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

Posted on 10/24/11 27 Comments

Before Stephen Law delivered his first rebuttal Justin Brierley had to remind the audience (or a few in the audience) not to call out or applaud during the debate. There’s always at least one or two boneheads who seem unable to suppress the need to cheer or clap when “their guy” makes a point.

Arrghh.

Back to business. Law began by disputing Craig’s analysis of his position. Law did not argue that Christians believe that a good god exists because of the good they see in the world and thus Craig’s critique of that position is a strawman. They must have other reasons for believing this because the world clearly doesn’t support belief in a good god’s existence.

(While Law said this “obviously” wasn’t his claim, in fairness to Craig it should be said that his initial presentation was less than obvious.)

Next, Law observed that while Craig’s appeal to evil as proving God is a “popular move”, it is “not taken terribly seriously in philosophical circles”. I suspect this comment prompted the following thought in many in the audience: Don’t tell me it isn’t taken seriously. Show me why.

Anyway, Law stated that he didn’t need to appeal to any ontologically loaded concept of good and evil to make his argument. All he needed was a notion of suffering. This point seemed to go over well because some in the audience applauded (this despite Brierley’s request. Come on folks! This isn’t a political rally. It’s a formal debate. Sit on your hands if that’s what it takes, but find some way to control yourselves! Perhaps you could put an elastic band on your wrist and snap it every time you sense the urge to applaud.)

Back to business yet again. Law made it clear that in his view Craig’s moral argument wasn’t relevant (but again, even if it was most philosophers didn’t think it was much good).

From here Law turned to his other main argument: the evil god. (Bwa ha ha ha haaaa!)

Law proclaimed:

“We can see that there is an immense amount of good stuff in the world and it’s just implausible that, you know, it can be squared in some way with the existence of an all powerful and supremely malignant deity.”

And with that he lowered the boom:

We “confidently dismiss the evil God hypothesis purely on the basis of what we can see of the universe around us. And if we can do that then why can’t we do it for the good god hypothesis? Professor Craig has not answered that question.”

“In order to avoid the challenge he’s basically having to get incredibly skeptical. He’s really having to play the mystery card and say ‘we just can’t know whether there’s an evil god on the basis of looking at the world around us.”

I’m sorry to reiterate my point that this argument just doesn’t work, but it doesn’t. Craig hasn’t become “incredibly skeptical” by refusing to agree that the amount, intensity and distribution of goodness in the world is inconsistent the non-existence of an uber-powerful wicked being. The simple fact is that Craig has a different plausibility structure than does Law. One man’s providence is another man’s karma is another man’s nihilism. The fact that the order of events in the universe can be interpreted consistently with all these different views (and an evil god view besides) simply means that, strictly speaking, the data underdetermines the truth of the matter. Since providence, karma, nihilism and evil god providence all are consistent with the data, adopting one framework rather than another will be based on something more than a strict interpretation of the data itself. And this means that a Christian theist can have many reasons for rejecting the evil god hypothesis even while agreeing that the data of the world is consistent with that hypothesis. And with that Law’s argument is effectively neutralized.

So belief in good god providence in light of the evil in the world isn’t “downright ridiculous” any more than it is downright ridiculous to become a nihilist, agnostic, or anything else.

My last word will be directed to Law’s treatment of Craig on animal suffering. This is surely the most disappointing part of this rebuttal. He basically glossed over what Craig said in two minutes while noting that Craig had appealed simply to the laws of nature.

That was indeed part of Craig’s argument. (He argued that nature may require predation to maintain a healthy ecosystem.) But why didn’t Law challenge that? Is Craig serious? Does he mean to suggest that God couldn’t have created a world of happy herbivores that never got sick? What kind of God is this that crafts the teeth of the sabertoothed tiger to rip into the tough hides of terrified prey? Law really should have camped on this point for awhile while focusing on a vivid case of natural evil, perhaps like Rowe’s famous roasted Bambi illustration. He flirted with a valid emotional appeal in his opener (the tortured family cat) but abandoned such appeals here. Why, I don’t know.

Even worse, Law never engaged the other part of Craig’s theodicy of natural evil, namely that animals don’t know that they are suffering. (They suffer, but they don’t have first-person awareness that they are suffering.) Craig loaded a lot on that point and sounded really relieved about it. As I already said, that point strikes me as a terrible one. Just today friends called us over because their beloved dog of ten years was dying. When we arrived at their home he could barely lift his head, but he managed to thump his tail several times. His breathing was labored. He could not get comfortable. He had not eaten in days. Nor had he been able to drink or sleep for two days. He was, to put it bluntly, in absolute agony. He later died in the back of my friend’s car as we were driving to the vet to have him euthanized. He was suffering unimaginably. Is it any consolation to know that he didn’t know he was suffering? Are you kidding? This must surely be a philosopher’s cruel joke. This kind of suffering demands to be addressed and a point about the absence of self-reflective awareness of suffering must be the stinkiest red herring in this debate. And the fact that Law didn’t camp on this point is a great disappointment. If he had his case would have been much stronger both logically and emotionally.

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  • Walter

    What kind of God is this that crafts the teeth of the sabertoothed tiger to rip into the tough hides of terrified prey?

    What kind of God would do this? How does natural evil square with a maximally good deity?

  • Spencer

    “I’m sorry to reiterate my point that this argument just doesn’t work, but it doesn’t.”

    The point of Law’s EGC was to get Craig to explain why he thinks the Good-God hypothesis is significantly more reasonable than the Evil-God hypothesis. As Law pointed out, if Craig rejected EG on the basis of observational evidence, then he would be at a loss to explain why Law can’t similarly reject GG on the basis of observational evidence.

    Of course, Craig *didn’t* reject EG on the basis of observational evidence (i.e. based on all the goodness out there in the world), but then this raises the question: why does Craig reject EG? What argument can Craig produce to show that belief in GG is much more reasonable than belief in EG?

    Craig’s only response is to appeal to the Moral Argument, which just doesn’t work (at least not in the debate). Hence, the EGC is powerful precisely because it forces theists to use highly untenable arguments in order to maintain their theism.

    “And this means that a Christian theist can have many reasons for rejecting the evil god hypothesis even while agreeing that the data of the world is consistent with that hypothesis. And with that Law’s argument is effectively neutralized.”

    What are those “many reasons?” As explained above, Craig’s only reason was the Moral Argument.

    • randal

      “explain why he thinks the Good-God hypothesis is significantly more reasonable than the Evil-God hypothesis.”

      Craig isn’t an evidentialist about belief in God. In other words, he doesn’t believe that people accept the existence of God as an inference to the best explanation to account for some other data. If you want to argue with Craig’s actual views (which are representative of virtually all Christians because no Christians — or at least none I’ve ever met — believed in God simply because that was the best inference for the evidence. They may present an evidentialist apologetic for others but that’s a very different matter.

      So if anybody can be accused of a strawman it is Law. Even though he may be the nicest guy in the room (and there is supporting evidence of that) he’s still presenting a false epistemological account of Christian belief.

      • Spencer

        What does this have to do with Law’s EGC? The challenge does two things: first, it prevents the theist from utilizing any of the standard maneuvers when dealing with the POE, and second, it challenges the theist to *rule out* EG. How does Craig rule out EG? Only via the moral argument, which was spectacularly unsuccessful.

        You wrote:

        “So if anybody can be accused of a strawman it is Law. Even though he may be the nicest guy in the room (and there is supporting evidence of that) he’s still presenting a false epistemological account of Christian belief.”

        What strawman did Law commit? For Law’s EGC to work, the argument needs to assume that Christians reject EG, which is precisely what Christians assume.

        • randal

          “it challenges the theist to *rule out* EG.”

          No it doesn’t. There are an infinite number of physical and metaphysical theories consistent with the evidence. Christians are not any more obliged to rule them out in order to assent to one than is the atheist or anybody else.

          • Spencer

            Christians are committed to the claim that GG is significantly more reasonable than EG, are they not?

            • randal

              Not necessarily. The problem lies with your question. You see, context is essential for making a belief rational. For instance, is it ever reasonable to believe that 2+2=5? Surely not! However, would it be rational for a four year old to believe it if she was taught it with great earnestness by her dad who had never steered her wrong before?

              And what about believing the earth is flat. That’s not rational, right? But it certainly was rational for a laborer growing up in thirteenth century Westphalia. And it could be rational for a child today growing up on a commune in the Nevada desert.

              And this hard table that my computer is resting on. It surely would never be rational to believe that this solid table is mostly empty space, would it? Except that’s what my physics prof told me so I believe him.

              Consequently, with the same nuance there is no simple answer to the question of whether a given existential claim could be rational to believe.

              • Spencer

                Sure, beliefs may be rational or irrational depending on context, but this is simply irrelevant. The issue here is whether Christianity as such *entails* the rejection of EG. If it does, then Christians are committed to the claim that GG is significantly more reasonable than EG, even if in some weird circumstance, they may be rational in not thinking so.

                I’ll rephrase the question: Is the proposition that EG exists incompatible with Christianity?

                • randal

                  “Sure, beliefs may be rational or irrational depending on context, but this is simply irrelevant.”

                  It isn’t irrelevant to your earlier question.

                  “The issue here is whether Christianity as such *entails* the rejection of EG.”

                  Of course it does! You didn’t need to ask that surely!

                  “then Christians are committed to the claim that GG is significantly more reasonable than EG”

                  Reasonable for which individual? The Christian? Of course. A Christian believes that Christianity is true and GG is part of Christian belief while EG is inconsistent with Christian belief.

                  “Is the proposition that EG exists incompatible with Christianity?”

                  As I said, OF COURSE. And the proposition that EG exists is also incompatible with naturalism and Sikhism, and Judaism, and a few other isms too.

                  • Spencer

                    “Reasonable for which individual? The Christian? Of course. A Christian believes that Christianity is true and GG is part of Christian belief while EG is inconsistent with Christian belief.”

                    I’m not sure why you thought my earlier question requires a more nuanced answer. My question, obviously, had to do with *Christian* believers and what they’re committed to believing.

                    Back to EGC: would you agree that if none of the arguments for Christianity can rule out EG, or show that belief in GG is significantly more reasonable, then Christianity can’t be established via argumentation?

                    • randal

                      “would you agree that if none of the arguments for Christianity can rule out EG, or show that belief in GG is significantly more reasonable, then Christianity can’t be established via argumentation?”

                      The ontological argument rules out the existence of a malevolent being. I just spent several posts on it.

                      Your question is puzzling to the extreme. Of course belief in GG is more reasonable for the Christian than EG just like it is more reasonable for the naturalist to disbelieve in angels given his/her background beliefs.

                      Now here’s a question for you:

                      would you agree that if none of the arguments for atheism can rule out GG, then atheism can’t be established via argumentation?

                    • John Grove

                      Very interesting watching Christians squirm when presented with disconcerting things they simply cannot answer. As much as I think Randal is more reasonable than his brethren, these posts show that he is still highly irrational.

  • Spencer

    I take the evil-god-challenge to be the following:

    1) Either EG can be rationally rejected on the basis of observational evidence or not.
    2) If EG can be rationally rejected on the basis of observational evidence, then GG can also be rejected on the basis of observational evidence (and hence the POE succeeds).
    3) If EG cannot be rationally rejected on the basis of observational evidence, then if it is to be rejected, it must be rejected on some other basis.

    The first route — rejecting EG on the basis of observational evidence — comes at the cost of conceding the POE. The second — rejecting EG on some other basis — comes at the cost of adopting untenable a priori arguments in order to do so (e.g. moral argument).

  • Stephen Law

    Thanks Spence, you’ve got it right.

    Randal you need to fix something. You say: “Law made it clear that in his view Craig’s moral argument wasn’t relevant.” I think you mean Craig’s cosmological argument?

  • Stephen Law

    Hi Randal

    BTW, you say : “The simple fact is that Craig has a different plausibility structure than does Law.One man’s providence is another man’s karma is another man’s nihilism.”

    You’re not going relativist on me are you randal?!

    You continue: “The fact that the order of events in the universe can be interpreted consistently with all these different views (and an evil god view besides) simply means that, strictly speaking, the data underdetermines the truth of the matter.”

    This is a variant of the Quine-Duhem thesis of course – theories are under-determined by data. But the fact that all theories can be made consistent with the data (and, with enough ingenuity and “interpretation”, they all can), it doesn’t show all theories are equally reasonable, given the evidence. Obviously. Young Earth Creationism can be made to fit the evidence given enough ingenuity and interpretation. Yet we all know its pretty straightforwardly empirically falsified nevertheless.

    When faced with the evidential problems of good and evil, Craig just got super-skeptical. What we see around us gives us not the *slightest* reason to suppose there’s no all-powerful, all-evil God. Yeh, right!

    Yet, before they see the implications, Christians almost invariably do agree that evil god is a non-starter on the basis of what they observe around them (I should have done a straw poll on the night, early on).

    Only when it dawns on them what the implications of this are do they suddenly get extraordinarily sceptical. That degree of highly-implausible skepticism requires a really good supporting argument. You can’t just assert it’s true. And we didn’t get one on the night.

    So far, your suggestion that Duhem-Quine supports it is mere assertion, so far as I can see.

    But as Spencer notes, even if this highly implausible, radical skepticism *were* justified, it still wouldn’t help Craig make any headway at all so far as explaining why belief in an evil god is absurd, but a good god not.

    • randal

      “You’re not going relativist on me are you randal?!”

      Don’t get too excited. Context establishes meaning.

      “it doesn’t show all theories are equally reasonable, given the evidence.”

      Sure. But there is a vast stretch of territory between “Only one theory is reasonable” and “All theories are reasonable”.

      “Yet we all know its pretty straightforwardly empirically falsified nevertheless.”

      Pretty much. Of course a young earth creationist could argue like Philip Gosse did that God created the world with apparent age! So at that point you leave the hypothesis behind because it is merely ad hoc and degenerative. It doesn’t really explain anything. But that’s more subtle than straightforward empirical falsification.

      “Christians almost invariably do agree that evil god is a non-starter on the basis of what they observe around them ….”

      Doing straw polls is not particularly helpful, I think. As Michael Shermer points out, the average religious devotee will say that they believe for evidential reasons but that others believe on non-evidential grounds. If their account of their own grounds of belief are not reliable there I don’t think they would be reliable when you asked them about evil either.

      Evil God is a non-starter because it is not a live option of belief for Christians. They never grant that hypothesis serious consideration anymore than you probably grant idealism or solipsism or EG serious consideration. It is not that you wake up in the morning and say “Hmm, the balance of evidence supports a world of material substance in addition to my ideas.” All these hypotheses that we dismiss as being live options never stood a chance not because we considered them and they failed to meet the evidence but because we never took them seriously to begin with.

  • Stephen Law

    “But there is a vast stretch of territory between “Only one theory is reasonable” and “All theories are reasonable”.”

    Exactly. So playing the Duhem-Quine card doesn’t show we can’t pretty conclusively rule out an evil god on the basis of observational evidence, any more than it shows we can’t pretty conclusively rule out Young Earth Creationism.

    “LAW: Christians almost invariably do agree that evil god is a non-starter on the basis of what they observe around them ….” RAUSER: Doing straw polls is not particularly helpful, I think. ”

    No, but it shows what our initial, very powerful impression re the evidence is. So if you want to throw that impression out as unreliable, The onus is very much on you to justify throwing it out. As I just pointed out, your Quine-Duham argument fails, as it stands.

    “Evil God is a non-starter because it is not a live option of belief for Christians. They never grant that hypothesis serious consideration anymore than you probably grant idealism or solipsism or EG serious consideration.”

    This is irrelevant if EG is ruled out pretty conclusively on empirical grounds, and you have yet to show it isn’t. As I say, the powerful impression is that EG is pretty conclusively ruled out on the basis of empirical evidence (just like Young Earth Creationism). So the onus is on you to show it’s not. You need to justify your radical skepticism.

    But as I say, even if I grant the radical, as-yet-unjustified radical skepticism re. what gods can be ruled out on empirical grounds, we’re still left with Spenser’s question: why suppose belief in god IS more reasonable than the absurd belief in an evil God.

    • randal

      “Exactly. So playing the Duhem-Quine card doesn’t show we can’t pretty conclusively rule out an evil god on the basis of observational evidence, any more than it shows we can’t pretty conclusively rule out Young Earth Creationism.”

      I never played any card to rule out an evil god conclusively on observational evidence.

      As I noted in my most recent post, you need to argue (successfully) that properly basic accounts of Christian belief fail, because insofar as they don’t the Christian has properly basic beliefs (e.g. “God exists” “God loves me”) which serve as defeaters for skeptical possibilities (e.g. “Evil god exists”). Obviously they’re prima facie defeaters only but that’s all the Christian needs. And by the same token I take it that you’ve got prima facie defeaters to Descartes’ skeptical demon.

      • Crude

        Randal,

        A question I have about your reply is that it seems to only apply to people who are currently Christians, or who currently hold those basic beliefs. What about the case of non-Christians, or people lacking those basic beliefs?

        One reply I’d have would be along these lines: First, the EG argument doesn’t touch on the existence of God broadly. It can be entirely reasonable to conclude that our existence, our universe, etc is the product of some mind or minds. I notice in another thread Babinski grants this as well, or seems to. And note that this doesn’t get one to deism, but something broader.

        If it’s reasonable to conclude that our universe is the product of some mind or minds generally, with the question of whether this mind or minds is evil, good, etc left to the side, one has a bolstered reason to go looking for any sign that this God or gods may have left in the world – including testimony, miracles, historical attestation, etc. If the testimony, miracles, attestation, etc pass muster, we’re justified in our belief.

        I think that’s a particular weakness in Law’s argument. Theodicies aren’t usually provoked baldly – they’re attached to other religious claims. The Christian’s interest in a theodicy stems from, or at least could stem from, claims being made by prophets or by God Himself – so that’s a motivating factor in starting and accepting the theodicy project to begin with for the Christian.

        If the EG proponent has no comparable historical claims, they seem to be in the worse position than the Christian. I think they’re in an even worse position, in fact, but for now I’d like to see what you think of this. (Assuming you have time and interest to respond – you get a lot of comments around here.)

  • http://www.thepolemicalmedic.com Thrasymachus

    Forgive the shameless plug, but I’ve mapped the arguments on the entire debate via Prezi. I think it is a pretty cool way to get a handle on how the arguments interact.

    Anyway, I’d welcome advice and corrections.

    Linky:

    http://www.thepolemicalmedic.com/2011/10/stephen-law-vs-william-lane-craig-debate-argument-map/

    • randal

      It’s only a shameless plug if you start charging us $.

  • Stephen Law

    “As I noted in my most recent post, you need to argue (successfully) that properly basic accounts of Christian belief fail, because insofar as they don’t the Christian has properly basic beliefs (e.g. “God exists” “God loves me”) which serve as defeaters for skeptical possibilities (e.g. “Evil god exists”). Obviously they’re prima facie defeaters only but that’s all the Christian needs.”

    I can indeed do that. Successfully. However Craig didn’t wheel out reformed epistemology in order to deal with the problem of evil. He tried a different tack. Which failed. I thought you were assessing the arguments we gave on the night.

    • randal

      ” I thought you were assessing the arguments we gave on the night.”

      I am. I assessed the argument you gave by pointing out that you need to demonstrate that beliefs like “God loves me” cannot be properly basic.

  • Stephen Law

    1. Craig never said it was properly basic.

    2. And I take it you suppose he didn’t have to show “God does not exist” can’t be properly basic to win? Because he didn’t do that. Or even try. So you now appear to be operating with a double standard, right?

    3. Moreover, in so far as we were assessing the actual *arguments* on each side of the debate, I might still reasonably claim to have won.

    4. Moreover, very powerful evidence that not P clearly often is sufficient to make it unreasonable to believe that P, even if it seems strongly to the subject that P and that subject considers P “basic”. In which case, your retreat to basicality looks question-begging.

    • randal

      “Craig never said it was properly basic.”

      Yes, but I’m saying it now as part of a critique of your position. (In fact, I’m not saying it. Rather, I’m saying that you have to demonstrate how the relevant beliefs cannot be properly basic.) In other words, my focus here isn’t on your debate performance but rather on the adequacy of your argument in itself.

      “And I take it you suppose he didn’t have to show “God does not exist” can’t be properly basic to win? Because he didn’t do that. Or even try. So you now appear to be operating with a double standard, right?”

      No double standard at all. Irrespective of whether “God does not exist” is properly basic for an individual, Craig sought to provide arguments to undermine one’s justification in accepting that proposition. But your evil God argument does depend on belief in God being non-basic, because if it is properly basic then the existence of evil can be interpreted in light of it.

    • randal

      As for your fourth point, you seem to be arguing from “Sometimes x is true in certain cases” to “Therefore x is true in this case.” Er, that doesn’t follow.

      And I’m not “retreating” to this position since it has been my view of the matter since at least 1998 when I first took a course with Al Plantinga.

      The world lay shrouded in the night
      Randal took Al’s couse
      And all was light.

  • nick

    If people are interested. The Bretta podcast with Dr Glenn Peoples has an interesting podcast and blog about this topic under the title. What if God were really Bad. You will find it at Bretta.online.