Monday, October 31, 2011

William Lane Craig vs Stephen Law Debate - Does God Exist?

Just listened to a debate between 'the world's foremost apologist' William Lane Craig and atheist Stephen Law, editor of the philosophical journal 'Think' and provost of the UK branch of the Centre for Inquiry. The debate was hosted by Premier Christian Radio and can be downloaded from their website.

The subject of the debate was "Does God Exist".

In his opening statement in favour of the existence of God, Dr Craig made three basic points:
  1. The universe cannot be eternal and infinite, therefore it must have an origin, therefore a cause, thus a creator.
  2. There are absolute morals, thus there must be an absolute morality, which must come from a transcendent being.
  3. Jesus must have been raised from the dead, if the story was made up the first witnesses would not have been women.
That's it? That's the best the world's leading apologist can offer?

In my opinion, and I'm trying not to take sides here (I'll critique the atheist argument too, below), all three points are flawed.

Well, actually, I agree with most of point 1, except that exactly the same line of reasoning may be applied to demonstrate that God cannot be either infinite or eternal. So Craig is shooting himself in the foot here, or should have been if Law had picked up on this. Also, in this part of his presentation he got bogged down in a pointless discussion of the orbits of Saturn and Jupiter which relied on the assumption that both Jupiter and Saturn had been orbiting in their current orbits for eternity - as far as I know, nobody believes this, so it is a complete 'straw man' argument.

Point 2 is more slippery. What is an 'objective' absolute moral? The reasoning (and this was more or less shared by Law) is that there are certain things which are universally morally wrong. Because this wasn't really challenged in this debate, there were no examples given, so it all became a discussion (this became the main issue in the rebuttals, see below) without a well defined subject.

I've thought through this issue a few times recently and am most of the way to convincing myself that there aren't actually any universal, objective, absolute morals. The most commonly cited (at least in the debates and discussions I have heard recently) example of something that is objectively morally wrong is the act of torturing children for fun. So lets take that and think about it. Is it absolutely, objectively, universally, in all times and places, morally wrong? Well, certainly I am against it, but I don't think its universal - there are, after all, many places and times where there are and have been no people, hence no children. But ignoring that rather trivial objection, is it ever justifiable? Well, no, but does that make it objective? And fundamentally, how does that fact require us to invoke a divine source of morality?

As I see it (at the moment, this may change) this sort of morality is a product of society and doesn't actually require a higher level moral agent. That's not to say that there is no God, only that I don't think the moral argument works as a proof of God. Society is greater than the individual and I think it is entirely reasonable to see morality as an evolved product of an evolving society. And of course, all philosophers who point to an absolute moral code which transcends culture and the individual are philosophising about life from within this society. I'm not narrowing this down to 'Western' society, but rather going to a higher level and picturing all human society as being the context of morality.

Why then is torturing children for fun morally wrong? For two primary reasons, firstly it harms the child, who would otherwise grow to be a functioning part of the wider society, and secondly because it further corrupts the harmer, further enhancing an anti-societal element in society. I believe this is a highly evolved system, but falls a long way short of requiring a divine moral code.

All other 'absolute' morals I can think of also fit the context of hindering or (with regard to good morals) enhancing human society at its highest level.

By this line of reasoning, many things we consider to be absolute morals in this day and age were not, and would not have been considered absolute morals in ages past. One of the newest absolute morals to go was racism. Contemporary society is harmed and hindered by it, but that wasn't the case in ages past, when a healthy skepticism of others not like yourself actually allowed the status quo of society to be maintained. Similarly with slavery, it is morally wrong in our society, yet was an absolute requirement of the Roman Empire, the Persian Empire, the Egyptian Empire, and so on. The issue of slavery in the bible is not a moral issue, because it was not a moral issue in society back then, it is only as society has evolved, that slavery has become a moral issue.

Thus, by my reckoning, the moral argument only requires a collective society that is considerably greater than the individual, it does not require a divine being that imposes morality on humanity. (By the way, why would God impose a morality on humans and not on any other creatures? The human/animal distinction is an artificial one, which even Dr Craig skirted around in one of his rebuttals, see below).

Craig's third point concerned the resurrection, and very simply put asserted that the resurrection event must have happened, because if it hadn't nobody would have believed the story, given that it rests on the testimony of female witnesses. I've heard a few rebuttals of this over the past few years, several of which question the basic premise - that the witness of women was scorned in 1st century society. But even leaving that aspect of the argument aside, the fact is that the women being the first to discover the lack of body in the tomb is merely part of the larger narrative, and that larger narrative was preached as gospel by men - men who themselves claimed to have seen the risen Christ. So the testimony of women objection is a bit of red herring, by itself it proves nothing. Craig made no particular further defense of the reality of the resurrection.

I agree that if you could prove (beyond reasonable doubt) the historicity of the resurrection, then that is considerable evidence in favour of the existence of God, the Father of Jesus. The problem is, in this debate Craig doesn't even attempt to do this, so his 3rd argument fails.

But what of his opponent?

Dr Law's opening statement focussed on two main points:
  1. There is an immense amount of suffering in the world, in particular animal suffering - the whole eco system of the world relies on animals killing and eating each other and some of those killings involve a ridiculously high degree of suffering. Beyond that, for most of human history, almost half of human children have died before the age of five. This is the way of the world, and does not point towards the existence of a benevolent creator god.
  2. The evil god hypothesis. Basically, this argument turns usual apologetics on its head and uses the same reasoning, as used by apologists, to propose that there is a supremely powerful but evil god as creator of the universe. The idea is to demonstrate that nobody will accept this hypothesis, so why should they accept the equal and opposite hypothesis for a good God?
This defense of atheism was less slick and less well delivered as that of Craig, so Stephen Law was up against it from the word go. Craig seemed more compelling. Also, it would appear (from the applause and general murmuring of the audience at various points in the debate) that the majority of the audience was essentially on Craig's side (the venue was a church, after all). But were the arguments any good?

The argument from suffering is quite compelling, but fails (in my opinion) because it attacks a very narrow god concept. I agree (in general terms) that the argument does a good job of demonstrating that if there is a god then he cannot be omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent. The reasoning goes like this: If god is is omniscient, then he would know the level of suffering in the world, if he is omnibenevolent, then he'd want to alleviate the suffering, and if he's omnipotent, then he'd be able to alleviate the suffering. Because the suffering is not alleviated, then it follows god cannot be all three omnis. QED.

However, the argument stops there. It does not do anything to demonstrate that there is no conceivable god. Yes, it does provide good evidence against the God of fundamentalist Christianity, but it leaves room for the God concepts of several branches of more 'liberal' Christianity and other streams of belief like open theism (basically an admission that God is not omniscient).

The evil god hypothesis is also quite a compelling argument, but again attacks a very narrowly defined God concept. The argument should lead to the conclusion that there is no omnipotent, omniscient, omnimalevolent deity, and by analogy that there is also no omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent deity either. But that's as far as it goes again.

So, all in all, Law made two compelling arguments against a very narrow god concept, none of what he presented was really good enough to question the existence of a transcendent deity in general, and certainly did not and could not address the question of origins. Why are we here? Law had no answer for this.

1st round of rebuttals

Following this, Craig had an opportunity to respond to Law's statement. And this is where, in my opinion, Craig won the debate (the podcast version gave no indication of whether or not a vote was taken before or after the debate). His response to Law was flawed, but was done so well and with such apparent authority that Law's case never recovered.

Craig's rebuttal of the animal suffering issue was twofold: firstly he asserted (with appeal to named experts) that there are three forms of pain and that only humans experience type three pain (please excuse my simple summary of his argument, I wasn't taking notes when listening) and so the suffering of animals is a non-argument. Further to that, he explained that the 'predation' of some animals by others was essential to have a functioning eco-system. It was an excellent response, even if it was all a distraction away from the main point.

If he'd picked up on it, Law could have attacked this line of reasoning by picking at Craig's passing comment that suggested that other 'higher primates' as well as humans experience this type three pain. This was basically Craig blurring the line between humans and animals, and many of his moral arguments could be attacked by exploiting this. But Law went on the defensive, and didn't follow through. Furthermore, Law could have appealed to the pet owners in the audience, all of whom know, yes know, that their pets experience pain and even give them reproachful looks at the vet when they see you have allowed them to feel pain. That line of attack would have sunk Craig's assertion, at least for a portion of the audience.

Craig's response to the evil god hypothesis bolstered his case, without actually dealing with the main points of the argument. His attack was again twofold: firstly that, by definition, god is good, so an evil god is not a god. Of course, that's just an argument of semantics, but Craig was winning by this point, so it didn't matter to him. The second strand of his attack on the evil god concept was essentially his argument from morality again - there is an objective morality, in order to have this, there must be a good god providing that morality.

I think Craig's rebuttal was weak, but it didn't really matter as he was beating Law by this point and he knew it.

When Law had his chance to rebut Craig he made a considerable misstep by not responding to Craig's cosmological argument. He zeroed in on the issues surrounding morality and got bogged down in his evil god hypothesis again.

Both speakers had a second chance to rebut the other. Craig, who must have been patting himself on the back by this point, simply pointed out that by not responding to his cosmological argument Law had more of less conceded defeat on this issue. Furthermore he used Law's evil god hypothesis to suggest that Law believed in this god, hence was not really an atheist. Craig managed to muddy the waters on this issue so much that Law never managed to get back out of it, even through the whole question and answer session. Craig managed to keep the rest of the discussion bogged down in the same issues, going round in circles, and hence came out as the clear winner - not because his argument was any better, but because he knew all the tricks of making your opponent look like a fool.

Law's second rebuttal was slightly more considered and attempted to actually meet all Craig's arguments head on, but his assertion that Craig hadn't managed to demonstrate the existence of a God sounded fairly hollow.

So, all in all, it was a good debate, at least from Craig's point of view. Many believers will have gone away from that debate feeling that their beliefs were somehow validated, while the atheists will have gone away with their tails between their legs. I'm not sure anyone will have had their minds changed by the debate, but I'm not sure that's actually the real objective of these debates.

I've recently heard the opinion that apologetics is not about evangelism, its really about boosting (or maintaining) the faith of those who are already believers. I kind of think this is the case, whatever the sales pitch of these events actually is (e.g. "bring a non-believing friend").

Anyway, this made me think, and there'll be a spin-off blog posting from this along in a day or two.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Quotes of the day

I heard/read two fascinating quotes today, so I share them with you, dear reader:
"It is better the world perish with the truth than be saved with lies"
from 'The Last Temptation of Christ' by Nikos Kazantzakis

"One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision"
by Bertrand Russell