Debating William Lane Craig

William Lane Craig is a philosopher and theologian, most famous for advocating the Kalam cosmological argument for the existence of God. As far as I can tell, he is fairly well-respected in the theology community; I cited him among other people in my recent paper. He’s also a frequent participants in debates against atheists. These are slightly weird events; everyone says they’re a terrible idea, but everyone seems to willingly participate in them. Personally I think they can be a very useful forum, if done well.

Craig recently debated Lawrence Krauss in an event that got a lot of publicity. You can read Craig’s post-mortem reflections here; in response, Krauss has offered his own thoughts on how things went down, which are posted at Pharyngula. You can watch the whole thing on YouTube, but be warned it’s a long multi-part extravaganza.

As to who won, it’s a mixed bag. Craig is a very polished debater, and has his pitch honed to a fine sheen; every sentence makes a succinct point. On the other hand, many of his sentences are simply false. For example, he argues that the universe can’t be eternal, because infinity is an self-contradictory notion, because “infinity minus infinity” has no correct answer. This is not an unfair paraphrase.

In response, Lawrence was game, but much more impressionistic, with a style more appropriate to a public talk than to a formal debate. It depends on what you’re looking for, of course; he did have the advantage of being right. Craig is sufficiently good at debating that atheists are now advising each other to stay away from him for fear of looking bad — e.g. here and here. I sympathize with the general message — don’t get into something like this unless you know what’s coming and are truly prepared — but not with the final impression, that atheists should just steer clear. We should be good at presenting our arguments, and ready to do so. Craig is wrong about many things, but he’s not an out-and-out crackpot like Hugh Ross or Ken Ham. A good debate could be very interesting and helpful to thoughtful people who haven’t yet made up their minds. Being correct is already a huge advantage; we should be able to make our side clear using the force of reason, like we’re always telling people we do.

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61 Responses to Debating William Lane Craig

  1. Aloysius says:

    Given that much of what Craig says is simply false, and he refuses to acknowledge that or correct himself despite being called out on it numerous times, in what sense is Craig not a crackpot? He isn’t intellectually honest or a debater in good faith. What is to be gained by engaging him as a serious figure when he just makes stuff up? How could one ever possibly “win” a debate against someone like that? It doesn’t matter how clear and reasonable you are when Craig will simply dismiss anything, anything you can possibly say with more of his made-up nonsense.

  2. ChuckWhite says:

    Sean, I usually agree with you (where I have knowledge to judge). I disagree that there is an argument to be made for or against atheism on any basis that depends on right versus wrong arguments (belief versus dis-belief).

    As an agnostic, I am simply boggled by statements claiming “proof” of the (non)existence of a deity. I admit to being personally skeptical of such a deity, but, it cannot be proven nor dis-proven.

    This debate proved one thing to me. Proofs, one way or another, do not exist. Argument on such a subject is as irrelevant as discussing the number of angels which can exist on the head of pin. They can only serve the purpose of swaying others opinion, which, in my opinion is a waste of time in discussions of belief.

  3. Dave Roberts says:

    Not trying to be mean here but only one word fits. Never argue with an idiot. He’ll drag you down to his level and then beat you with experience. An idiot can be defined as a mentally deficient person, or someone who acts in a self-defeating or significantly counterproductive way. I’m using the “significantly counterproductive way” portion of the definition.

  4. Chris Harris says:

    Mr. Carroll

    1) Have you addressed the physics claims he and other apologists have made on here? (I.e. fine tuning, Kalam…) While I think that Krauss did an excellent job pointing out the flaws, and I think Vic Stenger did a fairly good job at it as well in their debate, I’d love to read another view on it.

    2) Would you personally ever do a debate with Craig?

    Thanks for your time.

  5. Sean says:

    Chuck– I don’t think anyone talked about “proofs,” so I’m not sure what you are arguing against. Science doesn’t prove things, but it does draw conclusions.

    Chris– Yes, I addressed those in my recent paper, albeit under the constraints of a Draconian word count limit. I would debate any non-crackpot if the conditions were right, but the conditions would have to be right.

  6. vel says:

    I wish someone would simply ask Craig, when he claims that JC was resurrected, “so, dear, which tomb is the “real” one? and please do support your claims with evidence.” funny how Christians forgot to mark this most important site in Christendom.

  7. Luke Barnes says:

    “he argues that the universe can’t be eternal, because infinity is an self-contradictory notion, because “infinity minus infinity” has no correct answer. This is not an unfair paraphrase.”
    Yes, it is. For the record, Craig’s argument is as follows. He has no problem with actual infinities in mathematics. But note what we must do to avoid contradiction. (Infinity – infinity) cannot be uniquely defined on the extended real line without contradiction. We must impose the restriction that (infinity – infinity) is not allowed. Now, what if an actual infinity existed in reality? We would not be able to impose the restrictions needed to avoid contradiction. We conclude that realised actual infinities are not possible. A similar conclusion is reached by George Ellis, here: http://adsabs.harvard.edu/abs/2009GReGr..41.1475E

    This is one of the reasons that Craig keeps “winning” – his opponents don’t take the time to actually learn and critique his arguments, making it easy for Craig to point out the straw men.

    Incidentally, Sean, could you comment on Krauss’ assertion that inflation explains the low entropy of the universe?

  8. GManNickG says:

    Chuck, can you prove there are no coins in your pocket? Of course you can: reach in and see.

    As soon as you stop wasting your time thinking in absolutes (an activity every sensible person understands is meaningless; no, you can’t prove absolutes; move on), you can use the more pragmatic form of “proof”.

    Non-existence is proved by the failed verifications of tests, and the strength of that evidence is directly proportional to the certainty of your test. That’s why reaching into your pocket and finding no coins is pretty strong evidence there are no coins; strong enough you can consider it proof.

    Likewise, spending thousands of years looking for evidence (via increasingly powerful observation tools) to support claims that a multi-self-refuting God exists (that are explainable in much less miraculous terms, like being primitive philosophy and politics, sustained by the indoctrination of children), and finding nothing is strong evidence against the existence of such a God.

    No, there is no way to test for a simplistic deity, but this only leaves you as an unbeliever. For all other cases where the deity supposedly influences our world: they have failed the tests.

  9. Sean says:

    Luke– No, it is not. Did you listen to the debate? My paraphrase was almost identical to what Craig actually said. Sure, he might have more verbiage behind it, ready to dredge up in the rebuttal when he was challenged, but that doesn’t change what he said in his first speech. The verbiage you suggest, of course, doesn’t make any more sense than my original paraphrase. We don’t “impose the restriction that infinity minus infinity is not allowed”; we simply treat infinity as it is properly defined, which is different from the definition of some finite number.

    Ellis and Stoeger’s conclusion is not even remotely similar, but it’s a good example of Craig distorting the results of respectable cosmologists to his ends. They urge caution when dealing with infinity, but state explicitly that infinities are possible — their point is simply that it takes an infinite amount of time to make an infinite number of galaxies in a finite space. This propensity to misrepresentation might have something to do with Craig’s “winning.”

    Krauss’s assertion about entropy is not correct, as far as I understand it. (It is closer to being correct than what Craig said about entropy, which is just word salad.) Many cosmologists say incorrect things about entropy, but some of us are trying hard to set things straight.

  10. Eugene says:

    heh, “If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit” (W.C. Fields) seems to be the key in winning debates.

  11. Luke Barnes says:

    Ellis and Stoeger: (Quoting Hilbert:) “Our principal result is that the infinite is nowhere to be found in reality. It neither exists in nature nor provides a legitimate basis for rational thought . . . The role that remains for the infinite to play is solely that of an idea”. *Our results concur with this judgement.*

    I believe Craig said the same thing: “this shows that infinity is just an idea in your mind, not something that can exist in the real world.” Something like that. I might have misunderstood Craig.

    From “Elements of real analysis By David A. Sprecher”: “while alleviating one problem, the new symbols [infinity and – infinity, to make the extended reals] create other enigmas … no meaning is given in the system to infinity + (- infinity).”
    This is Craig’s point. If there were actualised infinities, then we could perform real tasks whose result was infinity – infinity. Reality would not be able to leave infinity – infinity undefined.

  12. Sean says:

    Ellis and Stoeger, actual words, not quoting anybody: “the real situation is that physical processes may be such that eventually an infinite number of galaxies, stars, planets, and civilizations will tend to come into existence; but that state is not achieved at any finite time through the supposed physical processes.”

    I’m not sure why you’re so interested in defending Craig on this issue. You can’t deduce that the universe must have a beginning simply by pure reason; it’s very easy to make models that are eternal. None of the cosmologists Craig refers to actually believe his conclusion that the universe must be finite; they are all willing to contemplate universes that last infinitely long into the future.

  13. The Cosmist says:

    Does anyone ever discuss Godel’s incompleteness theorem in these theological debates? It seems to me this could be the best point theists have in their favor — if there are things which are true but can never be proven, isn’t that in a sense a logical justification for religious faith and a fatal blow to scientific rationalism?

  14. Luke Barnes says:

    Your quote from Ellis and Stoeger proves my point. There is no actual infinity, only a potential one. There is no time when there are an infinite number of galaxies. The number of galaxies can be made merely arbitrarily large. Infinity acts as a limit: sideways eight, not aleph_null. Craig has no problem with universes that last infinitely long into the future for the same reason. Potential infinities are actually finite.

    My bigger point is that, if you’re not careful, you’ll end up attacking a straw man rather than Craig’s arguments. Showing that infinity is not a contradictory concept in mathematics will get you nowhere. I think that the best reply to Craig’s argument is that he has not demonstrated a contradiction if an actual infinity were to exist – he has only shown that we must be careful. Take an infinite library. Remove all the odd numbered books – an infinite number remain. Remove all the books numbered greater than three – three books remain. There is no contradiction, just the need to be more specific when you say “now remove an infinite number of books.”

  15. Mike says:

    Sean,

    You say “[a] good debate could be very interesting and helpful to thoughtful people who haven’t yet made up their minds. Being correct is already a huge advantage; we should be able to make our side clear using the force of reason, like we’re always telling people we do.”

    I have sympathy for this view, since I always try to be eminently reasonable 🙂

    However, Krauss has an interesting take away from the debate. He says “I believe that if I erred at all, it was in an effort to consider the sensibilities of the 1200 smiling young faces in the audience, who earnestly came out, mostly to hear Craig, and to whom I decided to show undue respect. As I stressed at the time, I did not come to debate the existence of God, but rather to debate about evidence for the existence of God. I also wanted to demonstrate the need for nuance, to explain how these issues are far more complex than Craig, in his simplistic view of the world, makes them out to be. For this reason, as I figured I would change few minds I decided also to try and illustrate for these young minds the nature of science, with the hope that what they saw might cause them to think. Unfortunately any effort I made to show nuance and actually explain facts was systematically distorted in Craig’s continual effort to demonstrate how high school syllogisms apparently demonstrated definitive evidence for God.”

    I know you have your differences with the take-no-prisoners approach of Sam Harris and others, but it seems to me that it does little or no good (in most situations) to beat around the bush rather than clearly and bluntly, as Krauss says he should have done, confronting “with the gloves off, . . . the disingenuous distortions, simplifications, and outright lies . . .”

    These distortions, simplifications and outright lies rest at the core of every theist argument. You’re just too nice a guy sometimes. 🙂

  16. Simon says:

    I’ve not watched the debate so might be missing the point. But —

    I think the best way to disarm the “argument to design” (of which the fine-tuning argument is a modern version) and the “cosmological argument” and variants requires more skill with philosphy than science. (J. Mackie did a good job 30 years ago in his classic book “The Miracle of Thesim”). And Simon Blackburn’s made the point many times. Hume said it oh so well back in 1776 but most people still seem to miss the point…

    Basically, any “argument to design” is an argument by analogy, using the “concious human designer -> designed product” model as a model for the whole cosmos. Without too much thought you can see this is a terrible argument: the stronger the similarity in effects, the more plausible is a strong similarity of causes – but here we have massively different effects (human products vs. entire cosmos). At this point it’s tempting to conclude the cosmos requires a creator much “greater” than humans – but that is not the correct deduction. All we can say is that if there is such a creator, this argument can say nothing about it, only that it is likely different from human conciousness. Now, we do have an example of such a thing: evolution by nature selection can produce amazing ‘designoid’ objects and is completely different from a concious creator. But you don’t even need to know of an alternative such as natural evolution. The argument simply doesn’t take you any closer to ‘god’ than you started. No need to go through the physics, just look at the structure of the argument. As Blackburn says, even if you accept the argument (paraphrasing) “you can’t check out of Hotel Supernatural with more baggage than you took in.”

    Similar issues apply with the cosmological arguments.

  17. Koray says:

    Goedel’s incompleteness theorem(s) are not a fatal blow to scientific rationalism. The fact that there are truths in Peano arithmetic that have no proofs does not mean that any arbitrary statement of arithmetic for which we don’t seem to have a proof at the time is true. It can also be false, or we can find a proof that shows whether it’s true or false.

    Anybody who makes arguments about the physical universe entirely based on logic (e.g. via invoking axioms of ZF set theory, real numbers, infinities, etc.) does not know what mathematical logic studies and how it operates. It’s especially bad if that person is a “philosopher”. The same goes for any interpretation of probability and use of statistical inference methods (e.g. Bayesian).

  18. KWK says:

    Sean,

    You said:
    “You can’t deduce that the universe must have a beginning simply by pure reason; it’s very easy to make models that are eternal. None of the cosmologists Craig refers to actually believe his conclusion that the universe must be finite; they are all willing to contemplate universes that last infinitely long into the future.”

    I think you’re missing a very straightforward point: while time can go on indefinitely into the future, any future event will be a finite time from Now. But if time truly extends infinitely into the past, then it would be impossible to arrive at the time we call Now, since no matter how much time had passed, Now is still an infinite amount of time away from whatever point had previously been reached.

    So that part of the Craig’s arguments seems sound, even if other aspects of them seem premature at best, if not entirely misplaced–e.g, arguing from the Big Bang to a Big Banger seems to me to be a problem, since the Big Bang also leads to actual infinities if you naively run the math backwards. That’s probably why we’ll need Quantum Gravity to fix things–and who’s to say that such a solution will leave the all-important temporal “beginning” intact? So at best one could say that current observational evidence appears to support this aspect of Craig’s position; but I rarely hear such caveats when this argument is actually put forth.

    On a related note, early Christians seemed to have no problem with fitting their beliefs in an all-powerful Creator God into the reigning Greco-Roman cosmology of the time, which assumed a universe of infinite extent. Now they may have just missed the contradiction for several centuries (and the Jews must have missed it for even longer), but it was not until quite a bit later that Christians decided their universe needed to be finite. So while theists (and everybody else) are on solid ground when arguing for a finite past from logical, philosophical, or even observational grounds (provisionally), it certainly need not play such a central role in theists’ worldviews as it actually does.

  19. Coherent Sheaf says:

    `KWK,

    You said:
    “I think you’re missing a very straightforward point: while time can go on indefinitely into the future, any future event will be a finite time from Now. But if time truly extends infinitely into the past, then it would be impossible to arrive at the time we call Now, since no matter how much time had passed, Now is still an infinite amount of time away from whatever point had previously been reached.”

    Whenever I hear this argument I ask myself: Reached from where? If the universe extends infinetely in the past, nevertheless every point in the past has only a finite distance to us.
    If you postulate a point at -infinity, you postulate the existence of a beginning the very claim that is in dispute.

  20. Phil says:

    I think there is a serious contradiction in WLC’s argument.
    He claims there are no actual infinities

    yet he claims there has to be a singularity implying a beginning of time. Craig’s own words in Cosmos and the Creator:
    “When the expansion is coupled with the 1968 Hawking-Penrose singularity theorems, it leads, via a time-reversed extrapolation, to a universe which began at a point in the finite past, before which it literally did not exist.
    That initial event has come to be known as the “Big Bang.” This cosmological singularity, from which the universe sprang, marked the beginning, not only of all matter and energy in the universe, but of physical space and time themselves. ”

    Since singularities contain infinities,, heres Alan Guth’s definition of a singularity:
    “an infinite density, infinite pressure and infinite temperature… the singularity is sometimes said to mark the beginning of time , but it is more realistic to recognise that an extrapolation to infinite density cannot be trusted.” (The Inflationary Universe)

    Craig’s argument seems to me to then be a contradiction. he denies infinities when it suits him :eternal past yet embraces them when they suit him : singularities.

    Furthermore in Guths 2007 review of eternal inflation on page 16
    “Aguirre and [49, 50] have proposed a model that evades our theorem, in which the
    arrow of time reverses at the t = −∞ hypersurface, so the universe “expands” in both
    halves of the full de Sitter space. ”
    WLC conveniently ignores this.

  21. Brian Mingus says:

    I think Sean should debate him!

  22. KWK says:

    @CoherentSheaf:
    While any event we care to specify may be a finite interval from Now, that event still requires an infinite progression of events prior to it. As I see it, I’m accepting the premise of an infinite past for the sake of argument, and then showing how it leads to a logical impossibility (traversing an infinite interval), thus showing that the premise cannot possibly be true. That’s not the same as smuggling the concept of a beginning into my infinity.
    @Phil:
    I’m not sure if Craig has actually argued anything like this, but…if the Planck length is the “minimum meaningful size”, then cramming the entire universe inside a sphere of that size makes the density, pressure, etc. very very large, but not truly infinite. Of course, that still ignores the fact that quantum effects become relevant long before we reach the Planck scale (so we really have no business blithely extrapolating down that far), but that is one potential way to avoid a physically-realized actual infinity.
    I can’t have been the first one to think of this, so if someone already knows what works (or doesn’t work) with this proposal, I’d love to hear it.

  23. From “Elements of real analysis By David A. Sprecher”: “while alleviating one problem, the new symbols [infinity and – infinity, to make the extended reals] create other enigmas … no meaning is given in the system to infinity + (- infinity).”
    This is Craig’s point. If there were actualised infinities, then we could perform real tasks whose result was infinity – infinity. Reality would not be able to leave infinity – infinity undefined.

    If that’s his point, then he is stupider than I thought. “0” is certainly realized in nature, and 0/0 is every bit as ill-defined as ∞ − ∞, and for exactly the same reason.

  24. whoschad says:

    I didn’t listen to the debate, but I did see that the audience voted at the end and William Lane Craig was the winner. Does that change anything, or not really?

    Another question for all the posters above. Are you saying that the universe is actually infinite, or are you just saying that Craig’s argument is wrong? I have no problem with Craig being wrong, I’m just wondering why the universe must be infinite.

  25. Kevin says:

    I don’t think these religious-atheist debates are useful, and I say that as a vocal atheist. They take the matter at hand, which is an objective truth claim (“God exists”), and effectively turn it into a political issue. Public, person-vs.-person debates generally are not won or lost on the merits of the arguments, but on style and rhetoric. A claim supposedly based in logic, mathematics, and/or empirical evidence (as Craig claims his argument to be) should be evaluated the way we evaluate any other such claim: via peer-reviewed papers and other such publications that reduce the confounding factors which dominate public debates.

    Grossman’s Law states “Complex problems have simple, easy to understand wrong answers.” Craig relies on this principle to mislead people by saying things that seem true, based on imperfect human intuition and cognitive biases. By giving him a forum in which to do so, we only end up further confusing the fundamental question, which is not an issue of personality but an issue of facts (or lack thereof). Getting out the information about atheism and theism is a good thing, and we should do it as much as possible; but these public performances end up being little more than dog-and-pony shows, spreading misinformation with a net benefit for the opposition.