Sunday, July 7, 2013

Why do theistic philosophers generally win their debates with atheistic philosophers?

A lot of excuses have been made.  "William Lane Craig is just a good debater" is an instant classic.  If he were only a good debater, but lacked any substance to his arguments, then surely his atheistic counterparts would be ready to provide successful refutations.  Instead, we find that atheistic philosophers have to make some claims that they could only get away with in writing.  Once these claims are stated out loud, it's exceedingly difficult to take their arguments seriously.  Consider the following atheistic responses to theistic arguments:

1. Something can come from nothing.  (Really?  So why don't things pop into existence out of nothing in any of our experiences, since observational sense experience is supposed to be so key to the case against theism?)

2. Potentialities can actualize themselves, e.g. things can be self-caused.  (In order for a thing to be self-caused, it would first have to exist in order to cause its existence, which means it both exists and does not-exist simultaneously.  This is contradictory.)

3. There is no objective moral law, but it's wrong to torture children for fun. (Theistic response: huh?)

4. The universe's fine-tuning can be explained by infinitely-many universes.  (Best case scenario?  Pure speculation.)

5. The laws of logic are not reliable, so philosophy is useless and science alone can provide us with knowledge.  (Granted this claim was made by Lawrence Krauss, and not any atheistic philosopher I'm aware of.)

6. Just because every contingent thing can possibly not-exist doesn't mean the sum total of all contingent things can possibly not-exist.  (If every part of a mountain can not-exist, then the mountain as a whole can not-exist.  The atheist is now grasping at straws.)

7. An actual infinite can be formed by successive addition.  Between 1 and 2, there are infinitely-many fractions.  (I've already had a lot to say about this gem.  Whenever all of the fractions are added up, we get a finite sum.  Moreover, 1 and 2 are the respective beginning and end of the interval.  The atheist has unwittingly provided confirmation of the theist's claim, since the example presupposes something finite!)

8. God hasn't made his existence sufficiently evident to everyone which, if God existed, he would do.  (Question-begging much?)

9. Even if a deity exists, it doesn't have to be omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect.  (So what?  Besides, if the ontological argument is sound, then God must possess these additional attributes.)

10. The post-mortem appearances of Jesus to his disciples can be explained as hallucinatory.  (What about the Apostle Paul?  And the lack of any evidence for uniformity among group hallucinations?  How about the empty tomb?)

These are just ten examples of what I consider to be bad objections to theistic arguments.  Yet, many of these aren't typically the arguments of the new atheists (Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, and Dennett).  Rather, we find professional (atheistic) philosophers of the likes of Quentin Smith asserting #1.  Is it any wonder that Smith admits that theists win the vast majority of these debates?

Finally, we don't just find William Lane Craig winning these debates.  J.P. Moreland is another.  Then there's Gary Habermas, Norman Geisler, and even the late Greg Bahnsen.  To reiterate, my theory is that atheistic philosophers are somewhat embarrassed to say out loud what they've previously claimed in writing.  Things become a little more real, a little more concrete, when you have to verbally communicate some rather absurd claims.

It should go without saying that I respect the intellects of atheistic philosophers, such as Quentin Smith, Austin Dacey, Graham Oppy, and J. Howard Sobel.  Nevertheless, I think their objections to theism are simply too easy to expose as fallacious in the context of a formal debate.


  1. "William Lane Craig is just a good debater" is an instant classic.

    This is a bit of a silly rejoinder, for a very simple reason: Craig basically only does one debate, ever, with some variations (like in his exchange with Rosenberg). If any of his opponents ever bothered to do their homework and actually listen/watch any of his debates, they could very easily prepare counterarguments that would at least make things more interesting. In any case, the fact that he's a good debater is no excuse for the general incompetence of his opponents. Though there have been some exceptions, like Dacey and Nielsen.

    Speaking of Smith, I don't know if you've come across this, but it speaks to the topic of the post, and it's an interesting read.

  2. "It should go without saying that I respect the intellects of atheistic philosophers, such as ..."

    It's not theit *intellect* that is the disreputable problem, it's their intellectual honesty, lack thereof -- it's not *simply* that they are mistaken, it's that they, and 'atheists' in general, refuse to reason soundly/correctly.

  3. 5. I'm with you all the way here.

    6. I don't see the mountain case being analogous here. It seems one can consistently say that every particular contingent thing can fail to exist (which is an analytic truth anyway) and also that there is no empty world while not admitting any necessary concrete beings. For all that would have to be the case is that some contingent being or beings exist at any particular world, but not any specific one or specific collection thereof. Necessarily some concrete object exists isn't the same as some concrete object necessarily exists - the former is de dicto and the latter de re.

    7. It doesn't seem quite right to say that if you added every fraction from 2 to 3 that the sum would be finite. Consider for instance the following series consisting of 2 + sum(1/(n+1)) from n = 1 to infinity, which is 2 + 1/2 + 1/3... Now, the sum is simply the harmonic series, which diverges, so 2 + the sum will also diverge to infinity. Even if we just consider a sum of fractions from 0 to 1, the harmonic series there also diverges to infinity. Perhaps what you mean to say here is that the metric consisting of the interval [2,3] has a finite distance of 1, which seems clear enough.

    However, it is not quite accurate to represent the argument as committing the mistake of "The atheist has unwittingly provided confirmation of the theist's claim, since the example presupposes something finite." That criticism seems off the mark here. Presumably, the anti-infinitist argument structure follows something like this:

    1. If there is an infinite past, then an actual infinite can be formed by successive addition
    2. It is impossible that an actual infinite can be formed by successive addition
    3. Therefore, the past is not infinite

    Now, I interpret the argument you gave in #7 to be targeting (2). And it seems perfectly fair to say that providing a single counterexample to (2) suffices to refute (2) - for (2) asserts that it is impossible that an actual infinite be formed by successive addition. Consider for instance the halfway points between any particular length L. Now, it takes some time t to traverse L/2, so it should take some time t/2 to traverse an additional L/4, and t/4 to traverse L/8... so to traverse the entire length of L/2 + L/4 + L/8... = L requires only t + t/2 + t/4... = 2t whereupon an infinity of actions will be completed successively.

    Now, there is perhaps a sense in which we can refine the argument to avoid this criticism. We can assert that (1*) if the past were infinite, then the formation of an actual infinite by successive addition of non-degenerate intervals of some uniform arbitrary length is possible. Then, (2*) such a formation by successive addition is impossible and hence (3*) the past is finite. But, people can resist (1*) I think fairly plausibly by arguing that the notion of having to form an actual infinite in order to have an infinite past is misplaced.

  4. Hi Ray,

    On 6, you're right that that's a consistent reply. The question is whether or not it's a reasonable one. If no contingent entity necessarily exists, but it's necessarily the case that some contingent entity or other exists, then we end up with highly implausible scenarios. Alexander Pruss uses this example: would the non-existence of all non-unicorns imply the existence of a unicorn? Surely not. By analogy, the non-existence of all contingent entities c2 - cn would imply that c1 exists. I just don't see how that's a defensible position.

    With respect to 7, it's debatable whether there are infinitely-many fractions between a finite distance. It could be the case that it's merely a potential infinite, as opposed to an actual infinite. Nevertheless, whenever we add 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, and so forth, all we get is 1. You're talking about calculus, which is fine, but the harmonic series isn't really analogous to there being a finite distance.

    Now, when you talk about an infinite series being completed upon the completion of L, that already assumes an actual infinity of fractions between the two places, which is question-begging. Your refining of the argument seems reasonable, but my claim isn't targeting an infinite past. It's one thing to ask why some contingent thing begins to exist, and quite another to ask why it continues to exist. The former will have at least one originating cause, whereas the latter will have at least one sustaining cause. My claim, in contrast to Craig's, is simply that the regress of sustaining causes cannot be infinite. I didn't make this distinction very clear, though, so that's on me.

  5. Syllabus, I haven't read the entire article, but I was familiar with it. Thanks for the link!

  6. Doug, I think had some replies to 1 - 5. Did they get swallowed? I'll rewrite it elsewise.

    6. I don't see why it would be implausible that some contingent thing necessarily exists.

    As far as the unicorn thing goes, the interesting thing about that is that if you understand it as ¬∃x¬Ux, that is, there does not exist any object x such that x is not a unicorn and then by the dual of the existential quantifier, it follows that this statement is equivalent to ∀xUx; which is that for any x, x is a unicorn. If the domain of discourse is non-empty, then it follows that there are unicorns. Of course, this conclusion wouldn't track if the domain were empty, but this would seem to beg the question against Rundle, who spends some time explaining why he doesn't think the empty world is metaphysically possible. In any case the possible nonexistence of any particular contingent fact is a modal claim, not a nonmodal assertion about what is actually the case or not.

    7. I don't see how the number of rationals between any two real numbers is a potential infinite. It's not a matter of having to conceptually divide an interval further and further, but that each of those numbers already exists in that interval. Consider for instance the set {r|r is an element of Q, 0 < r < 1} which defines all the rationals between 0 and 1 and this set is indeed of infinite size.

    With respect to my analogy, you claim that "when you talk about an infinite series being completed upon the completion of L, that already assumes an actual infinity of fractions between the two places," but my example was never intended to rebut the charge that there couldn't be an actual infinite. I was responding to the argument that one couldn't form an actual infinite by successive addition. If the argument instead was that an actual infinite can't exist at all then we might have entertain arguments in that direction instead.

    As far as the difference between contingent things beginning to exist and continuing to exist, fair enough. However, I'm not sure if I understand Aristotle's insistence that an essentially ordered series cannot infinitely regress.

  7. Ray, your replies to 1 - 5 were sent to spam for some reason. I went to retrieve it after your latest post, attempted to publish it, and now it's gone. Something similar happened once before, so I apologize for the inconvenience.

    With respect to 6, the conclusion that there is no empty world is something I agree with. It's just that my explanation differs from Rundle's insofar as I conclude that a necessary entity exists. You're right to say that if there can be no empty set and and it's necessarily the case that some contingent thing or other exists, then the non-existence of all non-unicorns implies that a unicorn exists. But this only affirms the consequent; it doesn't make the conditional any more plausible.

    As for 7, the objection that an infinity of fractions is already present within the interval places one within the Platonist camp, and that's not an assumption one can simply make in order to refute the argument. I realize that your claim about L is that an actual infinite can be formed by successive addition. My point is that one cannot simply assume there is an actual infinite there in the first place to be formed by successive addition. And, even if it were formed by successive addition, the example is disanalogous, since the distance between 1 and 2 has a distinct beginning and end. An infinite regress of sustaining causes would not.

  8. One correction in the original post: Daniel Dennett is a professional philosopher. My off-the-cuff mention of him may have appeared as a denial of this fact.

  9. Informative article. Thanks for sharing. One little known debater of years past was Dr. Thomas B. Warren. Check him out in his discussion with Antony Flew back in 1976: Godspeed!

  10. One more point, Ray, and you can have the floor. Here's one reason Aristotelian-Thomists insist on there existing some Pure Actuality. Roughly, the argument states that changing things exist and that every changing thing exhibits actuality and potentiality. Since no potentiality can actualize itself, this means the regress of essentially-ordered changers (whether finite or infinite) as a whole cannot actualize itself, for it too exhibits potentiality. In order for anything to change, therefore, there must be some Pure Actuality, which is the source of all change.

    That's a distinct argument from the one Aristotle and Thomas defend in 7.

  11. One cannot actually form an actual infinite by successive addition -- the whole point of "summing to infinity" is that one can never complete the summation; no matter how many additions one makes, one still hasn't "reached infinity." Likewise, trying to sum the fractional series [1/2 + 1/4 + 1/8 + 1/16 + ...] can never be completed so as to arrive at the full sum of "1" -- one could do these sums for an infinite (ahem) span of time and never arrive at the number "infinity" nor the sum "1".

  12. Let me see if I can remember what I said about 1 - 4.

    1. I don't think this fairly characterizes Quentin Smith. Smith claims that the universe is self-caused, but it should be noted that by "self-caused," he does not mean it in the sense that some individual x is self-caused insofar as x causally brings about x. That would seem to be incoherent. Instead, Smith accepts agglomerative causal explanation and by "self-caused," he means that every state of the universe is causally explained by each prior state and that explaining the parts explains the whole. He explains this in detail in his 2008 debate with Robin Collins. See here: One may debate the merits of this argument, but it should be clear that it isn't the same as Smith saying that something can literally come from nothing, whatever that is supposed to mean.

    Also, I'm skeptical of the relevance of something like ex nihilo nihil fit with respect to cosmological arguments. I think Wes Morriston has an excellent takedown of his argument in his 2000 Faith and Philosophy paper about the kalam. See here: especially pages 152 to 154.

    2. I don't think proponents of some x spontaneously becoming actual with respect to some property P are saying that that x is causally responsible for x having P. I think instead the understanding is that x acquires P acausally e.g. when a particular particle of uranium decays at a particular time - there are boundary conditions constraining this, but a specific particle decaying at a particular time is an acausal process where nothing causally brings it about that such and such particle decay at such and such time. In any case, I thought something similar was a tenet in most contemporary models of agent causation anyway, which seems to be vital to a number of theistic projects.

    3. Not sure about the context of this one. Perhaps that person was saying something to the effect that moral errory theory is true, but was perhaps assuming moral realism in the context of classical theism to perhaps show some internal inconsistency or tension within classical theism proper. That may be overly charitable though.

    4. I don't know if it's fair to consider multiverse theories pure speculation, particular in context of the fine-tuning argument. Something like a multiverse seems like a natural consequence of some of our best cosmological hypotheses, such as inflationary models. Also, in the context of the FTA, isn't the point of the argument to assess hypotheses that could potentially explain the fine-tuning data? And it is unclear whether a multiverse is 'pure speculation' in a way multiverses are not - now, perhaps one could argue theism enjoys support from other arguments that serve to bolster it above pure speculation. There are some worries about the probabilities needed here - the higher the prior probability of theism, the less the fine-tuning data could serve to confirm it - but this is of course a contentious issue all around.

  13. 6. Fair enough Doug. I'm just commenting to the effect that Pruss' complaint seems odd to me - it effectively amounts to saying that Rundle's solution does not include the existence of some necessary being which doesn't seem like much of a complaint in and of itself - it's just tantamount to merely contradicting Rundle. Now, to be fair, Rundle may well - and perhaps rightly - claim that certain contingent beings serve to exist in a sort of "interlocking" unity. For instance, unicorns may not be able to exist in worlds lacking oxygen or a whole host of other things, so Pruss' argument here may simply be considered a counterpossible on Rundle's view. There is no non-empty world where all non-unicorns fail to exist. Either that, or the notion of a "unicorn" may be more flexible than I am thinking by Pruss' lights.

    7. I'm not sure why holding that there could be continua in the world would commit one to Platonism. Presumably a mathematical nominalist or fictionalist could regard it just as a useful representation with no deeper ontology - actual infinities are just mathematical representations in the same way addition or division are. I don't particular regard the existence of some concrete object that has a mathematical representation of a continuum isomorphic to some real interval that much different that the existence of putting concrete objects together with the mathematical representation of addition. In neither case is the appropriate mathematics "done" in the concrete case as it were. This is an analysis that both Platonists and nominalists can accept. As such, I don't understand the point about "simply assume there is an actual infinite there in the first place to be formed by successive addition." At least, I'm not seeing the relevance of Platonism or lack thereof to actual infinites. With respect to the disanalogy, again I refer you to my first post on July 9th. Presumably the argument against an actual infinity of sustaining causes is such that formation of an actual infinite by successive addition is impossible. So, perhaps the issue is that either actual infinites are impossible simpliciter or actual infinites cannot be formed by successive addition (and of course, it could be both). With respect to the former, my understanding is that Thomas Aquinas accepted that there could be an actual infinity of accidentally ordered members, so the objection cannot be to an actual infinite in general. That leaves the latter disjunct but if my argument on July 9th holds, neither can it be that formation of such an actual infinite is impossible, as it serves to point out a single possible scenario to refute the impossibility of such a formation.

    As far as Actus Purus goes, I confess I'm skeptical of the coherence of such a thing, but that's a different can of worms I suppose.

    With respect to Ilion, I'm not sure if that objection tracks. In the example I gave, the time to traverse each particular half-way point takes successively less time. I think you would be correct there if traversing each particular interval took the same unit time. Suppose the distance to be traverse is L where traversing L/2 takes time t, traversing L/4 takes time t, traversing L/8 takes time t... Then, I agree - permitting arbitrary small distances - one would never complete the journey as here the length of time require diverges to infinity. But this isn't the example I used. In my example, traversing L/2 took time t, traversing L/4 took time t/2, traversing L/8 took t/4... in which case the time required is convergent to 2t and hence could be completed in finite time.

  14. Hello again Ray,

    1. I'm aware of Smith's debate with Robin Collins. I think Collins successfully refuted the argument, but that's another matter entirely. The truth is, Smith has changed his position over time. While he now believes that the universe is finite in the past and that each moment of time is preceded by another - such that t1 is preceded by t1/2, t1/2 by t1/4, and so on - Smith maintains in Theism, Atheism, and Big Bang Cosmology that the universe came "from nothing, by nothing, and for nothing." It's just that Smith was a sophisticated philosopher back then, too, and I think he realized he had to revise his objection to the KCA. In any case, I'm not defending the KCA. Even in instances where I use a premise such as, "something cannot come from nothing," I normally use it in the context of the Third Way, which is open to the possibility of an infinitely-old universe. Keep in mind that I'm a Thomist.

    2. With respect to the spontaneous decay of a particle of uranium, that's not an instance of a potentiality actualizing itself. If you remove the quantum vacuum, with its fluctuating energy, no such decay is possible. Call it a necessary, though not a necessarily sufficient condition if you'd like, but all that's needed for the premise, "No potentiality can actualize itself," is something actual that serves as a necessary condition of the potentiality's actualization. On a side note, Smith denies all indeterministic interpretations of quantum mechanics.

    3. This is a claim made by folks like Bernard Leikind, albeit a physicist, who I think wants to have his cake and eat it too.

    4. Inflationary models still don't escape a cosmic beginning (see the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin theorem), which would in turn mean they don't escape the fine-tuning of the universe's (or multiverse's) initial conditions. All such theories would do is push the question back a step. Instead of asking why our universe is finely tuned, we now have to ask why the mechanism that produces multiple universes is finely tuned. Moreover, I think there are good reasons to think there is no multiverse, but I digress.

    6. We'll probably just have to agree to disagree on this one. I don't find it at all reasonable to think that something contingent entity or other, even if it involves some interlocking unity, necessarily exists. While it's a consistent position, it flies in the face of everything we know about part-to-whole relationships. Despite its consistency, the force of the mountain analogy would remain as compelling if the mountain were the size of the entire universe. It just seems to me that Rundle is engaging in special pleading.

    7. That's pretty much my point, though. If one adopts nominalism or conceptualism, then there are no instantiations of fractions that would be formed by successive addition. As for your argument on July 9 about a counter-example, remember that my argument has nothing to do with refuting the possibility of an infinite past. Rather, what I argue is that whenever one begins counting, one cannot form an actual infinite by successive addition. This has strong implications for the Aristotelian-Thomistic arguments, though not for the KCA.

    If you'd like to run your reservations about Pure Actuality by me, I'd be happy to explain its coherence. It doesn't at all seem incoherent to me to say that something exists that does not exhibit any potentiality.

  15. 1. Alright, I see - although I'd be puzzled if Smith believed that literally nothing "created" the universe somehow. Oh well.

    2. I didn't characterize such acausal events as potentialities "actualizing themselves." I characterized it as a potentiality becoming actual without the action of some external agent. Again, I'm not denying the existence of boundary conditions constraining for instance what events can or cannot happen. It is true that the existence of the uranium permits some conjunction of potential events consisting of different particles decaying at different times. However, nothing causally brings it about for any particular particle to decay at any particular time. That's all I meant by some potentiality becoming spontaneously actual.

    4. I didn't make any claims about avoiding a cosmic beginning. I'm perfectly content with the notion - which seems plausible at any rate - that the entirety of the universe had a first non-degenerate interval of time. I also am skeptical of this move of 'moving back the fine-tuning one step back,' but that's because I suppose design arguments of that sort to just be a species of cosmological argument.

  16. 6. I don't see how it flies in the face of the notion of part-whole relationships. You might consider analogous to the Ship of Theseus case, for instance. Every part of the original ship is no longer present, but the conclusion shouldn't be that no ship at all exists. I'm not exactly sure what the analysis here consists of. Is it supporting some kind of subtraction argument? But I thought the point was that Rundle argued that an empty world was impossible. If so, then I'm not sure how the subtraction-type argument would be relevant here.

    7. Perhaps I didn't explain myself adequately. First, let me quote some of my previous remarks here:

    "Presumably a mathematical nominalist or fictionalist could regard it just as a useful representation with no deeper ontology - actual infinities are just mathematical representations in the same way addition or division are. I don't particular regard the existence of some concrete object that has a mathematical representation of a continuum isomorphic to some real interval that much different that the existence of putting concrete objects together with the mathematical representation of addition. In neither case is the appropriate mathematics "done" in the concrete case as it were."

    The important thing is that on this view, there is nothing special about there being no infinities because there are no finite numbers either. For instance, on this picture, a nominalist would also deny the existence of things like the number 2 as well. It's unclear why infinities should be particularly singled out here. I think whether you are a nominalist or a platonist that unless you're a sort of concretist about numbers, it seems to me that all math is "done" in the abstract. For instance putting an apple next to another one is not "doing" 1 + 1 = 2, but rather that we can represent it with the mathematical operation. I don't see how this is particularly different in the case of infinities. A nominalist consideration of the issue could be that numbers and infinities do not exist, but truths like 2 + 2 = 4 and the natural numbers are of cardinality aleph-null obtain and that we can represent certain objects with certain mathematical representations. That's all that would be required to consider the past finite or infinite. It would be odd, for instance, to claim that space is a continuum but then assert that it isn't represented by an infinity of points.

    I also understand that your argument was not aimed at an infinite past. That wasn't what I was attempting to argue against in my example. I simply gave an example of a process that begins and completes an actual infinity of actions in finite time. I think that addresses the notion of that even processes that begin cannot complete an actual infinite.

  17. 1. I don't think Smith's claim was that nothing created the universe, as if "nothing" were a type of something. Rather, it was that the universe came into being without any cause whatsoever (efficient, material, formal, or final).

    2. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think you're limited the word, "cause," to efficient causality. As far as I'm concerned, so long as the particle has a material cause of its decay, then its potentiality does not actualize itself. I'm making a fairly modest claim, so we don't have to get into external cause, and so forth.

    4. Okay, I misunderstood your comments about inflationary theory. Whether the teleological argument at this point becomes a type of cosmological-teleological hybrid doesn't worry me at all. If this is supposed to be a problem with the argument, then why?

    6. You'll notice in that paradox, though, that the original ship no longer exists. Likewise, if every part of a mountain the size of the universe ceased to exist, the this cosmic mountain as a whole would cease to exist, even if it were replaced by a new cosmic mountain.

    7. Okay, I see what you mean now. Nevertheless, concrete objects, such as those included in a regress of sustaining causes, are actually existing things, as you would agree. When I say there cannot be an infinite regress of sustaining causes, I'm talking about concrete sustaining causes. The number line objection is one brought up by skeptics of the argument, and not by me.

    Now, you say that your example refutes the notion that an actual infinite cannot be completed within a finite time. But looking back at your example, assuming I'm looking at the right now, takes an actual infinite formed by successive addition whenever one does not begin counting. If I'm mistaken, can you point me to the example you're referring to?

    In either case, I can even grant that there could be an infinite regress of sustaining causes of actualizations, but there's the independent argument I mentioned that still makes Pure Actuality unavoidable.

  18. Okay, I think you were referring to L. Is that correct? If so, then it's not analogous to the argument against an infinite regress of sustaining causes. L has a definite beginning and end, whereas the infinite regress of sustaining causes resembles nothing like this, given that it has no end. The interval is entirely open.