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.

G&T Rebuttal, Part 6: Chapter 7
Apologetics Infographic #1: Atheism and Nothingness
Apologetics Infographic #1: Atheism and Nothingness
Another Presuppositionalist Fails
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.

  • staircaseghost

    ” Christians will trumpet Craig’s amazing victory as if it were some sort
    of substantive accomplishment, rather than a rhetorical victory.”

    This verbiage seems to contradict the central thesis of your post, viz., that Rosenberg was substantively unqualified, substantively in error about scientism, and substantively understated the case for nonbelief by relying on the problem of evil.

    Either the victory was rhetorical, or it was substantive.

    My belief is that the passage I quoted is correct, and that philosophy-of-religion fanboys are simply fooling themselves if they think that the parlor trick arguments Craig and his opponents distract us with are epistemically relevant to either science or faith, or even, god help us, that “expertise” in philosophy of religion should convey a comparable epistemic authority to expertise in a medical discipline. Just as moderate religionists act as cultural enablers for their extremist fellows, the very act of taking these kinds of “debates” seriously bestows an unearned prestige on smarmy pulpit-men like Craig.

    • http://www.facebook.com/chris.hallquist Chris Hallquist

      I don’t think there’s a contradiction here.

      Jeff believes that:
      1) Rosenberg was a weak opponent for reasons of substances.
      2) Therefore, this doesn’t tell us anything of substance about the broader atheism-theism debate.

    • http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/ Jeffery Jay Lowder

      In hindsight, I can see how my wording might have led you to that conclusion, but Chris Hallquist got it right. Instead of writing

      Christians will trumpet Craig’s amazing victory as if it were some sort of substantive accomplishment

      which could be interpreted the way you interpret it, I should have written

      Christians will trumpet Craig’s “amazing” victory as if it were some sort of statement about the case for atheism

  • http://www.facebook.com/chris.hallquist Chris Hallquist

    None of this really goes far enough. Craig has proved again and again that you can get rhetorical “wins” while having nothing going for you substance-wise. (And this is my challenge to anyone who thinks otherwise.)

    • http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/ Jeffery Jay Lowder

      In the context of his moral argument, I agree with you. (I would add, however, that his opponents have, for the most part, done an awful job in responding to what should be the easiest argument to refute.)

      In the context of the kalam and fine-tuning arguments, I disagree with you. I don’t agree with his arguments, but it’s false to say that they have “nothing” going for them “substance-wise.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/chris.hallquist Chris Hallquist

    Also, I should really say that I think your reasons for predicting a Craig “win” (scare quotes because hate that term for talking about these debates) are mostly wrong. (3) is basically right, but (1) is wrong because you don’t need to be an expert in philosophy of religion to point out that things like appeals to authority are fallacious and (2) is only relevant because of Craig’s habit of using any and every attack on his opponents he thinks will sound good, regardless of relevance. “Scientism” wasn’t the topic of the debate.

    • http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/ Jeffery Jay Lowder

      I think you’ve missed the point. My predictions are statistical syllogisms, not a set of necessary and sufficient conditions for “beating” Craig.

      1. Most of Craig’s debate opponents who are not specialists in the philosophy of religion have a tendency to lose their debates with Craig on God’s existence.

      2. Most of the time Craig’s debate opponents embrace scientism, they have a tendency to lose their debates with Craig on God’s existence. (Yes, I know scientism wasn’t the topic of the debate, but much of what Rosenberg wrote in his book appears to have provided an easy target for Craig.)

      3. Most of Craig’s ivory tower debate opponents tend to lose their debates with Craig on God’s existence.

      • http://twitter.com/UncredibleHallq Chris Hallquist

        Okay – with the exception of (3), it was unclear what you meant from your posts.

        On (2), though, I’d say that claim is highly problematic, because “scientism” is mostly just a perjorative with no real meaning. Rosenberg is, to the best of my knowledge, essentially alone in using it as a self-description.

        As for (1), do specialists in non-PoR fields do any worse on average than the PoR specialists? Antony Flew, for example, is generally agreed to have been terrible. Keith Parsons is the only PoR specialist I’ve heard cited as doing well against Craig.

        • http://twitter.com/UncredibleHallq Chris Hallquist

          Though I’m unsure of whether Stephen Law counts as a PoR specialist.

        • http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/ Jeffery Jay Lowder

          Regarding (1), yes, I think so. Keith Parsons, Paul Draper, Stephen Law “won” their debates against Craig.

          Of course, there have been non-PoR philosophers who have won their debates also: Shelly Kagan and Doug Jesseph come to mind. For that matter, Eddie Tabash did extremely well in his debate with Craig and Eddie isn’t even a philosopher!

          Other than Antony Flew, I’m trying to think of PoR philosophers who clearly lost their debates with Craig. There are probably others, but I can’t think of any off the top of my head. Can you?

          • Elle

            I’d also say that Ray Bradley did a good job, too.


          • Elle

            Also, how would you judge the Craig-Tooley debate?

          • http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/ Jeffery Jay Lowder

            If I remember correctly, I definitely thought Tooley won.

            It’s been so long since I read, viewed, or listened to (not sure which) Bradley’s debate, I don’t remember what I thought about it.

          • http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/ Jeffery Jay Lowder

            I just remembered one other debate with a PoR philosopher where Craig won: the Craig-Drange debate.

          • http://twitter.com/UncredibleHallq Chris Hallquist

            I’d be curious to read your review of the Craig-Draper debate (if you ever write one). I know Luke Muehlhauser thought Draper lost, and I can easily imagine how that went down: Draper is an agnostic, so he isn’t going to be claiming any knock-down arguments for atheism, nor does (I think) he claim to have a knock-down refutation to every theistic argument.

          • http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/ Jeffery Jay Lowder

            Ask and ye shall receive!


          • Berry

            Kagan won his debate with Craig thoroughly, despite not being a specialist in PoR, but it;s important to note that their debate was actually confined to moral philosophy, where Kagan is arguably one of the most prominent living philosophers.

          • http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/ Jeffery Jay Lowder

            Exactly. Both Kagan and Jesseph are philosophers but not PoR specialists. Both “won” their debates with Craig.

  • Greg Gorey

    I think Dr. Craig certainly won, but it should be noted that Alex is an excellent academic philosopher and his “scientism” is not self defeating. All he means by that label is that he embraces explanatory reductionism, a Quinean-Reliabilist epistemology, a quasi-eliminativist position on mind (he does not eliminate consciousness but thinks that the homunculus idea of consciousness is incorrect), and an error theory position on ethics. He uses the label scientism merely because it is easier to write in a popular level book than these philosophical labels are. Also, it should be noted that Dr. Craig employed the Gish Gallup during the debate which I find extremely disttasteful.

    • http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/ Matt DeStefano

      I will second the idea that his “scientism” is not self-defeating. Unfortunately, scientism (especially as embraced by Rosenberg) is one of those buzzwords that often gets denigrated before really being understood.

    • http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/ Jeffery Jay Lowder

      1. For what it’s worth, I never claimed that Rosenberg’s scientism is self-defeating. I did say it is an “easy target.”

      2. In my experience, people who whine about the “Gish Gallup” typically don’t have debating experience. If Craig is guilty of it, then so am I. In my debate with Phil Fernandes, I used eight (8) arguments for naturalism. But I don’t think there is a problem with using many arguments. It simply forces the debaters to be well organized and concise in their rebuttals. So what?

      • Greg Gorey

        Thanks for the reply Mr. Lowder.

        1) I would not even say they are low hanging fruit. The majority of philosophers are naturalists so there are excellent resources on all of these points. Even though error theory and explanatory reductionism are not view held by the majority of ethicists and epistemologists, there are forceful defenses of both.

        2) I do not think that Dr. Craig used the Gallup merely because he used a lot of arguments. Dr. Craig, in my opinion, used the Gallup because he went first (big surprise), used many arguments that rely on very complex details, and then he shifted the burden of proof. Following this, he rails on Alex for not addressing every point. Even if Alex had debated perfectly (which I admit, he did not), he would hot have been able to discuss these complicated arguments in a way that actually taught the audience anything or met the burden Dr. Craig set up for him (hence, the Gish Gallup). For example, Dr, Craig uses Dr. Robert Koons’ Cosmological Argument. Given that this argument relies on very complex principles (causation, contingency, explanation, the principle of sufficient reason, the validity of analogies), Dr. Craig always has the luxury of saying “ah, but you did not address x.”.

        One last note, I do not think I was whining. I think I was just discussing.some interesting points.

        • http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/ Jeffery Jay Lowder

          I apologize for using the word “whining.” You were not whining. I have encountered many atheists who have, IMO, whined about the issue, but that’s no excuse for using that word in reference to your previous comment. Again, I’m sorry about that.

          • Greg Gorey

            Hakuna matata. I need to apologize to you as well for making you read something with so many spelling errors.

  • Elle

    Would you make the same judgement for the Craig-Harris debate, too?

    • http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/ Jeffery Jay Lowder

      I haven’t watched that debate.

      • Elle

        Sorry, I have not made myself clear. I was talking about the main point of your post, wondering if the same could be said for the Craig vs Harris debate, since their main areas of expertise have hardly anything in common (Craig is a philosopher of religion, Harris is a neurologist). On the other hand, their debate focused on secular vs theistic morality, a topic on which Harris has written extensively, so that debate should not have been too bad on the atheist side, but it should also be highlighted that Harris’ work has also been “accused” of scientism and is not very popular among philosophers, since even most naturalists are convinced that science can at best inform moral values, while if I’m not mistaken Harris argues that they can be effectively determined by scientific research alone.

        What do you think?

        • http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/ Jeffery Jay Lowder

          Yes, it sounds like the same points apply to the Craig-Harris debate. (Full disclosure: I haven’t watched that debate, either.)