Wednesday, 19 October 2011

William Lane Craig vs Stephen Law: An agnostic's perspective

On October 17th 2011, William Lane Craig and Stephen Law debated the question “Does God Exist?” at Westminster Central Hall. Craig, a research professor of philosophy at Talbot School of Theology and a well known Christian apologist, argued the affirmative case, while Law, a philosopher and senior lecturer at Heythrop College, University of London, argued the negative case. Rather than being a generic debate on whether a God exists, this was a debate on whether the God of Christianity, and of Craig, exists. This debate can be listened to in full here.

As the title indicates, I intend to offer some thoughts on the debate from an agnostic perspective. By agnostic, I mean that I maintain a position of uncertainty as to the existence of a God or creator of the universe – that is, I neither believe nor disbelieve in the existence of such a being. Furthermore, I doubt that it is possible, at the present time and perhaps ever, to prove the existence or non-existence of a God and that the question is therefore irresolvable. On this basis, I’m essentially atheistic towards all the major religions, although I would not be prepared to state with certainty that they are not true. I’m open-minded on this issue and could therefore be convinced with the right evidence and must also admit to finding a certain appeal in deistic explanations of the origin of the universe.

Craig’s case

Craig began by stating that he would defend the contention that there are good reasons to think that God exists. He proceeded to offer three arguments to this effect. The first argument was the ‘cosmological argument’, which holds that, since every physical thing that begins to exist has a cause and that the universe began to exist, the universe therefore has a cause. Given the seeming impossibility of an infinite regress of physical events, Craig further argues that this cause must be an immaterial, timeless, and personal being of unfathomable power. This argument certainly has considerable intuitive appeal, and to my mind is more believable than the view held by some atheists that the universe literally popped into being out of nothing and without cause. However, it does not prove the existence of the Christian God, which Craig happily concedes, and at best provides a basis for deism. On this basis, Law chose not to engage with this argument, despite being prompted by Craig on a number of occasions.

The second argument Craig presented was the ‘moral argument’. This argument holds that if God does not exist then moral values do not exist, that moral values do exist, and therefore that God exists. Craig did little to prove the premises of the argument to be true, other than claiming that there are “truly evil” acts that would merely be “unfashionable” on the atheistic view and asserting that we “apprehend a real of moral values and duties that impose themselves upon us”. Law did a fine job of drawing attention to the contentious nature of the premises of this argument during his rebuttal.

As an aside, I can’t help but find Craig’s view of morality rather disconcerting. It appears that, to him, the only reason not to act in ways that cause harm or suffering to others is that an objective system of values obliges him not to. The truth is that notions of “right” and “wrong” or “good” and “bad” are not required to inform decisions about how to behave towards others. As human beings, we have the mental capacity to understand the existence of other minds, to predict how our actions will affect the mental states of others, and to understand how our actions will impact upon their physical welfare. We ourselves do not like to experience mental distress or physical pain and we can therefore choose not to inflict these things on others. This should be the basis of our behaviour towards others, and it is irrelevant as to whether or not it is “objectively good”. It’s rather sad that Craig would consider rape or child torture to be merely “unfashionable” in the absence of a God, as if the suffering of the victim during and after the act is somehow entirely irrelevant. If there really is a God, surely that being would look upon people who treat others well because they want to far more favourably than those who merely follow rules in order to avoid punishment, like the child who refrains from being naughty while in sight of his parents.

The final argument Craig presented was based on the claimed resurrection of Jesus. He gives three facts to support the view that Jesus rising from the dead is the “best explanation” of the available evidence. First, on the Sunday after his crucifixion, his tomb was found empty by a group of women followers. Second, different individuals and groups saw him alive after his death. Third, the original disciples suddenly came to believe in the resurrection of Jesus, despite having every predisposition to the contrary. Given this, Craig argues that Jesus must have been who he said he was and that the God he revealed must exist. Law only briefly engaged with this argument, where he cautioned against simply accepting the “best explanation” of such an event as being true. There is sufficient doubt surrounding this event to prevent most rational people from accepting it as true and consequently adopting the Christian religion.

The truth is that these three arguments, either separately or collectively, are not what convinced Craig to embrace Christianity. In an interview available on YouTube, Craig states:

“The way in which I know Christianity is true is first and foremost on the witness of the Holy Spirit in my heart, and this gives me a self-authenticating means of knowing that Christianity is true wholly apart from the evidence. And therefore, if in some historically contingent circumstances the evidence that I have available to me should turn against Christianity, I don’t think that controverts the witness of the Holy Spirit.”

Thus, evidence is entirely irrelevant to Craig. If it contradicts his view then he will simply disregard it. However, if it seems to support his view he clearly has no reluctance to use it. Although Craig did not make this kind of argument in this debate, in previous debates he has typically presented an argument from the personal experience of God as the last in a series of five arguments, including the present three and also the teleological argument. Perhaps Craig did personally experience God; I’m not in a position to claim that he did not. However, it would be that experience that would cause him and others to embrace Christianity, not the three arguments he presented in this debate.

The ‘evidential problem of evil’

Law presented one main argument against the God of Christianity, known as the “evidential problem of evil’. He later pointed out that this argument can be made without the use of the word “evil”, which I find more appropriate. The argument is quite simply that there has been an immense amount of suffering to both humans and non-humans throughout history and that it is highly unlikely that a morally good God would create a world in which this occurred. He proceeds to demonstrate how similar reasoning could convincingly refute the hypothesis that there is an entirely malevolent creator – that is, the considerable amount of good in the world would be inconsistent with such a being having created the universe. In addition, Law neatly demonstrated that the many rationalisations of suffering in the world offered by Christians can be inverted in order to support the existence of a malevolent creator. The challenge for Craig, therefore, was to justify why it is sufficiently more plausible to believe in a morally good God.

Craig failed to establish a strong case for this position. He first asserted that it was up to Law, and therefore atheists, to “prove that it was impossible or highly improbable that God has morally sufficient reasons for permitting the suffering in the world” and asked “But how can the atheist possibly prove that?”. The answer is that there is probably no means by which this can be proven. Therefore, not only is it entirely unreasonable to shift the burden of proof on to the sceptical position, it is also unreasonable to demand a proof that it is not possible to provide. It is surely up to those asserting the existence of God to prove that God exists, that God is morally good, and that God has morally sufficient reasons for permitting suffering. Craig provides no good reason to believe that there would be morally sufficient reasons to permit suffering; rather, he merely appeals to the idea that we aren’t in a position to know what God’s plan is.

Typically I find nothing objectionable or offensive in debates such as this, but Craig’s response to the issue of animal suffering makes this an exception, for a number of reasons. He sought to circumvent the problem of animal suffering by claiming that “even though animals are in pain, they aren’t aware of it”, and that this is a fact emerging from “recent scientific discoveries”. In reference to such “scientific” work, Craig cites the book “Nature Red in Tooth and Claw: Theism and the Problem of Animal Suffering” by Michael J Murray. In fact, Craig omitted the second part of the title, thereby concealing the true nature of the book, despite taking care to point out that it was published by Oxford University Press. He also neglected to mention that Murray is a Christian apologist with no credentials whatsoever in neuroscience, neuropsychology, pain research, or any other scientific area directly relevant to the issue of pain in human or non-human animals, and a clear vested interest (that is, to diminish the “problem of evil”) in promoting the view that animals are not able to suffer.

The book to which Craig refers has received just four citations since being published in 2008, which is perhaps indicative of its irrelevance, and certainly does not include any groundbreaking scientific research suggesting that animals can not experience pain. In fact, Murray seems to refer mostly to the work of Bermond, as he also did in his article “Neo-Cartesianism and Problem of Animal Suffering. Importantly, Weary et al (2006), in an article entitled “Identifying and Preventing Animal Pain” published in “Applied Animal Behaviour Science”, state that “Arguments such as those of Bermond actually play only a limited role in scientific thought”. As a philosopher, Craig should understand the serious epistemological difficulties associated with research on pain and consciousness in non-human animals (I've written a little more on this issue previously here and here). While self-report is available for humans and is considered the gold-standard, it is not available in non-linguistic species. Given these difficulties “no systematic neuroscientific investigation of animal consciousness has yet been undertaken” (Edelman & Seth, 2009). Despite this, Craig is happy to accept the view that animals can not experience pain on the basis of highly simplistic neuroanatomical comparisons, arguably because it is theistically convenient for him to do so.

In addition to dishonestly portraying the work of a Christian apologist with no scientific credentials, and the controversial minority view on which it is based, as being the prevailing scientific consensus, Craig stooped further still by asserting that the inability of animals to suffer should be of “great comfort” to “animal lovers” and “pet lovers”. I certainly find no comfort whatsoever in an unfounded view which would remove the basis for animal welfare and opposition to animal cruelty. To commit an act of cruelty requires that the consequence (e.g. pain) can be experienced by the victim. If an animal can not experience pain, then causing physical harm to one is surely as morally neutral as tearing a plant up from the ground or smashing a computer to pieces. Fortunately, not all Christians regard animals in the same way that Craig does.

Another response offered by Craig to the many millions of years of animal suffering in nature was that predation is essential for a viable ecosystem. Law hinted that he had a response to this, but he chose not to air it. My objection would be that this would entail that the creative ability of an allegedly omnipotent creator is constrained by the concept of “ecosystem”. It could certainly be argued that predation is essential for a viable ecosystem in the world in which we live, but could it be demonstrated that ecosystems and the brutality they involve must necessarily be present in the creation of an omnipotent and morally perfect being? The immense quantity of animal suffering in the natural world calls into question either the omnipotence of God or the moral perfection of God. Craig shouldn’t have been allowed to wheedle out of this by appealing to a highly controversial, minority view on animal suffering.


Insofar as it is possible to “win” a debate of this kind, I feel that Law won. Craig presented three arguments which failed to provide “good reasons” for believing in the God in which he believes. Law was able to demonstrate the irrelevance of the cosmological argument, to cast sufficient doubt on the premises of the moral argument, and to cast sufficient doubt on the resurrection argument. He also presented one main argument of his own which Craig was unable to refute. No rational person could adopt Christianity via reason alone on the basis of this debate.

Despite this, I feel that a number of Craig’s arguments, particularly the cosmological, moral, and teleological (which he did not present in this debate), are sufficiently strong to move people away from the dogmatic, militant atheism of the Richard Dawkins variety, to a more open-minded and possibly agnostic position. In previous debates where the focus wasn't on a specific God, Craig has done much better and undermined the case for atheism (i.e. the belief that a God or anything like a God does not exist). For now, I remain agnostic and will continue to be open to where the evidence, reason, or experience leads me. 


  1. "As human beings, we have the mental capacity to understand the existence of other minds"

    Interestingly enough the materialistic eliminativists would not agree that people have minds, feelings etc or if they did they would not think those words meant anything other then the motion of particles through the void.

  2. While debating the existence of God can be an interesting philosophical exercise, proving or disproving the existence of a metaphysical being such as God can only be possible if a person takes into account metaphysical evidence.

    Thus the argument not used in the referenced debate but which you referenced in an interview, In which Mr. Craig spoke of a “witness of the Holy Spirit in my heart” provides some of the strongest evidence of the existence of God. To Mr. Craig God dose exist.

    Many God deniers or skeptics may point out the fallibility of such subjective evidence and in a physical realm, perhaps they would be right. However Mr. Craig, as well as countless others have received there proof, albeit metaphysical proof, that God does exist. This proof or "witness" is strong enough to change lives often drastically. Also as in Mr. Craig’s case people who have claimed to receive such a witness are rarely dissuaded even if evidence appears to contradict their belief.

    Now Mr. Craig’s “witness” cannot and should not be evidence to others of the existence of God. However if a person were to truly seek to answer the question of the existence of God he would do well to look in places where others have found him.