Some follow-up reflections on William Lane Craig's response to my post

After writing my post yesterday, I was thinking about some of the things Dr. Craig said in his response to me. The more I thought about them, the more I started to think I may have been a little too kind in my response.

Craig employed a few tactics that I frankly find to be disingenuous - the kind of thing someone might do if they want to 'win' on rhetoric without substantively addressing the arguments at hand.

1. His own comments were vague, and he leveraged that ambiguity to assert that his point was "obvious."

Craig's basic argument was that in principle, no physical object can exhibit "intentionality." But that's not what he said; instead, he mentioned simple objects like chairs and rocks, and then referred to the human brain - the single most complex biological object known to exist - as a "gob of tissue." I'm not sure why he would take that course if the complexity of physical objects wasn't part of his argument. He could have fully acknowledged the complexity of the human brain, or used artificial intelligence as an example. But cognition and machine learning don't lend themselves to that kind of rhetorical reductionism.

If his argument was simply that physical objects can't produce intentionality, why didn't he just say that and skip the absurd characterization of the brain as a "gob of tissue"? I suspect it's because you immediately run headfirst into the problem of what, scientifically, we know the brain does: the brain is responsible for human cognition. If "intentional states" are at least possibly part of cognition, then his argument needs to be a bit more nuanced and technical because he'd have to show that the human brain, in principle, can't produce cognition and, by proxy, intentional states.

But he didn't do that. And in his response to me, he said, "but that's obviously no part of my argument," as though complexity was clearly never part of the conversation. I don't think he was as clear as he's claiming he was.


2. Craig repeatedly misrepresented Rosenberg's position, and falsely implied that Rosenberg agreed with him.

Craig framed the argument from intentionality as a problem that naturalists need to solve. He claimed that Rosenberg agreed with him that this is a tough problem for atheism - which doesn't make any sense, since he also claimed that Rosenberg rejects intentionality altogether.

The latter part is accurate; Rosenberg does reject intentionality - or at least the Craig/Plantinga framing of the concept. Craig didn't offer any evidence that intentional thoughts exist, outside of his own incredulity: "Dr. Rosenberg boldly claims that we never really think about anything. But this seems incredible. Obviously I am thinking about Dr. Rosenberg's argument."

That is not a charitable take on Rosenberg's position. Rosenberg, like many cognitive scientists and naturalists, simply rejects the notion that our intuitions are a valid proxy for understanding the nature of cognition. Rosenberg wouldn't deny that Craig thinks his thoughts are "intentional," but Rosenberg would argue that such a framing doesn't accurately describe what is actually happening in human cognition.


3. Craig misleadingly implied that Rosenberg tacitly conceded an argument because he didn't address it. 

In the podcast, Craig said, "Rosenberg didn't engage very much with the arguments that I gave against his naturalism. So I think this largely went unrefuted."

This is disingenuous. As I mentioned in my previous post on this, Craig brought no fewer than eight broad arguments for the existence of God into a two-hour debate - of which each speaker has about 40 minutes to speak. Rosenberg has the double duty of responding as thoroughly as possible to as many of Craig's arguments as he can while also establishing his own position. Given the time constraints of the format, I think it's ridiculous to insist that any interlocutor should be obligated to respond thoroughly to every argument presented.

A much more productive debate would ensue if the scope of the discussion were narrowed considerably. Generally, Craig presents five arguments in his debates: the Kalam cosmological argument, the argument from design, the argument from objective morality, the Resurrection of Christ, and his personal testimony (which, of course, isn't really an argument - it's evangelizing, which reveals Craig's true motive for many of his debates).

However, we have reason to believe that Craig purposefully avoids such constrained debates most of the time: his performances in such debates are generally unimpressive. He debated Shelly Kagan, for example, on the topic of whether God is necessary for morality - a nicely narrow but complex topic. In videos, Craig can be seen confused and tripping over his arguments. In his debate with Sean Carroll on cosmology, Craig showed himself to be out of his depth on several topics. Craig thrives most when he can overwhelm his opponent with a deluge of arguments, then claim that they either weren't addressed or weren't sufficiently addressed.

In Rosenberg's case, Craig wanted him to address the argument from intentionality on the same set of assumptions upon which the argument is based. But Rosenberg didn't take the bait - he rejects those underlying assumptions altogether. Instead of acknowledging this crucial disagreement, Craig just acted as though Rosenberg wasn't prepared to engage the argument at all.

Worst of all though, several times in the podcast Craig implied that Rosenberg actually agreed with him that "on atheism there are no intentional states." Craig even said "So finite minds with intentional states of consciousness fit comfortably into a theistic worldview, but they fit very poorly into a naturalistic worldview as Rosenberg recognized." This is a grossly misleading characterization of Rosenberg's position. Rosenberg does not argue that atheism entails the non-existence of intentional states; rather, he rejects the assumptions upon which Craig asserts the existence of intentional states.


Atheists probably shouldn't bother debating William Lane Craig

Craig is a seasoned debater and rhetorician who has mastered the format of academic-style debates.  Some atheists want to see their favorite personalities debate him because they want to see him "lose" a debate. But Craig will never concede a debate, because his purpose isn't the exchange of ideas. For him, debates are a chance to show that his arguments "win" over the arguments of atheists. But we've seen that in his quest to grandstand as the victor, he's willing to repeatedly and flagrantly misrepresent his interlocutors and engage in disingenuous debate tactics.

If Craig is willing to confine a debate to a single topic, it'd be much more productive. But Craig views his debates as a platform to evangelize, so it's unlikely we'll see many of those debates. And given that he's still unapologetically misrepresenting Rosenberg so flagrantly five years after their debate, one has to wonder if even a constrained topical focus would be enough to make engaging him worthwhile.

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