Debate-able: Reflections on Recent Debates
The following is a guest post from George Williamson discussing his recent debates with Michael Horner and William Lane Craig (video here).
In the last week of January 2011, I debated two Christian apologists on separate occasions, one in Regina and one in Saskatoon. Both debates took place on the respective university campuses, and both were (at least in part) organized by the Campus for Christ groups on those campuses. Both occasions were well co-ordinated and organized.
In Regina, I met Michael Horner for debate, and in Saskatoon, William Lane Craig. Their arguments are substantially the same, and well-known, so I won’t spend too much time on the details, except where necessary. Horner used only three arguments (Objective Morality Argument, Kalam Cosmological Argument and Fine-tuning Argument) but to these, Craig added three more (Argument from Contingency [basically, a Cosmological Argument], Personal Experience Argument and the Resurrection of Jesus Argument). These can be easily found on the internet.
For my part, I tried two different cases (with dubious wisdom) on the different occasions.
For both, I opened with an attempt to set the burden of proof issue straight. Both Horner and Craig set the terms of the debate as requiring proof that God exists, or proof that God does not exist, if the atheist is to make their position good. This is effectively a debate tactic that simply shifts the burden of proof. An utterly standard reading of this issue is simply that the onus is on the debater making a claim to existence to provide proof of their claims.
I believe that this actually covers both the claims that are commonly attributed to the atheist position: 1) that an atheist lacks a belief in God and 2) that an atheist believes God does not exist. The latter claim is often thought to involve a positive claim that needs a defence, but this presupposes that lacking a reason to think something exists is not sufficient to judge its non-existence. That would only be true in cases where we lack a clear, substantive hypothesis. Once the difference that God’s existence makes in the cosmos is given a clear understanding, the absence of evidence for that difference is, ex hypothesi, evidence for the non-existence of that God.
(Keep in mind, the issue here is the rationality of our beliefs, and this is not judged by whether or not there is a chance they can turn out to be wrong. All knowledge is fallible and open to revision. In these terms, it is rational to not believe in something simply because you have no reason to believe in it.)
It is always open to the theist to present a new hypothesis for consideration, but what theists typically do is much more akin to subtly changing the terms of the hypothesis until there is no evidence that can count against it. For example, one might think that God’s apparent and utter silence would count against the existence of a God who ‘wants us to know him’. But God’s silence is often enough turned into evidence for such a God. Consider the reply: “God makes himself known to those who have a genuine desire to know him.” This reshapes the claim into a tautology: this God who ‘wants us to know him’ turns out to be a God who is largely silent and uncommunicative, except for those have ‘genuine desires’ to know him. What is the criteria for those who have ‘genuine desires’ to know God? It would seem they are simply those who do know him. Someone who doesn’t hear God speaking to him will not count against the hypothesis, since God’s silence to them will be explained away by their lack of a ‘genuine desire’ to know him. What seems like a claim that makes a real difference in world turns out to make no detectable difference whatsoever.
OK, enough grinding of that axe. It is just such a shameless dodge that it gets on my nerves.
In Regina, I went with a basically empirical case, arguing that the world looks like it is probably not inhabited by a God. I gave three arguments.
1) If we regard the universe as a created entity, all our experience will allow us to conclude is that the creator of the universe is akin to the human creators we know: finite, embodied, fallible, not unique and working from pre-existing materials. Since the theistic hypothesis requires a creator with the exact opposite of these attributes, our experience allows us a probabilistic conclusion that there is no such creator.
2) If the Bible is the revelation of a supreme being, it should show some sign of that supremacy. If on the other hand the Bible is simply another work of mythology, it should look like other works of mythology. The Bible shows no sign of supremacy and every sign of being a work of mythology, so we should accept the same conclusion that we make of other works of mythology: that it is fiction and the characters in it are fictional.
These are admittedly weak arguments (don’t worry: I didn’t actually admit that), but could be part of a more extensive case that everything we know about the universe speaks to the absence of a god.
Finally, 3) I gave a fairly standard case from suffering, or the problem of evil. The theistic god is incompatible with the amount of suffering evident in the world. Without going into too much detail, this case turns on rebutting the attempts (called theodicy) of the theist to solve the problem by arguing that God has morally sufficient reason to allow evil. My case rests on two problems with these theodicies. 1) Suppose God allows evil because he wants to create free moral agents. Among other problems with this claim, it comes down to God having a choice between perfect goodness, and less-than-perfect goodness with free agents. If God chooses less-than-perfect goodness with free agents, then his desires are not for perfect goodness since he prefers free agents, at the cost of evil, to it. Hence God’s will cannot be perfectly good. 2) Suppose God allows evil so that good can come of it, perhaps by inspiring the moral qualities, such as compassion. In this case, God essentially uses the suffering of one person for the good of another, something that is commonly regarded as immoral when human beings do it. A god that uses people’s suffering for his own, or another’s, good cannot be perfectly good. Lastly, the notion of hell makes the problem of evil insoluble, since nothing one can do in a finite life can justify an eternal punishment and then, the excess suffering in hell would count against God’s goodness.
In Saskatoon, I also made the same case from suffering, but with doubtful wisdom chose to change the rest of my presentation to a conceptual argument against God’s existence. In presenting the more empirical case in Regina, I felt too conscious of making a weak case, which would be dismissed without consideration by believer’s in the audience. I would have at least liked to give them a troubled conscience about God, but maybe that is reaching to high anyway.
So, I gave a fairly standard argument for the incoherence of the concept of God. There are many paradoxes and inconsistencies that follow from the various attributes of the theistic God. Incompatibilities between omniscience and human free will, between omnipotence and human free will, internal paradoxes of omnipotence and many others can be cited to demonstrate that the way God is conceived rules out his existence, since the concept of God is akin to that of a square circle, and thereby impossible.
I won’t be able to recount all of the responses to these arguments in any detail, though I have some notes from which to mention a few.
To the argument from our experience of human creation, Michael Horner responded in two main ways: 1) that it couldn’t explain the attributes of the universe (apparently thinking this argument is meant to parallel the fine-tuning argument) and 2) that it presupposed that all created things must be like human creations. Contrary to the first reply, the argument was never meant to explain the attributes of the universe and had nothing staked on the claim. This is the fallacy of red herring. Contrary to the second, the point was made in the argument that unless we have a good reason to suppose that the universe would be a different sort of created entity, the only assumption supported by our experience is that the universe as a created entity would show similarities to human creation. This might seem weak but consider: if, on the theist’s hypothesis, the universe is radically different from human creation, then our experience would not be able to support the conclusion that it is designed at all — an important premise in design arguments for God’s existence.
To the argument from the Bible being apparent mythology, Horner replied that I would have to claim to know what book God would write. This again is a red herring: my argument simply postulates that a book of sacred wisdom and belief revealed by a supreme being should show some sign of its origin. This is of course exactly what believers have claimed umpteen times in the past, but never mind that. Again, the alternative would seem to be that the Bible shows no sign of divine origin, which would place it on par with other books of myth that no one any longer assumes to be true in any way. This raises the question of how believers get their information about God, if the Bible is to be treated like any other book of fiction. Horner also claimed that this argument doesn’t prove that God does not exist (maybe not prove but certainly it lends probability to that presumption) and that those who really study the Bible with an open heart will hear God talking to them through the Bible. Leaving aside the transparent circularity of this claim, this tacitly reintroduces the claim that the Bible is in some way special — after all, why doesn’t God speak through any book that is really studied with an open heart, such as, for example, Dawkins’ study of The Origin of Species?
Horner responded to the argument from suffering with some standard canards. God didn’t want to create a world which would be maximally comfortable and pleasing to human beings, so the claim goes, but rather he wanted a world in which humans would come to know God personally. The atheist must then prove that God could have created a world with as much knowledge of God as this one, but with less suffering. Several replies suggest themselves here: 1) since God did create humans vulnerable to suffering, he is nevertheless morally culpable for that suffering, whether or not he intended some other purpose for the world. It is not a moral option for human parents to bring infants vulnerable to suffering into the world and then neglect them because they wanted the child to come to know them, rather than to be comfortable. Why should this be more acceptable behaviour for God? 2) If it is implausible that God wanted to create a world of comfort and pleasure, it is still more implausible that God created this world for humans to come to know him. God has not made an appearance in some time. Thus, proving that God could have created a world with as much knowledge of God as this one, but with less suffering, is easy — simply create a world with one less war and where God puts in an appearance for all to see. Both Craig and Horner claimed that the atheist must prove that there can be no morally sufficient reason why God would allow evil and that this is impossible to prove. This again is an attempt to shift the burden of proof, by repackaging the problem as if it were a solution. The problem is that we know of no morally sufficient reason why God would allow evil. All this response does is shift the burden of proof from the theist to the atheist: the theist can solve the problem of evil simply by stating what God’s morally sufficient reason is, but here they simply assume that God has such a reason, unless the atheist can prove otherwise.
Finally, what I can recall of the response given by Craig to the incoherence argument was again question-begging. Consider one example: when it is argued that Jesus as god-man contains incompatible attributes (such as being both material [human] and immaterial [divine]), Craig replies that Christians believe Jesus has a dual nature — which does nothing to resolve the incompatibility but again repackages the problem (Jesus’ being fully human and fully divine) as if it were the solution (being dual-natured).