basically, I am trying to understand how an atheist could ever say that a certain action is right or wrong. It seems to always come down to subjective opinion that cannot be rationally imposed upon anyone else’s viewpoint. Instead of ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, it is mere subjective preference.

          On the other hand, Christianity does allow for such a determination. I’m sure many people do not like what God has done in the past (judgement upon nations etc), but that doesn’t negate the fact that a source for true ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ exist.

          (Re: rape and slavery, I’m not exactly sure where you claim rape was approved by God and the slavery in Jewish law was closer to a social support program and was not at all similar to the racial slavery in the US).

          1. “On the other hand, Christianity does allow for such a determination. I’m sure many people do not like what God has done in the past (judgement upon nations etc), but that doesn’t negate the fact that a source for true ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ exist.”

            Ok, I will try and tackle this in a different order. First, for a moment let me concede – as a thought experiment – that somehow it’s evident there needs to be a moral law giver – a god – in order for us to have morality. Some standard to compare our acts to, or to be judged by. Why would it need to be the god of the bible? It could be any god, Eru, the one I gave as an example in a previous post. But there’s thousands – or perhaps one that humans have yet to discover the true nature of. Even if we agreed there’s a standard of morality that requires a creator / theistic god, it would do -nothing- in and of itself to prove the claims of Jesus, or anything else in the bible whatsoever. – c –

          2. “It still seems to me that there can be no such thing as ‘morality’ of any kind in this view. Sam Harris has decided to pick ‘well-being’ as his standard – but who is to say that increasing overall well being is morally right? It is just another subjective preference that cannot have any bearing upon anyone else’s subjective views.” — This is one of the arguments Sam Harris confronts most often, atheists included. There’s many, many atheists who disagree with Sam Harris that there could be a science of morality. The answer to the question, who decides that morality depending on the overall well being of conscious beings is… we do. We decide. ‘Who gives you this authority?’ We do, common consensus, natural selection of the best ideas and the best arguments. -c-

          3. “You also seem to say that consensus determines what is moral. Consider the ramifications of that view in the example above as well. If the majority of people agree in ‘honour killings’, does this make it morally acceptable in this view? Along with this, who has the right to say that consensus should be followed?

            Basically, I am trying to understand how an atheist could ever say that a certain action is right or wrong. It seems to always come down to subjective opinion that cannot be rationally imposed upon anyone else’s viewpoint. Instead of ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, it is mere subjective preference.”

            Ok to address this – first about the common consensus. It would need to be based on a scientific common consensus, and I cannot give you all the answers to that science, because a science of morality is, at best, in its baby stages. Now in that context, could science prove an honor killing is best for the overall well being of a community? I hardly think so. The ramifications of honor killings are well known. They lead to more honor killings. The rational behind honor killings is circular, and begets more honor killings. And even if in one village it happened to work, that wouldn’t mean it was a good idea overall on the planet. Villages can accept or reject a ‘science of morality’, the same as non-christians don’t accept any reason to follow any professed morality that stems from christianity. -c-

            1. “Basically, I am trying to understand how an atheist could ever say that a certain action is right or wrong. It seems to always come down to subjective opinion that cannot be rationally imposed upon anyone else’s viewpoint. Instead of ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, it is mere subjective preference.””

              And lastly to address this. It is -your- subjective opinion that there’s a moral law giver, a standard that is necessary to judge all others by. We’re all making subjective determinations. That’s what creates society, law, governments, cultures – the interplay of our subjectivity. It is fascinating – there’s sciences that study it – psychology, sociology, criminology, and I could go on. Does this help..?

              1. Thanks again for responding.

                It seems like you do agree that morality in atheism must be subjective/relative to the individual.

                I don’t think it is a good argument to say that ‘objective morals exist therefore a God must exist to have made them’. Instead, I would argue that if one presupposes that Christianity is true then there is a foundation for an objective morality to exist. If one decides to make the same argument while invoking Eru, they would have to assume the specific attributes of God that He has revealed in the Bible (revelatory, sovereign, etc) to provide a foundation for any sort of objective morality to become intelligible to humankind.

                At the end of the day, if an atheist claims that there is no objective (binding upon all people in all places and at all times) morality then I applaud them for being consistent with their worldview. However, I don’t understand why some atheists would then call something ‘evil’ or impose their preferences on others as if they are somehow objectively better. It seems inconsistent to me.

                1. I’m enjoying the discussion, – I also appreciate your responses.
                  “Instead, I would argue that if one presupposes that Christianity is true then there is a foundation for an objective morality to exist.” — The big thing here is the ‘presupposes’ that I don’t understand. I don’t see how it is logical or rational to presuppose this on the merits of then being able to argue an objective morality. I just can’t presuppose something without any evidence, and that does not ring with any truth to me. I attended Hebrew school for 8 years, I’ve been exposed to plenty of different religions, and I see all these religions, at their core, as trying to express what they sense beyond themselves, that ‘transcendence’ that someone can experience. I have experienced a ‘transcendent’ state – subjectively speaking – by different means – meditation for a simple example. Then generally if someone has a faith, or people around them to tell them how to interpret that experience, they filter the experience into the language and dogma of their faith as evidence for it. -c-

                2. “It seems like you do agree that morality in atheism must be subjective/relative to the individual.”

                  I am really arguing on behalf of two view points. One, that there’s nothing innately wrong, or unrealistic with the relativistic point of view on reality that many atheists have, and that it can be explained through evolution by natural selection, and two, that there is a possibility of a science of morality that can be seen as more objective – as I’ve touched on. Now I understand there’s plenty of arguments against the idea of a science of morality, – we could instead call it a science of well being for conscious beings, if you prefer. But if that’s not what morality is about, I don’t know. What is morality about to you? Either way, even a ‘science of morality’, be it objective in a sense, has subjective components to it – deciding the basis, I suppose, would be one example. Sam Harris posits that if we can imagine the worst possible suffering for everyone for eternity is a bad thing, then there must be a space for us to move away from that suffering, and that would be a good thing. I’m not really doing the argument justice here – read ‘The Moral Landscape’ by Sam if you’re interested, he explains his own ideas better than I. Or perhaps if you don’t want to do that, there’s a twenty minute TED talk he delivers on it – or other forums he’s explained it at greater lengths. -c-

                3. “However, I don’t understand why some atheists would then call something ‘evil’ or impose their preferences on others as if they are somehow objectively better. It seems inconsistent to me.”

                  Evil is a word, a label to a concept, like any word. It’s a pointer. If someone kills your family member for no reason, an atheist can call that ‘evil’ if they so choose, without a theist being confused as to how they can come to this conclusion. ‘How can they be certain it’s evil?’ – Maybe some questions just have easy answers. Because the person killed your family member for no conceivable reason. As to ‘imposing their preferences’ – I don’t think atheists do seek to impose their preferences on others. Most of the atheist vs theists conflicts, from what I’ve witnessed, have more to do with not wanting theists to impose their preferences on them in the public arena. By public arena I mean in the science class, and in politics. Feel free to continue the dialog if I can clarify anything else, or if you have any other questions. Cheers.

    2. “This is why it is so vital for people to turn from their ways and believe upon Jesus for forgiveness and to receive new life through His name.” – The reason that atheists aren’t moved, at all, by a statement like this.. is because it has the same impact as me saying to you that if you don’t accept the Eru, the god posited in the Silmarillion, that you will go to hell – given you’ve sinned, which I guess is inevitable by virtue of being human – and that it’s critical that you accept the word of Eru. You probably think this comparison is an insult to your faith and to your intelligence. That’s exactly the impact your statement has to an atheist. We look at that and think it’s utter and complete fiction, with zero basis in reality, and sometimes we feel sad at how many people’s lives have been devoted to nonsense. Genuinely sad. And I know you probably feel genuinely sad that there are people you probably like, and wish the best for, but believe will go to hell because they refuse to accept Jesus. Quite the awkward impasse we all arrive at.

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