Sunday, 17 June 2012

Debatable Theism

There has been, in recent times, a phenomenon in Christian apologetics circles called William Lane Craig. Craig is a "Philosopher of Religion", although in his case that term is indistinguishable from "theologian".  His fame in philosophical circles derives largely from the relatively huge number of debates he has engaged in, largely but not exclusively with the non-believing.

Craig, a research professor at the Talbot School of Theology at Biola University California, has also published a number books and papers and received a number of awards and honors.

I first stumbled across him in a debate with Sam Harris.  Harris made an extraordinary remark at the beginning of the debate:
(William Lane Craig is) the one Christian apologist who seems to have put the fear of God into many of my fellow atheists.
This was (probably) intended to reflect the fact that Craig had technically won all the debates he had previously had with non-believers.  What Harris failed to mention was that Craig won those debates in the same manner that debating teams win their championship matches.

It's worth reflecting for a moment on the nature of a championship debate.  The format is similar to that used in many (if not all) of Craig's debates, in which each side is allowed a set time to introduce the arguments for and against the Proposal, a short time for rebuttal and a shorter time for closing statements.  Sometimes an additional period in which each side may field questions from the audience is appended to the standard format.

The topic of a debate, in the context of championship, may be either fully prepared or partially prepared.  Whether the participants argue for or against a proposal is totally unrelated to the what positions they hold themselves.  For example, in the 1994 High School World Debating Championships, the debate topics were "Feminism has corrupted the family", "One superpower is better than two", "Technology has outstripped morality", "Hollywood has a lot to answer for", "Tourists are a global menace" and "Repression of civil rights justifies violent action".  It's quite possible that strident feminist students would have been required to argue that feminism had in fact corrupted the family, students deeply concerned about the possible abuses that a lone superpower might commit could argue that a lone superpower was better than two, etc, etc.

Craig and his opponents may well have debated on different topics, "God is a Delusion", "Does God Exist?", "Belief in God Makes Sense in Light of Tsunamis" (I'm serious, this was a debate topic!), but irrespective of the overarching topic, Craig consistently took the side on which he was supporting the existence of God, or the idea that morality derives from the existence of God.  Unlike the poor High School students, he was not required to publicly attempt a successful argument against a personally held position.  (Neither, so far as I can tell, were his opponents.)

Let us look at the subset of debates that Craig himself highlights.  I've used colour to indicate who the sponsor is (green for natural supporters of Craig, red otherwise) and who the first speaker is (again green for Craig, red otherwise).  Note that the list is in anti-chronological order:
Does God Exist?
William Lane Craig - Stephen Law
Westminster Central Hall, London, United Kingdom – October 2011
Sponsor - Premier Christian Radio
First Speaker - William Lane Craig
Is the Foundation of Morality Natural or Supernatural?
William Lane Craig - Sam Harris
University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, Indiana, United States – April 2011
Sponsor - Center for Philosophy of Religion

First Speaker - William Lane Craig

Is There Evidence For God?
William Lane Craig - Lawrence Krauss
North Carolina State University, Raleigh, North Carolina, – March 30, 2011
Sponsor - Campus Crusade for Christ

First Speaker - William Lane Craig
Is There Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus?
William Lane Craig - Bart D. Ehrman
College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, Massachusetts, United States – March 28, 2006
Sponsor - unclear (but note the location, also note that the opponent is a New Testament scholar - he is self-described as an "agnostic" but he clearly states that he is not an atheist, as noted below I would characterise him as "a recovering Christian")

First Speaker - William Lane Craig

Belief in God Makes Sense in Light of Tsunamis

William Lane Craig - AC Grayling
Oxford Union, United Kingdom – 2005
Sponsor - unclear (although the moderator is currently the Vicar of Bowdon Parish)

First Speaker - William Lane Craig
Does God Exist?
William Lane Craig  - Quentin Smith
Harvard Science Center, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States – April 2003
Sponsor - unclear
First Speaker - Quentin Smith (note not first debate with William Lane Craig and also the two wrote a book together)

Does God Exist?

William Lane Craig  - Ingmar Persson
University of Lund, Sweden – March 18, 1999
Sponsor - Credo Lund (a Christian Student organisation)

First Speaker - William Lane Craig

The Existence of the Christian God

William Lane Craig - Edwin Curley
University of Michigan, Michigan, United States – February 5, 1998
Sponsor - Campus Crusade for Christ

First Speaker - William Lane Craig

Does God Exist?

William Lane Craig - Massimo Pigliucci
University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia, United States – 1998
Sponsor - "Issues Committee" (a comment by Massimo Pigliucci indicated only a few Rationalists in the crowd)

First Speaker - William Lane Craig

Does God Exist?

William Lane Craig - Quentin Smith
Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas, United States – March 22, 1996
Sponsor - Philosophy Department (note the university)

First Speaker - William Lane Craig

Does God Exist?

William Lane Craig - Douglas M. Jesseph
North Carolina State University, North Carolina, United States – 1996
Sponsor - appears to be Jesseph's university (ie North Carolina State University)

First Speaker - Douglas M. Jesseph

Does God Exist?

William Lane Craig - Corey G. Washington
University of Washington, Washington, United States – February 1995
Sponsor - Campus Crusade for Christ

First Speaker - William Lane Craig

Does God Exist?

William Lane Craig - Dr. Michael Tooley
University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado, United States – November 1994
Sponsor - appears to be Tooley's university (ie University of Colorado)

First Speaker - William Lane Craig

Can a Loving God Send People to Hell?

William Lane Craig - Ray Bradley
Simon Frasier University, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada – 1994
Sponsor - appears to be Bradley's university (ie Simon Frasier University)

First Speaker - William Lane Craig

Is the Basis of Morality Natural or Supernatural?

William Lane Craig - Richard Taylor
Union College, Schenectady, New York, United States – October 8, 1993
Sponsor - unclear, but it should be noted that Taylor was a believer
First Speaker - Richard Taylor

Does God Exist?

William Lane Craig - Kai Nielsen
University of Western Ontario, Ontario, Canada – February 1991
Sponsor - unclear but seems to be Nielsen's home territory (Canada)

First Speaker - William Lane Craig
It appears that since 1996, Craig has been quite fortunate in his audience and his ability to speak first. This is not what one would expect in a true debating scenario, where the audience would be largely neutral in regard to the topic and the order of speakers would average out to something somewhat closer to 50-50, rather than (post 1996) 89-11.

I imply that his audience is positive when his sponsor is a Christian organisation because a sponsor has more control over advertising and so on, and has a motivation to stack the audience with people who agree with their cause.  This might be unfair, but I doubt it.  It was difficult to work out who the sponsors unless they were positive to Craig's cause because Craig appears not to acknowledge any other sorts of sponsors.  Anyway, this is another major deviation from the standard debate format.

While there are at least two major deviations from the debate format, being that Craig never has to argue against personally held beliefs and that he seems to have unfair advantages in audience and debating order, Craig still tends to claim victory when the debate is "won" in a debate like fashion.

A true debate is not necessarily won by the side who is strictly correct, for example, one could debate successfully for the forced sterilisation of red-headed children on the grounds that it will, in the long term, reduce bullying in schools but that would be a technical success, not necessarily an indication that it is in fact true that bullying in schools would be eventually eradicated along with the eradication of the gene for red hair.

Similarly, Craig's ability as a debater - in that he has a melodious voice, chiseled good-looks, overweening confidence and oratorial and rhetorical skills - means that he does generally win his debates technically.  What he does, however, is leave the listener with the same sense of distaste that one would get after witnessing a successful argument to have your children sterilised.

So what skills does Craig bring to the table?

He is adept at fallacious argument.  In an earlier article, I mentioned a couple raised at  Ethical Realism: false dilemma and reductio ad absurdum. Craig also uses appeal to emotion. An example is found in a post-debate discussion with Stephen Law in which Craig claims that a valueless universe is abhorrent. Even if this were true, being abhorrent hasn’t stopped things from existing. I don’t like earwigs, but they exist.

He tends to introduce terms without supporting that introduction.  There is an example in the debate with Lewis Wolpert (not one of Craig's favorites, apparently), version of which is quoted at Strong Atheism:
1. “Whatever begins to exist has a cause of its existence.”
2. “The universe began to exist [because infinite time is impossible].”
3. “Therefore, the universe has a cause of its existence.”
4. “If the universe has a cause of its existence, then [we find that] an uncaused, personal Creator of the universe exists, who sans creation is beginningless, changeless, immaterial, timeless, spaceless, and enormously powerful and intelligent.”
5. “Therefore, an uncaused, personal Creator of the universe exists, who sans creation is “beginningless,” changeless, immaterial, timeless, spaceless, and enormously powerful and intelligent.”
In the Wolpert debate, Craig argues (personally transcribed from the mp3 of the debate):
(initially quoting Alexander Vilenkin) "It is said that an argument is what convinces reasonable men and a proof is what it takes to convince even an unreasonable man. With the proof now in place, cosmologists can no longer hide behind the possibility of a past-eternal universe. There is no escape: they have to face the problem of a cosmic beginning."
That problem was nicely captured by Anthony Kenny of the Oxford University, he writes "a proponent of the Big Bang theory, at least if he is an atheist, must believe that the universe came from nothing and by nothing. But surely that doesn’t make sense because out of nothing, nothing comes!" Such a conclusion is in the words of philosopher of science Bernulf Kanitscheider, "is in head-on collision with the most successful ontological commitment" in the history of science, namely the principle out of nothing, nothing comes. So, why does the universe exist, instead of just nothing? where did it come from? There must have been a transcendent cause which brought the universe into being.
We can summarise our argument thus far as follows 1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause, 2. The universe began to exist, 3. Therefore the universe has a cause.
Now, as the cause of space and time, this being must be an uncaused, timeless, spaceless, immaterial being of unfathomable power.  Moreover it must be personal as well. 

Why?  Well, because first of all this event must be beyond space and time. Therefore it cannot be physical or material.  Now there are only two kinds of things that fit that description.  Either abstract objects, like numbers, or an intelligent mind - but abstract objects cannot cause anything.  Therefore it follows that the cause of the universe is a personal, transcendent mind. 

Secondly, how else could a timeless cause give rise to a temporal effect like the universe?
  If the cause were an impersonal set of necessary and sufficient conditions, then the cause could never exist without its effect.  If the cause were permanently present, then the effect would be permanently present as well. The only way for the cause to be timeless and for the effect to begin in time, is for the cause to be a personal agent who freely chooses to create an event in time without any antecedent determining conditions.  And thus we are brought not merely to a transcendent cause of the universe, but to its personal creator.
The major challenge with this tract is to identify all the fallacies!  Staying with unsupported introduction of claims though, see if you can find any support for the claims of the cause being a being and of that being being personal.  There's an appeal to ignorance (how else would one make this argument?) along with the large serving of question begging.

There are appeals to authority, in this case masked authority.  He misquotes Anthony Kenny, who he presents without indicating what his expertise is (he's a philosopher of religion, sound familiar?) and without indicating that the quote dates from a book from 1969.  Even without the misquote (Kenny was talking about the matter in the universe, not the universe per se), the quote itself includes an appeal to ignorance.

Another skill which Craig tends to deploy is distraction, when he says something along the lines of “but let us leave all those problems aside”.   This apparently means “I’ve just raised something to distract you, but don’t think about it too deeply, because if you do you’ll see that my logic is full of holes”.  A good example exists in a piece about Richard Dawkins, while addressing Dawkins’ Critique of Design (see 4.5 here).

Firstly Craig argues that it is unnecessary to explain an explanation (ie if we find arrow heads in our garden, we can reach an explanation which includes some form of intelligent being which made them, without having to explain who or what they were or what they were doing in our garden). Then he argues against Dawkins' argument, namely that Intelligent Design is not elegant because the answer to everything provided by theists is at least as complex as the problems it supposedly solves. Craig says “A hypothesis that has, for example, broader explanatory scope may be less simple than a rival hypothesis but still be preferred because it explains more things. Simplicity is not the only, or even most important, criterion for assessing theories!” and then calls for the reader to leave “all those problems” aside.

He appears to do this because both his arguments against Dawkins fail (or at best are deceptive) if you take any time to review them.  In this particular for example, there is yet another fallacy, that associated with conflation, in that Craig conflates two meanings of "simple".  Nobody, including Dawkins, would argue with Craig's statement regarding hypotheses - because he's using simple in another sense than was obvious in Dawkins argument about elegance.

The creative use of ambiguity seems to be one of William Lane Craig's star turns - he uses it with belief (as argued here) and he uses it with the entirety of premise 1 of his three point moral argument for God (also argued here).  In fact, I'd go so far as to say that when countering Craig's arguments, Sam Harris and his fellow atheists should be very careful to dissect those arguments to ensure not only that they are free of fallacies (which, basically, they won't be) but also that Craig is truly arguing what he asserts to be arguing.

Often he won't.


  1. Just wanted to mention that Bart Ehrman is an agnostic. See for example where he talks a bit about it at 1h 13min.


  2. Thanks Estranged,

    I think he might be better described as "a recovering Christian". In terms of the debate with William Lane Craig , I'd have to term him as opposition. I'll update the entry accordingly.


Feel free to comment, but play nicely!

Sadly, the unremitting attention of a spambot means you may have to verify your humanity.