Wednesday, September 25, 2013

William Lane Craig vs. Lawrence Krauss Debates

Recently, the "world's best apologist" Dr William Lane Craig (who some claim has never lost a debate) took part in a series of informal debates with outspoken atheist physicist Prof. Lawrence Krauss in Australia. These were hosted by a Christian organisation, the City Bible Forum, based in Australia.

The video of these events has recently been made available on YouTube, and links to the various videos can be found here. A recent episode of the UK radio show Unbelievable featured interviews with both speakers after the events to see how they thought it went.

I have been doing a lot of travelling over the past week, so I loaded up the audio of these events onto my iPod and have been listening to them in airports, on planes, on trains, etc. on my travels. I'm not going to review the events in detail, but here are a few comments and opinions on the debates, in no particular order.

The debates all followed a similar pattern. In each case there was a theme, in each event each speaker had about 15 minutes to present their case for or against the motion, then there was about half an hour of moderated discussion between the two speakers, then there was about half an hour where the speakers responded to questions that had been tweeted or texted by members of the audience. The timings weren't precise and most sections of the discussion ran over time in most of the events.

Krauss was up for a fight. Even when the moderator of the event explicitly asked the speakers to be civil to each other and attempt to find common ground, Krauss stuck to his case that religion is demonstrably false and that William Lane Craig is a liar and a fraud. The first of those two is nothing new in such debates, but there was a great amount of ad hominem attacks on WLC, particularly in the Brisbane debate on "Has science buried God?" This might have made Krauss look bad, were it not for the fact that he backed up his statements with audio (or maybe it was video, I don't know I was only listening) featuring WLC, in which he (WLC) made statements (about an upcoming film featuring Krauss), which are demonstrably false. Krauss demonstrated the falseness. We have it on record that WLC bore false witness in some of his podcasts, and furthermore, he did not apologise or admit it when presented with this evidence. So Krauss effectively demonstrated that WLC is a liar. In doing so, I think he basically won this debate.

But. On the whole, Krauss came across badly. He frequently interrupted, wouldn't let his opponent finish his statements and poured scorn on what was said. He also seemed to get irritated and angry quite often, so that he seemed to be reacting from emotional, not rational reasons. Also, while Krauss has a great deal of knowledge and understanding of science, particularly physics and cosmology, his limitations were clearly shown when the discussion moved into the subjects of philosophy, theology, history or the bible. He failed on all these topics so, on the whole, Craig came out looking like he was winning. This should really come as no surprise, as Krauss is a professional scientist, and Craig is a professional debater. Craig knew how to play the discussion, play his opponent, and play the audience. Krauss came off badly against this.

Craig's debating style gets to be quite annoying if you listen to it for any time at all. One. He lists all his arguments numerically. Two. This is really quite annoying. Three. Therefore I'll stop doing it here.

The most clever, yet probably deceptive, feature of WLC's debating style is the way he cites experts to support his case. Generally, he gives quotes from named publications, by named experts, who I suspect the majority of the audience have never heard of, and will never read the publications. It is a blatant argument to authority - he never needs to explain why his arguments are valid, all he does is cite and quote experts who hold the same opinions as himself. But he does it with such confidence that the audience assume the quoted name must be a world leading expert in whatever field, and the theory they subscribe to must be generally accepted by the wider community in which they work. Maybe some of them are, but like most of WLC's audience, I haven't actually looked them up to find out.

There really was nothing new in any of these debates. I think I've heard pretty much all of it before. And the thing is, the arguments on both sides are still not compelling enough to sway the preconceived notions of the audience. The Christians who were there (quite a lot, going by the cheers when Craig made a point) will have left just as sure of their faith as when they arrived. Likewise the atheists (similarly, quite a lot, going by the cheers). So what is the point of it, really? Well, the Christian organisers presumably expect that the Holy Spirit was at work there, so there must have been value, even if they can't see it. But what's in it for the atheists? I think they must have a similar faith in the actions of 'reason'. Reason was at work in that place and some believers must be having doubts as a consequence. Not sure.

Both sides probably saw the events as some form of success. Well, maybe the benefit of the events will be witnessed in eternity. Or not, as the case may be. Hmmm.


LadyAtheist said...

Several atheists have refused to debate WLC because of your final point: it is a feather in WLC's cap to share the stage with them but doesn't do anything for the atheist's career.

Meanwhile, he refuses to debate his former student, John Loftus, whose "Christian Delusion" (well, he really just edited it) pounds on Christianity from several angles.

Anonymous said...

I recently reviewed Johns debate with Dsouza. I feel that Loftus not only lost that debate but he lost it in the worst way possible. When none of his arguments seemed plausable he continued his strange emotional attacks etc and even said aloud the crowd doesnt want to cheer for him.
it was like watching an infant throw its toys on the floor and a mother carefully picking them up
I feel that a debate with craig would only further destroy his career. like many atheists have already said it wouldnt benefit craigs career and most certainly would just take loftus fire which is to say his only source of fame which is his one time attendance to craigs class

Daniel Arant said...

Interesting and pretty fair assessment of the debate, except that I missed the part where Krauss supposedly demonstrated that William Lane Craig "bore false witness."

Anonymous said...

In response to LadyAtheist, it's exactly the opposite. Most of these debates are held at Christian universities/forums. The atheists that debate with the likes of WLC would never have the opportunity to address such a large number of those they are trying to convert otherwise. Really, if Christians stopped debating atheists, the atheist message would slow to a drip. And as for Loftus, WLC is clear why he won't debate him. He holds out hope that Loftus will one day change his mind and return to his former faith. He doesn't want ot win a debate against him, anymore than a father would want to win a debate an estranged son. Loftus has also proven in debates that he's not at WLC caliber as a debater. Even members of the atheist community have pointed this out.

TL said...

You, as was Krauss, are being uncharitable here. WLC stuck to his prepared statement, which did not address Krauss's personal attack.

You made the statement, "This might have made Krauss look bad, were it not for the fact that he backed up his statements with audio (or maybe it was video, I don't know I was only listening)". Ironic, since that's exactly what caused the mistake that WLC and company made regarding this movie. You would find it unreasonable for anyone to accuse you of lying simply because of a mistake you made because you were working from audio-only rather than the video. Why has WLC not been given the same courtesy?

WLC has stated for the record that he was working with an audio-only recording of the movie's contents, and because of this, he mistakenly attributed remarks to Krauss that were said by the moderator. He explained this to Krauss privately after the debate.

To call WLC a liar based on this is grossly unfair. To think that because of this, Krauss won the debate simply shows a lack of logic; debates are won or lost based on the merits of the arguments, not the character of the participants. He may have won public opinion based on this distortion of truth, but that's not the same as winning the debate.

Huxxy said...

4832Krauss is certainly flawed as a debater...His lack of sophisticated knowledge of philosophy works against him every time. He also often tries to use his favorite Hitchens lines, and in doing so never delivers them with the same authority as Hitchens could, and therefore often somehow comes across as a lightweight wannabe intellectual. He is overly emotional...He often he opens his mouth before he thinks, and certainly is not even close to the clarity and nuance of Sam Harris. However, he is sort of a street fighter who never gives up. Time and again I have seen him on the ropes, and then he comes out swinging. On that basis alone, he is formidable, and although he certainly would benefit from a wider knowledge base and more carefully and deeply considered points, he somehow always lands punches. And his energy and appetite for a fight is relentless. And when he has his opponents on the back foot, he never lacks the killer instinct to go in for the kill.