William Lane Craig Debate

Last week I participated in a dialogue with Princeton philosopher Hans Halvorson, sponsored by the Veritas Forum here at Caltech. We were talking about “physics and philosophy,” but the primary issue was theism and naturalism — Hans’s research specialty is philosophy of physics, especially quantum field theory, but he’s also a theist and often writes about science and religion. It was a fruitful discussion (I like to think), as we ended up agreeing about many points, even though we started from very different premises. He agreed with me, for example, that purported fine-tuning of cosmological parameters isn’t a very good argument in favor of the existence of an intelligent designer.

Next month I’ll be doing something related, although under quite different circumstances. On February 21 I’ll be debating William Lane Craig at the Greer-Heard Forum, an event sponsored by the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. It will actually be a two-day event; a debate between Craig and me on Friday night, and follow-ups on Saturday from other speakers — Tim Maudlin and Alex Rosenberg for Team Naturalism, Robin Collins and James Sinclair for Team Theism. Registration is open! I believe the whole thing will be streamed live online, and it will certainly be recorded for posterity. [Update: Here is the video.]


William Lane Craig (or WLC as we call him in the business) is of course a very well-known figure, largely for his many public debates, on theism/atheism as well as on various other specific theological issues. As far as debating goes: he’s very good at it! If his debates were being judged by a panel of experts as in an intercollegiate debate tournament, he would have a very good record indeed. This has led many people to conclude that atheists just shouldn’t debate him at all, or at least not until they have devoted 10,000 hours to learning how to be a good debater.

Daniel Dennett warned me that, as soon as word got out that I would be debating WLC, I would be deluged with opinions and unsolicited advice. Which is great! Always happy to hear other perspectives, although I don’t promise to actually follow any of the advice. I won’t reproduce the various emails I’ve received, but here are a few very different perspectives online: Jerry Coyne, Luke Barnes (and another), and Wintery Knight. (WK is relatively restrained, but others predict “pummelings,” presumably for me.)

Just so we’re clear: my goal here is not to win the debate. It is to say things that are true and understandable, and establish a reasonable case for naturalism, especially focusing on issues related to cosmology. I will prepare, of course, but I’m not going to watch hours of previous debates, nor buy a small library of books so that I may anticipate all of WLC’s possible responses to my arguments. I have a day job, and frankly I’d rather spend my time thinking about quantum cosmology than about the cosmological argument for God’s existence. If this event were the Final Contest to Establish the One True Worldview, I might drop everything to focus on it. But it’s not; it’s an opportunity to make my point of view a little clearer to a group of people who don’t already agree with me.

The guy is a very polished public speaker, and he is certainly an expert in this format. But I have the overwhelming advantage of being right. If I thought WLC were right, I would just change my views. Since I don’t, my goal is to explain why not, as clearly as possible.

The general consensus in some corners seems to be that I will be crushed. I guess we shall see.

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74 Responses to William Lane Craig Debate

  1. David Keys says:

    The probability of you winning is =>.5.
    You might want to peruse Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion as a good warm up for your debate.

  2. aoflex says:

    I’m a bit worried that you set out to defend naturalism by asserting it in the positive sense. I understand the arguments that all of the energies we’ve explored with particle colliders, and everything we have ever verifiably measured, exists in the natural world. I would advise not to make the claim (better yet: not to make any claims) that nature is all there is. Simply state that nature is all that we have seen and if WLC or anyone else has evidence for something not in nature, then present that evidence. If you explicitly make a positive claim, WLC will harp on that. Don’t. Permanently put him on the defensive by explicitly stating that you make no such absolute claims about reality. It is his job to provide evidence for a god. Repeatedly remind him (and the audience) of this.

  3. Floyd Welker says:

    Good Luck. When you get your points across and people recognize your sincerity, you’ll win, if not the debate, with those who matter.

  4. paul kramarchyk says:

    2¢ — Debates like these are pointless unless each party defines what they mean by “god” or higher power, or whatever spooky spirit they’re referring to. As minimum, introductory remarks from each side should address:
    1) Can god intervene in a supernatural way to change the course of events here on earth? Where “supernatural” means not consistent with the laws of physics.
    If no, then no need for god to explain earthly events and prayer is a useless palliative.
    If yes, give examples.

    2) What, if any, is the difference between a god that does not intervene and no god?

  5. Luke Barnes says:

    And more coming, I’m afraid :)

    The short version: I think these questions will come up.

    * Contingency: Are there exceptions to (Craig’s version of) the principle of sufficient reason within the universe? If so, discuss. If not, why think that the universe is an exception?
    * Fine-tuning: why think that life may be ubiquitous in parameter space? Why doesn’t the Boltzmann Brain problem rule out the multiverse?
    * Kalam: how does the universe escape the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin (BGV) theorem’s conclusion of a beginning? Why think that quantum gravity will avoid a beginning?

    On Kalam, you said in your talk at UCSC (part 1, 22:30+) that you can’t have a boundary or singularity in the space of states in quantum mechanics, unlike classical theory. That’s a reason to think that the classical beginning of the universe won’t be there in a quantum theory.

    Is there a way to *explain* BGV? An analogy, maybe? A toy model? A succinct formulation of its assumptions? Almost certain to be relevant.

    It’ll be great!

  6. Jean-François Brouillet says:

    There is just this little remark:
    Theists want answers, out of fear.
    Atheists want questions, out of reason.

  7. Joan Hendricks says:

    Wishing you all the best in this debate! Lots of us would like to see more people in science debating religious know-nothings, but we know it’s such a waste of time for people of science to study fantasy religious arguments in order to prepare for debate. Will the debate be streamed live on the internet? Or maybe made available after?

    Dr. Carroll, any chance I could persuade you to join our Freedom From Religion Foundation in Madison, WI.? ffrf.org

  8. Tony says:

    Proving the existence of a God by natural means, who by definition is above and beyond that which is natural, is impossible. Why should God intervene in human events every time we get ourselves in a mess when we should be quite capable of taking care of it ourselves, if of course, we really desire to do so? The human family has to learn that we can and should care for and take care of, each other and if God jumped in and solved all of our problems, then we shall never grow. A child has to learn to crawl, walk, run and grow to adulthood, despite of all the bumps and bruises it may suffer, so it is with mankind.

  9. rocken1844 says:

    Frankly Dr Carroll I think you have identified the salient feature of the contest: Craig knows how to construct arguments, but that’s all he has. You have truth and the practice of subjecting your processes and conclusions to the examination of other professionals. Craig’s natural very human presentation is a poor substitute for the supernatural.

    Craig is not a singularity. Mormons with PhDs construct arguments, so do pro-Aliens-built-the-pyramids guys, so do Muslim and Hindu devotees construct arguments. So what? What these argument-builders never provide is a supernatural deity or space alien manifest in the here and now. Craig, with all his verbal torrents leaves us with the same result as the pro-Alien, pro-Krishna, pro-Deities-take-your-pick etc–words and nothing more. Jesus is every bit as invisible and undetectable as the next hundred deities that Craig would vociferously deny–with arguments.

  10. Tony says:

    Isn’t the teaching of the scientific method a form of brainwashing, resulting in the absolute rejection of any possible explanation that would counter the natural origin of the Universe.

  11. PatrickL says:

    Go get them! I know you’re right!
    Love your talks on youtube.

  12. Jamin Gray says:

    I’m more worried about Bill Nye’s debate vs. Ken Ham debate than your debate with WLC. Craig is a hack in my opinion. The reason I’m worried about the Nye/Ham debate is not that I think Ken Ham will have amazing arguments to disprove evolution, but simply that I don’t know that Nye will be prepared for the typical Creationist tactics in debate of just dumping endless streams of supposed weakness of Evolution and Nye won’t really be able to respond to all of them while also giving the mountain of evidence supporting the science.

  13. Dan says:

    Debates with scientist vs theist are a waste. The scientist can’t be a scientist if he invokes theist ‘faith’ in his calculations. But the theist can invoke a deity at every turn and be true to his craft. (‘The car ran over the child’ => a deity’s will, and ‘The car just missed running over the child’ => guess what?).

    The grunts and such noises emanating from the theist are just that, noises. Theists’ noises are puffery of no value, they convey no information. Dr. Carroll, you might as well be arguing with a barking dog or a shrieking monkey for all it’s worth.

    I have seen such debates before, where both debaters are scientists yet, one also a theist. Even under theses conditions the rant and noise devolves into one quoting scripture. Boooorrrriiiiiing.

    I love a good debate though. Ideas to ponder: How is the concept of a god defined? Is He (She or It) timeless? What is Time anyway? Can the human brain comprehend such questions? What preconceptions do most people have, especially theists that the scientist is not yet sure of, or challange?

    Such a debate would include a good cigar and a great scotch in a plush room, fireplace and comfortable chairs. And no hurt feelings, or fear of doing so.

  14. Kevin says:

    Nothing to add except to wish you well and enjoy yourself.

  15. BBB says:

    I know your Caroll-Chen model removes the need for an absolute beginning. However I very much hope that you dont only present your own model, but also models that you persoanlly disagree with.
    The truth about early universe cosmology is that there many different models currently on the table: bouncing comsologies in LQC,Horva gravity and string theory, CCC, Higgs cyclic, VSl, ekpyrotic, quanutm static multiverse; the list goes on.
    All of the ones I mentioned above dont have an absolute beginning.
    Even those that work on eternal inflaiton dont agree see Vilenkin vs Susskind vs Aguirre.
    What Craig says is that there is a consensus there is a beginning , whereas what there really is a huge diversity of opinions with no consensus at all and more importnalty no way to experimentally decide between them right now.
    There may be a consensus from those that dont work on issues of the very early universe and the origin of the big bang. But for those that do work on it , there is not. Of course the number of comsologists that work on this topic is very small.
    I hope you show this diveristy of opinions to the public and not just your own model, as brilliant as it is.
    But good luck Sean

  16. Anton Szautner says:

    Hmmm. Over the years Carroll has reliably made lots of statements which made sense and were persuasive to me, while very little if anything Craig has ever asserted made any sense or has been persuasive to me. So why is anybody supposed to worry that Craig is good at ‘winning debates’ again? Is how he wins them more important than what he wins them with?

    You’ll do just fine with the honest facts, Sean. No sweat. If anybody is confused into thinking that winning is the point, Craig can have them.

  17. BenM says:

    Personally speaking, I look forward to this debate and see it as another small step on the road to reason and rational informed argument between interested parties.

    It would hopefully at least present an appropriate opportunity for Carroll to put right WLC’s framing of the scientific consensus presented as ‘gospel’ when making his argument.
    Chief of these would be his claim that there currently exists a consensus in science and particularly cosmology that the universe has a defined ‘beginning’. He even dares to use the CCC model by Penrose and Gurzadyan to back himself up on this very point!
    For the best takedown of this argument alone, please see skydivephil’s latest* film on Youtube here… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sM47acQ7pEQ where Penrose himself confirms this assertion to be wholly wrong and misleading. (at minute 20:05)

    When Carroll debates WLC, can we at least have this made clear from the start?

    * for those who feel WLC has often gotten off scot free in debates for far too long on his various logical fallacies and fallacious arguments, skydivephil’s series of short film take-downs on Youtube is probably the best medicine out there…highly recommended.

  18. Arkenaten says:

    I am tempted to say, “Give him hell”, as anyone who defends Divine Command Theory is fully deserving of such a treat.

    As one of your contemporaries, Sheldon Cooper, might say…”Peace out.”

    Best of luck

  19. Kevin Harris says:

    Dr. Carroll, WLC respects you and has spoken positively about you in his podcasts (which I produce). I appreciate that you see past the “win or lose” aspects of many debates. Most importantly, a good exchange always sends those listening looking for more!

    I can vouch for Dr. Craig’s attitude as well. He believes the highest honor one can pay his opponent (in debate) is to present his or her views accurately and critique them honestly. I urge you to get to know him. There is a lot of unwarranted resentment and personal attacks out there that have nothing to do with discovering truth in all disciplines.

    Kevin Harris

  20. Mohammed Li says:

    Insist on speaking first!

    He will tell lies about your view points and people just believe what they hear first.

  21. Wallace Marshall says:

    Prof. Carroll–

    Sounds like you’re already laying the groundwork for the typical atheist strategy of refusing to seriously engage the arguments. Of course you have much more important things to attend to than worrying about trivial matters like preparing for an academically respectable interchange!

    I mean really, who has time to actually consider possible objections to one’s own views? And besides, it’s quite dangerous! One’s dogmatic slumber might be disturbed! One might experience an unbearable cognitive dissonance, or lose the ability to cavalierly dismiss the opponent as a mere rhetorician!

  22. Robert Vroom says:

    I would suggest studying (or getting friends/students to listen to and summarize some of his arguments). I am a theist and a huge fan of WLC. One of my biggest complaints about his debates is that his opponents rarely prepare. They are so certain that they are right that they seem to see no reason to investigate the issue from the other side, and he ends up running circles around them. I often think that I could present a better argument than his opponents, and I imagine that a number of atheists in the audience think the same thing. This ends up cheapening the experience… neither the debaters or the audience ends up being satisfied.

  23. AD says:

    Does anyone have a link to the video of this talk? Thanks!

  24. Sample says:

    Any word on who will be the corpus callosum (moderator)? That will dictate the beverage for my viewing.