William Lane Craig & Bill Cooke Public Debate (Palmy) June 20, 2008Posted by Ian in Religion.
Tags: Bill Cooke, Debate, William Lane Craig
I was astounded at the attendance – the Regent Theatre in Palmerston North has a capacity of about 1,400 and it was easily 90% full for most of the night. There was an impressive diversity of age, gender, and race evident in the audience and I would say it was a fairly accurate cross-section of adult society (it certainly wasn’t an old white men’s club!). From responses to the speakers the audience was polite but predominantly Christian and this reinforces my impression is that there is a growing religious movement pushed by several of fairly active church groups in Palmerston North and it is something I am going to start keeping a closer eye on.
My overall impressions of the debate were disappointing, and pretty much match Damian’s initial impressions. Craig had a definite game plan in the debate, and it was clearly a game plan from a skilled formal debater. Set up premises and then defend them. Sadly Cooke’s game plan was to dismiss the moot, largely ignore Craig’s premises (begrudgingly discussing them, almost as after thoughts) and mostly talking to three points almost despite whatever Craig said. I will raise these first and then go on to discuss Craig’s arguments:
- Atheists do not assert there is no god but that they do not see the case for god as compelling or even a coherent claim (based on weak definitions). Unfortunately, while an interesting point, Craig never really tried to pin this on Cooke so it was really not a point worth making in the debate.
- He used Lloyd Geering’s idea that the notion of “God” is a barrier to understanding the world around us, and that focusing too much on god gets in the way of rational discourse and promotes undue authority amongst those who claim to understand it. This was an interesting tactic but it failed against the so-called “logic” of Craig because most people (including Craig) missed the connection.
- Cooke’s final point was that we should stop arguing about our differences and instead focus on our similarities and on solving real problems. This sort of argument, while noble, is not the way to win debates. He talked about how he was happy that Craig was a Christian and that he encouraged diversity of opinion. Again very noble, but in debates it is about point scoring not nobility (one reason I dislike the format) and this counted against Cooke especially in an audience of largely opposing views.
So overall it didn’t really seem like Cooke came to debate. The only life really came from him during the Q&A when some quick witted answers did score some points, but by then it was far too late. If the debate was scored he would have clearly lost.
Craig’s approach was heavily built around 5 key evidences of god, each (except the 5th) with a logical argument built in. These were so clearly fallacious that Cooke should have had a field day but I don’t think that’s his style. Someone like Hitchens or Dawkins would have found it all too easy.
1. God is the best explanation of the origin of the universe
a. Whatever begins has a cause
b. The universe began
c. Therefore the universe has a cause
d. That cause must be outside space and time, transcendent and personal
Now obviously if a and b are true, then c follows. However neither a or b are necessarily true and here is why. We do not know of anything beginning from scratch so we have exactly zero experience of things coming into existence for the first time. Therefore we have no basis to say that everything which begins has a cause - we simply don’t know.
Further, there are three well known conditions for causality: Temporal precedence, covariance and exclusion of alternatives. Temporal precedence means for A to cause B, A occurred before B. Covariance means that for A to cause B, A must change as B changes. Exclusion of alternatives means that for A to cause B, we must know that C didn’t cause B. We cannot say ”god” caused the universe to come into existence because we cannot establish temporal precedence, we cannot establish covariance and we cannot exclude other causes.
Now regarding the universe beginning, the general consensus is that there was a “big bang” from a singularity. We have a fair idea of what that might have looked like but exactly no idea what it was like at time zero. This means this singularity could have come from a preceding “big crunch” as part of a sequence of infinite crunches and bangs. Or it could have been stuck in that state for an infinite amount of time before a quantum fluctuation caused it to expand. Or any number of other possibilities all largely untestable and pure speculation. Therefore we have very little certainty over premise b.
This leaves c a much weaker proposition than it seems at first glance.
d is pure speculation with no basis in anything. We do not know if it is possible for something to exist outside space and time, could probably never show either way, and more importantly, have no reason to think something like that does except for inferences from a 2,000 year old book written before anyone knew anything like what we know today about the nature of the universe we find ourselves in.
2. Teleological argument
This is the argument of fine tuning. The logic goes like this:
a. There are three possible explanations; the fine tuning is a physical necessity, the fine tuning occurred by chance, or there was a designer.
b. It isn’t a physical necessity and it is far too unlikely to be by chance.
c. Therefore it needs a designer.
This is a delightfully simple example of the logical fallacy entitled a “false trichotomy”. Firstly it may be a combination of a and b – that is that various versions of the universe crunched, banged and so forth until a fairly stable version was arrived at. This would add a fourth option, that a stable universe evolved. A fifth option could be that a stable universe is a stable equilibrium point in a rapidly changing universe. A sixth option could be that in a million years all the constants will have changed sufficiently that we no longer live in a stable universe. Finally his main point is that changing constants by even the tiniest amount would mean no life. But life only needs replicators and constraints which means that we could potentially get intelligent life out of any number of different universes, albeit wildly different to “humans”. We have no idea about the possible ways that life could come about so we really have no basis for the chance argument either. It might be that 50% of possible universes could potentially have life of some sort.
So a is a false trichotomy, b is an unjustified assertion, and therefore c does not follow. It is also worth noting that he did not try and justify c beyond discarding the other two options. Where is the evidence for the “designer”?
3. God is the only source of objective moral values
a. If god doesn’t exist then there are no objective morals
b. There are objective morals
c. Therefore god exists.
This one is curious for a number of reasons.
Firstly assuming a god is the only possible source of objective morals is weak. We have no idea how objective morals could come into existence so claiming they must be god is wishful thinking at best. Perhaps objective morals define quantum mechanics? You might laugh at that argument but Craig offered no better evidence that god is responsible than I just did that quantum mechanics is.
Secondly, asserting that objective morals do exist is a much bolder statement than you might think. Craig’s main argument is summarised in this quote (regarding something like rape) “deep down I think we all know it” (that rape is bad). I am sorry but deep down we all it is not a valid argument and it was the only one he presented. My question regarding this issue is as follows: Is a society’s shifting moral zeitgeist distinguishable from an objective moral code to a member of that society ? I don’t think someone living in a morally guided society could tell the difference between rape as objectively amoral and rape as relatively amoral so I am not convinced we have any basis to claim b when a relative morality could explain the same observation (deep down conviction).
So again with a and b looking shaky, c no longer follows.
4. God is the best explanation of the resurrection of Jesus
Craig first raised three historical “facts” about Jesus:
i. The tomb was found empty on Sunday
ii. People saw Jesus alive after his death
iii. Disciples came to believe despite a Jewish faith that denied the possibility of resurrection
He then raises the logic as:
a. i, ii and iii are fact
b. God raised Jesus from the dead is the best explanation
c. Therefore god exists
This wasn’t compelling for me for a number of reasons. I can think of any number of possible explanations for i, ii and iii that could explain them equally as well as god raising Jesus from the dead.
Some possible explanations of i. include the wrong tomb, theft of the body (people or animals), Chinese whispers (“he wasn’t there” meaning the life had left him rather than he disappeared), or that he didn’t really die and left himself. Explanations of II could either be wishful thinking (how many sightings of Elvis have there been?), impostors, or mistaken identity, or that he didn’t really die. Explanations of iii are not too hard, people change their minds and beliefs all the time and with a seemingly compelling reason to do so, its not hard to imagine.
So b is certainly a possibility but his argument was far from compelling that it was the best explanation. Further, he made no attempt beyond assertion to explain what was especially “good” about the explanation except that he “couldn’t think of a better one”.
5. Personal experience
He never really developed this beyond the assertion that “I have experienced god so therefore god exists” (paraphrased). Cooke never challenged him on it, and Craig never offered examples so really it boils down to this logic:
a. I experienced something
b. I attributed that experience to god
c. Therefore god exists.
a is almost certainly true. b is also almost certainly true. c however is a non sequitur. We all know how easy it is to trick human senses, to experience seemingly transcendental states and feelings of euphoria and so forth with no supernatural explanation required. Attribution does not mean it is true. For this to be a logical sequence b needs to be replaced by “the experience can only be explained by god” and demonstrating that to be true would be very very difficult. The argument is entirely built on assertion and largely empty as stated.
So there we have it, overall a disappointing debate with nothing new or interesting coming to the table. It will be interesting to see the Auckland version of the debate when it makes it to youtube to compare them but from other posts it seems they were similar. Those that attended the Auckland debate, how do they compare?