Anti-theists seem frustrated with Craig. They “know” that his views are irrational, but they are unable to really nail him for it in a debate. What’s going on?
Some might say that Craig uses tactics that deliberately obscure (I guess it must be those rather dense arguments he offers at the beginning). Others might say that the whole format of debate is unfair to atheists. The idea is that the case for anti-theism isn’t one of a knockdown, drag-out argument that shows that God doesn’t exist. It’s more of a case of a death of a thousand cuts for theism. Over hundreds of years more and more of what was part of, or mingled with, or attached to religion has become less and less reasonable to believe. Combine this with the fact that virtually all believers do not believe because of a carefully investigated case for theism, it seems obvious that a more enlightened person wouldn’t believe. But how do you make this intuition attractive in the space of two hours? It takes years of constantly seeing the religious way being defeated by, say, the secular way, or the scientific way. On the other hand, the classic reasons for theism are pretty succinct: they can be presented in two hours.
I’ve seen most of Craig’s debates (on YouTube). I don’t see the anti-theist gaining the upper-hand in any of them. But I also find myself not quite satisfied with Craig’s case either. So as an exercise to clarify in my own mind what I think the issues are, I’ll try to quickly spell out how I would oppose him.
To start, I don’t think any of the above is the reason for the defeats. I think it’s due to not seeing where the real dispute is: it’s in the ground rules. This will be clear when I describe how I’d debate Craig.
Before I go further, I should add that as a former Talbot philosophy student, I don’t really want to win; I’d rather lose, in fact. But I find myself in the place of Glaucon in Plato’s Republic: he thought that if anyone can prove that justice has value in itself, Socrates can. So Glaucon opposed Socrates, in hopes of gaining the proof he desired. I will oppose Craig with the same hope. Anyway, here’s what I’d do.
Craig typically has five arguments for God’s existence: The first two are versions of the cosmological argument, the third is a fine-tuning version of the teleological argument, the fourth is an argument from morality, the fifth is an argument from the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. He offers the arguments, then challenges the atheist to refute all of them, and establish a positive case for God’s non-existence. He also sets a pretty low bar for himself regarding his deductive arguments: If he can present a deductively valid argument with premises that are both true and more plausible than their negations, then his arguments should be accepted as sound, and his conclusions should be accepted.
Since Craig speaks first, it appears he gets to set the terms of the debate in the above fashion. Of course, the anti-theist need not accept the terms. But here’s where anti-theists fail: they don’t really clearly address and convincingly challenge the terms. Most often they go into some sort of tangent about how people who believe in God arrive at the belief in an irrational way, or how great science is, or . . . If I were one of those guys, disputing this would be the first thing I’d do. I’d do this by setting my own terms for the debate.
How would this go? First, clarity regarding who has the burden of proof needs to be achieved. Burden of proof does come up occasionally in the debates, but never in a clear and organized way. I’d first distinguish the types of atheism that could be defended, and argue that the version I would be defending definitely does not have the burden of proof. Here the distinction between positive and negative atheism needs to be made. What I’d say is that negative atheism, the view that refuses to make a commitment regarding God’s existence, does not have a burden of proof. Positive atheism, the view that God doesn’t exist, does. To win the debate in favor of negative atheism, all I’d have to do is cast doubt on Craig’s arguments. Only if I wish to gain positive atheism would I have to do more.
Second, I’d say that regarding his deductive arguments, we can’t know for certain if their premises are true or not: thus truth of the premises isn’t something we can use to evaluate his arguments. All we have to work with, in our epistemic situation, is their plausibility. And here’s where Craig is definitely mistaken: mere balance of the probability isn’t enough. Consider an argument with two premises “A” and “B,” each having a probability of .51; the conclusion will follow only if they are both true, that is, if “A & B” is true. But the probability of that is .51 x .51 (if they are independent), which is .2601. Thus the probability of all the premises being true, which is what is needed, is low, even when both premises are on the balance probable. And the more premises you have in the argument, the worse it gets. You need more than just 51% chance of truth for each premise to overcome this.
Third, Craig also uses inductive arguments where God’s actions are supposedly the best explanation for some set of data (e.g., the fine-tuning of the constants in physics, facts associated with the resurrection of Jesus). He then argues that God’s action does a good job of explaining them. But he’s assuming here that God and the resurrection are just like any other ordinary explanation, and all he has to do is argue that God explains the facts better. But God’s actions aren’t ordinary explanations; they are extraordinary explanations. That is, God is a lot like aliens: if we want to explain some observation, say of crop-circles, we’d have to have extremely powerful evidence if we want to use aliens. We wouldn’t need as much if we were to explain it as a prank perpetrated by bored Nebraskans. The same goes with God. This argument is based on the idea that the God hypothesis suffers from a low prior probability, the initial probability of the hypothesis on our background information, before any specific evidence is considered. Natural explanations are never as bad off in this regard as God.
My replacement terms would thus be: First, I only need to raise doubt about Craig’s arguments to justify atheism. Second, to win with his deductive arguments, Craig has to establish the premises with a pretty high probability, and not with just mere balance of probability. Third, to win with his inductive arguments, he can’t just show that God explains the data best, he has to show that God as an explanation is so vastly superior to not only the available explanations, but any possible explanation that could in theory be discovered. That is, he has a dual burden of proof: he has to provide evidence for God, and he has to show that God as an explanation is so vastly superior to any possible natural explanation that we can safely rule them out.
I think that atheist debaters agree with my rules, mentioning parts of them at various times. But never do they systematically lay them out in a convincing way. If they are able to do so, they would gain a tremendous advantage.
Then the rest of my case would consist in showing that the premises in Craig’s deductive arguments at best enjoy a marginal probability advantage over their competitors: not enough for Craig to win. I’d also argue that though one could invoke God to explain the fine-tuning of the universe and facts connected with Jesus, the fine-tuning or the resurrection hypothesis is never so vastly superior to any possible natural explanation to win the day.
Consider this passage from James, Ch. 1:
If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do. (emphasis mine)
This passage pretty much defeats the point of my blog, as far as doubting is concerned. I don’t like the passage, quite frankly. I don’t like to be told to simply believe and not doubt. Criminals, swindlers, manipulative spouses/boyfriends/girlfriends, cult leaders, scam artists, etc. also say this. You are a sucker if you are taken in. I don’t want to be taken in. Give me good evidence, and give me space to think about it before I commit.
Some think that one does need evidence to be rational in holding a belief. Philosophers can find counterexamples, but, for the most part, in the corrupt world we are in, it’s not bad advice. Why is simply believing such a virtue in the Bible? Why is it a command?
A skeptic might reply, “Because it’s all balderdash. It’s the only way to win converts to this ridiculous set of beliefs.” And there is some plausibility in it. The Bible does ask us to believe some rather hard to believe stuff. And when others make similar requests about their balderdash, invariably, whenever investigated, it’s shown to be either false or so vague as to be untestable. People are swines much of the time: can’t trust ‘em.
What can I say in faith’s defense? The best I can do is say that God is a person, and that persons like to be trusted. In fact, mistrust is a relationship destroyer. God desires relationships with people. The nature of this relationship is Savior/Creator to creature who needs saving. God desires this trust as our superior and our friend. Also, it might be that much that is behind the things God does is beyond our ken, and the best God can do (even as an omnipotent being) is either give us a metaphor or tell us to just trust Him.
Still, the possibility of chicanery hasn’t been ruled out: How do we know God has said all this, as opposed to some set of unscrupulous evangelists, well-meaning buffoons, or ordinary naive peasants?
My best answer at this point is to say that there is some evidence for Christianity, but it isn’t conclusive. There is also a faith gap. You do have to have some faith. You do have to take a risk, just as you do when you get married or even form a friendship. You can get duped, for sure. But, as William James said, there are worse fates than that of being a dupe.
In an earlier post I refuted Richard Dawkins’ Ultimate Boeing 747 Gambit (Actually, I cannot really take credit for it, for the main ideas are pretty much straight from Alvin Plantinga.). Is there something an atheist can do to respond?
Recall that Dawkins’ argument amounts to saying that God is improbable because He’s complex (Any being smart enough to create us has to be complex.). The response is that the complexity Dawkins needs is physical complexity, the complexity of having physical parts. But God is not a physical object, therefore, God cannot be complex in the sense Dawkins needs.
If I were an atheist I’d reply that the whole idea of a mind that is not physical (or not based in/caused by the physical) is implausible. All the confirmable examples of minds seem based in or caused by physical brains. The most plausible examples of the immaterial: numbers, mathematical proofs, formulas, etc. are not capable of thinking, designing, creating, etc.
So the real argument is about the whole idea of an immaterial mind; it’s the argument for materialism. Of course, if Dawkins were to repair his argument by adding a bit that established that the mind of God would have to be physical because all minds are physical, then he’s already won (as far as the immaterial God of classic theism is concerned, he’s ruled it out); he wouldn’t need the rest of the gambit!
On the other hand, the rest of the gambit might come in handy in refuting physical gods, gods like Thor or Zeus or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. But I and most of the rest of the world’s theists don’t care about them; as far as I and other Christians/Jews/Muslims are concerned, the Ultimate Boeing 747 Gambit would still be superfluous.
However, the interesting point for theists is this: if Dawkins is unable to show that all minds are physically based (and physically complex), then his argument would, in effect, refute all non-theistic gods like Thor, Zeus, etc., but leave untouched the immaterial Almighty God. This could be very useful to apologists of theistic religions: they now have an argument against most of the world’s pantheon! They have an argument that refutes the stupid Flying Spaghetti Monster while leaving God Himself untouched!
Check out this article in the Guardian. Chris Arnade seems to be having a bit of a softer heart for the down-and-outs who turn to God in their misery for hope. He used to be a cold logician; cold logicians couldn’t possibly believe in something as preposterous as God or the Bible. But now, after he’s spent time serving the homeless, he can sympathize with those who need such a crutch. Not like that mean ol’ Richard Dawkins.
Part of me wants to appreciate the sort-of conciliatory move he makes here. He’s become more humble, for he realized that he has had advantages that make it easier for him to pursue rationality. But part of me thinks he’s being a bit patronizing. What’s more, he’s assuming fakes (In terms of philosophy, that is. I judge him not as a biologist) like Richard Dawkins really have good arguments, and that reason really is on his side as an atheist.
Please stop. That’s sooooooo annoying. I disagree with his fundamental assumption that atheism is that rational, or any more rational than theism. I guess Arnade was thinking it is because, in his own words, he was picking on “the skinny 85lb (35.6kg) weakling” (I like the metric reference, btw, very nice scientific rhetorical touch). The Bible is easy to pick on because it’s not a modern book. Furthermore, the interpretations of Bible passages atheists attack are almost always the most fundamentalist, literal, unsophisticated views one can take on the passages. Besides, one doesn’t have to believe everything in the Bible to believe in God, or to be a Christian, for that matter.
When more sophisticated cases for God’s existence or more sophisticated views of the Bible are brought forward, these atheists have a lot less to say. This leads me to believe that people like Arnade are thinking of strawmen theists (like those homeless guys). Guys like William Lane Craig (whom Richard Dawkins is afraid to debate) defeat atheists all the time in debate.
The main reason I think atheists have for rejecting God, Christianity, and what not is not very sophisticated anyway: it certainly doesn’t require a college degree to understand. It’s more like, “Can’t you just see how silly it is to believe in some dude in the sky, or that the Earth is only 6000 years old?! You can’t see it because you’ve been brainwashed. You see how silly the other gods like Wotan or Thor are, why not your own?!” But it’s the point of blogs like this to show that belief in God is not really that silly when one digs beneath the surface.
But my main fear is that more and more educated people will see reason on the side of atheism, and emotion on the side of theism, and feel that the choice here is between head and heart. I say that reason isn’t necessarily on the side of atheism. You can have both head and heart in Jesus, my friend.
I like that philosophical expression, if you haven’t noticed already. Here’s another version of it I find interesting. Consider this modus ponens, sometimes used to support anti-theism:
(1) If science is the limit of knowledge, then claims that are not part of science cannot be justified or known.
(2) Science is the limit of knowledge.
(3) Therefore, claims that are not part of science cannot be justified or known.
Compare with this modus tollens:
(1) If science is the limit of knowledge, then claims that are not part of science cannot be justified or known.
(2′) Claims that are not part of science can be justified or known.
(3′) Therefore, science isn’t the limit of knowledge.
Both arguments are valid; it all boils down to whether their premises are true. (1) seems pretty plausible. So it’s down to whether (2) or (2′) has more going for it.
(2) is supported by the comparative success of science. Science has brought us lots of knowledge and technology; other non-scientific fields aren’t as successful. Furthermore, you can verify scientific claims with observations and experiments; not so for non-scientific claims.
(2′) is supported by the plausibility that moral claims, which are not part of science, can be known or justified. Here I’m not talking about controversial stuff (e.g., Is euthanasia ever justified?), but about things all but the sociopaths of the world know, e.g., that we have a basic duty not to hurt other people unless there is an overriding competing duty of greater weight. That is, you can’t just hurt people for fun.
Another point in favor of (2′), (2). (2) is not part of science. If we accept (1), we have to reject knowledge of (2)! It’s a meta-scientific statement, or a statement in the philosophy of science, and not a part of science per se.
Also, consider scientific claims that border on metaphysics, such as the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics. Or consider scientific claims about the distant past that cannot be verified by an experiment (the Big Bang, for example). These weaken the reasons for (2).
Finally, I’d add there is a burden of proof on those who deny objective morality; it’s better to err on the side of saying that rape is really wrong than saying that “rape is wrong” is nothing more than a societal convention or personal preference. It then follows that there is a burden of proof on (2).
Also, a point of clarification, (2′) isn’t claiming that all non-scientific claims are justified/known, only that some are. (2) is the universal claim, not (2′). (2′) merely claims there are counterexamples to (2).
So I reject the modus ponens and accept the modus tollens. Science is not the limit of knowledge.
Finally, consider a similar argument pair:
(a) If science is the limit of objectivity, then claims that are not part of science are merely subjective.
(b) Science is the limit of objectivity.
(c) Therefore, claims that are not part of science are merely subjective.
Compare with this modus tollens:
(a) If science is the limit of objectivity, then claims that are not part of science are merely subjective.
(b’) Claims that are not part of science are not merely subjective.
(c’) Therefore, science isn’t the limit of objectivity.
An analogous conflict exists here between (b) and (b’). And analogous reasons exist to prefer (b’). Unfortunately, a lot of scientists, and people in general (like my students) seem to think (b) is true. I cannot accept this.
There’s a lot of hatred toward Christianity these days. Some of it can’t be avoided, if the Bible is right. For it predicts opposition from Satan, God’s enemy, who rules the minds of most earthlings.
But Satan doesn’t just directly try to turn people against God. He also tries to get Christians to act immorally/unethically/irrationally, with the aim of tarnishing God’s reputation. And Satan has been pretty successful so far.
We all know about the Inquisition, the Crusades, witch trials and the like. But, honestly, Christians don’t do this kind of stuff anymore. Or if some do, it’s a very small group. You can’t reject the whole of Christianity because a few people abuse it.
But there are other abuses. One of these is the weird mixture of Christianity and the Republican Party (I’m speaking of America, of course. I don’t know as much about other countries.). Sure, I can see the connection between anti-abortionists and the more or less biblical view (I say “more or less” because I’m not sure it’s wholly supported by scripture in the ways that anti-abortionists claim) that fetuses are persons and have a right to life. I can also see why they might oppose homosexuality because of the Bible. But I just don’t see what “small government” and the Tea Party have to do with Jesus. I don’t see why the Bible is seen as support for an ambivalent attitude toward racial minorities, nor why it would necessarily support a hard-line and rather cold approach to illegal immigrants from Latin America. I certainly don’t see why being a Christian would mean supporting weak gun-control laws, or less government oversight of Wall Street, or the “shoot first, ask questions later” approach to Iraq that Bush took, or the hatred of Obama rampant in the red states.
It’s historical accident, of course. Most conservative people in America live in the countryside/South. In the country you don’t run into people of other ethnicities so much, you don’t like the idea of some government thousands of miles away filled with bureaucrats telling you how to run your farm and asking you to support some inner-city kid from Mexico (the South took this pretty far in the past, of course). You like the idea of standing up for yourself, not backing down from a fight. You also like hunting, and proudly serve in the military. You also think that people have a duty to be strong, for country people are strong, and weakness/poverty is a sin or at least a defect of some kind. Bleeding-hearts promote weakness. It also just so happens that America was more Christian in the past than it is now, and thus those with conservative bents will bend toward whatever happens to be traditional. But that connection is historical accident, or worse (Satan?).
And the fact that it’s historical accident is made really vivid when you notice that the red states were mostly Democratic 50 years ago, back before Democrats started supporting the rights of minorities, when the Democrats favored a “states’s rights” agenda. It’s only with Kennedy and Johnson that the Democratic party started supporting the Civil Rights Movement, and it was with them that the South turned red*. And these same states connected their Christianity to their southernness and preference for the Democratic Party.
I wish the accident will be seen for what it is. But too many Christians seem to think that being a Republican somehow follows from being a Christian. I think that’s nonsense. I think that this is more a sign of the syncretism human beings are so susceptible to. When people hear about Christianity, it is an almost universal temptation to want to mix the teachings with the beliefs one already has. Cultures take Jesus and mix Him with tribal religions all the time. Maybe American frontier-ism or small-town-ism is also mixed with Jesus in the same way**.
But this turns people who are not so provincial off to Christianity. And it leads to abuses as well: one shouldn’t denigrate poor minorities in the city and tie it to the Bible or being a Christian somehow. One certainly shouldn’t use it as a justification for violence upon LGBT folks either.
I’m not bashing small-town or Southern culture here (nothing will get a Southerner rill’ed more than speaking evil of the South), for there are some nice things about them (I lived in both), the community aspect is one of them (e.g., my car broke down once, almost immediately two men were helping me get it running again). But my complaint is that there is also a dark side to that life (e.g., If I were black, those two men almost certainly wouldn’t have helped, given how racist the town was), and because these places tend to be more Christian than others we associate that dark side with Christianity, an association that is illusory. That is what I’m speaking against.
* Another accident, “red” states. I remember watching the Reagan/Mondale election, when Reagan’s states were represented with blue (I forgot which channel it was). The newscast kept referring to the “Blue Wave” that was sweeping the country as Reagan won state after state.
** “Taught the fear of Jesus in a small town” — John Mellencamp. Listen to the song, Jesus is one of the many things that are part of small town life. But it’s the small town that’s emphasized.
This post is mostly about believers. Or, better, the general public. The topics I blog about often come up in my intro to philosophy classes. Some students are interested. Many are not.
My strategy has been to try to generate interest by tying philosophical debates into the God debate. We cover, say, epistemology (the theory of knowledge) and compare rationalism and empiricism. Some students yawn when 18th century philosophy comes up (not your party topic). But my hope is that if I can say that empiricism is threatening to their religious beliefs, I will pique some interest. The same with the philosophy of mind. Again, yawns. But if I can show them that materialism means no life after death, Jesus, or karma (most seem to believe in all), maybe I can get some interest.
It works, but only if I make it very confrontational. I tell them that a lot of my atheist colleagues think students (and the public, for the most part) are stupid, ignorant, etc., and that people need to grow up and stop believing fairy tales. This wakes them up (people always perk up when there is conflict). It’s easy for me, because I’m not “one of them,” of course.
But then something interesting happens. When I ask them whether all these smart people being atheists bothers them (like it bothered me), they say “No.” I asked, “What about their arguments?” Again, students don’t really care. They usually say that the atheist scientists and philosophers are entitled to their opinions, but that they are just that, opinions. It’s all just opinion.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, and all that. There’s a long intellectual history about “it’s all just opinion.” One can get into the subjectivism of Kierkegaard, the underworld of postmodern thought, Derrida, Foucault, Beaudrillard and the like. But that’s not what’s going on here: these people have never heard of all that (or care). My guess is this: people in America feel that they have a right to their opinions, especially about things they consider to be in their private lives. The whole idea of having to change their opinion because of experts is noxious to them (they would only do this if there were some immediate practical consequence of being mistaken). And this is where logic/evidence comes in. If the authorities use logic, and the people responded, that would give them power over the people regarding their choice of belief. And the people don’t like that. This isn’t the Soviet Union.
That’s my current theory, though I’d add that “the cares of this life” also weighs in with the average Joes: they are thinking about getting a good job, paying the rent, feeding the kids, getting a girlfriend/boyfriend, or keeping a girlfriend/boyfriend, or getting rid of a girlfriend/boyfriend, getting a good grade (my hook), or the sale at Nordstrom (for my wealthier, suburban female students). These cares choke the seeds of inquiry and make them unfruitful. Educated people think about these things too (maybe not the sale at Nordstrom), of course, but they also think about other things as well.
Since it is “just a matter of opinion,” and changing belief/discussion has a cost of some kind, and since there is no immediate practical outcome that depends on their being right about, say, God, and finally since there are better things to do, most people don’t engage in this debate. My strategy is to say that they cannot refuse to engage, for logic challenges them. But for them, logic is just another tool of authority that they need not obey. It’s a free country!
But there are people who are deeply spiritual, and not merely apathetic, who reject this debate as well. I knew many in InterVarsity Christian Fellowship back when I was in college. For them, logic is equated with arrogance. Also, they see a relationship with God as that, a relationship. It’s personal. It’s emotional. “Can’t you just feel Him?!” They were/are (I hope are too) more interested in loving Jesus than arguing that He rose from the dead.
Back then I didn’t respect that, but I do now. For that’s what God wants, if the Bible is right. God wants us to love Him more than anything else. My difficulty, though, still remains. What if God doesn’t exist? All this love would be a delusion. And a costly one, too, for Christianity, at any rate, is very demanding. I almost feel that these people are victims in a way; a meme has got hold of them, in the form of a person they love.
But they would say, and maybe they are right, that I’m the victim. These things are all beyond human ken. One of the tricks of Satan is to get us to disobey the Bible and “rely on our own understanding” — he can outfox us every time. Even from a secular point of view, human understanding is limited (if the philosophical skeptics are right, and so far no one has proven them wrong, I don’t even know I am typing at my computer right now). It may even be skewed in important, yet undetectable ways, especially if atheistic evolution is true (evolution is concerned with survival and reproduction; truth is only one possible means to these ends).
At bottom I wonder what use logic really is, if this sort of skepticism is true. If Calvin and many other Christian thinkers are right, our ability to reason has been seriously compromised by the Fall. And it seems that, to many, including my students, the sides are at a stalemate. Intelligent people are, indeed, defending both sides.
Still, I think that I should keep on thinking, as well as others. For at least we might know that we can’t know. That’s something. Surely God isn’t against our using logic if we use it carefully and not as an excuse to bag Him.
Oddly enough, I think I do have a lot in common with atheists in this regard. I actually get along better with most atheists than I do with most Christians (I had much more fruitful and interesting discussions with, say, atheists in my department back in grad school, than with people at church.). I, and Christians like me, feel that we shouldn’t throw our minds away when we enter the church doors.