When is a Debate “Win” Significant?

A reader asked me if I had watched the debate between William Lane Craig and Alex Rosenberg. Here is my reply.

No, I haven’t seen it. I’ve read some of Rosenberg’s book, The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, however.  My prediction is that WLC not only “won” the debate, but that Rosenberg did awful. Why would I make such a prediction? Three reasons.

First, Rosenberg is not a specialist in the philosophy of religion. Here is how he summarizes his areas of focus:

My interests focus on problems in metaphysics, mainly surrounding causality, the philosophy of social sciences, especially economics, and most of all, the philosophy of biology, in particular the relationship between molecular, functional and evolutionary biology.

Compare that to the topics discussed in the debate. According to a summary of the debate, Craig used eight (8) arguments for God’s existence: (1) the contingency argument; (2) the kalam cosmological argument; (3) the applicability of mathematics to nature; (4) the fine-tuning argument; (5) an argument from consciousness; (6) the moral argument; (7) the resurrection of Jesus; and (8) religious experience.

At best, only two of those arguments are within Rosenberg’s area of specialization, whereas all of them are in Craig’s area of specialization (as arguments within the philosophy of religion). Let’s say that his focus on "metaphysics, mainly surrounding causality" makes him an expert on (1) and (2). To the best of my knowledge, he does not have the publication history Craig has on cosmological arguments. (His list of publications does not include a single publication about cosmological arguments.)

Now look at his other areas of focus: philosophy of social sciences and philosophy of biology. It’s hard to see the relevance of either to what was actually discussed in the debate. (To be clear: I think expertise in the philosophy of biology could be relevant if biological design arguments had been brought up in the debate. But it appears they were not. So his expertise in the philosophy of biology doesn’t seem to be relevant to the specific issues discussed.)

Now consider Rosenberg’s case for atheism: it apparently consisted solely of the argument from evil. Furthermore, he used a logical argument from evil. While there are contemporary atheistic philosophers of religion who defend a logical argument from evil (such as Quentin Smith and J.L. Schellenberg), it appears Rosenberg wasn’t aware of the standard criticisms of logical arguments from evil. This is further evidence that Rosenberg was debating a topic outside of his area of expertise.

Second, in Rosenberg’s book, he argues for scientism. I’m sure that WLC was licking his chops when he discovered that Rosenberg adopts scientism, since scientism is an easy target.

Third, while there are exceptions, WLC’s ivory tower opponents typically do awful.

If Rosenberg did do awful, I make another prediction: Christians will trumpet Craig’s ‘amazing’ victory as if it were some sort of substantive accomplishment, rather than a rhetorical victory.

The fact of the matter is that no atheist philosopher who specializes in the philosophy of religion advocates scientism, so the fact that an atheistic "scientism-ist" lost a debate on God’s existence–assuming Rosenberg did “lose”–is about as interesting as a theistic young earth creationist losing a debate on evolution vs. creationism.

Consider an analogy. There is a controversy among oncologists about whether some condition, C, is a risk factor for some rare form of cancer. The American Cancer Society sponsors a debate between two doctors: one who argues that C is a risk factor and one who argues that C is not a risk factor. Arguing for the former is one of the leading oncologists in the world. Arguing for the latter is a distinguished neurologist who is not also an oncologist. The neurologist takes a position (and uses arguments) that are not representative of those used by the "anti-C" camp of oncologists. The oncologist trounces the neurologist in the debate.

What would the significance of that debate be? The oncologist debater would have shown that the neurologist’s arguments were weak and the anti-C camp would join the oncologist in dismissing the neurologist’s arguments, quite possibly for the very same reasons used by the pro-C oncologist. For anyone familiar with the anti-C camp’s arguments for their position, should this undermine anyone’s confidence in the anti-C position? The answer is a resounding "no." Both pro-C and anti-C oncologists know that the anti-C camp’s arguments–arguments in the anti-C camp’s area of specialization but not in the neurologist’s area of specialization–weren’t tested in the debate.

Just to be clear, I want to clear up possible misunderstandings.

First, I don’t have any problem with Craig debating Rosenberg. Rosenberg is a professional philosopher who wrote a book about atheism. It’s just that Rosenberg’s position is not representative of what atheist philosophers of religion argue. (For a bibliography of such arguments, see here.)

Second, nothing I’ve written should in any way be construed as suggesting that Craig did not "win" the debate (assuming that he did). Again, my point is that the win is not significant because the best arguments for atheism weren’t tested in the debate.

Third, nothing I’ve written should be interpreted to mean that Craig always or usually debates people in his area of specialization but outside of theirs. My post is literally about Craig’s debate with Rosenberg and nothing else.

Fourth, for the record, I do think Craig has won debates with opponents who were debating a topic within their area of specialization. To name just one example, I think Craig clearly won his debate on God’s existence with the late Antony Flew.

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About Jeffery Jay Lowder

Jeffery Jay Lowder is President Emeritus of Internet Infidels, Inc., which he co-founded in 1995. He is also co-editor of the book, The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave.