In the first two posts in this series (here and here) I said William Lane Craig is a theologian who is a practiced and smooth debater and master practitioner of what I call the ‘Craig Con’, a debating tactic where one brings in all manner of arguments from a wide range of science that are associated with cutting-edge research emanating from famous and highly-regarded scientists working at elite institutions. If one is not properly prepared to counter them, one can get buried under that weight, even if the arguments themselves are flawed. One has to prepare carefully for such debates.
In Craig’s case, his most recent tack is that he wants to show that the universe had a definite beginning because in his mind there is a straight line from that to Jesus. (All these sophisticated religious people seem to think that if you have shown one single feature that favors the idea of even a highly abstract and distant concept of a god, then somehow Jesus automatically follows, even though no attempt is made to connect the two things.)
He recently tried the Craig Con on cosmologist Sean Carroll who has argued for an alternative ‘eternal universe’ model, by confronting him with the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin singularity theorem which argues for a singularity in the past that Craig identifies as the point of a definite beginning for the university. Here is what Craig wrote:
Carroll does not share with his readers accurately the contemporary state of cosmology. He makes no mention whatsoever of the work of Borde, Guth, and Vilenkin and the theorem that they developed that shows that precisely those cosmological models mentioned by Carroll cannot be extrapolated to past infinity and that the universe therefore must have had a beginning. One would expect in a survey of this sort by an eminent cosmologist to have at least a mention of, if not detailed interaction with, the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin Theorem, which was formulated back in 2003. Carroll says nothing to show how these speculative models can escape the implications of the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin Theorem
Since what Borde, Guth, and Vilenkin did is called a ‘theorem’ Craig seems to think that it carries special weight. But as any scientist knows, theorems and proofs’in science are constrained by the model you use and the assumptions you make going in. The really difficult issues in science lie in weighing the merits of the theories and assumptions, comparing them with the alternatives, and arriving at judgments as to how seriously one should take the conclusions.
In this case, Craig made three mistakes. The Craig Con (and its predecessor the Gish Gallop) only works if the scientist is in a different field from the one you are invoking. So if you are debating a physicist, you throw in arguments from biology or mathematics or an area of physics outside that person’s range. If you are debating a biologist, you throw in a result from physics, and so on. The second mistake is that it works best in the verbal debate form in which the respondent does not have the time or the resources at hand to counter adequately the flaws in the argument. In the written, asynchronous form, one can do the required research. The third mistake he made is that he seems to assume that Carroll is deliberately hiding this result because it is embarrassing to his case.
Craig was wrong on all three counts. Carroll is not only a distinguished cosmologist who knows all about the theorem in question, he also has a pretty good idea of the philosophy of science and why the theorem does not have the force Craig thinks it has. He is also no mean debater and he politely gives Craig a lesson on the practice and nature of science, pointing out the need to be careful when drawing conclusions from scientific papers.
Like many technical results, [the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin singularity theorem's] conclusions follow rigorously from the assumptions, but both the assumptions and the conclusions must be treated with care.
The moment of the Big Bang is, if anything is, a place where quantum gravity is supremely important. The Borde-Guth-Vilenkin results are simply not about quantum gravity. It’s extremely easy to imagine eternal cosmologies based on quantum mechanics that do not correspond to simple classical spacetimes throughout their history. It’s an interesting result to keep in mind, but nowhere near the end of our investigations into possible histories of the universe.
None of this matters to Craig. He knows what answer he wants to get — the universe had a beginning — and he’ll comb through the cosmology literature looking to cherry-pick quotes that bolster this conclusion. He doesn’t understand the literature at a technical level, which is why he’s always quoting (necessarily imprecise) popular books by Hawking and others, rather than the original papers. That’s fine; we can’t all be experts in everything. But when we’re not experts, it’s not intellectually honest to distort the words of experts to make them sound like they fit our pre-conceived narrative. That’s why engagement with people like Craig is fundamentally less interesting than engagement with open-minded people who are willing to take what the universe has to offer, rather than forcing it into their favorite boxes.
So that settles that.
But suppose one is invited to a face-to-face debate with a religionist. Should one always decline because of the possibility of the Craig Con being foisted on you by Craig or someone else?
That would be a pity because such exchanges are often sponsored by religious groups and the audience often consists of religious people. At least the debates that I have been invited to have mostly taken that form. I see them as a means of reaching audiences who may not otherwise hear the scientific and atheist point of view and so would not reject such opportunities out of hand.
In the last post in this series tomorrow (I know I promised just three parts but I get carried away sometimes) I will look at how to prepare for such events.