Craig versus Dennett – a deliberately skewed debate

As we approach the major quasi-religious festival of the western world, I am departing from my normal health care related mode to consider religious belief. A short while ago a friend who is a Christian directed me to this recording of a lecture by the philosopher and theologian William Lane Craig, with a short reply by Daniel Dennett. I suggest that, if you haven’t heard the exchange before, you listen now and then read on.

Craig comes across as well read, as he ought to as a university professor, but doesn’t convey to me any fundamentally new concepts. He starts with a wild claim that religious belief is undergoing a resurgence, quite the opposite of my understanding. He says that 30% of philosophy professors are theists, which is hardly relevant to whether any god exists. The people who know how the universe works are scientists not philosophers, and he doesn’t mention them in this context. It’s very well documented that almost all top scientists are non-theists, a fact he ignores. The significant point is that, while religious belief runs at about the same level in all scientists as it does in philosophers, among the most accomplished scientists (ie the ones who know the most) only 7% are believers. Of course, Craig’s gambit is really the discredited `appeal to authority’, but here he has chosen the wrong authority.

His philosophical rhetoric sounds impressive, but throughout he never addresses the matter of evidence. His attempt to poke holes in theoretical physics misses the point totally. The undisputed fact that current theories are incomplete does not in any way strengthen the argument for a god. Does he not understand that the nature of science is the crash testing of ideas? Necessarily there will be lots of ideas and they won’t all, indeed can’t all, be right.

Religious historical figures get lots of coverage, especially Thomas Aquinas. I have studied the latter’s `proof’ for the existence of God and found it logically weak, as again it depends on internal relationships between a set of concepts and doesn’t reach out for evidence (that has been said to be its strength!). Indeed I have just read the `proof’ again and, rather than a tour de force in logical reasoning, it now presents itself to me as remarkably stupid. Aquinas deliberately constructs a contradiction in order to dismiss the possibility that God might not exist.

To recruit William of Occam to Craig’s cause seems a bit cheeky. OK, Occam was a Franciscan monk but however unlikely current theories of the universe are, Occam’s Razor would surely cut out the possibility of the even less likely God? I did warm slightly to his critique of the evolution of many universes, but this must be among the most speculative of concepts and not supported by anything we have observed.

Craig is correct that science is rooted in the concept of causality, but we have to remember that the arrow of time is something that we have deduced because of the way the universe works now. If, as many cosmologists agree, both time and space came into being at the Big Bang, then at that instant there was no arrow of time and no causality as we know it now. It seems crazy to me to try to apply present day concepts to such alien conditions. Time is essentially inseparable from entropy – the only way we can measure time is by reference to it. When entropy achieves its maximum, that will literally be the end of time. At the Big Bang, entropy had not started so there was no time, and hence no causality.

But Craig departs even further from logical thought with his arguments about plausibility. Yes, our universe is extremely implausible, but surely a personal creative intelligence is even less plausible? He falls into the standard believer’s trap of assuming that the deity is beyond challenge or questioning. He makes no attempt at all to speculate as to why his god should ever exist. Had he done so of course, he might have been forced to ask why this god would have created the universe. Was it for the god’s own amusement? If so, he has a strange sense of humour, as he has ever since presided over one horrible natural disaster after another, presumably because he made such a poor job of designing the universe (I am only using `he’ by convention). It seems that Craig’s obsession with causality stops here. This failure makes his discourse appear even more pretentious than it might have done.

Overall, Craig seeks to get the scientific ducks in a row and knock them down one by one, until all that is left is his god. His mistake is in thinking that science is complete, and that there are no more ducks.

It appears that Dennett was given very little time to reply. Even so, I think he could have done a better job. He was more generous to Craig than I think was necessary, but he ended on an important note. He says that whatever we discover to be the truth, it will astound us. We should not speculate on what that truth might be, by applying our preconceptions and prejudices.

Now there are sceptics who refuse to debate with Craig, and for very good reasons. Craig believes in the literal truth of the Bible, for a start. That seems a very odd thing for a philosopher to do. For example, Richard Dawkins discusses at length Craig’s endorsement of the Israelites’ genocide against the Canaanites. It is a truly horrible and disgusting tale, and firstly Graig accepts it as true (it could well be), and secondly justifies it with arcane arguments. He even goes to the unthinkable extent of approving the slaughter of young children. Can the millennia of conflict in the Middle East be at all surprising when there are thought leaders like Craig endorsing massacres on a huge scale?

Such stories paint a picture of Craig as a player of philosophical games, without any personal connection to the claims of religion to provide a moral framework. Indeed, his pronouncements on the Israelites give the impression of a very unpleasant person indeed. I don’t expect him to challenge me to a debate, and if he did I would expect him to win on a point-scoring basis, but I don’t think I would want to be in the same room as him let alone on the same platform.

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