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. Pathific says:

    I think it is quite impossible for scientists and theologians to discuss cosmology, because they could never find a common ground to argue with. Scientists would adhere to natural laws and scientific findings, while fully aware of the fallabilism of science. Theologians on the other hand resort to metaphysical claims and beliefs and discredit the scientific fallabilism as lack of conviction. If God is a supernatural being, how is it ever possible to justify his existence through natural means?

    It’s hard to disprove a God of the gaps, which is by definition unknown to us, so the concept of God would dodge any assumptions we make about him. Yet the biggest vulnerability of the concept of God are its innate paradoxes: If God created all existence, then did he create himself? If yes, how? If no, then what created God? If God’s existence was not created and an uncreated existence is possible, then why is creation ever necessary to existence? Can an omnipotent God create a rock too heavy for himself to lift? Can an atemporal (timeless) God create a temporal universe? If God designs what will happen to the universe even to the miniscule details, how can there be free will? If God is omnibenevolent and omnipotent, then why does he allow evil to exist? If God loves us and wants us to believe in him, why doesn’t he show himself to us more clearly or speak with us directly? Can God ever change his mind and act against his own will? If he can, how can his will then be the absolute and universal truth? If he can’t, is God then subject to his own laws, loosing his free will to them?

    As to the cause of the universe, it would be interesting to take a look at Aggripa’s trilemma which arises when asking for the final justification. The impossiblity to further ask for “why” or “before” if there were a begin or a first cause seems to contradict our common sense. But an infinite regress in causation would also undermine our sense of knowledge, so do circular beliefs. Science traces back causation to its earliest roots as far as possible, but it reaches its limits with the limits of the currently observable. What is then beyond is a seemingly an infinite gap of unknowing, so any God of the gap, be it personal or deistic or some other metaphysical force(s), would do the trick to cover up our limitations in knowledge. Apologists intend to install God or his attributes as an axiom to our world, so they appeal to the “self-evidence” of the existence of God (argument by intuition). Cosmological arguments used by apologists are most of the time logically valid, but they hide all their controversies behind their premises. In fact, these premises already preassume the existence of God or some attributes of God they believe in, so these arguments are prone to circularity.

  2. I realize I’m a bit late to the party, but I think you’ll do well here. If you had the time, there’s some friendly unsolicited advice I wrote up for you at my blog that I’d be thrilled if you would take the time to at least read and consider: http://counterapologist.blogspot.com/2014/02/cheering-for-sean-carroll.html

    Good luck!

  3. Richard says:


    You wrote: “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.”

    On what basis could one assert that scientific method would “reject any possible explanation that would counter the natural origin of the Universe” — provided that the natural origin of the Universe were a false hypothesis? Do you assert that scientific method *must* give false results under a contrary hypothesis? If so, please explain why you think this is the case.

  4. Daniel Shawen says:

    The much ballyhooed William Lane Craig vs Richard Dawkins debate (that didn’t happen) was evidently the inspiration for Clint Eastwood debating an empty chair in lieu of President Barack Obama.

    While no one should in general be ignored or chastised for their motivations for doing either science or philosophy, folks like William Lane Craig frankly make it difficult not to.

    Someone like Craig will expound ad nauseum on debate points like Newcomb’s Paradox as opposed to something more concrete philosophically and mathematically, like the Monte Hall problem. Craig’s idea of a great philosopher was someone like J.M.E. McTaggert. McTaggert’s irrelevant ideas about time and causation will be his center rather than ideas from Einstein. Russell’s paradox. McTaggert was a philosophical lightweight compared to Russell (who was expulsed from Trinity from the influence of anti-pacifists like McTaggert). So, who would even be interested in their philosophy?

    For people like Craig, God is the beginning, end, and cause of all things, and Richard Dawkins was right about one thing. Although Craig would call it a “debate”, few spectators would fail to notice, Craig’s deeply held religious philosophy could hardly be characterized as something that is open to change from rational discourse such as that which would normally occur in something most would identify as a “debate”.

  5. Kurt Lewis Helf says:

    Check out any of the “Reasonable Counts” podcasts on WLC’s debating tactics; he’s not so tough and rather vacuous. Also, Lawrence Krause gave him a right drubbing in their last meeting. Check out the vid on YouTube. Cheers!

  6. Kurt Lewis Helf says:

    That’s “Reasonable Doubts” podcast. Sorry!

  7. Hej Sean,

    I think you are going to do brilliant in the coming debate with Bill. I tried to explain to my fellow Christian theists that debates like this is not about winning and losing, but exchanging ideas about how the world is viewed from two different worldview.

    I am going to listen to both Bill and you not to first and foremost agree or disagree, but to simply understand.

    I enjoyed the line about blind men touching the parts of the elephant on your twitter subtitle would have long know it was an elephant if they talked together about it.

  8. Pingback: Upcoming Greer-Heard forum on cosmology, featuring Sean Carroll and William Lane Craig | Wintery Knight

  9. DanielC says:

    I appreciate your sunny side up disposition Sean but I think very few people on either side of this debate want to watch to learn about the other’s World-view, most people watch this and previous similar debates (speaking from personal experience here) to be reassured that their World-view is the right one and so I must cast the pernicious aspersion that you’re being naive in agreeing to take part in this event. After all these debates are mainly just silly rhetorical games and if you’re not playing them to win then what’s the point in playing them at all? Surely a lecture format would be better for informing people about naturalism than a debate format. Furthermore, however earnestly WLC believes in his arguments the fact is they’re nothing more than superfluous to his in Christianity because as he’s already confessed his own subjective “experience” of the holy spirit is the centrepiece to his worldview. Moreover the empirical evidence from his dozens upon dozens of previous debates shows he’s going to use every debating trick he can to win this debate. Correlating that with my own deeply held suspicion that most people are most of the time credulous fools, my prediction is that this debate will do more good for the Super-Naturalists than it will for us Naturalists (I’m on your side in case it wasn’t clear). Hopefully you can me prove me wrong.

    All that being said I think the key area of argument is going to be around conciousness, I imagine with you being a cosmologist most people are going to be anticipating you attacking the KCA and WLC defending it. However since this is a naturalism vs supernaturalism debate and the biggest hole in naturalism is around theories of the mind (WLC is smart enough to choose his battleground, he’s not likely to try and debate you on cosmology, your area of expertise for long), WLC’s going to want to claim some sort of brain/mind dualism and use all sorts of sophistry around the notion of “aboutness” as evidence for supernaturalism.

  10. Shannon Byrd says:

    I myself am a Christian Theist; I look forward to this debate because WLC displays an articulate and intelligent Christian worldview. I think it will be an interesting dialogue, but I think Sean Carrols presuppositions towards epistemology will hinder him as his views are merely assertions based his presupposition (circular reasoning).

  11. Rick Ryals says:

    He’ll get you on the multiverse and the weakness of the science that is used to call this a counter-argument to fine-tuning… just like I do, except that I rely on the strongest argument of the three choices, “necessity”. The difference is that I win.


    Oh, and yeah, winning and losing most definitely does matter, or the culture war is just another figment of your multiverse…

  12. Craig once made the following admission: “Should a conflict arise between the witness of the Holy Spirit to the fundamental truth of the Christian faith and beliefs based on argument and evidence, then it is the former which must take precedence over the latter, not vice versa”.

    Does one need to know more about this character?

  13. Brad Ericson says:

    Don’t let WLC substitute argument for data. This is what the “Reasonable Faith” group does on our campus all the time. I like to call it philosophical flim-flamming (which they hate me calling it that). Any way, hard science always trumps made up arguments, at least where it counts. Good luck!!

  14. Pingback: Prominent Theologian Will Face Off Against Atheist Physicist in Debate Over God and Cosmology | TheBlaze.com

  15. Ryan says:

    Looking forward to this one. Naturalists do not fare well in debates with WLC because they typically ignore fundamental philosophy and can’t craft or defend valid reasons for their beliefs (see almost every comment on this message board so far). The odds should be more even this time as Dr. Carroll is not only a brilliant scientist but also minored in Philosophy. That is to say, if there is a chance for a materialist to score points in a debate against WLC, this is it.

    If you want to create the appearance of winning this debate against WLC: stay away from the issues, engage in ad hominem and introduce red herrings frequently. It is sobering how little sarcasm I am intending.

  16. Steven says:

    Dr. Carroll,

    Looking at this for what it is, you will probably lose the debate. Craig is a masterful debater and philosopher, which, I’m sure you know, allows him to identify key premises in his opponent’s arguments and lay them to waste. What’s worse, if you waste time saying something irrelevant to the truth of a premise, Craig will dismiss it as irrelevant and you will lose precious time.

    Therefore I think you would do well to clearly state your premises and how they lead to your conclusions. If you ASSUME naturalism from the get-go, Craig will call you out on it. So get yourself a handful of arguments for naturalism (perhaps enlist Rosenberg’s help with this). Then give your cosmological model and show that it undercuts Craig’s premise that the universe began to exist.

    A warning – Craig may point out how your model doesn’t really restore an eternal past. For both arrows of time are finite, at any point. Though the “past” arrow is growing toward infinity, it is only potentially infinite and not actually infinite, just like the “future” arrow. So there is still a beginning to the universe. He may call you on this so you’d better prepare a response.

    Good luck.

  17. Ant says:

    No need to spend countless hours watching dozens of WLC debates. Craig’s presentations, arguments and counterarguments are repeated almost verbatim throughout his videotaped debating history. If you’ve seen one Craig debate, you’ve seen them all, as far as the content goes. Even his testimony about his religious conversion is heavily rehearsed word for word right down to the cheeky jokes and personal anecdotes.

    I’ve only ever heard him abandon this familiar courtroom style on a few occasions when he’s agreed to a less formal debating format (oftentimes, he “loses” such debates, particularly when they’re free-form and/or conversational). He definitely doesn’t strike me as a spontaneous and flexible thinker/speaker. In fact, his extreme rigidity is probably his greatest weakness as a debater

    Luck to you!

  18. Pingback: God and Cosmology Debate with W.L. Craig | Sean Carroll

  19. Pingback: Get the popcorn: Sean Carroll goes at it hammer and tongs with William Lane Craig—livestreamed tonight! « Why Evolution Is True

  20. Doug Gibbons says:

    Good Luck. Go into this debate understanding that GOD is NOTHING! Both from a physics point of view and a theological point of view. Once you define “GOD” and “Nothing” and what “is”, then you will see the equation is “right”.

  21. Pingback: God and Cosmology Debate Between Sean Carroll and William Lane Craig | Canadian Atheist

  22. Ahmad Muslim says:

    you are a good scientist but a lousy Philosopher , you will lose

  23. Humanity Akbar says:

    Ahmad Muslim,

    hey, one can’t be good at *everything*, right? That’d be soooo boring…

    and losing and winning are so last century, m`dear…engaging and enjoying each other`s company, sharing in the common human experience, denying easy cynicism and pessimism is the new black

  24. Pingback: Prominent Theologian Will Face Off Against Atheist Physicist in Debate Over God and Cosmology | Follow Liberty - Where Liberty Lives StrongFollow Liberty - Where Liberty Lives Strong