I just finished listening to the February 1 debate on the existence of God between William Lane Craig and Alex Rosenberg at Purdue University. (If you haven’t heard it yet you can get it here.)
I’d heard Rosenberg did poorly, but my goodness, this was bad.
Preparing for the Debate
We can set up the debate with a snapshot of the debate prep undertaken by each debater:
A scene from Craig’s debate prep
The scene opens with Craig speaking to a team of Biola graduate students sitting around a conference table: “Get me Rosenberg’s ten most recent books and thirty most recent peer-reviewed articles and let’s get to work. Come on people! We have a debate to win!”
A scene from Rosenberg’s debate prep
The scene opens with Rosenberg speaking to his significant other from a darkened closet: “Hey, where’s the light switch? I’m trying to find my lecture notes from that philosophy of religion class I took in 1978 and I can’t see a darn thing.”
Craig chose eight arguments (rather than the usual five), and some of them (e.g. the argument from intentionality; the argument from mathematics) were clearly intended to serve as platforms to lampoon Rosenberg’s published writings. A clever strategy indeed. And Craig’s careful articulation of each premise and the conclusion provides the kind of precision one should expect in a debate like this. I also appreciated the fact that Craig tweaked his personal testimony to an appeal to the proper basicality of Christian belief. In conclusion: Not a breath wasted. This guy is a machine.
Rosenberg’s arguments, by contrast, consisted largely of rambling non sequiturs and embarassing fossils from those 1978 lecture notes. An example of how bad things got: by the end of the debate it became evident that Rosenberg was unable to distinguish the logical problem of evil from evidential problems of evil. And Rosenberg was a sitting duck based on his absurd denials of intentionality and his implausible embrace of moral nihilism.
Winning the debate jerk prize
Rosenberg may have lost the debate but he ran away with the “debate jerk” prize.
Back in the 1990s Peter Atkins debated Craig. While he didn’t win the debate, he did win the title of “Biggest debate jerk” for being condescending and disparaging. Rosenberg doesn’t reach those stratospheric heights but he still clinched the title early on. That’s unfortunate because I suspect that Rosenberg is a decent person when you encounter him in a coffee shop. But put him behind a podium and he seems to turn into a wolverine.
Where’s the big vision?
I was most disappointed by Rosenberg’s opening statement. Rather than provide a positive account of the nature of reality and offer reasons for its plausibility, Rosenberg occupied his time poking at Craig’s arguments. Instead, he could have painted a bold picture of reality, perhaps something like Bertrand Russell’s “A Free Man’s Worship”, while inviting the audience to join him in the hopeless struggle of Thermopylae against the overwhelming odds of a callous universe and our own mortality. Whether or not he would have had good reasons to invite us into that world, at least he would have given us a vision. As it stands he did little more than pick at the barnacles on the hull of Craig’s ship. How uninspiring is that?
If you are interested in some really helpful notes on the debate check out this running commentary by philosopher Dale Tuggy.