Stephen Law vs. William Lane Craig: Round 2! (Craig’s first rebuttal)

Posted on 10/19/11 29 Comments

In this post I’m going to focus on William Lane Craig’s first rebuttal to Stephen Law.

Craig begins like this:

“You remember in my opening speech I said that I would defend two basic contentions tonight. First, that there are good reasons to think that theism is true. We have yet to hear Stephen’s response to those arguments. My second contention was that there are not comparably good reasons to think that atheism is true.”

It seems to me that this is why Craig likes to go first in debates. By being the first to present a positive case he gives the impression of putting the opponent on the defensive. And then he hammers the point home at the opening of his rebuttal by noting that his opponent has not yet responded to his arguments: “We have yet to hear Stephen’s response to those arguments.” But why does he say that? Of course Stephen Law doesn’t directly respond to Craig’s arguments in his opening speech. He’s not supposed to. Rather, he’s supposed to present his own case and then critique Craig in his rebuttal. Thus Craig’s quip is rather like the food critic who observes “I haven’t yet been served dessert” immediately following the appetizer. Debating points like this, which are greared more to win over the audience than to be fair to one’s opponent, tend to leave me rather ambivalent about formal debates.

Anyway, enough griping. Craig’s rebuttal consisted of three main points and an addendum. (You could just as well say four points but Craig doesn’t place the same weight on the fourth point.)

He begins by laying his cards on the table with the assertion that the evidential argument from evil is not a good argument. Craig admits that it is laden with emotional force. But he stresses that in philosophy we should focus not on how we feel but on what we ought to think. And it is extraordinarily difficult, Craig avers, to provide an evidential case for the non-existence of God based on the amount of evil in the world.

Generally I agree with Craig that we should be careful about concluding too much too quickly based on our intuitive, emotional reaction. But at the same time it needs to be recognized that a visceral emotional response can be very powerful as a guide for assessing the the truth of various claims. Consider, for example, the claim I just considered in the blog that possibly God punishes infants for the sins of the nation in which they live. I considered that morally abhorrent. That couldn’t possibly be the case. And I think there is wide (if not universal) agreement among Christian theists on this point. Now what is the basis of that belief? To be sure, abstract ethical reasoning can buttress it, but I suspect that the deepest and most powerful reason people reject the claim is because it simply strikes them as abhorrent and deeply wrong to think of infants being punished.

In his opening Law made a similar point when he talked about the suffering of animals. While he conceded that many people might not be overly concerned with animal suffering, he observed that they would be much more concerned if it were the family cat sufffering. The point is clear: one’s emotional attachment to the cat is not an obstacle to assessing the moral dimension of animal suffering but rather an aid to it. And that seems right. So while emotion can obscure reasoning, good reasoning is regularly informed by emotional commitment.

Okay, now on to Craig’s first point. Craig argues that there are morally sufficient reasons for allowing suffering. Thus he claims that Law would have to establish that “it is impossible or highly improbable that God has morally sufficient reasons for permitting the suffering in the world.” And Law simply cannot do this. For example, it may be that the degree of natural evil in the world is precisely the degree it needs to be to ensure that the maximum number of people freely come to know God. Moreover, Law doesn’t factor in the joys that could be experienced in the next life. The bottom line is that: “Dr. Law would have to show that there is another world which is feasible for God in which there is a greater knowledge of God and his salvation but with less suffering and that’s pure speculation.”

Hmmm. I’m reminded of the argument of Pangloss, the infamous “professor of metaphysico-theologico-cosmolonigology” in Voltaire’s Candide who argued:

“It is proven … that things cannot be otherwise than as they are; for all being created for an end, all is necessarily for the best end.”

Pangloss’s argument could be used to explain why God allows anything and everything. Thus when the Anabaptist is drowned in the Bay of Lisbon, Pangloss demonstrates a priori that the Bay of Lisbon had been created just for the Anabaptist to drown in. And so it goes through the book with Pangloss and Candide offering one after another rationale for the horrors they endure and witness from rape and torture to mutilation and murder. Candide ends with Pangloss and Candide retiring in Turkey with Pangloss reminding Candide yet again (albeit half-heartedly) that this world really was the best:

“There is a concatenation of events in this best of all possible worlds: for after all, if you had not been kicked out of a magnificant castle for love of Miss Cunegonde, if you had not been tried before the Inquisition, if you had not crossed America by foot, if you had not given the Baron a good running-through with your sword, if you had not lost all your sheep from the fine country of El Dorado, you would not be here eating candied citron and pistachio nuts.”

Yes, of course. That candied citron and pistachio nuts must be good.

Was Voltaire fair to Leibniz and his theodicy? That, most certainly, is doubtful. But did he make a strong point against it nonetheless? Most certainly.

It is hard not to catch an echo of Pangloss in Craig’s suggestion that the worst horrors of suffering in the natural world may be just what was needed to maximize the number of people freely choosing salvation. Think about the tuna eaten by a shark off the Cape of Good Hope sixty million years ago. (I’ve talked about that poor tuna elsewhere.) What possible good could the death of that tuna have for wooing human beings who only appeared on the scene in the last couple hundred thousand years to enter freely into relationship with the creator? That must have been some tuna.

I digress. On to Craig’s second point. Here he takes on Law’s evil God argument by arguing that the concept of an evil God is contradictory since God is essentially morally good. Thus, you cannot have an evil God, though you could have an evil non-divine creator of the universe.

Anyway, the main point for Craig is that Law’s argument misses the point. Craig avers that you cannot prove the creator is bad because of bad things or good because of good things in life. That’s simply not how theists reason. The problem, according to Craig, is that Law seems to suppose the theist arrives at the existence of God through an inductive study of the world. After weighing the amount of evil and good he concludes that God exists. But that is incorrect. Christians don’t infer a good god from the degree of goodness manifest in the world, though they may infer a good god from the existence of objective moral value and obligation.

I agree with the substance of that criticism. Law’s argument illustrates that there are many metaphysical hypotheses which are consistent with the data. But of course a philosopher of science could already have told us that with regard to physical hypotheses. Beyond that I only see Law’s argument as being of interest to however many devotees of a maximally wicked god (or demiurge) may be running about.

Craig then turned to his third point where he hammered home the moral argument  which he stated like this:

(1) If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist.

(2) Evil exists.

(3) Therefore, objective moral values exist.

(4) Therefore, God exists.

While I like this argument I find an argument from objective aesthetics much more compelling:

(1) If God does not exist, Justin Beiber’s music is not an objective offense to the aesthetic order of nature.

(2) Justin Beiber’s music is an objective offense to the aesthetic order of nature.

(3) Therefore, God exists.

Not only does my argument only have three steps, but it also has a powerful emotional appeal for all those who find that Justin Beiber makes Shaun Cassidy sound as profound as Bob Dylan.

Now on to the addendum. At this point Craig turns to address the problem of animal predation and suffering. Craig makes one worthwhile point here: we have to be careful about anthropopathism (that is, reading human emotion, and specifically human suffering, into the lives of animals). He’s certainly right about that. In his book River out of Eden Richard Dawkins makes much of the digger wasp’s macabre habit of laying eggs in a caterpillar or bee and stinging the prey thereby inducing paralysis so that “the meat keeps fresh.” He then writes “the prey might be aware of being eaten alive but unable to move a muscle to do anything about it.” (95) Seriously? Dawkins knows of grasshoppers which have brains sufficiently developed that they could be aware of being eaten alive? Are grasshoppers even sentient? I don’t know. But I am quite sure that they certainly cannot be aware of being eaten alive. Dawkins’ argument is trading on a crude anthropopathism about bugs.

At the same time, Craig neglects to mention the danger of anthropocentrism. And in the history of western thought this is surely the greater danger. (For example, the very notion that animal suffering is ethically significant has only been seriously countenanced in the last two centuries.) There is a growing body of research exploring the complex emotional lives of animals from elephants to dolphins to chimpanzees. It now appears that animals suffer much more than we ever realized. And the fact that most non-human animals lack a pre-frontal cortext (as Craig observes) is not much comfort to me when I see sharks having their fins cut off as they thrash on the deck of a Japanese fishing boat (for shark fin soup of course) only to be tossed callously back into the sea. In other words, Craig’s soothing line “Even though animals are in pain they aren’t aware of it” is rather cold comfort. In fact, how does he know that animals don’t suffer more than human beings in key respects precisely because they lack awareness of the purpose of suffering or the hope of deliverance from it? While Craig’s argument here is aimed at naive anthrpopathism he seems too ready to reintroduce a cold callous attitude toward animal suffering, an attitude which has already bedevilled the human race for far too long, and simply for the end of scoring a few debate points.


  • Robert

    Were you making fun of Craig’s moral argument when comparing it to one about Justin Beiber?

    • randal

      No, that was just for fun. I think the moral argument is worth taking seriously.

    • pete

      “Not only does my argument only have three steps, but it also has a powerful emotional appeal for all those who find that Justin Beiber makes Shaun Cassidy sound as profound as Bob Dylan.”

      But how could you ever dis’ the “Bieb”?

      Anathema! (if not a halarious anathema)

  • Brad Haggard

    I also thought this was a weakness in Craig’s response, even though Law didn’t give any good rebuttals for Craig’s arguments.

  • David Parker

    “We have yet to hear Stephen’s response to those arguments.”

    That is Craig’s standard rebuttal opener. Obviously, Law isn’t expected to give a rebuttal in his opening statement, so what makes this a quip?

    You will notice that Craig gives a little “where we are in the debate” at the beginning of each speech. He starts by saying there are good theistic reasons and no good atheistic reasons, then says he’ll wait to let his opponent give any atheistic reasons. Then he reminds the audience that they haven’t heard the response to his theistic reasons, and he starts in on responding to any atheistic reasons.

    Is there any rhetorical value in keeping the audience on track?

    • randal

      I admit that I am especially sensitive to rhetorical techniques that seek to get a leg up in a debate. That comes back, I suspect, to my general skepticism regarding the value of debates like this. And I certainly agree with Craig’s repetition generally, as he reminds the audience of arguments yet to be addressed. However, I still don’t like that particular line for the reasons I gave.

  • pete

    I think that an important thought experiement may take the form of “What if Satan was God?”

    Logically, how would this play out?

    Can we imagine how a maximally wicked god would order the universe?

    Instead of babies being born to mothers who have now forgot the ordeal of child birth swooning in love, would the rule (as opposed to exception) be something out of the mind of “Aliens” popping out of the stomach?….. (Sigourney Weaver eat your heart out)

    Wouldn’t it be more likely that all food, that every creature ate from the beginning of time, would be as the “Zaquum Tree”?

    All our necessary water, wouldn’t it be as scalding acid in our stomachs?

    (This is a fun thought experiement)

    • Ray Ingles

      Pete – What if, to maximize pain, a certain amount of joy must be permitted?

      (“Una saus victus nullam sperare salutem.” – ‘The one hope of the damned is not to hope for safety.’)

      What if Satan allows a few people to be happy (at least in some ways) in order to maximize the misery for the rest? What if the people who are happiest now are actually in for the worst of it in the afterlife. “Cursed are those who taste of righteousness, for they shall thirst forever…”

      This is why the ‘God works in mysterious ways’ – the whole unknowable business I’m always on about – is such a problem. It’s like a card that turns the whole deck into Jokers. Once you play that card, anything goes. Nothing can count as evidence for anything, ever again.

      • pete


        On the “certain amount of pleasure” argument, I don’t think you have a winner.

        While I’m not arguing that all suffering is nicely wrapped up with, “its for a greater good”, concievably it is possible.

        However, good cannot maximize evil in any objective sense. There would still be the good that was experienced. On a purely evil god model (this god seeks pleasure from pain), why would good ever be allowed.

        While the inverse can be thrown back at me (and my argument is certainly an attempted truth-work in progress), I am tacitly aware that the two are different.

  • Katie

    I couldn’t believe that Craig actually made the argument that animals don’t suffer. The argument did nothing for his case and the majority of sane humans consider that claim ridiculous. Law should have jumped all over him for that. But clearly Law isn’t well versed in the mechanics of debating, which is unfortunate, because Craig is winning by sheer force. As a former debater, I really enjoy the activity–but to me it will always be focused on the ability to create arguments, not a method of actually determining truth. Debate, if anything, is more about skewing the truth than elucidating it. So I have mixed feelings about debates between prominent figures on important topics like this one.

    • randal

      Craig didn’t argue that animals don’t suffer. Rather, he argued that animals are not self-reflectively aware that they are suffering. Of course a fetus that is being killed in a late term abortion is not aware it is suffering either. But so what? The child is suffering. And how can Craig be so sure that being unaware that you are suffering is less horrible than being aware?

  • The Atheist Missionary

    Can we imagine how a maximally wicked god would order the universe?

    Law sure can – see his God of Eth

  • The Atheist Missionary

    I realize that Randal’s assessment of the debate is a work on progress but I am really hoping that he will shed some light on why a maximally good god is substantially more likely than a malevolent one. While Randal may think that attacking one of Craig’s God’s essential attributes was “modest”, he’s obviously never seen a perfectly executed ankle tackle take down a running back lumering in for a touchdown.

    Yesterday, on Law’s own blog, he commented:

    Most people will happily conclude there’s no evil god purely on the basis of the evidential problem of good (whether or not there are other reasons to reject the evil god hypothesis). So why isn’t the problem of evil similarly fatal to belief in a good god?

    After all, most standard methods of explaining away the evil can be reversed to explain away the good. E.g. appeal to an afterlife and playing the sceptical, God-has-his-ultimate-reasons-of-which-we’re-ignorant card.

    Now Craig, quite amazingly, actually chose to play that sceptical card on the night, endorsing the (highly counter-intuitive and, by him on the night, pretty much unjustified) claim that observation of the the world can give us no grounds at all for supposing there’s no evil god (or good god).

    But note that that STILL doesn’t help Craig at all, so far as explaining why it’s more reasonable to believe in a good god rather than an evil god (the latter belief being absurd).

    The point is this: whether or not Craig plays the sceptical card, he’s still left having to explain why belief in his good god is very significantly more reasonable than the obviously absurd belief that there’s an evil god.

    Craig whiffed on answering the question but I have confidence that RR will be up to the task.

    • Walter

      Christians can say that they cannot determine the moral alignment of God based on observation of the world around us since they consider the world to be fallen. Christians can claim to know the moral goodness of God based on special revelation as opposed to general revelation, i.e. the “witness” of the bible and that of the Holy Ghost, speaking to their hearts.

  • Ray Ingles

    Speaking of Craig, Richard Dawkins put out a little explanation today of why he won’t debate the guy. Gotta say, he makes a pretty good case; one Randal ought to be sympathetic to, given his rejection of infant punishment:

    • Robert

      You know, I doubt that is Dawkins’ real reason, but I’m glad he’s pounding Criag with the genocide issue. If anyone actually has the “Holy Spirit within his heart”, I would expect – as evidence – that they could figure out why these texts are morally depraved. The claim of divine guidance by prayer and indwelling of a morally perfect deity should help Dr. Craig see what a terrible position he has taken. If that fails, maybe Craig could read, and then actually respond to the criticisms of Randal, Wes Morriston and – dare I say – Thom Stark.

      Does Craig care about the truth on this issue? He can prove it! Maybe he can team up with Copan and they can enlighten us all.

      • Ray Ingles

        You know, I doubt that is Dawkins’ real reason

        On what grounds? What do you think the “real reason” is?

        • Robert

          Of course, this is just pure speculation, but I think he knows Craig is a better debater.

  • Gene

    I was wondering while listening to Craig, would Craig be good with torturing animals then? If the suffering is no longer a part of the animals existence, though it squeels as the hyena gnaws it’s leg off, then what’s wrong with pulling the legs off of the animal?

    • randal

      Craig didn’t express himself very clearly here. He wasn’t denying that animals suffer. Rather, he was pointing out that animals are not self-aware that they are suffering because they lack self-awareness (with a few exceptions like the higher primates). But as I pointed out, that is something of a red herring since Craig doesn’t really know whether the individual who lacks awareness that they are suffering suffers less as a result

  • Sean R Reid

    Why is Craig getting any attention as an actual “debater”? It seems his rhetorical tricks are so well known at this point. As such, it follows that his goal is not to “defend Christianity” (setting up a false dichotomy and assuming that doing so is necessary or possible) so much as it is to score rhetorical points and raise his own stock.

    I admit that I found him interesting when I first learned of him. However, his podcasts didn’t remain in my queue for long. His pedantic dismissal of anything with which he disagreed quickly became annoying.

    At this point, I think he’s more flash than substance. He has more in common with Hulk Hogan than he does with C.S. Lewis. Why folks keep giving him a podium is beyond me.

    • randal

      Sean, while I have my quibbles with Craig and the debating format, he is a nice chap, a good academic and a first-rate debater.

  • Ray Ingles
    • randal

      It’s also possible to disagree with the premise that 1+1=2. ;)

      • Ray Ingles

        Okay, if you’re going to play that way… it’s possible to reasonably disagree with the premise that “If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist.” :)

  • Stig

    I always thought Craig’s defense of objective moral values was a weak point in his debates. Often he just assumes it as self-evident and gets away with it because most of the audience shares the assumption. Even Sam Harris did in their debate! In reality, of course, there is a debate to be had in moral philosophy over objective morality.

    I don’t see why 3 (objective morality) follows from (2) evil. Most psychological studies of human evil in action suggest that we all have the potential for both “evil” actions and for somehow justifying them to ourselves and others, given extreme enough circumstances. Even if you could identify some actions and attitudes that people cross-culturally agree are “evil”, those will likely relate directly to physical harm and fairness, and could be explained by evolutionary psychology or even by just game theory and cultural learning (for those who prefer keeping genes out of the explanation).

    I concede that the objective existence of good and evil, even if partly hidden to us, is a comforting thought insofar as it brings order to an often confusing world. It’s just that I don’t see much evidence for it.

    • randal

      “Often he just assumes it as self-evident and gets away with it because most of the audience shares the assumption.”

      This isn’t necessarily a weak point. You only have so much time in a debate to win over as many people as possible. If most people already accept the existence of objective morality why would you invest more effort in defending the already-accepted premises? Better to move on to a more controversial point.

  • writer42

    An evil god is a contradiction because good is ordered as higher than evil and if it is universally true that good is good and evil is evil than evil being higher than good makes a good God greater than an evil god and an evil god the lower than the beings that he creates. So an evil god cannot logically exist.