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How Stephen Law Failed in His Debate with William Lane Craig

Several others have already offered their reviews of the recent Craig/Law debate (see Wintery Knight’s post, J.W. Wartick’s analysis, Randal Rauser’s comments, or Stephen Law’s own thoughts here) and so I’ll restrict my comments to Law’s debating strategy. In my opinion, his line of argument was totally inadequate to the task. Here’s a few reasons why:

1) He only gave the briefest and most perfunctory of treatment to the cosmological argument and the historical case for the resurrection, focusing almost exclusively on the moral argument and his own evidential argument from evil for the probability of atheism.

2) He didn’t understand what a cumulative argument is or how it works. It’s simple to understand really. Argument 1 gives reason to think there is a being with properties A B and C. Argument 2 gives reason to think there is a being with properties C, D and E. Argument 3 gives reason to thing there is a being with properties C, F, and G. The fact that argument 2 doesn’t give any reason to think that the being in question has property B is not an indictment of that argument, nor a weakness of the whole case.

3) These two failures, combined with the way he proceeded, meant he was really not on the atheistic side of the debate. The totality of his arguments (even if successful) allowed room for a type of theism, such as Deism.

4) His strategy of comparing the problem of evil for a good God with the problem of good for a ‘malevolent God’ (a ‘square circle’ makes just about as much sense – let’s say he meant ‘malevolent creator’) relies on Manichaeism, which is false if Christianity is true. Thus the Christian has no reason to entertain Law’s counterargument.

On the Christian view, there is no such THING as evil. Evil is rather a privation – an absence of a good that should be there. Evil is ontologically posterior to goodness, thus for there to be evil, there must be a good. Christians not only believe that God does good, but that God’s very nature is goodness itself. He IS the standard. But when evil and goodness is understood this way (and not as a Manichean would conceive of good and evil: as two forces opposing one another), you can see that there cannot be a evil being comparable to a good God. Such a being would have no being.

5) He was totally inconsistent in his use of mystery, allowing it to feature particularly in his own answer to the problem of the origin of the universe (and also in his explanation of the existence of objective moral values and his dismissal of the resurrection as the best explanation for the historical facts about Jesus and the disciples), but not allowing Craig to ostensibly have it in his answer to the problem of evil.

6) More to the point, Craig was not using mystery to answer the problem of evil. He was saying that it is not unreasonable to expect, given the nature of our situation (a transcendent God and human beings with cognitive limitations in time and space), that we would be unable to perceive God’s sufficient reasons for allowing evil. The atheist therefore is in no position to assess the probability of a good God allowing the evil he sees in the world. Thus, it was Laws that failed to carry his argument.

7) Finally, it was noticeable how Law mentioned in his first speech that he would respond to Craig’s arguments in his next rebuttal, but deferred responding to Craig’s arguments until his third speech. This only allowed Craig the opportunity to rebut Law’s counter-arguments in his closing remarks. If Law wasn’t so soft spoken and didn’t have all the appearances of a genuinely nice guy, I’d suggest this deferral was an intentionally underhanded debating trick. Whether or not this was the case, it was evident that Law, although he had done careful research beforehand (unlike so many of Craig’s interlocutors), could not respond effectively to Craig’s cosmological and historical arguments, as well as Craig’s own response to the problem of evil.

 

12 replies
  1. Spiritual Kiss says:

    Thank you so much for this summary.

    I’m not a philosopher and so I had to listen hard to the debate to understand the arguments around morality and ‘Evil God’. I tip my hat to Dr Law for debating Craig when others refused to step up to the plate, and his thoughtful approach to the subject – even if it was somewhat narrower than the title of the debate demanded – made for a fascinating evening.

    I am particularly grateful for your thoughts under point 4). It struck me that surely the strength of Dr Law’s argument entirely depends on his definition of what ‘evil’ is – or in this case what it is not! I was certainly aware that Christianity has taught that an evil/malevolent God is a nonsense (as in your circle-square example).

    Would it be possible for you to give some thoughts on how to argue that God MUST NECESSARILY be good, especially when it’s raised in a debate such as this? I’m sure Dr Law could simply say that the Christian view of good/evil is just one among many, and so his own definition is a valid as any other. Do you agree? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.

    Thanks for your post!

  2. jojo jacob says:

    Craig did not answer the challenge Law posed. Craig’s stereotyped response to evil argument could be used when atheist argues that an all-loving God cannot allow horrible suffering in the work. May be Craig did not realise that he was reading out the wrong paper. It was a close contest. But a rare victory for the atheist.

  3. Mike says:

    1. Attacking Craig’s arguments is not sufficient to establish that God does not exist, which as an atheist, Law was obligated to do for his side of the debate.

    2. The question should have been asked by Craig or somebody during the after-debate discussion…”Stephen, would an evil god create such an amazingly finely tuned universe for the benefit of intelligent life?” Maybe next time.

    Law made a valiant effort to avoid the Cosmo argument as much as he could, and merely took an (at best) agnostic view of the other arguments Craig presented…. hardly a positive case for atheism. As usual, Craig was at his best, and it showed.

  4. J.W. Wartick says:

    Thanks for the link to my site and the great analysis. I think your last point is very telling. I actually wrote almost the exact thing in my notebook as I followed the debate. I thought it was very interesting how Law put off his rebuttal of Craig’s actual arguments until right before the concluding remarks–which left no time for Craig to really counter them. I’m with you–unsure over whether or not it was a strategy or just confusion.

  5. Daniel.sherrell@gmail.com says:

    Although Law’s challenges were not adequate, I am glad that he did his research. So many others have not and it’s terribly obvious.

    On another note, I don’t know why Craig didn’t talk about the preeminence it good: for there to be evil, good must exist first. I think it would have cleared up some confusion, but all Law would have to do is redefine evil in his own terms to dodge the problem.

  6. Abre says:

    I attended this debate and I made the same observation you did, point 4. It seemed to me that Law was making an argument against the coherence of the ‘Christian God’ from and internal point of view. He seemed to go along with the Christian definition of God but he did nothing to look into the Christian definition of evil. As you pointed out this invalidates his whole case for Evil God. However if he, in fact, wasn’t arguing against a Christian understanding of God then his entire argument was completely irrelevant not only to Craig’s arguments but also the topic of the debate, unless I’m missing something here.

  7. Stephen Law says:

    Hi – thanks for the analysis. It contains some errors, though, which I thought you’d like to know about. See below

    “1) He only gave the briefest and most perfunctory of treatment to the cosmological argument and the historical case for the resurrection, focusing almost exclusively on the moral argument and his own evidential argument from evil for the probability of atheism.”

    REPLY: I was there to show CRAIG’S’s god – all-powerful and all-good – does not exists. Refuting the cosmological argument was thus not required, given that aim – as I pointed out. This christian guy understood, even if you don’t: http://apologiapad.wordpress.com/2011/10/19/bill-craig-loses-a-debate-and-all-sorts-of-goodies-are-revealed/

    “2) He didn’t understand what a cumulative argument is or how it works. It’s simple to understand really. Argument 1 gives reason to think there is a being with properties A B and C. Argument 2 gives reason to think there is a being with properties C, D and E. Argument 3 gives reason to thing there is a being with properties C, F, and G. The fact that argument 2 doesn’t give any reason to think that the being in question has property B is not an indictment of that argument, nor a weakness of the whole case.”

    REPLY: The cosmological argument, even if cogent, provides as much (cumulative) support for an evil god as a good god. Hence it was irrelevant to task of showing belief in a good god is significantly more reasonable than belief in an evil god (which Craig admitted was absurd).

    “3) These two failures, combined with the way he proceeded, meant he was really not on the atheistic side of the debate. The totality of his arguments (even if successful) allowed room for a type of theism, such as Deism.”

    REPLY: Irrelevant to whether I showed whether CRAIG”S god does not exist. We both defined God as all-powerful and all-good, hence if I can show there’s no such God, I win.

    “4) His strategy of comparing the problem of evil for a good God with the problem of good for a ‘malevolent God’ (a ‘square circle’ makes just about as much sense – let’s say he meant ‘malevolent creator’) relies on Manichaeism, which is false if Christianity is true. Thus the Christian has no reason to entertain Law’s counterargument.”

    REPLY. This is just confused as I explained very clearly I was talking about a SINGLE all-powerful, all-evil God (Manicheaism is a TWO god theory). Also, I DON’T assume the evil god hypothesis is true. I assume (on basis of observation) it’s false! Moreover, I was also ready for the “impossibility” response which perhaps you are also hinting at here (though Craig didn’t use it). See the first anticipated response here: http://stephenlaw.blogspot.com/2011/10/notes-for-responding-to-craigs-possible.html

    “On the Christian view, there is no such THING as evil. Evil is rather a privation – an absence of a good that should be there. Evil is ontologically posterior to goodness, thus for there to be evil, there must be a good. Christians not only believe that God does good, but that God’s very nature is goodness itself. He IS the standard. But when evil and goodness is understood this way (and not as a Manichean would conceive of good and evil: as two forces opposing one another), you can see that there cannot be a evil being comparable to a good God. Such a being would have no being.”

    REPLY. Calling evil a privation is (i) unjustified assertion that plenty of Christian philosophers reject, and (ii) doesn’t help, as why would an all-powerful, all-good god god allow such privations?

    5) He was totally inconsistent in his use of mystery, allowing it to feature particularly in his own answer to the problem of the origin of the universe (and also in his explanation of the existence of objective moral values and his dismissal of the resurrection as the best explanation for the historical facts about Jesus and the disciples), but not allowing Craig to ostensibly have it in his answer to the problem of evil.

    REPLY. You have misunderstood again. I offered no answer to question of origin of universe. I didn’t use “mystery” as an answer. I just said I didn’t know the answer, but that, even if I don’t know the answer, I can reasonably rule certain answers out. e.g. an evil god. Craig used mystery to deal with overwhelming observation evidence against a good god. But this would work equally well in defence of an evil god, so why is belief in a good god significantly more reasonable than belief in a good god. Let Craig play the mystery card – it doesn’t help him. Craig’s only answer to the question “why is belief in a good god significantly more reasonable then belief in an evil god?” was to give his moral and resurrection arguments, which were feeble and easily refuted.

    “6) More to the point, Craig was not using mystery to answer the problem of evil. He was saying that it is not unreasonable to expect, given the nature of our situation (a transcendent God and human beings with cognitive limitations in time and space), that we would be unable to perceive God’s sufficient reasons for allowing evil. The atheist therefore is in no position to assess the probability of a good God allowing the evil he sees in the world. Thus, it was Laws that failed to carry his argument.”

    REPLY. This works just as well (or badly) in defence of an evil god. Belief in which Craig admitted is absurd. So why is belief in a good god more reasonable?

    “7) Finally, it was noticeable how Law mentioned in his first speech that he would respond to Craig’s arguments in his next rebuttal, but deferred responding to Craig’s arguments until his third speech. This only allowed Craig the opportunity to rebut Law’s counter-arguments in his closing remarks. If Law wasn’t so soft spoken and didn’t have all the appearances of a genuinely nice guy, I’d suggest this deferral was an intentionally underhanded debating trick. Whether or not this was the case, it was evident that Law, although he had done careful research beforehand (unlike so many of Craig’s interlocutors), could not respond effectively to Craig’s cosmological and historical arguments, as well as Craig’s own response to the problem of evil.”

    REPLY: I refuted both Craig’s two args for a good (as opposed to evil) god. Please explain why you think I didn’t. If you are not sure what my refutations were: they are here: http://stephenlaw.blogspot.com/2011/10/my-criticisms-of-craigs-moral-and.html

    Overall, I am afraid you dismissing my argument for pretty awful reasons. Can you do better?

  8. Spiritual Kiss says:

    “REPLY. Calling evil a privation is (i) unjustified assertion that plenty of Christian philosophers reject…”

    Greetings Dr Law!

    (I’m just thinking out-loud here… ) As I have said above I am no expert, but it seems to me that this view of evil can be justified since it is the Traditional Christian view of evil. I’m a Catholic (I understand that many who read this won’t be) and this view of evil has been expounded since the earliest times by numerous Catholic theologians. See for example: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05649a.htm

    While I cannot see a way to argue this for this view of evil in a debate such as yours and Dr Craig’s, isn’t it justifiable from a theological perspective at least? It is accurate with regard to the nature of the God you said you were dealing with in the debate, so surely it was pertinent to the question of whether an evil God could exist (and I know you weren’t saying that it could, by the way!). Incidentally, I’d be interested to know what your definition of evil is? :)

    It appears to me – as a layman – that the Christian view of Evil makes the evil God an absurdity. In fact I remember saying to myself during the debate: “But in the Christian understanding, an evil God is impossible, isn’t it?” I then expected Dr Craig to go on and speak about this view, however he didn’t. I have said to others (Christians and atheists) that I think this was a weakness in Craig’s argument. I don’t remember him having to think as quickly on his feet as he did when you were cross-examining him on the moral argument, and so I don’t think he was able to convince me that he had the better arguments on this occasion.

    “…and (ii) doesn’t help, as why would an all-powerful, all-good god god allow such privations?”

    It goes without saying, but if Craig could have established that an evil God was a contradiction in terms then this point could then have been discussed on it’s own merits – but of course he wasn’t able to!

    Finally, I’m not sure how helpful it is for you – or for other readers on this site – to get ‘closure’ on the debate in this way. You have analysed this on your own site but why here too? Dr Craig is probably also kicking himself for not saying this or that, or for not making himself better understood. You are a respected expert in your field (I respect you too) and I don’t think you need to justify yourself. Let your arguments stand – what should it matter if some people on the internet disagree with you?

    Peace.

  9. Bnonn says:

    Hey Stephen, thanks for dropping by to comment. A couple of thoughts if I may:

    I was there to show CRAIG’S’s god – all-powerful and all-good – does not exists. Refuting the cosmological argument was thus not required, given that aim – as I pointed out.

    The moot of the debate was “Does God exist?”

    Obviously Craig was defending Christian theism specifically—but since the cosmological argument makes a strong case for theism generally, you can’t ignore it in a debate on the existence of God! Otherwise, even if you knock down Craig’s version of theism, you still end up conceding that theism in general is true.

    The cosmological argument, even if cogent, provides as much (cumulative) support for an evil god as a good god.

    Sure. But since you were defending the negative of the moot “Does God exist?” it’s a strange defense indeed to concede the evidence for God, but then argue that he could be evil. I don’t suppose I need to point out that for God to be evil he must first exist!

    Irrelevant to whether I showed whether CRAIG”S god does not exist. We both defined God as all-powerful and all-good, hence if I can show there’s no such God, I win.

    But wouldn’t it be fair to say you were defending atheism, not Evil Theism? You are an atheist, are you not? Yet you didn’t really seem to argue for atheism—you essentially had to argue for “Evil Theism” in order to make a case against Craig’s Christianity. But given your failure to address the Kalam argument, doesn’t that just mean, on your lights, that maybe Evil Theism is true instead of Christianity? Either way, atheism is false.

    Calling evil a privation is (i) unjustified assertion that plenty of Christian philosophers reject, and (ii) doesn’t help, as why would an all-powerful, all-good god god allow such privations?

    The question isn’t whether any (ostensibly) Christian philosophers (which ones, btw?) reject the privation view; the question is what Christianity itself actually teaches. Since the Bible makes it clear that evil is a deviance from the revealed commands of God—as I’m confident Craig would attest, being a divine command theorist—your argument gains no traction against the Christian worldview at all. It’s simply a dead end.

    As regards [ii], what if I can’t answer that? What does that prove? Merely that we don’t know why a morally perfect God would allow evil. As you must surely be aware, Plantinga and others put the logical problem of evil into the grave some time ago. You’re just trying to employ the Noseeum Strategy. But the Noseeum Strategy is hopeless. To say that we cannot imagine why a morally perfect God would allow evil is not the same as saying that a morally perfect God would not allow evil. Not remotely. And as it happens, Christianity has at least one perfectly good answer to the question.

    I just said I didn’t know the answer, but that, even if I don’t know the answer, I can reasonably rule certain answers out. e.g. an evil god.

    It doesn’t seem like that’s a legitimate move in light of your failure to interact with the Kalam argument. If Craig’s argument goes through, and the only plausible cause of the universe is a personal, immaterial, necessary being of immense power, then it is indeed some kind of God—either good or evil.

    Craig’s only answer to the question “why is belief in a good god significantly more reasonable then belief in an evil god?” was to give his moral and resurrection arguments, which were feeble and easily refuted.

    Well, they’re neither feeble nor easily refuted. The moral argument should go through under any form of theism. But it also proves a good God, not an evil God. So that alone puts paid to the hypothesis. The resurrection is also a very strong form of proof for Christianity specifically. Maybe you disagree because it’s not a strictly philosophical argument. In that case, I can only recommend you look into it further and judge for yourself without dismissing it preemptively.

    So those two arguments add to the cumulative case for a good God while making an evil God far less plausible. Of course, even if they do fail, the evil God hypothesis is meaningless in view of the fact that evil does not have ontological status of its own. Evil God is incoherent.

  10. Lee says:

    Hey Bnonn.  Since it doesn’t appear anyone will rise to the challenge, I thought I’d point out where I disagreed with your overall summary:

    1. Law argued that the cosmological argument was neutral as to the moral properties of this being.  Law was only there to argue against Craig’s particular form of theism, not general theism or deism.  This argument was just as supportive of evil god as it is for good god.

    2. He did, but argued that there was no accumulation.  Please map your analogy onto the arguments.  What is C?  How is C in one identical to C in another?

    3. See #1.

    4. Doesn’t make sense.  You tried something similar in our last discussion.  If Christianity is true, Manichaeism is false.  Fine.  If Christianity is true, evil god doesn’t exist.  Fine.  If Christianity is true, the argument from evil fails.  Fine.  What you seem to be missing is that the very question under discussion is whether Christianity is true. This objection is circular and question-begging, and to imply that the truth of Christianity invalidates the premise of an argument against the truth of Christianity, and therefore Christians needn’t be bothered with responding, is a genuinely puzzling method of reasoning.  I simply can’t grasp why you find this convincing.

    5. He allowed Craig to use mystery in response to the problem of evil!  He then pointed out that it applied with equal felicity to the problem of good(i.e. unconvincingly).

    6. Again, he pointed out that the theodicy flows both ways.

    7. That’s how debates work:  you play to win.

    I also had a quick question:  I have heard it said that God is worthy of worship, and any being not so worthy is not God.  This is supposed to go to show that ‘God’ can’t be evil, if the anti-Manichaeism thing doesn’t pan out.  It seems to me that two important premises are sort of papered over when this appears;

    1. A particular set of properties or attributes makes a particular thing in possession of same objectively deserving of worship.

    2(a). We determine what those properties or attributes are.
    2(b). These properties or attributes are determined by God.

    (I’m not sure which of the above instances of 2 is the one you accept, as both seem problematic).

    I don’t see any justification for (1).  This appears to be a violation of the is/ought gap (God is _____, therefore we ought to worship him).  Further, I can’t wrap my head around the idea of worshipping. . . anything, really.  Why should I?  Respect, sure. Love, certainly. Worship?  Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t see that gap being bridged.

    Thanks,

    Lee.

  11. Vincyjojo says:

    Craig’s fans seem to forget one thing. Is the doctrine of a  morally neutal God defensible? It is. A proponent of neutal God might use KCA and fine-tuning argument. How would craig disprove the existence of a morally neutral God? I find Craigs’ comment during Q&A amusing. He said that it is the project of natural theology!! What about stating “morally netural natual theology project!!!

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