Debating William Lane Craig – an Atheist’s Guide

This is not a post about social science, but it is a post about how to refute arguments for theism. This is socially important, for reasons I explain at the end.

WARNING: I can’t believe I let this go up without stressing that throughout this post I use the term ‘theism’ ONLY in Craig’s technical sense, to refer to the view that belief in divinity is rationally compelled by the available evidence. I do NOT use it to refer to belief in divinity in general. In my view, theism in this sense debases religion. This isn’t an attack on everyone who believes in God.

I have just watched William Lane Craig’s debate with Alex Rosenberg (the ads and the annoying intro end around the 17 minute mark). I was a bit disappointed in Rosenberg, who fell into all Craig’s traps. But Rosenberg has made it clear many times that he is not interested in such debates, and does not believe they do any good. So it was hardly surprising. Still, it is irritating to watch Craig continue to achieve so much success with his brute force strategy. Some arguments take longer to refute than to advance. Thus Craig fills his time with as many arguments as possible and asserts that if even one of them is not refuted then his case stands. The opponent is given equal time, so as long as Craig’s arguments take longer to refute than they do to advance, the opponent has no chance of winning the debate. Time after time, Craig’s debating partners have fallen victim to this strategy. Defending against it requires a pretty extreme strategy in turn.

I think Craig’s arguments can be refuted in less time than it takes for them to be advanced. What his opponents need to do is, first, to abandon needless complexity. Craig’s opponents often seem to be out to prove themselves more subtle than him. This is tempting, but I think subtlety will out in any case. Craig’s opponents need to give up on demonstrating it.

Next, they need to give up on advancing arguments of their own. Arguing for their own position is just something Craig does not leave his opponents time to do. But going purely negative against Craig is not as bad as it seems. Some audience members might leave thinking: ‘Craig really strained to get those arguments out. Clearly he was doing his best. And now we see that his best was not all that good. If a smart man empurples himself to heave out his best possible case for something, and if the result is after all unimpressive, these are in themselves serious grounds for doubting the truth of what he argues for.’

Craig now has eight arguments in his arsenal. Here is what I would say to refute each of them as quickly as possible.

1. Every contingent being has a cause; the universe is a contingent being; God is the most likely cause.

On the minor premise: Why assume that the universe is a contingent being? Craig will say: ‘It might not have existed’. How does he know this? Some philosophers say that something is possible, rather than necessary, if its contrary involves no contradiction. But what is the evidence for that? How do we know that things cannot be necessarily the case without their contraries involving any logical contradiction? How do we know there isn’t such a thing as ‘brute’ necessity? Craig claims that his arguments all involve the notion that the existence of God best explains the data. But facts about contingency and necessity are not data at all; all we perceive is what is actual. Alternatively, Craig might be defining ‘contingent’ as ‘requiring an external cause for its existence’. Then his argument is obviously circular.

On the major premise: Why assume this general rule to hold? Craig gets to it by generalizing from other cases. If, he says, you see a ball on the ground while hiking, you will be right to wonder how it got there. Although the universe is much bigger than the ball, it makes just as much sense to ask how the universe came to be there as it does to ask how the ball came to be there. But in order to generalize from some cases to others, there must be sufficient similarity among the cases. Since all the butterflies I have seen cannot lift something heavier than one kilogram, I might generalize and say: ‘No butterfly can lift something heavier than one kilogram.’ Yet if I come across a giant butterfly from another planet, I would be foolish to hold onto the generalization. Now there is a similarly great difference between the universe and an ordinary thing like a ball. The universe as a whole is an awfully strange beast. For one thing, the universe came into being along with time and space themselves. There doesn’t seem to be anything implausible about holding one set of rules to apply to things that aren’t equiprimordial with time and space and another to apply to the thing(s) that are. Indeed, Craig himself does this. He argues, for example, that nothing comes into being without a material cause – even the alpha particles emitted from a Uraniam 238 atom come into being, he says, out of the quantum vacuum. Yet Craig insists that the universe came into being from no pre-existing matter. If the universe is unique among physical things in coming into being without a material cause, why can’t it also be unique in coming into being without an efficient cause? Craig admits that there is a breakdown of the rules about causation when it comes to the whole physical universe, which is all you need to reject the major premise of his contingency argument. And you don’t even need that to reject his argument, since its minor premise is not compelling anyway.

2. Everything with a beginning has a cause; the universe has a beginning; God is the most likely cause of it.

Here the major premise can be rejected for the same reason as the major premise of the first argument. Also, Roger Penrose, whom Craig takes as an authority concerning the fine-tuning argument, suggests that the minor premise might also be false. Before the Big Bang, Penrose supposes, there might have been another cosmos, and another before that one, and so on, perhaps, ad infinitum. Thus the universe, taken as the sum of all these cosmoi, may not have a beginning at all.

3. Nature is mathematically structured; God is the best explanation for the correspondence between abstract mathematical truths and truths about objects in nature.

Craig’s point seems to be that it is a wonderful coincidence that (for instance) arithmetic, which can be derived entirely within Peano’s formal system, should apply to facts about natural objects. 2+2=4, and, lo and behold, taking two apples and two more gets you four apples. There must be a God to link the outcome of formal reasoning to natural fact in this way. But, in the first place, the fact about the apples might just be a matter of brute necessity. If something is necessarily true, that, and not the existence of God, explains its truth fully. Alternatively, suppose it is a contingent fact: the universe could have been such that taking two apples and two more got you five. Any competent mathematician could develop a formal system with consequences like 2+2=5. They would, presumably, have done so if that provided a reliable way of tracking truths in the natural world. There is nothing special at all about the matching of the theorems of some formal system to natural truths. The only reason we are interested in the formal systems that match up with facts in nature is that they do match up in that way. Craig doesn’t seem to understand mathematics.

4. The fundamental constants of nature are ‘fine-tuned’ for life; God is the likely ‘fine-tuner’.

The constants have their fixed values within our light cone. But physicists tell us that we may well live in a multiverse, in which there are other regions of space-time or other universes in which the values are different. There is nothing improbable about the constants having these values here if they have all possible values somewhere or other. Here Craig makes a desperate appeal to authority: Roger Penrose says that the multiverse theory is contradicted by observation. Penrose is a brilliant maverick. Mavericks are useful in physics; Galileo was a maverick. But they are not automatically right. Would Craig like to tell all the physicists who endorse the multiverse theory that they must be wrong because Penrose says so? Anyway, Penrose has a theory of his own (already mentioned) that does the same explanatory work as the multiverse theory: universes like ours are born out of previous universes and followed by other universes. If our universe might be the googolplexth one in the series, maybe the previous googolplex had non-life permitting values for their constants. Again there would be nothing improbable about these values attaining at some point or other in the cycles of time, without the intervention of a divine being.

5. Our conscious states are ‘intentional’; only God can explain the intentionality of conscious states.

Many philosophers believe that intentionality can be explained without God; Craig needs to show why each of them is wrong. Other philosophers (like Rosenberg) have argued that there are no intentional conscious states. Against this, Craig invokes the common intuition that we have intentional conscious states. But Rosenberg has arguments against trusting such intuitions. What are Craig’s counterarguments? Simply insisting on intuitionism about this matter is not an argument.

6. There are objective moral facts that are irreducible to natural facts; God is the best explanation of them.

The minor premise requires proof. How do we know that objective moral facts exist, and that, if they do exist, they aren’t just natural facts of some kind? Again, a mere appeal to our intuition that such facts exist and are not natural facts is no argument. Moreover, not everybody shares this intuition. I do not find the distinction between moral and natural facts at all intuitive; I could say why, but it would take a while and isn’t necessary because the major premise is probably false.

Why? First, think about the ‘Euthyphro’ dilemma (not really faithful to Plato’s Euthyphro, but who cares?): if God commands us not to do X, his decision to make this command is either arbitrary or constrained by some moral fact that exists independently of his command. If the former, moral facts are arbitrary, which goes against the kind of intuition about morality Craig wants to endorse. If the latter, God’s command does not bring about the moral fact at all. Craig says there is a third possibility: God is identical with the Good; his commands neither bring about the moral facts nor are constrained by them. Rather, they are identical with them. But if the way to explain morality is by positing a being who is the Good, why identify this being with God? Indeed, God seems, in many ways, an implausible candidate for this role. ‘The Good’ would seem to be just the property of good things that qualifies them as good. God, for Craig, is a person or mind. Prima facie, persons and minds seem to go in a different metaphysical category to that of properties. The former are objects that bear properties rather than properties. If it is a property you want, posit a property; don’t posit a mind or person that has, by some extravagant stretch of metaphysical imagination, to be identified with the property.

7. The actual resurrection of Jesus is the best explanation for the eyewitness reports that claim that Jesus was resurrected.

The time and effort that have gone into New Testament scholarship show how hard it is to know anything at all about a past so distant from so few records. R.G. Collingwood once pointed out that if you took most people to Housesteads and asked them: ‘Please distinguish the various periods of construction here, and explain what purpose the builders of each period had in mind’, they would be unable to answer. The physical record is not enough; an archaeologist must know something about the minds and the lives of the builders. We know almost nothing about the minds and the lives of the authors of the Gospels. For all we know they were speaking in elaborate metaphors – readily understood as metaphors by speakers of their common idiolect but not by us who have long ago lost all contact with it. We know that Shakespeare’s histories are not meant as accurate histories because we know something about Shakespeare’s intentions in writing them and about the literary conventions of his time. We know no equivalent facts about the authors of the Gospels. Even if Craig’s questionable claims about the certified authenticity of the Gospels were right, they would prove nothing at all about the appropriate ways to interpret those very authentic documents. As F.H. Bradley aphorized: ‘Our heart’s blood, as we write with it, turns to mere dull ink.’ It should not require much effort for any intelligent person to bring to mind this fact, to which common experience so consistently attests.

8. The existence of God is the best explanation of our subjective religious experiences.

We must stick with what we know of experience, and what we know of it is that it is highly unreliable. The experiences that science has proven to be most reliable are sensory experiences, and even these are often only reliable when we pursue them systematically, by way of cleverly designed experiments and with instrumental aids. The experience of God is not a sensory experience, and nobody has designed any clearly reliable method for testing it systematically against other experiences. Anyway, not everybody experiences God, and people’s experiences of God are widely divergent. Some people experience many gods, others experience an impersonal force, Caliban experienced a God who made the world out of feeling ill at ease. Positing a single entity to account for such diverging experiences is not a technique we would use outside the religious context. Even if we did, there is no motivation to give the posited entity the supernatural characteristics it is represented in some of the experiences as having. If ten children come back from the woods with ten different descriptions of a monster they had seen – or if some saw a monster, others saw monsters, and others weren’t sure what they saw – the most we would be inclined to concede would be that they all saw something. Certainly we would not have to concede that they all saw a monster. I am happy to concede that when people experience God they are experiencing something. But it could be any number of non-divine things: a strong wind, a string of good luck, an exceptionally good or charismatic person, or a mysteriously evocative natural scene. People experience those things because they exist, but they are not God, not, at least, as Craig defines ‘God’.

So much for refuting Craig’s arguments. As I said, he leaves no time for any positive case. For instance, I recommend that anybody debating Craig forget about the problem of evil. Craig is too good at muddying the issue. But if it does come up, the quickest response to what he says is this. The problem of evil is that the existence of an omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent, perfectly benevolent creator is incompatible with the existence of a world with as much evil in it as ours. Craig generally replies that, for all we know, there may be no possible worlds in which we have free will, and there is as much good as there is in this world, and there is less evil than there is in this world (clearly Craig is not a voluntarist who believes that God’s omnipotence entails his ability to create impossible worlds). But he goes on to specify that ‘good’ means ‘knowledge and love of God’. This is a key point in his argument, because it is then possible to say that a lot of suffering might somehow help people to find the true good. My answer to this is simply to reject the definition of good. I think that the true good has nothing to do with God, but has something to do with kindness, flourishing, happiness, and other related concepts. So Craig, on my definition of goodness, has simply denied that God is perfectly benevolent. Why didn’t God make a world in which we were kinder to each other,[1] in which it was easier for us all to flourish and find happiness, although in such a world we might know nothing of him at all? Wouldn’t that be real benevolence? Why was it so important for God to get brand recognition? Craig’s answer is that God made us suffer in order to be able to love and know him ‘for our own good’. But that is trivially true if ‘our own good’ means our knowledge and love of God. If this satisfies the theist’s intuitions about benevolence, then Craig is right that the problem of evil is no problem for the theist. But to me that would just prove that theism begins from perverse moral ideas.


[1] This would require no violation of free will. If God is omniscient, he knows what each of us will choose freely to do. He could, therefore, have made a world in which he knew we would all be as kind as possible. He would not have constrained our free will by choosing that world rather than some other, any more than he constrained it by choosing this world rather than some other.

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5 thoughts on “Debating William Lane Craig – an Atheist’s Guide

  1. Pingback: Defining ‘History of Philosophy’ | Watson Weltanschauung

  2. Alto Berto (@AltoBerto)

    If I may point out that it may be good to turn to Wittgenstein’s theism, or essentially rational mysticism – which goes back through Hegel, Spinoza, Maimonides, right down through the OT prophets & Indian/Greek philosophy/theology. There’s a difference between transcendent theism & say rational experience of the Unutterable. Science or the “rational” can only speak of those experiences common to us all and not the unique experiences of God, that is the God of Abraham, the God of Issac, the God of Jacob etc etc for God was different to each of them yet It is one. It’s as if Theists of this sort ignore that the bible openly talks of atheism, like say in Ecclesiastes.

    Reply
  3. Pingback: Cheap Tricks and the ‘Logical Fallacies’ | Origin of Specious

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