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William Lane Craig & Bill Cooke Public Debate (Palmy) June 20, 2008

Posted by Ian in Religion.
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Last night (19th June, 2008) I attended the debate which I talked about in a previous post

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:

Cooke’s Approach

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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

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

The logic:

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?



1. Dace - June 20, 2008

Very nice summary. I too attended the debate and was disappointed in Cooke’s lack of engagement with the moot. It was a good opportunity, with the majority of the crowd Christian, to show the rationality of atheism, but that opportunity wasn’t taken. I have to wonder, since the debate was sponsered by religious organizations who have a vested interest in its winner, whether Cooke was picked for this reason.
Anyhow, I’ve linked you in a thread on the RD.net messageboard. Hope you don’t mind.

2. Ian - June 20, 2008

Welcome to the blog. Yes it was a good opportunity lost for the rational position to be put forward. I would like to know Cooke’s motivation in being involved in these debates – does anyone know the history?

No worries with linking on RD.net.

3. Ken - June 20, 2008

Craig is well know for debating in the US. He was heavily promoted by Christian groups here. They see him as a great debater and were obviously trying to find someone (for the other side) for quite a while – if Christian News blog is anything to go by (The Battle of the Bill’s: A Review of the Craig – Cooke Debate). (Actually I don’t think they are reliable but the administrator presented him/herself as involved with organisation of Craig’s visit and kept making a thing of asking for a debating partner – implying chicken! It seems logical they would choose a debating partner more appropriate for the outcome they desire. But then again who would one choose in NZ as a debater for atheism? No one obviously comes to my mind.

I am interested in the fact that there have been large audiences to these debates. It could have several causes:

1: Part of a general current interest in the topic as evidenced by (and to some extent caused by) sales of the God Delusion, etc.

2: Part of a Christian “fight-back” or heightened interest in the subject. I think Christians feel a bit under pressure at the moment because of the turn against religion and the so-called ‘new atheism’. There seem to be courses and programmes for Christians geared specifically around Dawkins’ book and arguments. This could cause Christians to turn out in numbers, or to be mobilised in numbers as “support” – (after all organisation has been basically by Christian organisations – it was their thing).

3: A turn out by non-theists as part of the current interest in atheism ( or part of the current turn against religion and feelings of a ‘new atheism’).

Actually I think the interest could be more 2 (and some 1) rather than 3. Despite a growing acceptance of atheism and comfort with the arguments of Dawkins et al., I don’t think atheists are really interested in mobilising themselves or turning out to public meetings. Particularly ones organised by Christian groups. On the whole, we seem to be happy about getting on with life, confident in our own morals and ethics, and not feeling the need to debate them.

I’m interested in what others think is the reason for the high turn outs. Does anybody know what sort of numbers he has been getting for his normal, non-debate meetings specifically for Christians?

4. Ian - June 20, 2008

Good points Ken. My impression is that 2 is quite significant in pockets around NZ, and certainly in parts of Palmy as I mentioned earlier. I don’t see 3 happening in numbers although there seems to be a growing amount of networking happening mostly thanks to blogs and the like (thoughts?). I personally don’t get the sense 1 is really occuring in the general public but then its hard to read.

Your point about who is a New Zealand atheist capable of debating is a real issue and a problem I think. Cooke was very eloquent and an excellent speaker and I’d like to hear him talk on a topic of his own personal interest because I think it would be fascinating, but he doesn’t seem to think like a debater (a virtue, but not in a debate lol) . I do think there is a lot of disorganisation amongst NZ atheists, partly by definition, and partly because there is no atheist organisation that I am aware of (although plenty of skeptic-based organisations which happen to be loosely atheist). It is a dilemma because organising atheists risks turning atheism into a religion, but we are making life easy for theists by being disorganised.

Not sure if it counts but I attended a public lecture today by Bill Craig (it wasn’t anything particularly interesting, it just focused in lots more detail on point 2 in the main post) but it was not that well attended – maybe about 30 people there despite being on the Massey University Campus.

5. Damian - June 20, 2008

Well written Ian. It looks like this whole debate has turned into a cringe-fest for anyone who’s familiar with the standard arguments for God’s existence. Cooke seems like a really nice person but by choosing to participate in this series of debate without engaging he’s done us all a bit of a disservice (atheists and theists alike).

6. ChristianJR4 - June 20, 2008

The high turnout could also just be due to the fact that it was William Lane Craig himself. Craig has always brought huge audiences when he debates. He did this last year with Lewis Wolpert in the UK. I can think of few reasons to support this. Number 1 is the people that organize Craig’s tour and debate advertise the debates well and do a good job in promoting such an event because Craig is such a high profile apologist. So obviously they would want to do the hard work in advertising a debate or lecture that he’s at. Number 2 is the fact that most of the people present at the debate on Thursday at the regent theatre were themselves Christians. Clearly many Christians were encouraged to come to the debate to hear him. This was again just like Craig’s debate with Wolpert in which most were Christian. Of course another good reason could easily be like Ken said, the fact that the debate was titled after Dawkin’s major best selling book “The God Delusion”. No doubt that played a role in bringing people.

Anyways Ian your review is good but the objections you give against Craig’s arguments I think are quite lacking. But before I get to a few of those, let me respond to something else you said first:

“Someone like Hitchens or Dawkins would have found it all too easy.”

I doubt it. Dawkins is no philosopher and neither is Hitchens. The best they could do I would imagine is bring the same objections against Craig’s arguments as you have. Once they put these objections out then that’s it. They wouldn’t have anything else to say after Craig responds to them since Craig literally has counter responses to everything you said here against his arguments.

Ok now to a few of your objections:

*The Resurrection of Jesus*

You offered the “wrong tomb theory” , the “stolen body” theory or the “apparent death theory”. Those three have been universally rejected by contemporary scholarship. Why would anyone recourse to those theories when clearly the resurrection hypothesis fairs far better and explains the available evidence. If you’re going to say that these theories are better than the resurrection hypothesis then you need to explain why these naturalistic theories are in fact better than the resurrection one. It’s not enough to just offer them. As far as the Elvis sightings, well those are after the fact and in keeping within the 20th century framework of hallucinations and sightings of a great pop-star. The Jewish framework was totally different in that sightings of Jesus would be interpreted as an assumption into heaven, but not a resurrection from the dead, since Jews had no concept of a resurrection taking place in history. The biggest problem with those theories is that they can’t explain those 3 facts that Craig gave. You have to conjoin independent hypotheses like hallucinations with a stolen body or hallucinations with a wrong tomb. Those weaken the explanatory power of an explanation of what happened. The resurrection hypothesis as a single hypothesis explains those 3 facts together with no need to attach any additional theories which only increase the adhocness of a hypothesis. There’s so much more to say here but in short those theories don’t explain the facts, either as single ones or as a group.

I don’t want to make this too long but I’ll say something about the Kalam Cosmological argument. You said with respect to (a)

“We do not know of anything beginning from scratch so we have exactly zero experience of things coming into existence for the first time”

All the more reason to believe the universe has a cause. Anyways the point here is you need a productive cause for some entity x to exists. Why is that controversial? To say that a child began to exist is to say that it didn’t always exist and that at a certain point it began to exist. Theres no denying the child hasn’t always existed. The child definitely has a BEGINNING point. And that point is what needs a cause. I really don’t see your objection here at all. In fact I find it incredible that Atheists could even dispute this premise at all. One must have a lot of faith I think in order to believe that premise is false.

With respect to (b) you said:

“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.”

The Penrose-Hawking singularity theorem disproved that a while ago. Oscillating models are dead now.

With respect to (d) you said:

“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”

You’re missing the point. If premise 1 and 2 are true then the universe has a cause. By deductive analysis the cause obviously must transcend time and space since it created both time and space. That’s basically the way the cause must be if the universe has a cause. Also it’s quite easy to understand God as transcending space and time. Why would it be impossible for presumably the greatest conceivable being to transcend it. An all-powerful, perfectly infinite God it seems could transcend it. Anyways again the main point here is that if there is a cause, then it must transcend space and time since it created it. But premise 1 and 2 both seem quite reasonable. It would seem there is such a cause.

I’ll leave the moral and fine-tuning argument for another day.

7. ajchesswas - June 20, 2008

I think the trouble for Cooke is he had to respond, and because he was responding, as you are, the arguments for some reason end up having to be much more complex. Your responses, Ian, are good, and certainly much more philosophical and engaging than it sounds like Bill was. But how many people in an audience that size do you think would be able to follow those arguments?

You ask a good question – what Atheist in New Zealand has any reputation as both a good logician AND a good communicator. Christians have the advantage of living in a culture dependent on the pulpit. Oratory opportunities are endless, and audiences are very diverse. Whereas atheist preachers will typically only have practice with [quasi](sorry – tongue-in-cheek)-academic communities.

The fact is, Cooke spoke to two packed audiences at the Baptist Church Sunday morning (prob 1000 people altogether), and then to another 1000 in the evening, in Palmerston North. A number of Palmerston North churches encouraged people to attend that evening service rather than their own. All attendants were encouraged from the pulpit to invite friends on Thursday evening.

Palmerston North churches are united in a way that is probably very unique as far as NZ cities go. The city also has very good Christian intellectuals and evangelists who are also very good communiticators with a wide reach. The culture of the Christian group on campus is certainly much more intellectual than when I was there 6 years ago, and also the church I used to be part of, CCC, is perhaps the most intellectual charismatic-evangelical church I have ever experienced in New Zealand. The Anglicans and Presbyterians both have a good number of Christian academics, scientists, philosophers.

The relationship between churches and the university in Palmerston North is long and strong and to be the main hosts for one of the greatest philosophers in the world on his NZ tour is the fruit of that long history, and hopefully of a growing appreciation of the interface between Christianity and philosophy and the academy which must be rediscovered for the sake of a dying church, and for the sake of civilisation itself.

8. Ian - June 20, 2008

Welcome ChristianJR4

Some responses to points you make:

Why would anyone recourse to those theories when clearly the resurrection hypothesis fairs far better and explains the available evidence.

Let us for a moment assume that Jesus literally died, literally came back to life, and literally was seen after his death. What does this tell us? Only that he literally died, literally came back to life, and literally was seen after his death. It does not in any way tell us the mechanism by which he came back to life, so even conceding those points does little for the existence of god.

And while we may even have a fair degree of evidence for a variety of aspects of the life of Jesus, we are dealing with eye witness accounts from over 2000 years ago so the reliability of these accounts is subject to some doubt, especially in the context of the establishment of a religion over time. There is no doubt in my mind the “power” of Jesus has been exaggerated over time. How much so? We may never know.

So my point here is not that Jesus was not resurrected, but that we have large amounts of uncertainty around the events that occurred, and that returning to life from death does not automatically imply that the universe has a creator. It is simply not a complete argument to say “Jesus returned from the dead therefore god exists” because we can’t be sure he did, and even if he did, we can’t be sure how.

All the more reason to believe the universe has a cause.

You are essentially saying that absence of knowledge leads to certainty? Forgive my confusion 🙂

To say that a child began to exist is to say that it didn’t always exist and that at a certain point it began to exist.

As a composite entity it’s existence is certainly new to the world. But it’s existence is not new from scratch. We know where it came from. It’s information content is from it’s parents genetic material. It’s physical content is from proteins in the mother’s food. etc. The baby does not come into existence from scratch.

This is really an issue of system boundaries. At the conceptual level of organisms the baby suddenly leaps into existence but at the conceptual level of galaxies or atoms, nothing changed. As humans we are familiar with a cause and effect world of what Dawkins refers to as “Middle-world”. However we can’t be sure at vast cosmological scales or tiny quantum scales that these things hold true. Perhaps they do, perhaps they don’t, we simply don’t know.

I really don’t see your objection here at all. In fact I find it incredible that Atheists could even dispute this premise at all. One must have a lot of faith I think in order to believe that premise is false.

Indeed, as one must have a lot of faith to believe it is true. I discuss this later on in this comment in more detail.

The Penrose-Hawking singularity theorem disproved that a while ago. Oscillating models are dead now.

Friedman’s original model of an oscillating universe and Penrose-Hawking’s follow up have been superseded for sure but that’s not really my point. We have no idea what happened “before” the big bang and we cannot be absolutely sure if it was the absolute beginning or not.

Incidentally (and it is very incidental) the Baum-Frampton model and Lynd’s cyclic time model are two contemporary examples of oscillating cosmological models. Sure they might turn out not to be true but the idea certainly hasn’t gone the way of the Ptolemaic universe just yet.

You’re missing the point. If premise 1 and 2 are true then the universe has a cause. By deductive analysis the cause obviously must transcend time and space since it created both time and space.

Let us develop this further. Is it not a paradox to say that cause can occur outside of time because one of the defining criteria for cause is temporal precedence? Thus for a being who transcends time and space to “cause” the universe to exist, we first have to redefine “cause” and that means we then have go back and decide if the universe really does need this new “cause” after all.

So we have a few options:

1) We can take cause as is normally meant, assume the universe begins, assume this needs a cause and hit a paradox (you cannot have temporal precedence for the first thing.

2) We can redefine cause, assume the universe begins, assume this means it needs a cause, and then can quite happily ascribe that cause to a future event (if temporal precedence is abandoned this is quite valid).

3) We can reconsider some assumptions and see what happens. Likely candidates seem to me to include the “everything needs a cause” assumption and the “universe began” assumption.

And this takes us right back to the only logical conclusion (as I see it): We really have little to no idea if how the universe started.

9. Ian - June 20, 2008

Thanks for those insights on the palmy church scene Allan, I guess my impression from the outside wasn’t so far off. Do you sense a growing unity in palmy or has it always been this strong?

A thought:

But how many people in an audience that size do you think would be able to follow those arguments?

This is a real problem and what concerns me about this sort of public presentation. I would much rather a lot of people left thinking “man this stuff is confusing” (welcome to reality!) than left thinking “man Craig owned Cooke, he must be right”. Of course this isn’t what the public want but you won’t get a black and white picture out of this because most of it is firmly smack bang in the gray zone. I wish more people could grasp that. Craig gives the impression this is not the case, particularly to the lay listener because he is so charismatic and effective as a public speaker.

10. Ken - June 21, 2008

Behind the question of mobilisation, turnout, spokespoeple I think there is a real difference between religion and non-theism.

Religion is basically not about belief, but about communities. Consequently Christians are organised in communities and can mobilise rapidly. We see this happening quite often in politics these days. Christians can create an impression of opposition to government policy which may not, in fact, be translated into results in an election where the unorganised and passive people have an input.

On the other hand atheists are not organised into communities. That’s an interesting issue – there seems to be far less personal requirement for community on the part of atheists. So I don’t think atheists can be mobilised easily for things like this debate.

I agree Ian, that this is probably a positive point – I would hate to see atheists organised in the same way as churches, etc. That way lies dogma.

I say leave the organisation for issues of substance – political issues, war and peace, human rights. I don’t see that the existence or non-existence of a god is important enough to organise and mobilise around.

Regarding spokespeople – I didn’t mean to imply that there aren’t atheists without the ability – far from it. But names don’t come easily to mind because of the lack of community and organisations. That said I think there are a number of well known personalities who could have (and probably would like to have) debated Craig and done very well at the sport.

Alan makes an interesting point about how Christians can hone their debating skill via the pulpit, etc. I think ministers also get trained in this sort of thing. However, what I find interesting is that it is a training and experience lacking any restriction of fact. Whereas the scientifically minded will always go back to what we know about reality – they are surely obliged to, the religious debater will rely on “logic.” I have commented before how it amazes me that creationists can be so dishonest in their arguments. I think dishonesty is a inevitable result of relying on logic and selection of evidence to support a preconceived belief.

In this sense religion is a bit like politics (without the 3 year intervention of a referee). I don’t think it encourages a respect for truth in the way that science tends to.

11. Dace - June 21, 2008

ChristianJR4 wrote:
“Also it’s quite easy to understand God as transcending space and time. Why would it be impossible for presumably the greatest conceivable being to transcend it. An all-powerful, perfectly infinite God it seems could transcend it. ”

I don’t think it is easy to understand a god that transcends space and time – these are the dimensions of existence. To say that some entity exists is to say, at least, that it occupies a spatio-temporal position. We might postulate further dimensions of existence (perhaps there are time and space outside this particular universe), but we at least need some dimensions to characterize any object. We need to say it occupies this space, and not that space. This time, not that time. The determination of an object is its negation, and we need dimensions in order to show the contrast.
As an academic matter, we can of course say that the omnipotence of god implies his ability to exist outside of space & time, as you do. But we can also say that the omnipotence of god is such that he can make “5+2=3”. My point here is not that this is absurd, though I think it is, but rather that just because a feat falls within god’s powers does not make it understandable. “5+2+3” and “Existence is possible outside space and time” are both examples of what god could make true, yet we cannot understand them.

12. Dale - June 21, 2008

(I’m risking commenting here as well – though I won’t be able to interact much with comments for a week or so – full on at the moment!)

Just because our understanding of ‘existence’ is in terms of space/time, doesn’t mean, of course, that God could not ‘exist’ in other modes. It’s not so much about ‘God transcending time or space’, but rather ‘time and space (and let’s not forget matter and meaning) existing within God’s reality’…

One thing seems obvious – you’re not going to prove or dis-prove God’s existence by arguing about what kind of dimensions he may or may not exist in…


13. Madeleine - June 21, 2008

From reading your assessment of the debate I would say that the Palmy one was very similar to the Auckland one. We heard from people who attended both that Cooke stepped it up at the Palmy one but otherwise it ran very similar.

As one of the Christian organisers of the Auckland debate I would like to state that in no way was Cooke chosen because we thought he would be an easy target. We always wanted the best calibre opponent we could find. We were absolutely not interested in showcasing a slam dunk, we wanted to see the top minds and ideas in the fields meet, a high calibre debate of ideas presented by the top in the fields. Bill Craig has debated some of the world’s top atheists, see his site http://www.reasonablefaith.org, and has held his own well, hence, the high level of interest in seeing him live.

We had no sponsor for this debate so we approached the NZRAH and asked them to put the debate on together with us and to suggest a good opponent. They suggested Bill Cooke. We had no issue with their suggestion because we wanted the atheists to choose their own candidate, Bill Cooke is well known and regarded within NZ, his name would be a drawcard and he has debated most other Christian thinkers and apologists within NZ (including my husband).

We were disappointed that he failed to engage in the debate but the arguments he gave are commonplace atheist arguments heard on within NZ society so I don’t know that it is fair to suggest he did NZ atheism a disservice. As someone above mentioned, who would you get in NZ if not Cooke?

We hope to bring Craig back to NZ in a couple of years so if you want to suggest higher calibre opponents than Cooke please do.

14. Ian - June 21, 2008

Ken: Somehow I think the only way atheists will ever group together meaningfully is to oppose religion for one reason or another (rightly or wrongly). Since religion in NZ doesn’t really do much worth opposing (such as trying to force ID into classrooms), NZ atheists don’t really have a unifying motivation. I see this as positive, even if it is somewhat frustrating for people like myself lol.

Dace & Dale: I tend to agree with Dace. The assumption that anything can exist in a manner with which we have exactly zero experience is one that almost defines incomprehensible. We can proxy understanding via thought experiments and perhaps decide that something incomprehensible is the only possible answer, but if we do so we cannot then claim to comprehend it. It is a very complicated issue, and one that many theists try and sweep under the carpet with statements like “he can do anything, so he can do that”. It isn’t quite that simple – just because one can say the words doesn’t mean the words actually make sense.

Madeleine: Welcome and thanks for posting your thoughts. One thing I would like to make clear is that I do not think Cooke was a “low caliber” opponent, I just disagree with his approach. He is a great asset to NZ humanism and I have a lot of respect for him.

In many ways I think the problem was the format more than the participants – debates suit American apologists because they are their bread and butter. Very few kiwis could hope to stand up to them in a formal debate format and this is sad because it defeats the point of the event. Moderated discussions and/or individual presentations are probably more productive (if less popular). Anyone else have thoughts on this?

15. Dale - June 21, 2008

Thanks Ian,
I certainly wasn’t trying to just put words together to make a sentence.
I can understand where you’re coming from, but (honestly) do you really think that God (if God exists) would be some kind of a thing that has a ‘location’ in our time/space/matter universe? Surely anything that caused our time/space/matter universe could not be limited by time/space/matter. This seems pretty straightforward to me…

16. Ian - June 22, 2008

It is straightforward conceptually but the implications and determination of its possibility are extraordinarily complex. A concept is not enough to justify an idea but there doesn’t seem to be anything else to work with? You see my problem is not with the concept, but with the potential reality of the concept. We cannot make useful judgments on this because it is (pretty much by definition) well outside our ability to comprehend. It really amounts to “imagine something we can’t imagine, that did it.”

17. Dale - June 22, 2008

weren’t we talking about proving/dis-proving God’s existence? I’m certainly not trying to ‘explain’ how God’s existence ‘works’ or whatever. My points (above) have been only to say that it’s pretty straightforward to imagine how God could exist – if in fact, God does.

18. Madeleine - June 22, 2008

Surely you are not suggesting that only Americans are capable to setting up premises and defending them?

Academic debates are far more valuable than moderated discussions and individual presentations when done right. If you have two scholars separately present their case and then they each stand up and clarify and further expand their points, critique and demonstrate errors in the other’s positions then defend the critiques and offer further argument and explantion the audience gets to see and understand the issues in a far deeper way than in hearing just one perspective. Its like the difference between reading one set of views on a topic and only understanding the opposing view on the basis of what the critics say it is and actually reading widely and trying to make sense of the cases for both sides from the top proponents of both views.

That was what was disppointing at the Cooke v Craig debate. Craig did as I described, set up his own position, critiques Cooke’s, further developed his own case and so on but Cooke, as you put it, dismissed the moot, largely ignored Craig’s premises (begrudgingly discussing them, almost as after thoughts) and mostly talked to three points almost despite whatever Craig said.

Craig came to debate, Cooke came to give a moderated discussion/individual presentation.

19. Dace - June 22, 2008

Madeleine: Thanks for your comment. I am sure of your sincerity. I disagree with you that the arguments that Cooke gave are commonplace arguments, since I think much more commonplace are evidentialist objections.
But for the future, I suggest (if possible) that you match up a philosopher with a philosopher. It is true that Cooke held the title of Visiting Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University at Buffalo, but it seems as though the reason for this was not his teaching of philosophy (see http://fundypost.blogspot.com/2007/06/university-of-brigadoon.html). It is little surprise (looking back) that Cooke naturally gravitated to discussing the subject with which he is best acquainted, which is religious studies.

20. Ian - June 22, 2008

Dale: And all I’m saying is that it isn’t quite so simple 🙂 It is easy to offer a possibility with words (a five sided square) but much harder to translate that into something useful.

Madeleine: I think it is safe to assume American religious apologists are far more practiced at public debates than any New Zealand atheist would be. In my experience public debates prove who is the better debater on the night, not who is right and this means public debates are about far more than just proposing and defending points. Doing so is the basis of technical debates but public debates are as much about the audience as the topic, an area religious people are generally much better at (although atheists are learning, and of course there are some exceptions such as Hitchens).

Also the superficial issues in these topics have all been debated to death. There is still scope for interesting debates on precisely framed topics but for broad topics like those in the recent debates, I think they are a waste of time. In my view we need some other format (I do not know what) to progress those discussions meaningfully.

I agree entirely with your third and fourth paragraphs.

Dace: Good point.

21. Ben - June 23, 2008

I disagree with a lot of the commentary/explanations suggested as to why so many people turned up at the debate. I can’t speak for Palmerston North but I went along to the debate in Auckland. The first lecture theatre filled up and the guy on sound, a guy from the NZARH, managed to set up a video feed into four other theatres to keep up with the demand. I never saw any publicity whatsoever for the debate; I only heard about it because I subscribe to Craig’s newsletter. I casually invited many of my friends to attend the debate via a facebook group, and I was blown away with the interest. Many friends and friends of friends – Christian, atheist, and agnostic, in roughly equal numbers – showed a keen interest in the debate and they turned out in droves to see what would be said. There certainly seemed to have a strong atheist contingent in the room, as evidenced by the crowd’s reactions when Craig made assertions about the supposed weakness of atheism’s moral foundations. “Anyone who’s anyone” in intellectual NZ Christianity seemed to be there and there was also a solid turnout from university faculty, many who were disappointed with Craig’s fallacious arguments and Cooke’s inability/unwillingness to engage with them.

22. Ken - June 23, 2008

Never heard this word ‘moot’ used as a noun before. Apparently it is used in law do describe “an academic discussion in which people such as law students argue hypothetically or plead a hypothetical legal case.”

It’s interesting the concept doesn’t come up in science – which is far more about discovering the truth about reality than is law which, it seems to me, is more about winning.

Presentation of different sides of an argument is important. However, the popular concept of ‘debate’ seems to be more that it is a sport where someone wins and others lose – independent of the relationship of their arguments to reality.

23. Ian - June 23, 2008

Welcome Ben. I am pretty sure the large attendance at the Palmy debate was fuelled by the local Christian community. It is quite possible the large attendances in both centres had quite unrelated causes.

Ken: I always thought a “moot” in debate language is simply the topic being debated. However I have just been told by a colleague that it is an obsolete use of the word lol. The main use now seems to be to indicate that something is irrelevant/meaningless.

I agree entirely about with your points about debates.

24. Dale - June 23, 2008

The only thing I said was ‘simple’ was the idea of the creator of t/s/m not being limited to (or confined within) t/s/m. That is simple enough. When you say ‘it’s not that simple’, are you talking about actual belief in that creator?

(Ken, careful with the use of that word ‘reality’!!! 🙂 )


25. Ian - June 23, 2008

This has nothing to do with whether god exists or not, or the belief in god, but purely whether anyone can actually comprehend the concept of something not confined to t/s/m. For example when I think of god being “outside time”, I tend to think (and so do most people I suspect) of “able to time travel” or “present at all times” or “able to influence multiple times at the same time” or something like that. But those are all still within the framework of time and frankly I just can’t conceptualise something that isn’t.

Now I readily admit that this is a weakness of the way that humans perceive the word around them rather than evidence against the possibility. But that is kind of my point. Something incomprehensible should not be considered simple, in my humble opinion 🙂

26. David Morell Stevenson - June 23, 2008

Debates are purely gladatorial and serve little purpose other than any sporting event . Success depends more upon debating skills rather than inherent strength of one argument over another. As an agnostic I would not presume the ability to represent those of that belief in a debate against somebody with the experience of William Lane Craig. Did Bill Cooke, as an atheist, have the humility to ask that question of himself. Having said that I would suggest a partisan audience not forget the vast field of scholarship that exists against William Lane Craig`s position regardless of how Bill Cooke debated.

27. Dale - June 23, 2008

Indeed, Ian,
One of the few things we can comprehend (or should I say apprehend?) about God is our inability to comprehend God. Having said that, I’m taken with the idea that God is both simple and complex…(if it’s even proper to talk of God in terms of ‘complexity’).
Yeah, it would have been more fruitful of a ‘sporting event’ if Cooke had been prepared (i.e. – familiarising himself with the ‘vast field of scholarship’ against Craig’s position)…

28. David Morell Stevenson - June 23, 2008

John Loftus on the Debunking Christianity website had William Lane Craig as a mentor at theological college before becoming a fervent evangelising christian with several degrees (equivalent to Ph.D). He eventually turned full circle and became an atheist. John has debated against his former mentor (Craig) . Most of those ongoing contributors to their forum would have been envious of Dr. Bill Cooke`s opportunity to debate William Craig.

My suggestion to Bill Cooke would be that he engages with the former ministers and pastors and deconverted christians on that excellent Forum to get an edge to his debating style and to add substance to the repertoire he may possess but does not present in debate.

29. Ian - June 23, 2008

Welcome David.

One problem I have is that we have no idea how good Cooke is at formal debating on this topic, nor his views on his approach. He may well be a very good formal debater when he chooses to be, I really have no idea. The only thing that is clear that the two recent debates is that he didn’t directly engage for one reason or another. For all we know it could have been a deliberate tactic that backfired.

30. David Morell Stevenson - June 23, 2008


I am a member of NZARH (Auckland Branch) so I must be somewhat discreet commenting on individuals. Bill Cooke I view as very dedicated to his beliefs and an invaluable member of the Association. I am not sure that his knowledge translates well in open dialogue. Personally I would prefer to have seen one-time Professor of Philosophy Raymond Bradley (also a member) involved in that debate. He is a forceful speaker and has engaged in debating with Antony Flew over his seeming conversion from a one time Atheist spokesperson to a Deist (if I can sort the wood from the trees). Personally again I don`t believe Flew in his present seeming confused(?) state is any match for Raymond Bradley.

Somehow, I suspect, just as Richard Dawkins refuses to debate the same old hash material with creationists ad nauseam, similarly I don`t think Professor Raymond Bradley would (dare I say it) cast pearls before swine in a debate . So maybe Bill Cooke drew the one and only straw.

I was surprised to see my full name emerge with my maiden post. Too late now. No point hiding my light under a bushell.

31. Ian - June 23, 2008

Dawkins refuses to debate the issue because he believes it gives their position undue credit. On one hand I agree but on the other hand someone has to oppose it lol.

I suspect Cooke may well have drawn “the one and only straw” in this, which brings us back to the messy dilemma of finding a spokesperson for NZ atheism.

32. Brian - June 23, 2008

Full MP3 Audio of the William Lane Craig vs Bill Cooke debate can be found here.

33. David Morell Stevenson - June 23, 2008


Just a wild guess. But was that your comment I just read on John Loftus`s Debunking Christianity site? I am waiting to see interesting readers comment follow. However, it may be just of Ho Hum importance. They can be a bit cerebral. Remember they have been vehement defenders of both sides.


Richard Dawkins can come across as a little too Patrician and intolerant for general public consumption. But we have to appreciate his exhausting workload. He is aging so, rather than worry too much about a national spokesperson in New Zealand , let us hope that a worthy successor is found . His appointment by Charles Simonyi (no doubt backed by Bill Gates) was an inspired move. What a pity that Oxford University had not had a similar appointment two or three centuries ago. What a different world it might have been today.

Meantime I adopt the banner suggested by Michael Shermer. Like the forthcoming GUT it has to be so simple but beautifully true

” I don`t know; but nor do you know”

But I would further argue that belief is not synonymous with truth or knowing.

In faulting the words of the hymn “I know my redeemer liveth”

No matter what mantras religion uses it does not know. No matter how it contorts itself into thousands of divisions and sects, it still does not know. No matter how big their congregations nor how grand their places of worship they do not know. No matter how necessary to their psyches are their devotions they do not know. No matter how closely or frequently they assemble together for comfort – they do not know.

Nobody knows ! Without empirical evidence even science knows nothing. Now, that is sheer unadulterated harsh fact.

34. Ken - June 24, 2008

I agree that Dawkins may not do well in such debates either – despite his clear moral and intellectual advantages. And he does have a good point about such debates giving undue credit.

I wonder how Lawrence Krauss would go? His approach is one of seduction rather than confrontation.

35. Carrie - June 24, 2008

Professor Raymond Bradley’s position is the subject of two posts over at MandM http://mandmandmandm.blogspot.com.

36. David Morell Stevenson - June 25, 2008

In Israel Ultra Orthodox Seminarians become life-time students of Hebrew Scriptures. They are paid by the Government to pursue those studies which can be for up to 17 hours a day for the term of their natural lives as they divorce themselves from everyday life regressing into stone age thinking. Apart from raising large families as a secondary interest. Their cloistered existence is paid for by secularist taxpayers whether the the latter like it or not while all hell breaks loose around them. They become expert at arguing the semantics of their religion (akin to attempting to holding quick silver in one`s fingers for a length of time).
The secularists should not bother with the futility of debating or engaging with them in a pointless exercise involving “Holy” books of dubious origin and authorship. There have been centuries for editors subsequently to revise,revise and revise again those texts. to ensure they remain metaphorical (aka quicksilver). Apologists can remain protected by the comfort of ambiguity and nuance.

Elsewhere, in the west, it surprises me that those who question and debate the Bible even bother. They are often debating with people whose bread and butter existence is in the labyrinth of that ambiguity and vague otherworld. Better for atheists and doubters to leave Biblical discourse to those christians in the 30,000 odd sects and divisions of christianity who will still be arguing their religious texts centuries from now (all else being well). Many would make good lawyers in the real world . Those who so often succeed in the courtroom even defending the indefensible. (Cooke v Craig)

Better for reasoned doubters to stick to solid philosophy and, if so inclined, question the authorship, truth and politics behind those same scriptures.

37. Ken - June 25, 2008

Mind you, in New Zealand we are all financing those who wish to spend their time in such argument and hone their skill at it – providing they stick to ‘supernatural’ thinking – through their tax exempt status.

We have not choice. That’s a human rights question.

38. Ken - June 25, 2008

Mind you, in New Zealand we are all financing those who wish to spend their time in such argument and hone their skill at it – providing they stick to ‘supernatural’ thinking – through their tax exempt status.

We have no choice. That’s a human rights question.

39. David Morell Stevenson - June 25, 2008

Please don`t mention the topic of “tax exempt status” while I have a pace maker. Talk about indiscriminate Government (taxpayer) largesse on such an ill-defined Sacred Cow.!

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