Dr. William Lane Craig’s debate with atheist Michael Nugent
Recently Dr. Craig returned from a debating and speaking tour of Ireland. In the next couple of podcasts we are going to have some highlights from those debates. We are going to get into some of the nuts and bolts of this debate a little bit later with Dr. Craig, but today let’s highlight the first rebuttal from Dr. Craig. Most of us are familiar with Dr. Craig’s opening arguments in debate, and then the response from his opponent, and then his first rebuttal. These first rebuttals from Dr. Craig often reveal a lot of what his opponent has said. These were very cordial debates with a lot of substance. The first debate was with Michael Nugent. Here’s Dr. Craig’s first rebuttal.
DR. WILLIAM LANE CRAIG: You will recall that in my opening speech I said I would be defending two major contentions in tonight’s debate. First that there are good reasons to think that God exists, and secondly there are not comparably good reasons to think that atheism is true.
In his opening speech, Mr. Nugent presented at least five atheistic arguments.
Number one, he said there is no evidence that a mind might exist without a body. I have two points of response. First, we are acquainted with ourselves as immaterial persons. Reductive materialism doesn’t work because mental properties are not identical with physical properties. For example, the brain is not jubilant or sad. Epiphenomenalism – that is, the view that the physical brain has mental properties – is incompatible with self-identity over time, intentional states (thinking about things), freedom of the will, and mental causation. So it seems to me that the best view of ourselves is some sort of dualist-interactionism. We are free agents who cause effects in our body. We are immaterial selves. But secondly, I’ve given arguments in my opening speech for the existence of a transcendent, personal creator and designer of the universe and source of objective moral values. Those arguments require that there be a transcendent, immaterial mind. So that demonstrates the existence of such a thing.
Number two – he says that if God is changeless then it would be impossible for him to interact with the world. I agree with that and the changelessness of God is not an article of the Christian faith. I, myself, don’t believe in God’s changelessness.
Number three – he said if God is omniscient it precludes human freedom. I spent seven years studying the relationship between divine foreknowledge and human freedom. The argument for theological fatalism is simply logically fallacious. To say that “necessarily because God foreknows X, X will happen” and that “God foreknows X” therefore “necessarily X will happen” commits a fallacy in modal logic. So if he is going to defend fatalism, he needs to show us how his reasoning doesn’t commit that logical error.
Fourth – he says what about all the evil in the world? Isn’t that inconsistent with God’s existence? Not at all. The atheist has an enormous burden of proof to show that it is logically impossible that God could have morally sufficient reasons for permitting the evil and suffering in the world, and no atheist has ever been able to carry that burden of proof. For that reason the logical problem of evil is today recognized as bankrupt by both theists and atheists alike. Paul Draper, a prominent atheist philosopher, says,
“Logical arguments from evil are a dying (dead?) breed. . . . even an omnipotent and omniscient being might be forced to allow E[vil] for the sake of obtaining some important good.”
So the atheist has not been able to sustain the burden of proof showing the logical impossibility of the coexistence of God and evil.
Finally, Mr. Nugent says that God’s existence is less probable given certain facts in the world such as the vastness of the universe, the rarity of human life, the suffering in life, and so on. I simply disagree with that probability assessment. But even if I were to concede that these facts would be more probable on atheism than on theism, it doesn’t follow logically from that that atheism is therefore more probable than theism. That represents a logical leap that ignores crucial factors and how probabilities are calculated. If the prior probability of theism is high (that is to say, if there are good arguments for God’s existence) then any improbabilities alleged by Mr. Nugent are simply swamped. So the question is: are there good arguments for theism? Well, that takes us back to my first contention where I present five reasons on behalf of God’s existence.
First, the origin of the universe. All that Mr. Nugent said in response to this argument is that scientists don’t know what there was before the universe. Well, science doesn’t deal in certainties, but scientists do have a pretty good idea of what there was before the Big Bang, namely, nothing! There wasn’t anything prior to the Big Bang because the Big Bang represents the origin of space and time themselves. Moreover, the philosophical arguments for the finitude of the past show that the universe had an absolute beginning. Thus we have good grounds for thinking that the universe had an absolute beginning. Since something cannot come out of nothing there must therefore be a transcendent cause of the universe, and you will remember Professor Swinburne’s argument as to why this is plausibly a personal creator.
Number two – a life-permitting universe. Here Mr. Nugent says that life could exist without fine-tuning. Well, yes, if you believe in the existence of God you could have a miraculous creation of life. But the point is that in any universe governed by our laws of nature life cannot exist without the fine-tuning of these constants and quantities. He needs to explain to us if he denies design as the best explanation what is the best explanation for why these constants and quantities all fall into this infinitesimal life-permitting range. Chance? The multiverse? Physical necessity? None of those explanations are as good as design.
Thirdly, the moral argument for God’s existence. Here Mr. Nugent, I think, is deeply inconsistent. On the one hand he says morality is evolved because we are social animals. Now, if he uses that in his argument to say that there are no objective moral values, that is a textbook example of the genetic fallacy which is trying to invalidate a point of view by showing how someone came to hold that point of view. He needs to show that in holding to his atheism that he would be consistent in saying that there are objective values. He responds, The Euthyphro Dilemma shows that God cannot be the source of moral values and duties. Not at all! The Euthyphro Dilemma is a false dilemma. God’s nature is what Plato called The Good and it expresses itself to us in the form of divine commands which constitute our moral duties. It makes no sense to ask what if God’s nature were different because these are essential properties of God – he is essentially loving, kind, fair, compassionate, and so forth. Therefore our moral duties are constituted by his commandments, and those are not arbitrary but rooted in the essential nature of God himself.
Mr. Nugent then responds that God could be evil. Not if this moral argument is correct. Evil is a privation of goodness. Evil has no positive ontological status. It is the absence of goodness. So even if there were an evil supernatural being, there must still exist a higher God – a higher good God – which this lesser being fails to live up to, fails to approximate the standards of the absolute standard of goodness. So you can’t say that the ultimate explanatory source of morality is evil rather than good.
Mr. Nugent says, Killing animals is an injustice. What is odd about this is it is precisely his atheism that justifies this sort of behavior toward animals. Listen to what Joel Marks, a naturalist, says. He says,
. . . if there was one thing I knew in this entire universe, it was that some things are morally wrong. It is wrong to toss male chicks, alive and conscious, into a meat grinder, as happens in the egg industry. It is wrong to scorn homosexuals and deny them civil rights. It is wrong to massacre people in death camps. . . . I knew in my soul, with all of my conviction . . . that they were wrong, wrong, wrong. . . .
But suddenly I knew it no more. I was not merely skeptical or agnostic about it; I had come to believe, and do still, that these things are not wrong.
. . . I used to think that animal agriculture was wrong. Now I will call a spade a spade and declare simply that I very much dislike it and want it to stop.
. . . I am simply no longer in the business of trying to derive an ought from an is.
The point is that without God to serve as the absolute standard of good and evil, right and wrong, you are lost in moral relativism, and you are landed precisely in the sort of injustice that Mr. Nugent recoils from.
In fact, when he condemns God for commanding things like the Israeli army to expel the Canaanites from the land, in order to condemn God for that there must exist some objective standard of right and wrong, good and evil, because on his view there really isn’t anything the matter with genocide. Steven Pinker of Harvard University asks,
“if the distinction between right and wrong is also a product of brain wiring, [like Mr. Nugent believes] . . . how could we argue that evils like genocide and slavery are wrong . . . rather than just distasteful to us?”
You can’t. And that is what Joel Marks came to see. They are not really wrong on a naturalistic view. They are just distasteful.
What then is the problem with the Old Testament command? The problem would have to be that there is some inconsistency between God’s being all-good and his issuing that command. But I have shown and argued that there is no such inconsistency. I show this in Question of the Week #16 on our website, and no one has yet tried to refute that demonstration. If Mr. Nugent wants to do more than make emotional appeals and rhetorical ploys, he needs to come to grips with that argument.
We’ve heard nothing about the resurrection of Jesus for which we have solid historical information.
As for the experience of God, I would deny that the Islamic God is true because there are good defeaters of Islam – good rational objections to it. But I do not think – and we have not heard – comparable objections to Christian theism that would make me think that my Christian experience is delusory.
KEVIN HARRIS: OK. We are going to continue with highlights from Dr. Craig’s Ireland tour when he had a debate with the atheist Daniel Came; that will be on the next podcast. We’ll see you then on Reasonable Faith with Dr. William Lane Craig.
(This podcast is by Reasonable Faith / William Lane Craig. Discovered by Christian Podcast Central and our community — copyright is owned by the publisher, not Christian Podcast Central, and audio is streamed directly from their servers.)