Saturday 29 October 2011

The Evil God debate: William Lane Craig vs Stephen Law

Listeners to the Pod Delusion of about a month ago will have heard Premier Christian Radio host Justin Brierley promoting the Reasonable Faith Tour — a week and a half of debates and lectures throughout the UK by American philosopher and theologian William Lane Craig. Much was made, then and since, of Richard Dawkins' refusal to engage William Lane Craig in a formal debate, though the fuss seems to have had more to do with promoting the tour than real regret at not having the the world's most famous living atheist on the speaking list. Clearly Dawkins could not "win", either in debate or out of it. If he accepted he would be lending his name to a religious event — which would be trumpeted far and wide — and if he declined, his refusal would be (and was) … trumpeted far and wide. Whatever he did would be (and was) used as promotional material for the Reasonable Faith Tour. (Perhaps the three Pauls should invite Richard Dawkins on to the Skepticule Extra podcast. I'm sure I've an empty chair I could put by for him.)

Until recently the promotional hoo-hah was of only peripheral interest to me, as I was heartily sick of listening to Craig's debates, especially after those with Lawrence Krauss and Sam Harris, both of whom have original things to contribute about their respective fields, but whose points Craig roundly ignored. When Polly Toynbee withdrew her name from the tour's speaking list after having initially accepted, I sympathised with what I considered a wise decision. For myself I felt I'd had enough of Craig, and I wasn't interested in attending any of the tour.

When Stephen Law "stepped up to the plate", however, I felt differently. Here was a professional philosopher, known as an atheist and clearly a deep thinker — as his previous appearances on Justin Brierley's radio programme Unbelievable? had demonstrated. Suddenly the prospect of yet another William Lane Craig debate became intriguing, as perhaps this time the Craig steamroller might have something concrete and unyielding in its path.

WestminsterHall_Entr_IMG_1056wAnd that's why I found myself in Westminster Central Hall on Monday 17th October, for the initial event of William Lane Craig's Reasonable Faith Tour — a debate between a Christian and an atheist on the question, "Does God exist?"

I had arrived early to secure a good seat in the magnificent and capacious building, and was in the third row. I made my own estimate of its seating capacity — about 2000 on two levels. I thought it likely that the lower level would be mostly filled, probably to about 900 (a good crowd by any standard, for an event such as this). But as 7:30 approached — and I'd witnessed the separate arrivals of William Lane Craig and Stephen Law — the upper level began to fill up too. Five minutes before the start I estimated about 1800 people were seated in the hall (Justin Brierley has since mentioned an attendance of 1700, so I wasn't far out).

WestminsterHall_stage_IMG_1064wStephen Law isn't best at the podium — his approach is probably better suited to the discussion or small seminar format. William Lane Craig on the other hand has the big speeches to big audiences down pat — but this is nothing new. Anyone who has seen a few debates by Craig knows what to expect, so I should not have been surprised to hear him launch into three of his tried and tested arguments: the Kalām cosmological argument, the argument from objective moral values, and the argument from the resurrection of Jesus. In terms of presentation Stephen Law is not as slick or as superficially convincing as William Lane Craig, but in terms of philosophical engagement Law can clearly hold his own.

WestminsterHall_JB_intros_IMG_1067wI shall not detail each speech here — this has been extensively done elsewhere*, and the unedited audio of the entire two hours is available for streaming and download at the Unbelievable? website. What follows are mostly my immediate impressions of the evening, jotted down during my return train journey that night, interspersed with retrospective comments.

WestminsterHall_WLC_IMG_1069wI expected Law to use his Evil God Challenge — and he did, in my view to solid effect, and Craig's efforts to brush it aside were, in my view, ineffective. As usual Craig spoke first, and as usual he attempted to define the scope of the debate by stating what his opponent must do in order to refute him. The reason he does this is so that when he sums up he can point out anything in his list that his opponent didn't address, and claim victory by default. In this case however, Stephen Law — speaking second — made it clear that he would present one argument only. Then he presented his Evil God Challenge, which I've heard him deliver before but never with such clarity and depth.

WestminsterHall_SL_IMG_1072wThe Evil God Challenge goes something like this: the evidential problem of evil is well known — with so much gratuitous suffering in the world, both now and in the past, how could an omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent God allow it? Theists have developed theories — theodicies — to explain how such a good God could allow so much suffering, so much "evil". Whether you think these theodicies are effective reconciliations of the problem of evil will probably depend on your own perspective.

The effectiveness or otherwise of these theodicies, however, isn't relevant to Stephen Law's Evil God Challenge. Even if theists try to explain suffering by claiming it's an inevitable result of God allowing us free will, or that we cannot know the mind of God and he might have good reasons unknown to us to allow so much suffering, or that suffering is necessary in order to throw goodness into sharp relief — all of these arguments (or theodicies) can be applied in reverse to the idea that the universe was created by an omnipotent, omniscient but omnimalevolent God who is seeking to maximise the amount of suffering in the world. But how can the Evil God exist when there's so much good in the world? The evidential problem of good is just as effective in disproving the existence of an evil God as the evidential problem of evil is in disproving the existence of a good God. The two scenarios aren't necessarily entirely symmetrical, but they're symmetrical enough to maintain that if observation is sufficient to dismiss the Evil God Hypothesis — and most people seem to agree that it is — it's also sufficient to dismiss the Good God Hypothesis.

WestminsterHall_discussion2_IMG_1073wCraig tried to refute the Evil God Hypothesis — or rather, to shrug it off — by simply defining his God as good. But this is an arbitrary definition that can be just as simply reversed, as Law demonstrated. Law quite rightly called out Craig for resorting to the mystery card — Craig predictably claimed that we cannot know what's in the mind of God — that God might have morally sufficient reasons to allow suffering, reasons of which we're unaware. That's not good enough, as Law pointed out.

During the post-debate discussion Law objected to Craig's claiming he had conceded that the cosmological argument was proof of God's existence because he didn't address it. Craig defended his tactic as legitimate in the debate format, which goes to show that he's not debating in order to get closer to the truth, and it reinforces the widely held impression amongst atheists that Craig is only interested in point-scoring. Law then took the opportunity to answer Craig's cosmological argument with a simple statement that he doesn't know why the universe exists, but that doesn't give theists a free pass to say their God did it.

WestminsterHall_discussion1_IMG_1074wAs Law further explained, just because he doesn't know what, if anything, caused the universe, he is nevertheless justified in ruling out certain hypothetical causes. One such is the Evil God, and by reflection — the essence of the Evil God Challenge — another is the Good God. Law also rebutted Craig's evidence for the resurrection of Jesus by citing corroborated UFO reports, showing just how flawed human cognition can be, even en masse.

I think Law put up a good case against Craig, who is acknowledged as a formidable debating opponent. Craig's success at debating, however, relies less on his arguments, which have multiple flaws — some of which Law highlighted — than on his debating style: speaking first, defining the limits of the topic, and listing what his opponent must do to refute him (regardless of what his opponent might think). Added to which Craig is clearly an accomplished public speaker, even if he's usually saying much the same thing every time.

In the face of such debating prowess Stephen Law stuck to his guns — he had a good argument and refused to be deflected. But he also showed that he's no one-trick pony. He's known for the Evil God Challenge, but he was also able to identify the flaws in Craig's use of the cosmological argument (despite not initially addressing it) and the argument from the resurrection of Jesus.

I had originally decided not to attend this debate because I was fed up with William Lane Craig's monotonous repetition of the same arguments, even though I think the question, "Does God Exist?" is the only question in all of theology worth asking (and of course it's the one question theology itself never properly addresses).

The reluctance of certain atheists to go up against Craig is understandable. Craig takes debating seriously and is in it to win. He doesn't seem to be interested in an exchange of ideas — rather, it's all about scoring points. Stephen Law, however, appeared wise to Craig's technique, requiring him to address the challenge in depth rather than letting him shrug it off. This was especially noticeable in the discussion at the end, when Craig couldn't exploit the restrictions of the debate format.

On the whole I'm glad I changed my mind.

*Deeper analysis of the debate abounds online. Here are a few samples, beginning with Stephen Law's own notes:

A comprehensive graphical analysis:

Randal Rauser's typically idiosyncratic (and continuing) view:

Paul Wright's analysis:

A Christian who judged Stephen Law a rare winner in this debate: