Friday, November 11, 2005

Debating Doherty

I've started debating with Earl Doherty. He recently rejoined the IIDB forums, where apparently he had been part of a debate a few years ago. The thread we've been arguing in is called "Minucius Felix etc", after the Church Father of that name [who wrote near the turn of the 2nd/3rd century]. I don't know very much about the Fathers, other than some dim recollections from college and graduate school, and a few things I've read recently. So I had not planned to enter the thread at all, but I guess Doherty's presence motivated me. I entered on page 4 and left the debate on page 8, after growing frustrated with Doherty's refusal to answer my questions and challenges directly.

I received compliments from Doherty's supporters of the kind that I would not have expected from friend or foe in any debate, least of all from people holding views so different from my own. And I think they performed well -- much better, IMO, than Doherty. I saw things in his own performance that surprised me. I've seen him debate on his website within an essay format, and he has a tendency to answer everything. Perhaps I expected a similar commitment from him on the boards, and in our debate he spoke about his commitment to meet opposing arguments. I began by writing a lot, in my usual style. At first he said he did not have the time to respond to everything, and I told him that was okay, given my tendency to go on and on. But he kept responding to my weakest arguments, as I expected, and turning away my strongest arguments rather than trying to slam them or even addressing them; this was a surprise.

My first post was a 1,500-word textual analysis of Felix's arguments, and it included specific questions for Doherty; his response did not answer my questions, but involved a nearly 5,000-word description of how the various forms of Christianity could ignore one another quite easily in Felix's time. I later found out that this was Doherty's way of saying that Felix could very well speak for all Christians, as he appears to do, and call himself a Christian, yet be a kind of Christian who did not worship or venerate Christ -- as Doherty claims. I pointed out that Doherty had not tackled anything specific in my post. His reply was that too many challengers were arrayed against him (there were two or three active challengers at any given point in the debate, and he had two supporters), and that I was complaining about his not being able to cover everything in my opening post.

I presented 3 possible disproofs of his contention that Felix rejected the worship of a crucified being. I dropped my first one before very long. Doherty responded to some things in the second one, but not to revisions I made which were directed most closely at his statements in the debate. I gave him the number of the revised post by email, but he proceeded to give what would be his only response, to the unedited post.

These disproofs, incidentally, had been about 1,500 words each. I made my final one just 350 words long, and put it in the form of a step-by-step logical argument concerning just one point, almost like a mathematical equation. I posted it just after he had started saying that my arguments were long, convoluted and speculative. I asked him to comment on it, and presented it as my final disproof. Instead he said that the debate was spinning its wheels, and he presented his own 5,000-word challenge to the group of us who had been arguing for the traditional readings of Felix. I said to him that he could not do this without first finishing with my challenge. He said he had no time. So I proceeded, and gave his challenge a point-by-point, 3,000-word reply. He got replies from everyone actively participating in the argument against his reading.

I opened my reply with two short questions that I presented as hitting the heart of the matter, concerning the division between what was explicit in Felix's text and what needed to be inferred. He said it was a trick question, and said he couldn't answer it. He said moreover that I did not have the ability to understand sophisticated arguments. He repeated the charge that I was too literal concerning his analogies (he calls himself an analogy junkie). And he said again that my own arguments were unclear. I never was told these things by any of his supporters, though: quite the opposite.

So I got fed up, and realized I was wasting my time. I left the debate, quite indignant, but not before listing for his benefit the excuses he had given me over the course of the debate. And not before telling him that these things in his performance genuinely surprised me -- which is true.

As I think of my own mistakes, I ask myself whether it was correct to start debating him by attempting aggressively to disprove his reading. In the course of doing so, I did manage to hit what I thought was the dividing line between what was explicitly in the text and what needed to be inferred from it, so I don't say that my disproofs were a waste of time. But proofs and disproofs are difficult to pull off; and they can make an opponent, especially a new opponent, feel defensive and leery rather than inclined to dialogue. I did my best to be respectful, and never said that he was close-minded or incapable of understanding sophisticated arguments. I agreed with him twice about secondary matters, thanked him for his feedback concerning my writing, and so forth. By contrast, he never agreed with anything secondary in my arguments, though he said once that I was capable of seeing a particular subtlety in his argument. But later he said that the problem with me in particular was that I was mentally locked into the orthodox model -- even though I disagreed with debaters on my side three times about places in Felix's text where I thought Christ could not be located.

As for other mistakes on my part, I also see that it's best not to try too much when your knowledge is limited. I had recently been looking at ancient Greek texts and matching the words up with their English translations, so I did the same with Felix's Latin; and it was quite wonderful getting even a dumb, tiny glance at another language and another way of speaking about the world. I presented Felix's Latin phrases, and said that I suspected them not to support Doherty's argument. I asked for clarification from people who did know Latin, but I should have just asked for clarification without trying any kind of argument.

In the same way, I said that if Doherty and others started making claims about other second-century writers, I would have to leave their statements unchallenged, since I just didn't know enough about the period. But one of my arguments was that Doherty violates Occam's Razor by multiplying the entities of Christianity without necessity, when he claims without explicit evidence that Felix was a new kind of Christian who did not participate in Christ-worship. My challenge certainly was right: if someone says that a new kind of Christian existed, or that this new kind did not center on Christ, it has to be challenged. I noted that Felix had been presented by Doherty as the "smoking gun" among all the second-century Fathers, from which I inferred that Doherty's evidence concerning other writers was probably circumstantial at best (and someone supporting him in the debate admitted that Felix's smoking gun was ambiguous). He and others then proceeded to make claims about other ancient Christians not worshipping or hearing of Christ -- claims that I'd seen recently in Doherty's book and on his website. But true to my word, and level of knowledge, I had to leave these statements unchallenged, except to say that such claims were no more convincing than the claim that Paul never heard of a human Christ.

In fact, they are less convincing, since per Doherty's own theory, the human Christ was starting to be heard of by the turn of the first and second centuries. Tacitus had heard of a human Christ around 115, yet someone claimed in this debate that Theophilus, the Christian patriarch in Antioch who was appointed to his post over a half-century after Tacitus wrote his work, had never heard of a man called Christ. The evidence is that Theophilus' brief work doesn't refer to Christ as a man.

It's times like that when I wonder why I am debating such models at all. I was asked specifically about Theophilus, and after looking up his work, I said exactly this: that it was hard for me to take the claims seriously.

So as far as I'm concerned, Doherty is presenting his own unproven and problematic new entities, when he speaks of people who all called themselves Christians but either did not worship Christ (i.e., Felix) or did not hear of Christ (i.e., Theophilus).

If Doherty is continuing the debate, I don't know. I've stopped checking the site, and I find myself relieved, after 11 intense days, that it's over. I found out many things I had not expected about Doherty, and I'm sure that his first postings to the Secular Web, as was the case with mine, will not be his best.

Another good thing to come out of the debate was that I got to read a work by Felix that turns out to be quite wonderful. Check out the Octavius of Felix. The Latin original is here.


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