From the archives: More on Luke’s endorsement of William Lane Craig

From May of last year. Discusses what it means to “win” a debate, and points out a number of dumb tactics Craig uses in his debates. Note that at the time I wrote it, I wasn’t totally happy with the use of the word “endorsement” in the title, and I’m still not sure what word to use there.

I’ve said that I don’t think William Lane Craig deserves the praise that Luke Muehlhauser has heaped on him. But in my previous post on the subject, I said have less than I could have about why I’m not impressed with Craig. In particular, I didn’t respond to the many specific points Luke has made in defense of him. I want to do that now, in part because it will also give me a chance to expose some of the dishonest debating tactics which I myself have fallen for in the past.

Those who ignore the following notice will be disemvoweled

This is going to be a largely meta post about debating tactics, “winning” debates, and so on, with only occasional comments on arguments for and against the existence of God. Before you comment saying that I need to “deal more with the arguments,” go read the criticisms of Craig’s kalam argument, design argument, moral argument, argument for the resurrection, and even what he’s said about the ontological argument and Leibnizian cosmological argument. (You can respond to those articles here, if you like.)

Does Craig win all his debates?

Luke has said that he thinks Craig wins all (or almost all) of his debates. Here, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that atheists need to declare a moratorium on ever saying Craig won a debate. The reason is that every time we say this, it’s almost guaranteed that we’ll be misunderstood, and all too often, “Craig wins all his debates” is used by his fans to deflect any and all criticism of him.

Misunderstandings are going to happen, because it’s not really clear what it means to say someone “won” a debate. In fact, I’m not sure I know what Luke means when he says Craig won a debate. I’m not sure Luke himself knows. Consider his mini-review of Craig’s debate with Robert M. Price:

A great debate between two people who really know their stuff. Price does a good job of pointing out the dishonesty of Craig’s approach, but as expected he does not organize his arguments as well as Craig and thereby loses.

I haven’t listened to this debate, so it’s possible Luke’s description doesn’t do the debate justice. But if all Luke had said was, “Craig was better organized, but dishonest, and Price did a good job of pointing out his dishonesty,” I would have assumed without a second thought that the debate was an embarrassing defeat for Craig. In what sense, then, does Luke think Craig “won”? No idea.

In general, I can think of a few things people might mean when they say who “won” a debate:

(1) Who won by debate team judging standards?
(2) Who was more rhetorically effective?
(3) Who presented better arguments?

If I declared a winner in a debate, (2) is what I’d probably have in mind. Some people (Luke?), however, seem to have more (1) in mind. This is understandable, since Craig relies heavily on debate team style tactics, and often gets a lot of mileage out of them. But I don’t see any reason to view (1) as interesting in and of itself. It’s a mistake to jump from “Craig’s style is often effective” to “all debaters should be judged by how much they sound like William Lane Craig.”

However, if you say Craig won a debate and you mean anything like (1) or (2), realize that Craig’s fans may hear you as saying (3). And I think this explains why Craig’s fans get so excited about him “winning” debates, to the point that some will deflect any and all criticism of Craig by saying “but he wins all his debates!” The thought seems to be, “All reasonable people agree Craig wins all of his debates, which means that Craig always has the better arguments, so I don’t need to think for myself about whether his arguments are really any good.”

I wish I were exaggerating here, but I’ve found this comment recently left on my review of the Craig/Harris debate to be fairly typical:

Wow. Such an emotional/irrational response. I guess this is what you get when Craig continues to embarrass atheist debate after debate. I’d encourage you to actually focus on the arguments, and better still, just read a transcript next time.

This is the entire comment. No support for the accusation of irrationality, just an appeal to Craig winning his debates. Craig himself encourages this kind of thinking:

While debate training (especially knowing how to manage the clock) is undoubtedly a great help in winning a debate, that’s just not a sufficient explanation for the impotence of atheists to offer refutations of these arguments—or to present a case of their own for atheism.

Charming how Craig jumps from “I win all my debates” to “atheists suffer from impotence to refute me or present a case for atheism,” as if it’s just obvious that no atheist anywhere has refuted him. Atheists really need to not encourage such nonsense.

Is Craig better about staying on-topic?

Back to Luke:

Personally, I’d like to thank Dr. Craig for raising the level of debate on this issue. Though he makes many patently absurd arguments, they are no less absurd than some of the bad arguments made by his opponents, and they are usually more relevant to the central point. Atheists tend to ramble on about irrelevant topics when they debate Dr. Craig.

I’ve said previously that I think Craig’s allegations that Sam Harris went off-topic in their debate were bogus. Furthermore, the debate with Harris was part of a pattern. Craig regularly accuses his opponents of going off-topic, but these accusations are often quite absurd, and I think it’s actually Craig who frequently strays from the agreed-upon topics of his debates.

Thing is, almost all of Craig’s opening statements are variations on one of three speeches: there’s the “God exists” speech (usually, but not always, involving the same five exact arguments), the “the existence of objective morality depends on God” speech, and the “Jesus rose from the dead” speech. I know of two cases where Craig did something else because all of these speeches were obviously inappropriate: his debate with Bradley on Hell, and his debate with Ayala on Intelligent Design. But on other occasions, Craig has tried to shoehorn one of these three speeches into a debate where they didn’t belong.

This is what Craig did in his debate with Harris (see link above), and as a rule he’ll take the the same approach with any debate topic that mentions “good” or “morality” in any way. Similarly, in his debates with Eddie Tabash and Keith Parsons on Christianity, Craig focused on delivering his standard arguments for the existence of God, and did his damnedest to steer the debates away from any points of Christian doctrine. Interestingly, these two debates have been cited as debates Craig lost, suggesting that on those occasions the audience didn’t buy his strategy.

One particularly ridiculous example: In his debate with Craig, Massimo Pigliucci said early on that he didn’t claim to be able to disprove a highly abstract God, and ended up spending some time talking about the Christian God specifically. I think this was a sensible approach, but Craig accused Pigliucci of being irrelevant. Then, Craig agreed to a rematch on the topic of the Christian God specifically… and presented his same old set of arguments, and just called them “arguments for the Christian God,” even though I’m sure Craig knows most of them don’t prove Christianity over, say, Islam or deism.

My impression is that trying to control the framing of a debate, and finding any excuse you can to dismiss your opponent’s arguments as irrelevant, is a standard trick Craig picked up in his debate team days. But please, when Craig accuses his opponents of irrelevance, don’t assume he’s right just because they don’t challenge him loudly enough.

Do Craig’s opponents misunderstand his arguments?

Just as Craig frequently accuses his opponents of going off-topic, he also frequently accuses them of misunderstanding his arguments. Luke agrees:

Only about 10% of Craig’s opponents have even understood his moral argument God’s existence, so 90% of them have given responses to the argument that are totally irrelevant, and easily dismissed by Dr. Craig.

And again, I think Craig’s accusations are largely bogus. For example, here’s an exchange I’ve seen more than once:

Craig: If God doesn’t exist, why think human beings have objective moral value?
Atheist: I think it’s just obvious that they do.
Craig: That’s a point about moral epistemology, but my point is about the existence of objective moral values.

Yes, Craig makes claims about the existence of objective morality, but he talks about other things too, and the atheist’s response in the above exchange is a perfectly sensible response to one of those other things. I think the deep problem is that Craig’s moral “argument” is less an argument than a hodgepodge of good-sounding lines. This means that no matter how good an atheists’ response to one of these lines, Craig can always toss out another line and say that’s the one the atheist must respond to. Honestly, I’m not sure what it would be to understand Craig’s moral argument.

And yes, I think it can be valuable to take a string of good-sounding lines, try to figure out what they’re really trying to say, and show that they aren’t good arguments even on the strongest interpretation. But it’s unreasonable to expect Craig’s opponents to do that in a debate with tight time limits. It would be nice if his opponents pointed out more often that Craig can’t keep straight what he’s trying to say (as Shelley Kagan did), but just because someone fails to do that doesn’t mean they’re misunderstanding Craig.

Similarly, when Craig’s opponents point out that the Bible isn’t regarded as an especially reliable source by mainstream scholars, Craig will inevitably complain that his case doesn’t depend on the general reliability of the Bible. But in most of his “God” debates, Craig’s discussion of the resurrection consists of just asserting all the major points of the Biblical story are historical, with nothing more than a few quotes backing him up. If the Bible’s reliability isn’t challenged, many Christians will think that means it’s totally reliable, and since Craig has no actual argument, why not make that point?

How much does knowing the philosophical literature matter?

Now for the last big point Luke makes in defense of Craig (I think). Luke:

It might be the case that, for example, none of Craig’s arguments are as ‘good’ as an argument from evil or an argument from reasonable nonbelief, two popular atheistic arguments. However, Dr. Craig’s arguments are almost always stronger than the atheist’s arguments as presented in these debates.What I mean to say is that because nearly all of Craig’s opponents are apparently oblivious to the philosophical literature on all these arguments, Dr. Craig knows what the best responses to all the atheistic arguments are, and he gives them. In contrast, his opponents do not know the best atheistic responses to Craig’s arguments, nor do they know the strongest formulations for their own arguments.

Luke doesn’t quite say this, but I think what he means to say here is that the best arguments, and the best responses to arguments, are generally the ones found in the philosophical literature. I think this is false, but explaining why would be a whole ‘nother post. So instead, I just want to look one at one particular example Luke gives, and point out what’s wrong with it:

Let’s say the atheist argues that the existence of evil shows there is no God. Dr. Craig replies that “I understand this is an emotional problem, but it need not be an intellectual one, because the existence of evil and of God are not plainly incompatible, and no atheist has been able to supply the additional premises that would be needed to show that they are, indeed, incompatible.”To anyone familiar with the philosophical literature, it is obvious that Dr. Craig is calling up the work of Alvin Plantinga on the logical problem of evil. If the atheist supplies additional premises, Dr. Craig can show that evil and God are not incompatible merely by proposing a premise of his own:

(P) God has a morally sufficient reason to allow evil.

We need not assume that we would know what God’s morally sufficient reasons are for allowing evil, and if P is even logically possible, then God and evil are not logically incompatible.

This is Problem of Evil 101 stuff, but atheists are oblivious to it.

I wish Luke had given a source for the quote from Craig. It sounds very much like Craig’s style, but it’s just rhetorical bravado. I think it’s pretty plain that a loving God would prevent, if not all evil, at least some of the most horrendous evils that we see in the actual world. And for Craig to simply announce that atheists have no good arguments, without making the slightest attempt to show this, is just ridiculous (but completely typical of Craig).

Luke says this is a good response because it’s “calling up” Plantinga’s work. Seriously? We’re giving Craig credit for vague allusions to the philosophical literature? If so, we may as well give up on ever trying to best him, because he can make more vague allusions in 45 min. (the amount of time he usually gets in a debate) than any of his opponents can ever hope to refute.

But even if we imagine Craig actually giving Plantinga’s argument, rather than just alluding to it, I’m still not impressed. I don’t know of a single time when one of Craig’s opponents has made the logical incompatibility claim that Plantinga was rebutting. Responding to the argument “a loving God would have prevented the Holocaust” by making a big show of saying God and evil haven’t been shown to be logically incompatible is just a smokescreen: the original argument didn’t say anything about logical incompatibility.

Two general lessons here: first, even if we grant the assumption that the philosophical literature is full of good arguments, this only matters if Craig actually gives those arguments, rather than just alluding to them. Second, again granting the assumption, it only matters if the argument is actually relevant. We shouldn’t cheer on an irrelevant rebuttal just because it’s a wonderfully sophisticated rebuttal to something else.

Final thoughts

I didn’t intend this to be a theme, but in every major section of this post, I’ve run into a fact about Craig: he will say anything he thinks he can get away with saying. He knows that if he says something and nobody challenges him, many people will assume he’s right just because he wasn’t challenged, even what if he said is completely absurd. I know I’ve fallen victim to this. This is reason to be cautious about agreeing with Craig on anything. At minimum, you should ask yourself, “do I have a good reason to think that, aside from the fact that Craig said it and no one contradicted him?”

Also, I would ask Luke: aren’t you offended by Craig’s dishonesty? I’m generally not bothered by the kinds of things people label “offensive,” but I do care a lot about getting at the truth, so to see someone posing as an honest scholar while being so dishonest pisses me off. Luke acts as if he doesn’t care so much. For me, though, that Craig’s dishonesty vastly outweighs his occasionally getting small things right, so I focus on the former and refrain from gushing over the latter.