Mar 18 2013

How to deal with the ‘Craig Con’: Part 3

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.


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  1. 1

    Can someone explain, briefly, how they get from “the universe has a beginning” to “therefore God”? Is this that awful presuppositionalist argument? I suppose I could just read what Craig says about it, but somehow, I’d rather not do that.

  2. 2
    Leo Buzalsky

    Being that it’s Craig, it’s likely to be the argument (can’t remember the technical name…Kalam’s? Yep, Kalam’s. And look at who is mentioned in the article!) that everything that has a beginning has a cause. Since the universe had a beginning (the point Craig is wanting to be true), it had a cause. That cause is God (and God is infinite and therefore uncaused, so there is no infinite regress).

    I suppose it is similar to presuppositionalist arguments in that Craig is attributing properties to a god for which he has no evidence. Rather, it seems quite obvious he is attributing such properties merely because those properties are necessary for the argument to work.

  3. 3

    Yeah, that’s basically the same lame and broken presuppositional argument.

    I heard a Christian last weekend try to pull it. He never got to the point that the universe had to have a beginning, but I was never quite sure where he was going to go with it if he got there. Oh well, seems I didn’t miss out on anything.

  4. 4
    Marcus Ranum

    practiced and smooth debater and master practitioner

    Didn’t you mean to say that he’s proof that being an intellectual masterdebater can be immoral?


  5. 5
    Marcus Ranum

    The assumptions in presuppositionalism show that it’s circular reasoning.

    For example: assume god is infinite. An infinite god would have no beginning. Therefore god has no beginning.
    Well, why would you assume god is infinite? I don’t. And why would you assume an infinite god would have no beginning? Who says? Where do you get the idea god is infinite? The bible! Shit: you just said god exists because the bible says so, just like every other lame-brained christian.

    The example I gave above could be accused of being a straw man. But the important point is that it’s short. One of the tricks Craig uses is to make his argument long enough that the listening loses track of the simple assumptions (“presuppositions”) hidden in the front part of the argument, by the time they finally get to the back. The best way to examine presuppositional arguments for being circular is to shorten them to a nub.

    Another important point about presuppositionalism: it doesn’t lend itself to arguing in favor of the christian god, compared to the flying spaghetti monster. One other way of closing off a presuppositionalist is to let them go on for a while and then inform them that they appear to be arguing that the flying spaghetti monster is as real as the christian god.

  6. 6
    Marcus Ranum

    Deacon Duncan has some links in his recent blog postings to some very well-done checkmatings of a presuppositionalist. If you want to deal with presuppositionalists the hard way, that’s one way of doing it. But it’s better to just dismiss them before they get started by saying that they’re just establishing a circular argument.

  7. 7
    Marcus Ranum

    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?

    This is an important question. One place we go wrong is by assuming that a smart person (like the Krauss versus Tzortsis debacle) is going to be able to shine a light of reason on the argument. But the opponent, be it Craig or Tzortsis or whoever, is not interested in shining the light of reason on anything they’re there to unleash bafflegab and crowd-pleasers.

    If you are a brilliant speaker with great control of the microphone and a fearless willingness to interrupt and play debating tricks (think Hitchens)* But playing debating games means you’ve entered into a battle of “who is the better trickster and manipulator” at which point you’ve implicitly ceded that you don’t think truth is important, either It is possible to nail down a clown like Craig by focusing on one point that he fails to prove and trying to make him keep coming back to that point. You’ll be accused of pedantry and unless you do it carefully, you’ll sound like a pedant, too. Imagine if you kept saying, “Dr Craig, you’re dodging that you’ve failed to argue why god is infinite, and your entire edifice depends on that assumption. Let’s go back to that so you can try again because otherwise you might be thought to be attempting to distract these nice people with fine words…” And don’t for a second think that Craig doesn’t also know the mic control, interrupting, and droning tricks.

    The best case study for how to do this is the way Deacon Duncan does it over at Alethian World View (on FTB here freethoughtblogs.com/alethianworldview/2013/02/17/wielding-your-sword-by-the-blade/ ) get the presuppositionalist to fire the first sally and state their position in writing then keep pointing out where they are slipping in assumptions and deny them the attempt to build on their assumptions.

    Craig’s whole tactic is velocity-based and memory-based: he knows that if he throws a lot of bullshit at you, you’re going to lose track of some of it. And the second your eyes glaze he’s going to jump in with “THEREFORE GOD!” and attempt to declare victory. It’s intellectually dishonest as all fuck.

    I wish Hitch where still around. I can picture him taking a swig of Johnny Walker black and sneeringly asking Craig, “why do you resort to all these intellectually dishonest debating tricks? I know you’re a smart fellow, so you must be self-aware enough to admit that you don’t have any more faith than I do. Otherwise: why do you need these tricks?”

    (* if you note Hitchens’ interrupting his opponents in debates, it’s flat-out masterful)
    (** Shelly Kagan’s interruption “are you a vegan?” in his debate with Craig was brilliant. Kagan also did a very very good job with mic control and droning)

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