20 October 2011

Thoughts on the Craig/Law debate

I think that any non-believer who has followed the trajectory of William Lane Craig's debating career has probably imagined debating him. We've gone through the arguments and imagined how we might respond, and we've often criticized some of Craig's atheist opponents for not arguing the way we would.

Craig's doing his 'tour' of the UK, trying to get atheists to debate with him, and the other day he went toe to toe with Stephen Law, a philosopher at the University of London. Craig's debates are usually structured the same: he goes first (arguing the affirmative), and outlines the following five arguments:
  1. The Kalam Cosmological Argument
  2. The Argument from Design
  3. The Moral Argument
  4. The Resurrection Argument
  5. Argument from personal experience
For this debate, though, he ditched 2 and 5. Good. Hopefully he's ditching the fifth because he's realized that arguing for revelatory theology doesn't fly too well in debates that invoke evidential arguments and formal logic. In any case, he cut down. I think that generally speaking, the five-argument approach is designed to inundate his opponent with information – it's very difficult, if not impossible, to substantively rebuke five arguments in 20 minutes. Then Craig comes back with a See? The atheist has no response! riposte and claims a disingenuous victory.

But I digress. I was really hoping that Law would insist on going first. Just once, I'd like to see someone argue a positive case for atheism and put Craig on the defensive. Nonetheless, even though he didn't go first, Law took an unusual approach and did a fine job undermining Craig's arguments.

Stephen Law's philosophical action shot
Instead of trying to dismantle each of Craig's arguments in detail, he recognized that Craig is arguing for a specific kind of God – a good God. Craig has attempted to argue that God's goodness logically follows from his existence [1], but Law jumped on it and argued from the evidential problem of evil,
arguing that the immense amount of gratuitous suffering in the world makes a good God unlikely. But here's where it got interesting: Craig's responses were the usual appeals to mystery (perhaps the suffering does serve some higher purpose that we can't discern; y'know, God's perfect divine plan, blah blah blah). And that's where Law pounced: he showed that the same rationalizations could be used to justify the existence of an evil God, and challenged Craig to demonstrate that God is much more plausibly good than evil.

The tricky thing about philosophy is that so much of it plays on meanings of words. You can 'prove' damn near anything you want if you're clever enough to subtly shift around the precise meanings of various words, like Craig does with the Kalam [2]. So rather than fuss over etymology or semantics, Law essentially used the language of the theistic rationalizations to argue that Evil God is just as likely as Good God. Nice.

I liked Law's approach mainly because it narrowed the focus of the debate. Craig is not arguing for deism or pantheism. He's arguing for the Christian God. Law forced the issue by ignoring the Kalam, which Craig (of course) disingenuously proclaimed as a concession for deism. (See? He didn't answer my argument, thus he concedes!) The Kalam was irrelevant for Law to argue against Craig's God, simply because nothing about the character of the first cause can be discerned from it.

He spend a little bit of time beating down the Moral and Resurrection arguments, but neither were particularly relevant. I'm not going to bother with pointless arguments over who 'won' the debate, but I thought Law did a good job of turning the tables on Craig and putting him on the defensive, which is where he belongs.

More on the debate at Stephen Law's blog.

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