Debating Dr. Hugh Ross

Atheism, philosophy, religion 4 Replies

You know that moment that you discover that something that was lost forever wasn’t? I was just idly checking The Wayback Machine to see if any of the posts from the previous incarnation of this site survived, and lo and behold they did. This makes me happy. I’ll be reposting a few, once I’ve edited them and cleaned them up a little. Here is the first.


So on April 17th [2010], I debated noted Christian Creationist Dr. Hugh Ross. The debate was operated by the Centre For Inquiry in Vancouver, and Dr. Ross’s organisation, Reasons to Believe.

I’m going to embed Dr. Ross’s speech here, and I’m going to analyse his opening in detail under each video. His argument doesn’t actually meet the criteria for ‘an argument’, as he fails to justify his conclusion at every turn. I want to apologise for the quality ahead of time, unfortunately CFI still hasn’t uploaded their video of this to Youtube, so I’m working with what’s available (courtesy of the Crommunist ). My initial presentation can be found on my Portfolio page.


1. “The bible contains 10 times as much content about the origin and structure of the universe as all the other religions combined.”

Who cares? This isn’t a “which religion has the most stuff about the universe” competition. Nevermind that, what matters is the *quality* of information, not the mere *quantity* of information. Many fantasy novels spend endless pages on laying out the cosmology of ‘the universe’, and speak at far greater lengths on this topic than the Bible does. That doesn’t mean we should switch to them.

This is an irrelevant point.

2. “The Bible makes 4 main points”

These four points are entirely a fabrication of interpretation. They are not explicitly claimed at any point in the bible, and many of the Biblical passages that Dr. Ross cites in defense of these points have been historically interpreted in radically different ways (i.e. about moral decay as opposed to physical decay).

3. “the bible alone makes these claims”

The most charitable interpretation I can give here is that Dr. Ross means ‘out of all the other religions’.

A) again, this is not a competition

B) this would seem to be an overly generous interpretation on my part. Aristotle predated the Bible and also postulated the Unmoved Mover idea, i.e. that the universe had a finite beginning. To claim that “the Bible alone” makes these claims is dishonest.

Now… Let’s grant these points anyway. Let’s say that it is, indeed, true that the Bible makes predictions which (it turns out) are in accord with modern cosmological science: so what? That the Bible happens to be ‘not wrong’ about extremely general predictions about the universe means…. What, exactly? Dr. Ross misquotes a bunch of scripture (it does not say in Genesis 1:1 that god “created the universe”, that would be one of those interpretations I mentioned), and moves on.

4. The Space-Time theorems, which implicate a transcendental causal agent. (I’m talking about the first theorem, which appears at about the 2:27 mark)

Where does this come from? Who is he quoting? Where is this coming from?

Look, if one is attempting to sell the idea of religion to someone, you can’t merely assume that A) a god (one god and not more than one god) exists, and B) that god is the Christian god. While this debate is (supposed to be) about Christianity, Dr. Ross just assumes the truth of Christianity in order to show that a point in Christianity’s favour is that Christianity is true.

This is known as ‘Circular Reasoning’, or also as the Fallacy of Begging the Question.

5. ‘Relativity is true.’

Granted. This is irrelevant.

6. “This there is no rational basis for doubting the conclusion of this theorem”

Huh? Wait, what? There are many rational bases for doubting the conclusion of the theorem such as: please explain from where this whole “transcendental causal agent” appears? Why is this even in the theorem? What logical and rational step justifies its inclusion?

7. Space-Time Theorem 2 & 3 (3min mark)

Seems fine to me. At least now we have stuff we can reference, we have names to look up and see what exactly it was that they said.

8. “and consequently such a causal agent must exist”

Again, this comes out of nowhere. I’ll grant that if you take (my numbering) point 4 to be true, and combine that with point 7, then you get this point. That’s logically valid. But it’s not good, which is to say that point 4 is *not* accepted (not by me, anyway), and just comes out of nowhere.

9. “Many bible scholars have interpreted these passages as literal” (4min)

This is the Fallacy of Appeal to Authority. The only way to know if these passages were intended to be real (as opposed to metaphorical, or just nonsensical) would be to sit down with the original authors and ask them. No bible scholar has been able to do that, ergo they are not ‘authorities’ on this, they are merely people with an opinion. You can waffle on about what verb was used where, but you still have to make a lot of assumptions about the writers that are entirely unwarranted: that the writers intended it to be taken literally, believed what they were writing, took extreme and precise care over everything that they wrote, etc, etc, etc. The bottom line here is that you still only get an interpretation out of it.

10. Referring to scripture

You’ll notice that Dr. Ross refers to scripture. A LOT. Over and over again, he refers to scripture. Here’s the problem: we know the science. The science is in. So now Dr. Ross is desperate to tie the bible into whatever the current cosmological theory is. Here’s a guarantee: if the ‘steady state’ theory regarding the cosmos (i.e. the universe is not expanding, and always existed), you can bet anything you like that Dr. Ross would be pulling out passages to support that interpretation of the bible. Because the bible is gibberish and self-contradictory it really doesn’t matter a damn what it says, you can support any proposition you like with it.

11. Biblically predicted cooling curve (5.50)

So this is a problem. It’s gibberish. To clarify is point a little from the talk on Friday night, Dr. Ross is insistent that everything you need (bar one data point) is in the bible to create this curve. The one data point that’s not in the bible is the age of the universe.

So this raises some difficult questions which Dr. Ross will surely avoid if put to the test: where, exactly, in the bible does it say that 4 billion years after creation that the background temperature of the universe was between 10 and 14 Kelvin (I’m taking account of the error bars)? He claims that that information is in the bible. You’ll notice that he’s not citing passages in scripture for this particular part of his talk?

12. Christianity explains the origin of humanity.

Yes. ‘A wizard did it’ is the basic explanation. This does not constitute an explanation, unless you are religious.

13. Improbability therefore god

So the bulk of Dr. Ross’s argument from here until he starts selling merchandise finishes his talk.

The explanation goes something like this: we exist. There must be some explanation for our existence. So we have a few ideas about how it could have happened. Then, based on some background knowledge of how the universe and our earth operates, let’s calculate the probability of our existence. That number is really small. Really small. So small that it ***might as well be zero***. But we’re here, so it can’t be zero, therefore that explanation makes no sense. It must have been god. QED.

So look at that “might as well be zero” (which is a quote from Dr. Ross, by the way). “Might as well be zero” is not the same as “zero”. It’s still ‘not zero’. It’s a fact of probability that if you look at what you did today and work out all the statistics going back over the last 6 months, that you get some really small numbers. I’ll absolutely grant that those numbers are not as small as Dr. Ross’s numbers, but they “might as well be zero” too. And yet you did all you did today regardless of how low the probabilities are.

A (perhaps) more clear example is in genetics. Just take a look at your family around you. Now let’s assume that when your DNA ‘happened’ (due to the creation of your embryo through fertilization of the egg by sperm), what are the odds that the DNA lottery came up with your exact combination of DNA? Let’s just say ‘one in a million’. That seems like a conservative number, to be honest, but lets go with it.

So let’s ignore everything else in your parents lives (every single event) and just look at your parents DNA. Same calculation. There’s a one in a million chance (each) that they have the DNA that they do (each), and so on for their parents. For just you and your parents, together, the odds are 1 in 10^18. Factor in grandparents? That’s 1 in 10^42. Great Grandparents? 1 in 10^90. Great Great Grandparents? 1 in 10^186.

That’s a mere 5 generations of those odds. What would those numbers look like after 40 generations? 1 in 10^3,298,534,883,322. Those “1 in 10^24,000,000″ odds that Ross was going on about seem quite paltry now, eh? So… The odds of you having the DNA that you do, given the starting conditions of 40 generations ago (about a thousand years, if 25 years is taken to be ‘a generation) “might as well be zero”. So, you don’t then. Your exact formulation of DNA, on Ross’s logic, cannot be down to random chance, but must be down to design.

Patently ridiculous.

The logical step from “this is very improbable” to “so god did it” doesn’t exist.

Furthermore, this entirely assumes that the probability of this event occurring naturally, plus the probability of ‘god did it’ sums to 100%, i.e. that the probability that ‘god did it’ is the exact inverse, thus the overwhelming probability is that ‘god did it’. In order to even put forward this notion one *must* presume that god exists. As this is normally part of a proof of god’s existence (in this that’s implicit in ‘what’s right with Christianity’), this clearly Begs The Question (or is a Circular Argument, if you prefer).

Please pay careful note here where Dr. Ross misconstrues his whole argument as “we are impossible” (8.45). Highly improbable is NOT the same as impossible. Dr. Ross, having a PhD, should be aware of this. He is either ignorant of the difference here, or he is intentionally ignoring it. Your call which one it is.

This moves into the second video :

Dr. Ross moves on to misrepresenting Darwinian Evolution here.

14. “anything that’s excess or waste or useless would quickly get weeded out”

This is just blatantly false. Again, either Dr. Ross is ignorant of “Darwinian Principles” or he is intentionally misrepresenting them.

Darwinian principles state that only that which is maladaptive, i.e. that which impedes the survival of the organism, will eventually, on average, fail to be propagated throughout the species. It means that any change that is adaptive, which is to say improves the odds that the creature will procreate, will spread (vertically, through descendants) more frequently throughout the species, whereas any change that reduces the odds of the creature procreating will less frequently. Something that is “excess” doesn’t directly affect those odds, so there’s no reason for it to be weeded out (there are, of course, indirect effects but they are even more slow to affect procreation that direct effects which I will detail presently).

Let’s take a case that categorically proves Dr. Ross to be completely wrong: Schizophrenia. While the full cause of this disease is not completely understood, what is clear is that it has genetic components. Cast your mind back to Medieval Europe, a time where anyone who acted strangely (and large numbers of those who didn’t) were routinely murdered by their coutryfolk for being witches or demons or possessed or whatever. In this environment, Schizophrenia is highly maladaptive. Once it’s effects manifest A) you’re unlikely to procreate and B) you’re unlikely to live an additional year. Yet the genes for Schizophrenia have not been “weeded out” after several hundred years of breeding.

Now if something is not maladaptive like Schizophrenia is maladaptive, why would it “quickly get weeded out” if even Schizophrenia (or epilepsy or migraines) don’t “quickly get weeded out”?

If you want to posit that “god anticipated in advance that we could take advantage of these ‘over-endowments’” then you need to firstly demonstrate that they are “over-endowments” (which Dr. Ross fails to do), secondly demonstrate that these “over-endowments” would be maladaptive during our history and pre-history (which Dr. Ross fails to do) and thirdly demonstrate that there is such a god who somehow interferes with the normal process of natural selection to keep us around in spite of these maladaptive traits (which, again, Dr. Ross fails to do).

15. Certain parts of the brain are reserved for typing fast (1.00)

To summarize Dr. Ross’s argument here: big chunks of the human brain are only good for typing fast, mathematics and prayer, therefore having these unusable parts of the brain in the stone age is a waste of space and energy.

To make this argument, it’s necessary for one to be completely ignorant of how the brain works. There is such a thing as “neuroplasticity“: the brain isn’t fixed in which bit does what. Certainly, it’s the height of nonsense to look at humanity now, see a section of the brain that’s used in typing and posit that that section of brain was designed from the birth of humanity to deal with typing. In order to make that claim you must *begin* with the assumption that humans (and all their parts) were designed with some particular end in mind (this is known as a teleological argument).

But the brain isn’t like that. The brain is the ultimate odd-jobber. While we can section off our brain using an MRI and see that each area seems to be handling different tasks, this isn’t a permanent fixed condition. Experimentally, it’s been shown that we have ‘vision centres’ and ‘hearing centres’ in the brain. But if a person is blindfolded for several days, the vision centre doesn’t simply ‘turn off’: it gets used for something else (typically the hearing centres, which are nearby, make use of the now-free real estate).

Dr. Ross’s argument implicitly denies this and claims that if someone is blindfolded, because that particular part of the brain is “designed” (again, he’s implicitly making an argument for god) for sight, then that part of the brain would do nothing if a person can’t see. This is an empirically incorrect claim.

16. I’m not wasting my time dealing with the ‘biblical dates of Adam’. It’s a book, written by a bunch of different folk, largely for political reasons. Google is your friend.

17. Mitochondrial Eve:

Dr. Ross is, yet again, just waffling and making random stuff up.

18. Christianity explains what happened to the body of Jesus.

This is a train wreck of an argument. Everything that could possibly be wrong with an argument is here: bad premises, bad reasoning, and a completely irrational conclusion that does not follow from the premises. This is the kind of argument that should be presented in 1st year Philosophy classes as an exemplar case of “don’t ever do something like this”.

i) First, the assumption that there even was a Jesus.

This is far from an established fact. But let’s just let that slide for now. Let’s assume, for the sake of demonstrating how poor the reasoning is here, that Jesus did exist.

ii) Jesus died, his body was placed in a cave that was guarded by two Roman guards, and the body subsequently disappeared.

Again, far from an established fact. Ross is assuming a whole heap of stuff here in order to make his argument. But again, in the interest of supplying enough rope, let’s assume that it’s true.

iii) There are four possible explanations: the disciples stole the body, the Romans stole the body, the Pharisees stole the body, or Jesus rose from the dead.

So this whole premise is nonsense, and it’s set up in this way to give the semblance of a “Proof By Cases” argument, i.e. to look like a legitimate argument form. And I’ll grant: if all the premises were good (that is to say that all premises are true, and accurate, and there are no undermining counter-premises), then this argument is logically deductive.

But this one premise is beyond unreasonable. Criticisms:

a) An unaligned group could have stolen the body.

b) The body may not simply have been stolen by one of the groups, but also destroyed (fed to pigs or some such), thus making it impossible for the Pharisees or Romans to refute the claims of the resurrection by merely producing the body.

c) A disciple could have stolen the body, and then lied to the other disciples about Jesus being resurrected. The other disciples, not knowing the truth, would then cling to ‘the truth’ through all the pain that Dr. Ross claims that they couldn’t have if they were lying.

d) People are credulous. People at this time in history (go read the bible) believed all kinds of crazy crap. There is no reason why they couldn’t all believe that Jesus was resurrected. Of the 500 eye-witnesses: how many of them had met Jesus before? How could they confirm that that was, actually, Jesus resurrected? Was there 1000 more people who refused to believe? What reasons do we have to trust these 500 people?

e) One has to presuppose the existence of god to allow for “Jesus was resurrected”. There are an indefinitely large number of naturalistic explanations for this event. Dr. Ross doesn’t even try to refute any of them (what he ‘refutes’ is overly-simplistic nonsense). Even if he somehow managed to refute them all (which, in my opinion, is beyond his capability) that still leaves us with “I don’t know what happened” as an option, without leaping to an unjustified, supernatural explanation. “I don’t know” does not equate toa wizard god did it”.

f) Things in biblical texts support the biblical account? Wow… Just stop the press right there, I’m convinced. No, wait… On second thoughts this is an extremely juvenile argument. To demonstrate:

Timmy and Mary, two 6-year-old kids have chocolate on their face. “Timmy,” I ask, “did you eat chocolate?”.

“No” says Timmy.

“Mary, did you and Timmy eat chocolate?”

“No” says Mary.

Well. I guess the proof is in, neither Timmy nor Mary ate chocolate, because they are both corroborating each other’s story. Right? I’m going to assume that I don’t need to explain this any further, and that my audience has a reasoning ability greater than a 6-year-old.

19. “Christianity explains the problem of evil” (and Naturalism doesn’t)

Here Dr. Ross misrepresents the problem of evil.

First off, the naturalistic explanation of the problem of evil is: some people suck. That’s it.

Secondly, the problem of evil as stated by Epicurius (prior to the existence of Christianity) is an impossible problem for Christianity. Whole sections of libraries could be given over to the discussions of this problem, and Dr. Ross doesn’t even begin to accurately address them. I was actually quite shocked when he presented this particular account of the problem of evil, as it’s not even taken seriously by biblical scholars. Thomas Aquinas spent a significant part of his life dealing with the problem of evil, and Dr. Ross’s explanation was never deemed to be a sufficient explanation even by Aquinas.

This wiki article is an excellent introduction to the topic. Yes: introduction (it’s huge). If you have a brief read, you’ll appreciate how insultingly superficial Dr. Ross’s explanation was.

20. Physics exists primarily to restrict human evil.

This is just ludicrous, and completely untestable. Here you can point out the Holocaust, and Dr. Ross can merely assert “Well, it could have been worse, except that god is awesome”. There’s no possible refutation to that because it’s just nonsense.

21. Two creation model

This isn’t an argument, Dr. Ross is just preaching.

Video Three:

I’m not going to address anything else that he talks about in his last 10 minutes, as Dr. Ross merely misrepresents arguments repeatedly, and then does a sales pitch. Google the “weak sun paradox” to learn about the nonsense of this argument. Ditto for all the rest that he puts forward.

I’m open to thoughtful questions on this topic, should anyone wish to ask.

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4 thoughts on “Debating Dr. Hugh Ross

  1. MC

    I don’t find your critique to be convincing. You are dismissive of at least some of Ross’s points and that gives an appearance of insecurity.

    If you want to be convincing, show us how Ross is wrong in plain language, not with logical gymnastics and call everything else misrepresentation. You have to honor that many bright people – some more intelligent than you find Ross’s arguments compelling.

  2. Brian Lynchehaun Post author

    You are dismissive of at least some of Ross’s points

    Yes, because the bulk of them are terrible.

    gives an appearance of insecurity

    You are free to make any assumptions you like about my inner psychological workings. Nevertheless, that doesn’t make Ross *correct*.

    If you want to be convincing, show us how Ross is wrong in plain language, not with logical gymnastics and call everything else misrepresentation.

    I’m at a loss as to how I could explain the points above any more plainly. There are no “logical gymnastics” in the above that I’m aware of: if there are specific points where you find me unclear, feel free to quote them and ask.

    You have to honor that many bright people – some more intelligent than you find Ross’s arguments compelling.

    No, I really don’t. Being “bright” doesn’t prevent one from being taken in by misrepresentations. Being “bright” is no guaranteed of being knowledgeable about a particular topic. If I’m in error: show me. Otherwise this is just a vague Appeal to Authority….

  3. John

    It’s easy to have last word on a blog. Perhaps you could have addressed more during debate or email your thoughts and I’m sure he will kindly reply.

  4. Brian Lynchehaun Post author

    I addressed, plenty of this during the back-and-forth section of the debate, but I do not have the video of that section. Reasons To Believe have not made any of the video publicly available for some reason…..

    Additionally, the amount of bullshit he presented takes significantly longer to counter than the time allotted to a debate period. Plus Dr. Ross prefers not to answer questions, but to state irrelevant chapter and verse references in response to being questioned (by the audience).

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