Sunday, August 18, 2013

Thoughts on William Lane Craig's debate with Stephen Law

Disclaimer: This post has nothing to do with the merits of the arguments presented.  This is just my opinion on how the debate went.

While he's not a Thomist, I do think that Craig provides several good arguments for theism.  In his debate with Law, he didn't use his usual five-to-six arguments for God's existence.  Instead, Craig limited his positive case for theism to just three arguments: a) the kalam cosmological argument; b) the moral argument; and c) the historical case for the resurrection of Jesus.

Law, on the other hand, defended only one argument for atheism: the argument from suffering.  Now, I must say that out of all the debates I've witnessed, Law's defense of this argument was quite simply the best.  That's not at all to say I think it was persuasive, but I could tell that he had done his homework and was prepared for Craig's arguments.

In the middle of this post I'm going to say outright that I believe Craig won the debate.  You can chalk that up to me being a Christian theist, but hear me out.

While Craig defended three distinct arguments for God's existence, Law refused to address the kalam argument, since in his own words (this is a paraphrase), "we're here to debate Craig's God, and not a deity that is consistent with not being morally perfect."  Craig responded by saying that he was building a cumulative case for Christian theism, starting with the kalam.  Law replied by saying that he wasn't accumulating anything, since the kalam argument has no bearing on whether God is good or evil.

The problem I have with Law's tactic here is that Craig's God is a timeless, changeless, immaterial, personal creator of the universe.  That's part of what Craig means by "God," so for Law to say that he only wanted to focus on Craig's God, while simultaneously ignoring the kalam argument, undermines Law's own criterion of what constitutes a refutation of the defense of Christian theism.

With respect to the theistic arguments Craig presented, most of these were underdeveloped, since Law chose to advance his own argument from suffering more than responding to Craig's arguments.  It's in the rebuttal periods that Craig usually extrapolates further on these arguments, but since Law hardly addressed them until his third speech, we weren't left with much to go on, since Craig only had his closing statement to respond to these objections and summarize his positive case for God's existence and the reasons why Law's case against God's existence was unsuccessful.  It's also worth noting that even in his closing statement and during the question-and-answer session, Law still refused to address the kalam argument.

Law's argument basically ran like this: given all of the sufferings in the world, one is rationally justified in concluding that God is not morally perfect.  He postulates the idea of an evil God, and states that we cannot conclude that God is entirely evil, since there are so many good things in the world.  Craig's response to this was, I think, right on the money.  Theists don't conclude that God is morally perfect based on the good things we perceive in the world.  Likewise, theists don't conclude that God is entirely evil based on the sufferings in the world.  Craig maintains that the argument for a morally perfect God and an entirely evil God provide us with no compelling arguments, since we are not in a position to know whether certain events occur for the sake of a greater good or for the sake of a greater evil simply on the basis of the good and evil we perceive in the world.

This makes the cumulative case that Craig was defending much more realistic.  He defends the kalam argument in order to arrive at some type of deity, and then further concludes that this deity is morally perfect based on the moral argument.  During the question-and-answer period, Law stated that he had no idea why anything exists rather than nothing.  It was at this point that Craig responded that Law was being inconsistent in requiring him to provide God's morally sufficient reasons to allow suffering, while at the same time, Law was unable (or unwilling) to provide an account of why something exists rather than nothing.  This received a modest laugh from the audience to which I'm sympathetic.  It seemed to me that throughout the entire debate that Law was holding Craig to standards that Law himself could not adhere to.

Despite all of this, I found this debate to be a breath of fresh air.  Law came prepared to debate Craig and he was determined to not lose focus.  He was charming and provided Craig with one of the most difficult debates since Austin Dacey.


  1. "It seemed to me that throughout the entire debate that Law was holding Craig to standards that Law himself could not adhere to."

    That is not true. The standard that Law holds Craig to is that because Craig claims he can show that a timeless, changeless, immaterial, personal and morally perfect creator of the universe exists, he is required to argue for just that and since he fails(at least in Law's eyes)to make his case for a morally perfect God, he does not succeed in what he claims to do.
    Law, on the other hand does not claim to why something exists rather than nothing, so the only standard he must hold to is his own argument for why we are justified in concluding that God is not morally perfect. Whether he succeeds in doing so is another matter.

  2. You misunderstand. Craig says in essence: "we don't know why God allows X," which Law criticizes. Yet when Law says: "we don't know why anything exists," Craig catches him in this inconsistency. It's the not knowing why any X or Y is the case that Law is inconsistent on. It doesn't matter that Law is presumably an agnostic on one issue (why anything exists) and decidedly atheistic on another (the argument from suffering). The title of the debate was, "Does God exist?" which means Law had a burden of proof to argue for atheism, which would include a refutation of each of Craig's argument.

    1. I do understand, but apparently you don't. Craig claims to know a lot about God, but when it suits him, he suddenly claims that "We don't know why God allows X, but God is nevertheless still good" (or something along those lines). Law argues that it is also unknowable whether God, if He exists is good or evil or whatever.
      The title of the debate was indeed "Does God exist" and Law answers this by saying that Craig has no compelling argument for God (who, according to Craig is immaterial, not changeless, not timeless ,personal and morally perfect)
      If someone claims that God,defined a certain way exists, then that person has the onus to show that that type of God exists. And Craig failed to do so. Craig even admits this when he says that an evil God would be a contradictio in terminis, which means that, if it can be argued that the creator of the universe is evil, it would not be God.
      So, "God" as defined by Craig, entails a creator who is morally perfect. Law had the burden of proof to argue against what Craig calls God and that's exactly what he did. And he succeeded.
      Now, if in the future, Craig decides to argue for a different God, who is merely immaterial etc, but not morally prefect, then Law or anyone lese arguing against Craig would have to come up with a different argument.

    2. You really don't understand. Law claims that we can determine if God is good or evil, if there is a God, based on the goodness and suffering we perceive on balance. What Law presents here is an inductive argument. Notice that Craig's arguments are deductive, so Craig isn't feigning ignorance whenever it suits him as you suggest. He provides arguments to the conclusion that while we are in a position to know certain things about God, we're not in a position to know other things. Craig would say we can know God is morally perfect because of the moral argument, but not because of the goodness we perceive in the world. That's Law's view, not Craig's.

      The title of the debate requires Law to actually provide a positive case against God's existence in addition to responding to Craig's arguments. Craig has to do the same. When the title of a debate is in the form of a question, the answer is either "yes" or "no." Law cannot win the debate simply by responding to Craig's arguments. In any case, he refused to respond to the kalam argument, which is one of the reasons I claim Craig won the debate. And yes, Craig does say that God is timeless, changeless, immaterial, very powerful and personal. God's timelessness and changelessness, in his view, just doesn't entail immutability (the inability to change). He states that God can be changeless in fact, but still capable of change. Hence, he states quite often that God is timeless and changeless sans the universe, but enters into time at the moment of creation. I don't share this view, but it's important to understand what he claims.

      Next, you say that Craig failed to show that an evil God does not exist. But, that's precisely why the focus should have turned to the moral argument, and it's a shame that Law didn't respond to this argument until his closing statement.

      You say that Law succeeded in showing that Craig's God does not exist. Of course, that's just your opinion, and I obviously have a different one. I'm no more persuaded by the argument from suffering against a morally perfect God than I am by the argument from goodness against an entirely evil God. Craig shares my view and refutes both arguments during the course of the debate. Whether these refutations are sound or not is left to each person to decide for himself or herself.

    3. Correction: Law deferred responding to the moral argument and the historical case for the resurrection of Jesus until his third speech, which at least left Craig with his closing statement to address Law's objections.

  3. If we are to just believe an assertion like "if God does not exist then objective morality does not exist" then we can jusy as easily believe that "if God is good there is no evil". Except, there is far more support for the latter than for the former.
    The fact is also that if Craig claims that God is morally perfect, then he should know what "morally perfect" does or does not entail. Otherwise this is just an empty claim. Craig indeed failed to show why an evil creator does not exist or cannot exist, and he should have doen so in order to counter Law's argument. He could have done so in his closing remarks, but he failed even then.

    Now, of course who actually won the debate is a matter of opinion, but the title of the debate does not require to do anything else than what Law actually did: make a strong case against the God proposed by your opponent. There is no requirement to play the game by your opponent's rules.

    1. Walter, as I mentioned in my disclaimer, I'm not going to address the merits of these arguments, at least not insofar as defending or critiquing them. So, I'm not going to address your comment about the moral argument.

      I simply disagree that Craig failed to show how Law's argument from goodness rules out an evil God is unsound. Craig's defense of a morally perfect God depended on the moral argument, which Law barely addressed. Again, that's a victory for Craig. It's also worth noting that Law himself agrees with Craig that objective moral values and duties exist, so there was no need for Craig to explain what "morally perfect" means.

      Finally, the title of the debate was not "Does Craig's God exist?" It was: "Does God exist?" As Craig pointed out repeatedly, Law's refusal to respond to the kalam argument is a tacit approval of that argument in a debate setting, even if Law doesn't approve of the argument personally (he obviously doesn't). The notion of any God existing is therefore incompatible with what Law was supposed to be arguing against. It would indeed be an odd form of atheism, and one not even worthy of the name, that concedes the existence of a timeless, changeless, immaterial, very powerful, personal creator of the universe.

      Craig wanted to argue further that God is morally perfect and that he raised Jesus from the dead. When Craig says that "the notion of an evil God is a logical absurdity," he says so in the context of defending the moral argument. In any case, he made it abundantly clear that they weren't there just to debate Craig's God, since he repeated asked Law to respond to the kalam argument, even though he (Craig) conceded that the argument on its own says nothing about the goodness of God.

  4. Law said that he did not want to discuss the KCA because it wasn't relevant to what he was arguing for (or against), so there wasn't any 'tacit approval' of the argument.
    It is also untrue that Law agrees that OMV's exist.
    Let's have it straight from the horse's mouth
    "This is undoubtedly a belief that just seems obviously true to us, and, indeed, I’ll put it forward quite happily; but I am willing to take it back later if I need to, O.K., objective… The mere fact that it seems true doesn’t guarantee that it’s true. It seems like there are objective moral values. That isn’t a belief we should abandon easily, but it’s by no means irrefutable, all right."

    Read more:

    And Law did address the moral argument. He asked Craig to defend the first premise, and Craig's only reply was an appeal to authority.
    Frankly, there may be people who can give a decent argument for the first premise of the moral argument, but Craig didn't give one, neither in this debate nor anywhere else. And that's because Craig only has his Divine Command Theory, which is question-begging with regards to the Moral Argument.

    1. As I already mentioned, the attributes of "Craig's God" include those inferred from the kalam argument, so Law's failure to respond to it is a tacit approval of the argument in a debate setting. You're not getting a lot of the subtleties of what Craig, Law, or even what I'm saying. One more example is your citation of Law. In that quote, Law affirms objective moral values and duties, but states he's not as committed to believing in them as he is other things. He said he's willing to take that belief back if it undermines his case against God. That in itself is very telling, but I at least have to commend Law for his honesty.

      Law only barely addressed the moral argument in his third speech, which left Craig with only his closing statement to advance the argument further. Why are you not getting this? Law appealed to authority (his appeal to Richard Swinburne) and so did Craig (his appeal to Nietzsche, Sarte, Russell, and several others). Appeal to authority, by the way, is not a logical fallacy. In any case, Craig provided more than just an appeal to authority. He refuted the evolutionary explanation many atheists give. Law agreed this was an untenable view, but criticized Craig for criticizing it!

      Look, had Law responded to the moral argument in his second speech, as he said he was going to do (but then deferred until his third speech), we probably would have gotten a much better exchange of ideas on the moral argument. Unfortunately, that's not how it played out, and Craig cannot be blamed for this.

    2. Of course Craig cannot be blamed for it, but neither can Law be blamed for making his own case and not playing by Craig's rules.

      As to "subleties": Law does not respond to the KCA because it is not relevant to the case he wants to make in the debate, that's his subtle tactic, and Craig appeals to people who don't grasp this sublety by saying that "he is tacitly approving of the KCA".

      Also, youi claim that Law said he's willing to take that belief back if it undermines his case against God. But that is not what he said. He said, "I am willing to take it back later if I need to". Your just reading your own interpretation into this. What it means is that if somebody makes a good case against OMV, then Law is willing to take it back later. IOW, Law is open-minded about this.

      As for Craigs refutation of the evolutionary explanation, the reason why Law criticizes Carig for bringing it up is because Law himself does not believe the evolutionary explanation is a good one, but more importantly because "The onus is on Professor Craig to show that all such atheist-friendly accounts are wrong, even the ones we haven’t thought of yet."
      So, whether Craig can refute one 'that some of us have already thought of' is not relevant because in order for Craig to make the claim that without God there are no OMV, he has set a standard for himself that he cannot possibly meet.

    3. These aren't Craig's rules. It's how debates are conducted. You make your opening statement, then respond to your opponent during your first rebuttal.

      You're still ignoring the fact that the title of the debate was, "Does God exist?" Law should have responded to the kalam argument, regardless of the fact that Craig further argued for a good God. God's creation of the universe is just as much relevant to theism as God's goodness. Had the debate proposal been "Does Craig's God exist?" then you might have a point.

      You say I read into Law's comments. Not at all. Immediately after your citation, Law states: "he can’t deal with the problem of evil by just digging in his heels and saying, 'But look, it really, really seems to us as if there are objective moral values, so there must be a God.' When placed next to the problem of evil, Craig’s argument does little to undermine the problem; rather, it just combines with it to deliver the conclusion that there are no objective moral values." I do agree with you, though, that Law says he would take it back if there were other compelling reasons to. The problem is that the reason he gives is his own Evil God argument!

      Many atheists do make an evolutionary case out of morality. Craig even cites Michael Ruse to that effect, so it's not irrelevant. Besides, Law's demand that Craig has to show that "all such atheist-friendly accounts are wrong, even the ones we haven’t thought of yet," is nonsense. As Craig points out, once you show that various atheistic explanations are inadequate, which he has done in his written work and in his debates with atheists, the best explanation remains supernatural. The challenge is for atheists to come up with a better explanation. I won't be holding my breath.

  5. Craig claims the "if God does not exist, OMV do not exist". This is not an evidential claim, it is a logical claim and logical claims require that there is no possible alternative. So, Law's demand is not "nonsense". As long as Craig does not meet this demand, his moral argument is worthless. Craig is trying to shift the burden, but the burden to prove that OMV's can't exist without God is on him. And it does not suffice to say that he hasn't seen any adequate atheistic explanation.
    I agree that atheists who claims OMV's are objective also have a burden to show how this is possible, and that they often fail, but that does not make Craig's point. I, e.g. do not take the challenge because I would argue that OMV's are impossible even on theism, but that's another matter.

    Your quote of Law does not say "he's willing to take that belief back if it undermines his case against God", he says that Craig's moral argument, combined with the Problem of Evil leads to the conclusion that OMV's do not exist. So, you are reading into his comments.

    Finally,in a debate with Craig it is obvious that "Does God exist?" means "Does Craig's God exist?". Craig isn't arguing for Zeus and he specifically states that God is Good.
    So we can look at Law's argument as the first step in a cumulative argument against God. First he shows that the PoE disproves the Christian God and then, in other debates, he can go further and attack the deist God or the less-than-perfect God.
    You've got to begin somewhere.

    But this is where I stop. You are entitled to your opinion, but I'll stick to mine.
    It was an interesting discussion , though, thanks for that.

  6. I'll leave you with the last word, Walter.

    1. I'd say you vastly misunderstood the debate, You're holding Law to disprove only a conception of God that any possible person could ever think of? That's absurd, not to mention to Onus was on Craig to show us why the Kalam, moral, and all his other arguments work, and argument doesn't stand until it's refuted, that's plain flat-out horrible Philosophy, the Kalam takes 1 minutes to shoot out, and 10 minutes to refute, it's just a plain waste of time to engage in, and by the time you refute it, Craig would have spouted 20 other arguments and all the Theists would see that as a win for Craig. Craig utterly failed to present adequate justification for his God. Craig's style is to entice and attract laymen by appealing to their intuitions, while he shows much humility and ultimately doesn't care what any respected philosophers think of him. In this debate however, I haven't even really met a theist that thinks he "won" the debate, This debate was shouldered by Law, that's pretty Uncontroversial.

    2. Hi GC, I appreciate the time you took to reply. Given that I posted this well over a month ago, I hope you're not offended that I don't respond in detail. The major flaw I found in Law's approach was that he didn't respond to *any* of Craig's arguments until his third speech. This left Craig with only his time-sensitive conclusion to respond. I don't think Law did this on purpose, but debate etiquette suggests that one respond at least by the second speech. Moreover, I didn't find Law's argument from suffering to be persuasive, and I think Craig successfully answered it. You can disagree, but I'm not going to get into a lengthy debate about it.

      As for what the "respected philosophers" think of Craig, here's what Quentin Smith (an atheistic philosopher) has to say of him: "William Lane Craig is one of the leading philosophers of religion and one of the leading philosophers of time."

      In fact, even the New Atheists (other than Dawkins) highly respect Craig's intellect.