Wednesday, April 13, 2011

william lane craig and debates

William Lane Craig is a philosopher and a christian. In recent years he has specialised in public formal debates with many unbelievers - philosophers, Biblical scholars, scientists and others. He seems to win most of these debates, but some people think he clearly loses.

How can his performance be assessed so differently by different people?

craig & debates

I'm not a great fan of debates - I think they promote an adversarial approach to working out the truth, when we really ought to be helping each other work things out - and I dislike the idea of deciding winners and losers. But debates are generally judged in terms of who wins.

Craig goes into a debate with well-prepared arguments and a strong grasp of logic and logical fallacies. His opponents rarely seem to be as well prepared. As a result, time and time again they seem to run out of steam halfway through, under the pressure of Craig's polite but remorseless logic.

It's not just me who thinks so. Luke Muehlhauser at Commonsense Atheism has said Craig is well ahead of atheist debaters in his understanding of philosophy, New Testament studies and science, and wins almost all of his debates. Luke argues they shouldn't go in against Craig until they are better prepared. He doesn't think Craig is right in his arguments (he dismisses some of them as poor and devious), but he thinks, as presented, Craig's arguments are better than his opponents'. Richard Carrier admitted that he lost his debate with Craig.

craig's debates with Krauss and Harris

Regarding two recent debates, the a-unicornist was not convinced by Craig but felt Krauss was "a bit overwhelmed" while Luke Barnes at Letters to Nature was critical of Laurence Krauss's arguments. Both the Thinking Matters and Possible Worlds blogs concluded that Craig easily defeated Sam Harris. JW Wartick at Always have a reason concludes that Craig won both debates by a margin.

contrary views

Yet it's not hard to find contrary views. So, far, all the contrary views I have found have come from unbelievers, and they take various forms:

  • Some say that Craig simply loses, because his arguments are simply bad. I can't recall anyone who has written their own analysis of any of Craig's debates saying that he lost. But some people who comment on blogs seem to think that they have killer arguments that would sink Craig but his opponents missed them (phrases like "ridiculous and unbelievably badly reasoned" and "Professional liar" are typical).
  • Possibly the most thoughtful and neutral-sounding of the commentators, Russell Blackford, concluded that Sam Harris and Craig were evenly matched, although he seemed to have more criticisms of Harris.
  • Much more common is the view that Craig generally wins, but only because he is a more skilled debater, for his arguments are weak. Typical is this review at Debunking Christianity.
  • Another common view is that Craig always wins, but only because he is dishonest in his argumentation, or boringly sticks to the same ideas every time or that Craig's opponents performed poorly or that theists have some sort of natural advantage that makes it difficult to atheists to even break even. Lawrence Krauss even went public after his debate to explain why he lost and how he could have won, and to expose Craig's "disingenuous distortions, simplifications, and outright lies".
  • Some say Craig wins debates formally, but loses the real battle. They say the real battle is to win over the audience with humour, or to get believers to even consider the arguments for atheism, and it is worth losing debate after debate if it provides that opportunity (John Loftus used this reasoning to justify a poor performance in a debate). Some say this was clearly seen in the Sam Harris debate, where Sam (it is said) gave up the topic halfway through and focused on more general criticisms of christianity.

so what can we conclude?

  1. It seems clear that Craig wins most if not all of his debates, whatever explanation we may give.
  2. Despite this, I don't recall ever seeing a non-believer re-think their position on the truth of even one argument, but instead they offer rationalisations for Craig's success. You would think that this succession of defeats for their arguments would give some pause to people whose worldview is supposedly built on evidence and logic, but it never seems to make any difference. (I don't recall seeing any believers change their views either, but then (1) their champion keeps on winning and (2) they never said their views were based on rationality alone.)
  3. I have always thought that the history of philosophy shows that there are no killer arguments to prove or disprove God, but rather a number of arguments that offer cumulative evidence one way or another. For example, I am not convinced by the christian answers to the problem of evil, and I think that argument will always lead people to think it is less likely that there is a God. But likewise, I think the atheist answers to the various Cosmological and Design arguments are little more than trying to find fancy ways to avoid the obvious, namely that God is the best and only explanation for our universe. My own belief is based on my conclusion that the christian arguments far outweigh the atheist ones. But I find it interesting that I can't recall any atheist admitting even a single theistic argument has weight.
  4. The most interesting aspect, for me, is the thought that the debate is not where the real action is, that atheists can win hearts and minds even while they lose the arguments. I think this is true, and says something about rationality and tactics that both "sides" might profitably consider.
  5. I am therefore left with the conclusion that no-one on either side decides these things on rationality alone. Most unbelievers seem to stick to their gut feelings about God in spite of the arguments, no less than christians do, and use emotive rather than logical arguments just like christians do. I do not criticise them for this, but I do criticise them for not recognising it.
  6. So are debates worthwhile? I think they encourage the troops, especially on the christian side because of Craig's success, but prove little. Perhaps we make too much of them.

Check out William Lane Craig's Reasonable Faith site, or see my review of his Reasonable Faith book.

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