Case study: William Lane Craig vs. Bart Ehrman

In my ongoing discussion about the need for experienced debaters in the atheist camp, a theist named MrFreeThinker linked to a debate between William Lane Craig and Bart Ehrman, in which he asserts that Bart Ehrman was “pwned.” In particular, MFT says:

Bart Ehrman made some mathematically poor claims where he equivocated between intrinsic probability and specific probability with regard to miracles. W.L. Craig was able to use Baye’s theorem to show how his reasoning was mathematically fallacious. Ehrman was unable to counter Crag’s claims but made some backhanded ad hominems later on saying that Craig would be laughed at if he tried to bring his calculations on miracles to any secular university. W.L. Craig then pointed out that philosophers such as Richard Swinburne (a eminent philosopher of science at Oxford University) had also made similar calculations it was a moment of sheer pwnage.

(On a side note Swinburne’s calculations on the probability of Jesus’ Resurrection and God’s existence are available in his books “The Existence of God” and “Resurrection of God Incarnate”)

After reading the debate transcript, I have to agree that Ehrman made some missteps. But I don’t think they’re the ones the MFT thinks they are.

Let’s start with the topic being debated. Right now I’m a bit fixated on the issue that theist/atheist debates are routinely set up with fixed, bogus, and stacked resolutions. THIS debate proposed to settle the following question:

Is There Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus?

Sigh… here we go again. As I keep saying, theist debaters perpetually count on setting up debates with a loaded topic, so that the unbeliever loses before the debate has begun.

So what’s wrong with this topic? Yet again, it allows the theist side to play semantic games with definitions. What qualifies as “historical evidence” for the resurrection of Jesus? I think a naive atheist would assume that this means there is “sufficient, compelling, and persuasive evidence” that establishes the resurrection of Jesus. Fine, if you have a sympathetic audience. But you don’t. You never will. So here’s what Craig’s obviously going to do: he’s going to declare that any claim by anyone that indicates Jesus was resurrected counts as “historical evidence.” And he wins! Why? Because he’s right!

Just like “theory,” “evidence” is a word with numerous meanings depending on how it’s applied. So if Craig can find one person, from any point in history, who is willing to say “Jesus was resurrected,” he’s got evidence. Is it good evidence? Duh, of course not. But it’s evidence. By the same standard, I could easily lose a debate asking me to prove that there’s no historical evidence for Galactic Overlord Xenu. And the Salem Witch Trials provided all kinds of evidence (read: other people’s testimony) proving that those women were, in fact, in league with the devil.

Ahem, Bart, I believe the topic you actually meant to debate was this: “Was Jesus resurrected?” Simple. No frills. When you stepped into this loaded topic, you gave Craig a free pass to “win” just by throwing out enough stuff to allow for the vaguest possibility that Jesus was resurrected. You awarded yourself the burden of proof, requiring yourself to demonstrate conclusively that there is no evidence of any kind, good or bad.

So if nothing else, I want to thank MFT for bringing up yet another perfect illustration of my point. Now let’s move on to the substance of the debate. I’m not going to go through the entire thing. For now, I just want to focus on the specific case this argument from probability that he brought up.

From where I sit, all I see is Craig doing what creationists always do. He throws up a bunch of obfuscated equations on the board, counts on his audience not knowing enough to understand what the argument is, slips in gigantic assumptions about the natural world, and declares victory.

Obfuscated equation: check.

Pr (R/ B&E) = Pr (R/B) × Pr (E/ B & R) /
[ Pr (R/B) × Pr (E/ B & R) ] + [ Pr (not-R/B) × Pr (E/ B & not-R) ]

What value does that equation add to the credibility of Craig’s actual argument? None whatsoever. It’s a time filler, and it awes a lay audience who are expected to treat monstrous equations as magical incantations.

When you strip away the filler, Craig finally gets around to framing his actual argument, which is this:

“In order to show that that hypothesis is improbable, you’d have to show that God’s existence is improbable. But Dr. Ehrman says that the historian cannot say anything about God. Therefore, he cannot say that God’s existence is improbable. But if he can’t say that, neither can he say that the resurrection of Jesus is improbable. So Dr. Ehrman’s position is literally self-refuting.

But that’s not all. Dr. Ehrman just assumes that the probability of the resurrection on our background knowledge [Pr(R/B)] is very low. But here, I think, he’s confused. What, after all, is the resurrection hypothesis? It’s the hypothesis that Jesus rose supernaturally from the dead. It is not the hypothesis that Jesus rose naturally from the dead. That Jesus rose naturally from the dead is fantastically improbable. But I see no reason whatsoever to think that it is improbable that God raised Jesus from the dead.

That’s it. It took approximately five pages and three slides to say that. Five pages of scribbled equations, smarmy insults, cute little nicknaming conventions, and a whole pile of hand-waving. To obfuscate those two simple sentences.

And when you strip the argument down to those two sentences, the argument sucks. It’s basically “Jesus could rise from the dead, because God can do magic!” Hey, wait a minute, I thought that was a big part of what we were arguing about in the first place. But Craig just asserts that this is true, and doesn’t support his implied belief that magical events are happening all the time. Instead of backing up this claim, he deftly covered it up in those five pages of completely tangential empty academic masturbation.

This is endemic to creationist arguments. Kirk Durston does that too. Michael Behe does it a lot. What these debates have in common is that they use tons of math as a way of befuddling the audience, lulling them into thinking “I have no idea what that guy is saying so he must be smart.” Then they have a hook to bring the argument back to the audience’s reality. They make a spurious connection between the hook and the math, and then “therefore God exists.”

They do this all the time. It’s their main tactic.

The thing about math is, it does actually mean something specific, but it’s impossible to look up or pore over the details during a live debate. It’s also long and it’s boring, and they’re counting on the audience to gloss right over the equations and assume that the hook is a correct summation of the math.

Okay, so since we know this tactic is going to come up repeatedly. How do we deal with it? I haven’t settled this in my own mind, but I have some ideas. First of all, the math is guaranteed to be a smokescreen. There’s a place for equations in a scientific journal, or a class full of students who are studying the topic, but if you’re trying to persuade an audience of mixed education, it’s a sure bet that the intention is to obfuscate rather than explain.

So blow past the math. It’s important to watch like a hawk for the moment where the apologist explains what his REAL argument is, and make a snap judgment about whether this argument stands up on its own. You can’t study the math or verify it during the debate, so you can assume that (1) it may well be full of lies and phony inferences, and (2) the audience will have no idea if it isn’t. So above all else, do not waste time actually addressing the equations.

At any rate, atheists already have a perception problem of being overly nerdy, being concerned with “science” and “evidence” and whatnot. I think a little verbal kung fu is in order, i.e., using your opponent’s strength against him. Don’t just skip the math… ridicule it. That may sound kind of mean, but pay attention: William Lane Craig is kind of a dick anyway. He resorts to slides with labels like “Ehrman’s Egregious Error” and “Bart’s Blunder.”

Hell, I think it wouldn’t hurt to have a slide ready that says “Craig’s Cretinous Calculations.” And then, fill the page with truly irrelevant equations. Put up the freaking Pythagorean Theorem, or an expanded quadratic equation. Make a joke out of it. The audience will crack up if they realize you were prepared all along to hit Craig with his own nonsense. Odds are that they were probably feeling uncomfortable already because Craig was making them feel stupid, so it should be easy to get them laugh with you. And then, boil down his argument to its unsupported essence, and nail it.

But I digress. We were discussing how Bart Ehrman did. Well, MrFreeThinker, I’m willing to concede that he didn’t do all that great. This is right in line with what I keep saying: apologists win debates because they are good at performance art. Ehrman wasn’t prepared to act like a circus sideshow attraction.

But don’t think that means I’m ridiculing Craig when I say “circus sideshow.” That’s what an apologetics debate is. Bart should have been prepared to do performance art, and if he can’t win at that game then he isn’t prepared to debate.

As for Richard Swinburne, I couldn’t care less what he thinks. Craig pulled him up because he was name-dropping. Preceding this comment, Ehrman said this:

“I have trouble believing that we’re having a serious conversation about the statistical probability of the resurrection or the statistical probability of the existence of God. I think in any university setting in the country, if we were in front of a group of academics we would be howled off the stage.”

Ehrman shouldn’t have said that. You know why? Because he should have known that for any crazy belief in the world, there probably exists some crackpot academic who will support it.

So yeah, I guess I’ll sort of give Craig the point for his name drop. What he proved was that the correct phrasing is:

“In any university setting in the country, if we were in front of a group of academics we would be howled off the stage… unless, of course, one of them happens to be Richard Swinburne.”