Sunday, July 28, 2013

William Lane Craig versus Rosenberg (part 11)

My series on the February 2013 debate between William Lane Craig and Alex Rosenberg:
  1. The Leibnizian Cosmological Argument
  2. The Kalam Cosmological Argument
  3. The Applicability of Mathematics to the Physical World
  4. The Fine-Tuning of the Universe for Intelligent Life
  5. Intentional States of Consciousness in the World
  6. Objective Moral Values and Duties in the World
  7. The Historical Facts about Jesus of Nazareth
  8. God can be Personally Known and Experienced
  9. Arguments Against Naturalism
  10. Wrap-Up


In February 2013 atheist philosopher Alex Rosenberg debated Christian philosopher William Lane Craig over whether faith in God is reasonable (debate begins at around 17:14). I’ve mentioned before the reason why William Lane Craig wins debates, and since this debate is a good example of how not to debate William Lane Craig, I have been going through some of what Rosenberg did wrong and how he could have done a lot better.

It’s tempting to write off Craig’s victory in this debate to Craig’s debating skills, but that would be a mistake. Don’t get me wrong; Craig is an excellent debater. But the main reason Rosenberg lost had to do with the abysmal case he presented for atheism. I’ve had quite a bit to say about the debate, and I figure it’s high time I try to wrap it up. In a nutshell, Rosenberg lost the debate primarily because he:

  1. Attacked straw men.
  2. Failed to adequately research for the debate.
  3. Failed to attack a premise in a pro-theism, deductively valid (conclusion follows from the premises) argument.
  4. Failure to spot holes in Craig’s arguments.
  5. Used bad objections instead of good ones.
  6. Clumsily handled the argument from evil.
  7. Used time in a non-economic fashion.

I’ll explain each one in a little more detail below.

The Problems, in a Nutshell

1) Straw Men

One problem is that Rosenberg attacked straw men. In the Leibnizian cosmological argument, Rosenberg failed to attack the version of the principle of sufficient reason (PSR) that Craig actually used. In the case of the kalam cosmological argument, Rosenberg said, “For Dr. Craig to insist on the arguments that rest on the claim that every event had a cause, that had to have brought it into being, is just bluff.” Craig however has made it clear in his writings and his talks that this is precisely what the first premise of the KCA (“anything that begins to exist has a cause”) does not claim. You might be able to get away with a straw man when you’re preaching to the choir and nobody calls you on it, but that won’t work against William Lane Craig. Some theists might think Rosenberg intentionally distorted Craig’s position, but that’s clearly B.S. Rosenberg had everything to lose (and did lose!) and nothing to gain by wasting his time attacking a position Craig didn’t hold, because Craig would obviously call him on it. If you’re going to debate William Lane Craig, make sure you attack the positions he actually advocates.

2) Failure to Do Adequate Research

Another problem is that Rosenberg failed to do adequate research. You know the point about the first premise specifically not claiming that every event has a cause? A brief Google search of the Reasonable Faith website (William Lane Craig’s main Christian apologetics website) for “every event has cause” reveals William Lane Craig saying things like, “Notice that I might add that this premise doesn’t say that every event has a cause and Craig clearing up someone else’s apparent confusion that the first premise of the KCA commits us to believing that every event has a cause. Indeed, both of these pages were the top two results of the Google search I did. To the very least, Rosenberg should have read Craig’s writings or seen Craig’s talks and attack only those positions he sees Craig actually putting forth, and not blindly assume Craig holds the position he wants to attack.

Even if we ignore that, there are other examples of Rosenberg failing to do the needful research. Rosenberg made embarrassing statements like saying the New Testament documents were originally written in Aramaic not Greek, and then there’s the fact that he was completely unprepared for Craig’s response to the Euthyphro dilemma. Seriously, did Rosenberg think that Craig had never thought of the Euthyphro dilemma as an objection to his moral argument, or that Craig’s response to the Euthyphro objection couldn’t easily be found via an obscure little thing called Google? He also brought up the World Ensemble objection right after Craig already rebutted it and Rosenberg had no response to Craig’s rebuttal. If you’re going to debate William Lane Craig, you’re going to need to prepare for Craig’s responses to objections. And when you’re dealing with philosophy of religion, researching Craig’s responses to the Euthyphro objection (a common objection against the moral argument) and the World Ensemble explanation (a common rebuttal to the fine-tuning argument) is pretty close to common sense, because those rebuttals against those pro-theism arguments are pretty well known and you have to figure a guy like Craig responded to them. If you want to deliver a high-quality intellectual rebuttal to Craig’s positions in an oral debate, you’re going to need to prepare and do some research.

3) Not Attacking a Premise in a Valid Pro-theism Argument

Another reason Rosenberg lost is that in some cases Craig presented a deductively valid argument for God, when Rosenberg did little or nothing to attack a premise of those deductively valid arguments. Since the conclusion follows logically and inescapably from any valid argument (that’s what the word “valid” means in logic), the logical thing to do is to show that a premise is false or at least insufficiently supported. Remarkably, Rosenberg didn’t attack any premise of Craig’s moral argument for God anywhere in the entire debate. That’s a pretty big lapse when you consider that a false premise is the only way Craig’s argument can fail to be sound. Rosenberg also did little if anything to attack a premise in Craig’s argument from intentional states of consciousness in the world. Unfortunately, Rosenberg is not the first person to make this sort of mistake, so I’ll kind of reiterate here: when a theist presents a deductively valid argument for God, the atheist needs to attack a premise, because a false premise is the only way a deductively valid argument can fail to be sound.

4) Failure to Spot Holes in Craig’s Arguments

Perhaps the biggest example of this is when Craig argued for the Resurrection of Jesus. In Craig’s opening statement, he said three facts support the resurrection of Jesus and says most New Testament historians agree with those three claims. Craig never offers any source for his claim that most New Testament historians accept his three claims. Even ignoring that, there would be the somewhat obvious concern about whether most of these New Testament historians who accept these three claims are already Christians. And apart from Craig’s questionable appeal to authority (and he also appeals to the opinion of the religiously motivated Christian scholar N.T. Wright), he doesn’t offer any reason to believe that these three claims are true! This is a big, gaping hole, and Rosenberg seemed not to notice it.

5) Using Bad Objections Instead of Good Ones

This is related to the above problem (failure to spot holes in Craig’s arguments). It’s almost as if the reason Rosenberg used bad objections was because he didn’t know any good ones. To use a specific example, instead of pointing out the gaping holes I mentioned in Craig’s case for the resurrection, in his first rebuttal he attacked the reliability of eyewitness testimony in general. When you think about it, this is a remarkably and obviously bad objection. If the prosecution offers three eyewitnesses saying they saw the accused do the crime, do you think the defense attorney can just get up and say, “Eyewitness testimony is unreliable” and let that be a sufficient reason to reject the claims of the eyewitnesses? Obviously not. Then there’s the fact that most knowledge of ancient history is ultimately based on (written or otherwise) eyewitness testimony. If we had to throw out all historical claims that critically rely on eyewitness testimony, we’d basically have no ancient history at all (there’s only so much you can learn from the existence of statues and buildings if you reject what any and all ancient documents have to say).

Unfortunately, Rosenberg isn’t the first atheist to use bad objections instead of good ones. I’ve seen a number of atheists on the internet (and even some atheists in books) do the same thing. Again, when preaching to the choir, a lot of atheists won’t call people out on this, but in a debate, Craig probably will. One has to realize that just because a belief is true, this does not mean that every argument for it will be a good one. Before making a pro-atheism objection, think critically about it; think of how you would respond if you were a theist. If the objection doesn’t work, admit it to yourself and find one that does work. This might require some research (just because a belief is false doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll know the refutation right away) but I think the effort will be worth it. In this blog, I’ve tried to shun the bad objections in favor of better ones. Heck, pretty much any part in this William Lane Craig vs. Rosenberg series is an example of me doing just that.

6) Clumsily handling the argument from evil

Done properly, the argument from evil is a great argument against the existence of an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-good God. Which is why I was so dismayed to see Rosenberg mess this up. First, he seemed to be putting forth a bad version of the logical problem of evil (the idea that the existence of God and evil is logically incompatible) that has long been refuted. Moreover, the logical argument from evil in general just doesn’t work, because while God doing nothing as he watches childhood cancer victims die is highly implausible, it is not, strictly speaking, a logical contradiction that he allows them to suffer for some greater good.

In a previous blog entry, I illustrated why the logical possibility of a greater good defeats the logical problem of evil with my story I called Bill the idiot theist. Let’s label the sum total of suffering that has ever existed in this world and will exist Φ. Bill the Idiot Theist thinks Φ suffering makes the angels in heaven smile, and that “Φ suffering making angels smile” is a great good, a much better good than eliminating all the suffering in the world. So on this view, God cannot eliminate any of the suffering that exists without also eliminating the greater good of “Φ suffering making angels smile.” This is the theodicy that Bill the Idiot Theist believes. Bill’s idiotic theodicy is terrible, but it’s not self-contradictory, and so a perfectly good God allowing evil isn’t a logical contradiction even if it is highly implausible. As such, the logical problem of evil doesn’t work.

The failure of the logical problem of evil doesn’t mean it’s all sunshine and daffodils for theism though. Rosenberg could have pointed to the obviously low probability that a perfectly good, omniscient, and omnipotent God would do nothing as he watched child cancer victims succumb to horrible deaths, even if God behaving that way isn’t strictly self-contradictory. If the theist puts forth a terrible theodicy (as in the case of Bill the Idiot Theist), the atheist can point out how terrible it is without saying it is self-contradictory. Rosenberg should have used the evidential argument from evil (the idea that the existence of evil and suffering is evidence against theism), as I did in my own argument from evil.

Rosenberg clumsily handled the argument from evil because at first he seemed to be arguing a bad version of the logical problem of evil, and he didn’t clearly gainsay Craig about it being an issue of logical incompatibility between God and evil (indeed, he says this fairly explicitly in 1:20:03-1:21:43, where he also insists that the problem of evil is a logical one). When Craig responds on how even atheist philosophers have abandoned the logical problem of evil, in Rosenberg’s next round he acts as if he and Craig were talking about a more generic problem of evil all along (1:34:47) rather than the logical problem of evil specifically; e.g. he portrays Craig as asserting that “invoking my best friend, Peter van Inwagen, asserting that nobody anymore believes” that the argument from evil is a problem for theism, even though Craig’s quotes from philosophers that Rosenberg alludes to in this response were clearly about the logical problem of evil specifically, not the argument from evil in general. Rosenberg was egregiously clumsy in handling the argument from evil.

7) Using time in a non-economic fashion

Formal oral debates typically have time limits, so it behooves the debaters to use their time efficiently, e.g. not take four minutes to rebut an argument when a thirty second rebuttal would suffice. Rosenberg screwed up big time on this when it came to addressing William Lane Craig’s army of arguments against naturalism, where such arguments attempt to show that naturalism implies absurd consequences. One problem with Craig’s army of arguments against naturalism is that the debate is about theism versus atheism, not theism versus naturalism. As such, the logical thing to do for Rosenberg when first speaking on the arguments against naturalism would be to point out that he is arguing for atheism in the debate, not naturalism. But while Rosenberg does try to separate the issue of naturalism and atheism in 1:13:02 to 1:18:25, where he says atheism and the other claims follow from science, rather than the set of claims following from atheism per se, he wasted several minutes doing so instead of a much shorter response like, “While those other strange claims of mine are interesting topics in their own right, they are not the subject of tonight’s debate. Tonight I’m arguing that theism is false, not that naturalism is true.”

To be fair, later in the debate, Craig does try to prevent his arguments against naturalism from being a total red herring by claiming that if atheism is true then naturalism is true, but he failed to mention this when he first gave his arguments against naturalism, hence the “While those other strange claims of mine are interesting topics in their own right…” response would have been adequate the first time Rosenberg rebutted Craig’s anti-naturalism arguments. But what about when Craig claimed that naturalism is the most plausible form of atheism, and he argued that naturalism is false? Another tactic would be needed, but it’s not too difficult to think of one once one keeps in mind the following two facts: (1) Craig’s only support of the most controversial premises is that Rosenberg supposedly agrees with them; and (2) what Rosenberg really believes is that it’s not atheism or naturalism per se that implies the apparently absurd consequences, but science. So Rosenberg could have said something like this:

It should be remembered that tonight I’m arguing that theism is false, not that naturalism is true. Craig seems to think that naturalism is the most plausible alternative to atheism, but that won’t matter if atheism plus our background knowledge does not imply the apparently absurd consequences he thinks they do. So for Craig’s arguments to be relevant, Craig would need to show that atheism plus our background knowledge implies those consequences. I don’t believe it’s atheism or naturalism per se that implies things like sentences not having genuine meaning, but rather our background knowledge, especially science, that implies such claims. But because whether I’m right about what science implies about this is not the subject of tonight’s debate, and because I could be wrong about what our background knowledge implies, I’ll play devil’s advocate here so you can better judge for yourselves whether we’re justified in thinking that atheism plus background knowledge implies things like sentences not really having meaning.

At which point, Rosenberg could have pointed out that Craig didn’t really given any justification for the idea that atheism plus background knowledge implies those consequences, and it would have been Craig who wasted a bunch of time (it took a quite bit of time arguing for all those arguments against naturalism), not Rosenberg.

Parting Thoughts

It is worth noting that the last mistake (using time in a non-economic fashion) is the only mistake I’ve catalogued here that is solely about debating skills, as opposed to mistakes relating to the intellectual quality of Rosenberg’s pro-atheism case (using bad objections instead of good ones etc.). So while good debating skills are certainly a valuable asset, we shouldn’t lose sight of the main reason Rosenberg and many other atheists collapse in front of Craig: presenting a tragically inferior intellectual case for atheism.