Top Christian William Lane Craig is on his UK tour, and recently had a debate with the atheist philosopher Stephen Law. Premier Christian Radio seems to be organising the tour, and they’ve posted the audio of the debate.
I listened to the debate. A short summary is below, with a longer one underneath the cut.
The debate topic was “Does God exist?”. Craig ran some of his standard arguments
- The Kalam Cosmological argument, a First Cause argument which avoids the usual “who made God?” riposte by only claiming that “everything that begins to exist has a cause”.
- The moral argument.
- An argument based on the evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus.
Law relied heavily on the evidential argument from evil, and his own variant of that, the one from his paper The Evil God Challenge, which Luke Muehlhauser has previously summarised here. Law has summarised his main argument in the debate on his own blog.
If you want to see my notes on the whole thing, read on, otherwise, skip to the end for my thoughts on how both of them did, and how atheists might do better.
William Lane Craig’s opening
There are good reasons to think that God exists, and there are no good reasons to think that atheism is true. Craig’s good reasons to think that God exists:
Reason 1: The Kalam argument
The universe must have had a beginning. Actual infinities cannot exist because of paradoxes which mean they don’t behave like subtraction on the real numbers. Real things don’t exhibit these paradoxes: infinity is just an idea, not something that exists in reality. Past events are real, therefore finite.
Scientific evidence: Borde-Guth-Vilenkin theorem implies that universe has a beginning.
Atheists might say universe just popped out of nothing. That’s silly: where did it come from? Must be a transcendent cause which brought the universe into being.
1. If the universe began to exist, the universe had a transcendent cause
2. The universe began to exist.
C. The universe had a transcendent cause.
The cause must itself be uncaused (cannot be an infinite regress of causes), changeless and timeless (it created time), immaterial (it created space). Either an abstract object like a number, or an unembodied mind. Abstract objects don’t stand in causal relations (the number 7 doesn’t cause anything), therefore transcendent cause is an unembodied mind.
Reason 2: The moral argument
Without God, objective moral values do not exist. Objective = existing whether people believe in them or not. The atheistic view that morality has evolved does not make morality binding: going against the herd morality merely means you are unfashionable, not wrong.
But objective moral values do exist. Any argument against them relies on premises which seem less likely than the existence of such values. Stephen Law agrees with this: he calls relativism “politically correct twaddle of a rather noxious sort”.
Some people think evil argues against the existence of God. But, on the contrary, without God to ground the objective moral values, good and evil would not exist.
Reason 3: The resurrection of Jesus
Jesus was by all accounts a remarkable individual. Historical consensus is that Jesus claimed authority to speak for God, carried on a ministry of miracle workings and exorcisms. Most importantly, the resurrection. 3 facts:
Fact 1: Jesus tomb was found empty by women followers.
Fact 2: Post-death appearances of Jesus to different individuals and groups.
Fact 3: Original disciples suddenly believed in the resurrection.
N.T. Wright says he cannot explain the rise of early Christianity unless Jesus rose again. Attempts to explain away these facts have been rejected by scholars. Christians are justified in believing the best explanation is that Jesus rose from the dead. That implies that the God of Jesus exists.
Summary: cumulative case based on the origin of the Universe, existence of objective moral values and duties, and resurrection. Stephen Law must tear down these arguments and erect others in their place, or Craig wins.
Stephen Law’s opening
Law’s posted his own transcript of his opening speech. Here are my notes:
Will address Craig’s arguments in first rebuttal, will use this time to lay out his own argument.
Bad stuff happens. Animal suffering: Komodo dragons poisoning and disembowelling each their prey caused wildlife cameraman to give up taking wildlife documentaries. Animals tear each other apart to survive, and this has been going on for millions of years.
Human suffering: parent watching a child die of malnutrition or disease. Over the course of history, parents have had to watch on average of half their children die. Unimaginable horror is part of our world.
Evidential Problem of Evil: If Craig’s God exists, all this must be for the best. An all knowing all powerful God will ensure that the world does not contain gratuitous suffering. There must be an entirely adequate reason for it all. But, with all that suffering, it’s very unlikely it can be explained away.
Suppose, after a bump on the head, I become convinced that there’s a good who is all knowing, all powerful, and as evil as can be. Craig’s Kalam argument doesn’t rule this out.
You probably reject the idea that Evil God exists: the world contains too much good. Why would an evil creator give us a beautiful world to enjoy? Why wouldn’t he destroy all the hospitals? Why would he give us children to love?
Someone who believes in an evil God faces the Evidential Problem of Good. If the problem of Good is fatal to the Evil God hypothesis, why isn’t the problem of Evil fatal to the Good God hypothesis?
Christians have come up with ingenious arguments: free will allows for moral choice and moral good. But there’s a mirror response to the problem of Good: the Evil God wants to allow people to choose evil, rather than creating automata.
Likewise there are mirror arguments for the existence of laws of nature, beauty, love. The soul-making theodicy has a soul-destroying counterpart.
“Mysterious ways” arguments work as well for Evil God as Good: Evil God is omnipotent and omniscient. Don’t presume to know the mind of Evil God!
On the basis of what we see around us, we can rule out an Evil God. So why can’t we similarly rule out the Good God hypothesis? We may not know why the universe exists, but we can rule out both the Good and Evil God hypotheses.
Challenge to Craig: why is belief in a Good God very significantly more reasonable than an Evil one?
Craig’s Kalam says nothing about the moral nature of God. Craig may try a mystery argument, a smokescreen. But this can equally well apply to an Evil God.
Craig’s 1st rebuttal
Stephen Law has not responded to Craig’s arguments for God’s existence. He has offered one reason not to believe: problem of evil.
Problem of evil is the greatest emotional problem for Christians, but philosophers are called to think, not just to say how they feel. Stephen Law would have to prove that it’s highly improbable that God has a reason for allowing evil. Perhaps only in a world full of suffering can the maximum number of people freely come into a relationship with God.
According to Christianity, the purpose of life is not happiness in this world, but coming to know God and finding eternal life. Law has to show there’s another world in which there are more people coming to God but with less suffering. That’s speculation on Law’s part.
God is good by definition: you can’t have an “evil God”. You could have an evil creator. Craig agrees with Law: you cannot prove the creator is good because of the good things in life, just as you cannot prove he is evil because of the bad things in life.
Law mistakenly thinks that theists think God is god after looking at the world. Rather, it’s the moral argument which leads them to think that God is good.
Evil in the world proves God’s existence:
1. If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist.
2. Evil exists: some things are objectively evil.
C: Therefore God exists.
Law admits in his own paper that a moral argument is the best argument against Law’s Evil God argument.
Animal suffering: animals are part of an ecosystem, all ecosystems involve predators. Canadian authorities are re-introducing wolves into Canada to reduce caribou population. An ecosystem needs predators to be balanced.
Animals are not suffering as humans do: though they suffer pain, they’re not self-aware and therefore aren’t aware of being in pain. God has spared the animal world the human experience of suffering.
Summary: Law cannot show that God lacks morally sufficient reasons for the suffering in the world, goodness in the world doesn’t disprove Evil God, evil in the world proves the existence of God.
Law’s 1st rebuttal
Law doesn’t in fact think that Christians think God is good because of what they see in the world around them. He presumes that Christians have other reasons for thinking that God is good.
Craig’s argument that the existence of evil proves God assumes that you need God for there to be good and evil. But in any case, you can run the problem of evil without mentioning evil at all: one could be a moral nihilist and still observe that there’s an enormous amount of suffering which we wouldn’t expect from Craig’s God.
Craig seems to concede Law’s point. He becomes a sceptic and says that we cannot know that there is not an Evil God on the basis of the world around us. But if we reject Evil God on the basis of the world around us, why not Good God too?
Craig’s afterlife explanation can also be run by someone who believes in an Evil God: the good in this world will be more than balanced out by the horror of the next.
We can see, on the basis of the world around us, that there’s no basis for believing in Evil God. Why can we not do the same for the Good God?
Craig’s explanations for animal suffering are variants of the “laws of nature” theodicy, which we can also flip over and run for an Evil God.
Craig’s sceptical theism can also be run for an Evil God. Don’t presume to know the mind of Evil God! If this smokescreen cannot work for Evil God, it can’t work for Good God either.
Craig’s 2nd rebuttal
Law hasn’t responded to any of the 3 arguments for God in Craig’s opening statement. Craig grants that the Kalam doesn’t show God is good, but it’s a pretty strange atheism that admits there’s a powerful, immaterial, personal creator.
Law has retreated from his published position that relativism is wrong. On atheism, there is no explanation for the explanation for the reality of objective moral values and duties, unlike on theism.
Law has not shown that it’s improbable or impossible that God has sufficient reasons for allowing suffering. You cannot disprove Evil God by looking at the good things in the world.
Craig agrees with Law that you can run the problem of evil as the problem of suffering, but then you’re denying the reality of objective evil. Craig quotes Law’s book “Humanism”, where Law says that there is a puzzle about how there could be objective morality independent of humans or even God. Law has no solution to this puzzle.
When we see an incident of evil or suffering, we don’t know what effects may result from it later, so we can’t show that it’s improbable that God has sufficient reasons for allowing suffering.
Law’s 2nd rebuttal
Most philosophers reject Craig’s moral argument (even Christian ones like Swinburne).
Why think that if God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist? The onus is on Craig to show that no atheistic account of objective moral claims can be given. Craig only mentioned that evolution does not make something right, but we all knew that.
We certainly strongly feel that there are objective moral values. Some things that we strongly feel are in fact incorrect (for example, feeling that the Earth is not moving). This strong feeling of objective moral values doesn’t undermine the problem of evil because of the weight of suffering. Rather, Craig’s argument combines with the problem of evil to lead to the conclusion that there are no objective moral values.
Turning to the resurrection. You should be suspicious of arguments to the best explanation. UFO sighting: the best explanation was that people saw a large lighted object. But in fact it was the planet Venus. There are countless reports of miracles, UFOs, whatever, not all of which we can easily come up with mundane explanations for.
Evidence for a hypothesis is good to the extent that we’d expect to see it if the hypothesis were true and, crucially, not expect it if the hypothesis were false. We expect unexplained reports to crop up from time to time anyway, whether or not there are any miracles or UFOs.
Craig’s summing up
Law has conceded that there’s a powerful, immaterial creator. This is a funny form of atheism!
Craig can produce atheist philosophers who agree with Craig’s moral argument to match Law’s use of Swinburne (Law’s Swinburne quote is an argument from authority anyway). Craig quotes Joel Marks’s Confessions of an Ex-Moralist. In the absence of God there is no explanation for moral absolutes.
Law says there are many reports of miracles and we should be careful. But the resurrection of Jesus has no good natural explanation. It occurs in the religious and historical context of Jesus’s life and ministry rather than as a bald anomaly.
All we’ve heard from Law is the Evil God argument, but you can’t disprove either the Evil or Good God by looking at the world.
Law’s summing up
Law has posted his own transcript of his closing speech. Here are my notes:
Suffering happens on a stupendous scale. This is powerful evidence against Craig’s God, as even many Christians agree. Law challenged Craig to explain why his belief in a Good God is better supported than belief in an Evil God, as the latter is clearly absurd.
Craig has mostly just played the mystery card. Law wasn’t relying on Swinburne’s authority: he just pointed out that Craig’s first premise (“no God implies no objective moral values”) has no justification. Even if we accept the premise, because of the mountain of evidence against God from the problem of evil, we should then end up concluding that there are no objective moral values.
The resurrection argument is weak, as Plantinga agrees.
Why may not know why the universe exists, but we can rule out the Evil God quite reasonably. We can also quite reasonably rule out Craig’s Good God.
A heckler: what about a God who’s neither good nor evil?
Law: That’s another one, but I was talking about Craig’s God.
How did they do?
Who won? Hard to say, especially as I’m obviously biased. At the very least, Law wasn’t crushed in the way that some of Craig’s previous opponents have been.
I’m mostly going to offer what I hope is constructive criticism of Law. This is because I’m on his side 🙂
Law’s first rebuttal sounded a bit hesitant. He seemed to be astonished that Craig had actually claimed that theists don’t conclude that God is good from looking at the world and didn’t know how to respond to Craig’s assertion that it’s all about the moral argument.
Law had recovered a bit by his second rebuttal, but even later on, at times he didn’t quite seem to have processed Craig’s statement that looking at the world didn’t provide evidence against either an Evil or a Good God: even after Craig had said that, Law sometimes seemed to be arguing as if Craig had said the opposite.
Craig’s not afraid to use explicit syllogisms or arguments with numbered premises rather than relying on wordy arguments, so laying out the Evil God argument in that form would have allowed people to follow it better.
Law’s failure to respond to the Kalam allowed Craig to score against by calling him a strange sort of atheist who believes in a creator (but see armchair generalship, below).
Craig accepts that we should generally be careful about accepting miracle reports but then argues the Jesus’s resurrection is special. Law is right to say that Craig’s reasons are flimsy, but he needs to say why.
Craig only used for 3 of his usual 5 arguments for God’s existence. He left out the fine tuning argument and the argument from religious experience (which he usually turns into something close to an altar call). Law has written some strong rebuttals to the experience argument, and Law wondered whether Craig avoided it because of those. It’d be interesting to hear from Craig whether he avoided it for that reason.
In which I play the armchair general with 20-20 hindsight
Craig’s claim that theists don’t conclude the creator is good from looking at the world sounds well dodgy: you do see Christians saying stuff about how beautiful the world is and how that’s evidence for their God. When Craig makes a claim where he seems to deviate from what Christians actually do, it’s worth playing that up: “If you’re a Christian who thinks that the beauty of the world is evidence for the Christian God, Dr Craig would disagree with you, apparently.”
How do you solve a problem like the Kalam?
I’m not sure what I think of Law’s refusal to say much about the Kalam (other than that it was also an argument for Evil God). It allowed Craig to score, but it could have ultimately been a good tactic as Craig’s previous debates on the Kalam tend to turn into people trading obscure arguments about infinite sets or quoting from popular physics books.
If you’re going to use Law’s tactic, though, again you need to play it up more: “The title of the debate is ‘Does God Exist?’, and it’s the Christian God that Craig is advocating, not any other possible gods. Craig is a Christian evangelist, the Kalam is there to lead you towards Christianity. But even if you are convinced by the Kalam, you are a long way from Christianity. There are countless other possibilities which shouldn’t be ruled out merely because they’re not as familiar as the Christian God you learned about at school, or because believing in them would make you a strange sort of atheist.”
Arguments from authority
It’s noticeable that Craig’s allowed to quote people at length, but as soon as anyone else does, it’s an argument from authority. That should be an easy (and funny) point for an opponent to make: Craig’s defence of his moral argument is mostly quotes from people saying they agree with one or other of the premises. If Craig responds that he’s quoting competent authorities, ask whether Swinburne or Plantinga are incompetent 🙂
Craig didn’t seem as polished on the resurrection as he has in the past, perhaps because he was expecting to get into the details and quote some more authorities. Law took it in another direction: just another unexplained weird report, like a UFO sighting that we reasonably assume wasn’t caused by aliens without getting into the details of who saw what. All Craig can say about that is that there’s no obvious natural explanation (which Law seemed to agree with and which doesn’t affect Law’s argument) and that there’s something special about the context, by which he seems to mean the life of Jesus. That seemed ideal ground for a more specific counter-attack from Law than just calling it “flimsy”.
The moral argument
The moral argument is a tough one because people are psychologically attached to both premises. In front of a general audience, I can see why Law wanted to be a bit careful not to deny absolute morality: Craig can then go into his usual routine about how there’s nothing wrong with rape on atheism, or whatever.
Arif Ahmed famously did go after Craig on that second premise: “Dr. Craig says that ‘objective moral values exist, and I think we all know it’. Now that might pass for an argument at Talbot Theological Seminary, and it might pass for an argument in the White House, but this is Cambridge, and it will not pass for an argument here.” But Ahmed was talking in front of philosophy students.
Craig does get away with denying strong feelings, responding to the problem of evil. He says that philosophers are called to think rather than go on feelings, so perhaps that’s sauce for the gander: our strong feeling that some things are Just Wrong shouldn’t prevent us from thinking about it. If you’re going to do that you do need to genuflect in the direction of people’s feelings, though, as Craig does.
I think I’d try to unpick the psychological attachment: what looks different in a world where are no moral absolutes of the sort Craig wants when compared with a world where there are? Not much, as far as I can tell: even if they are there, people need some reason to obey them and it’s open to them to say “I don’t care what’s Right”. If you somehow discovered that there really were no moral absolutes, would you run out an murder your neighbour?
Craig accepts that the Kalam establishes the existence of a creator who might be evil, for all the argument tells us, but goes on to say that the moral argument shows that God is good. How does he know that whatever being “grounds” morality is the same being as this creator from the Kalam? Can the “God” in that the “no God means no real morality” premise be someone other than the creator? What is it about being a creator that also grants you morality-grounding powers? It’s all pretty mysterious.
Similarly, what is it about the resurrection that links Jesus to the creator and to the morality-grounder?
In both these cases, Craig’s relying on the audience’s familiarity with Christianity to make the segue from one argument to the next seem obvious, but these are very burdensome details. The audience’s familiarity with this stuff makes them vulnerable to conjunction bias. It’s worth trying to get the audience to take an outsider’s view of how the arguments work.
This Christian apologist thought Craig lost and came up with his own Evil God version of the moral argument, but thought that not questioning the Kalam made Law a funny sort of atheist.
Randal Rauser, another Christian, hosted an interesting discussion about Law’s choice to only attack God’s goodness. If Law is right, has he shown “God does not exist”?
Edit: Gregory Lewis has produced some excellent argument maps of the debate. I’d recommend those for another view of how it went.