Sean Carroll’s reflections on his debate with William Lane Craig


Carroll gives both short and much longer versions of his recollections of the debate and that the recorded version should be available online shortly. (Reader cafink was physically present and you can read his reflections here.)

Carroll made a point about debating tactics that I too have encountered in my discussions with religious people. They make a point, you refute it, they move to another point, and you think that is because they have conceded that point. Then they come back later and repeat the point that you thought you had refuted earlier without explaining why your earlier refutations were not valid.

Here’s Carroll’s short version:

Short version: I think it went well, although I can easily think of several ways I could have done better. On the substance, my major points were that the demand for “causes” and “explanations” is completely inappropriate for modern fundamental physics/cosmology, and that theism is not taken seriously in professional cosmological circles because it is hopelessly ill-defined (no matter what happens in the universe, you can argue that God would have wanted it that way). He defended two of his favorite arguments, the “cosmological argument” and the fine-tuning argument; no real surprises there. In terms of style, from my perspective things got a bit frustrating, because the following pattern repeated multiple times: Craig would make an argument, I would reply, and Craig would just repeat the original argument. For example, he said that Boltzmann Brains were a problem for the multiverse; I said that they were a problem for certain multiverse models but not others, which is actually good because they help us to distinguish viable from non-viable models; and his response was the multiverse was not a viable theory because of the Boltzmann Brain problem. Or, he said that if the universe began to exist there must be a transcendent cause; I said that everyday notions of causation don’t apply to the beginning of the universe and explained why the might apply inside the universe but not to it; and his response was that if the universe could just pop into existence, why not bicycles? I was honestly a bit surprised at the lack of real-time interaction, since one of Craig’s supporters’ biggest complaints is that his opponents don’t ever directly respond to his points, and I tried hard to do exactly that. To be fair, I bypassed some of his arguments (see below) because I thought they were irrelevant, and wanted to focus on the important issues; he might feel differently. I’m sure that others will have their own opinions, but soon enough the videos will allow all to judge for themselves. Overall I was moderately satisfied that I made the responses I had hoped to make, clarified some points, and gave folks something to think about.

From the long version it looks like the debate got quite technical with a great deal of time spent on fairly esoteric cosmological theorems and models. I am not sure how helpful that would have been to a lay audience.

At the end Carroll talks about the merits of the debate format.

To me, Craig’s best moment of the weekend came at the very end, as part of the summary panel discussion. Earlier in the day, Tim Maudlin (who gave an great pro-naturalism talk, explaining that God’s existence wouldn’t have any moral consequences even if it were true) had grumped a little bit about the format. His point was that formal point-counterpoint debates aren’t really the way philosophy is done, which would be closer to a Socratic discussion where issues can be clarified and extended more efficiently. And I agree with that, as far as it goes. But Craig had a robust response, which I also agree with: yes, a debate like this isn’t how philosophy is done, but there are things worth doing other than philosophy, or even teaching philosophy. He said, candidly, that the advantage of the debate format is that it brings out audiences, who find a bit of give-and-take more exciting than a lecture or series of lectures. It’s hard to teach subtle and tricky concepts in such a format, but that’s always a hard thing to do; the point is that if you get the audience there in the first place, a good debater can at least plant a few new ideas in their heads, and hopefully inspire them to take the initiative and learn more on their own.

I agree that the standard debate speech, counter-speech, rebuttal, and counter-rebuttal format is not the best way to elucidate tricky issues but the only alternative is not a series of lectures. In fact, the Socratic dialogues favored by Carroll are best achieved by having short back-and-forth exchanges where you can quiz the other person, which is what Socrates did. You can avoid filibustering by having a chess clock that gives both people the same amount of time.

Comments

  1. raven says

    They make a point, you refute it, they move to another point, and you think that is because they have conceded that point. Then they come back later and repeat the point that you thought you had refuted earlier without explaining why your earlier refutations were not valid.

    LOL. We’ve all seen them.

    1. Whack-a-mole
    2. Moving the goal posts.
    3. Assertions without proof or data that are just wrong.
    4. Lies. Quote mining. Misquotes.
    5. Appeals to authority, real or made up. Argument from consequences, usually imaginary.
    6. Threats. Pascal’s wager, i.e. you are all going to hell.
    7. Sinclair Lewises Fake Trilemma which is really a Hexalemma.
    8. Death threats, hate mail.

    You can predict in advance what they will do. I usually get bored quickly.

    Most of Theology and Theists are Presuppositionalists. They assume that god exists. And then spend pages explaining that god exists. It reduces down to God Exists = God Exists.

    And as their Statements of Faith say, no evidence can disprove their version of the xian god or the bible. When you run into a True Fanatic, nothing can change their mind. I must not have been a True Fanatic though, having been a xian for almost 5 decades before deconverting.

  2. raven says

    The other xian trick they use is flipping between the Philosopher’s god and the fundie death cult Sky Monster god.

    1. The Philosopher’s god is unfalsifiable and hiding behind the Big Bang and hoping not to have to move to the Multiverse.

    No one worships this god. They have no holy books or even a name.

    2. Among themselves, they flip to the Sky Monster god. The bible, mostly OT one. The one who hates who they hate and wants them to have what they want. Sky Monster god wants you to send lots of money to their leaders, hate gays, women, Moslems, scientists, and vote for the Tea Party.

    WL Craig is a classic example, He is really one of the worst of the fundie creationists and biblical literalists.

  3. raven says

    Or, he said that if the universe began to exist there must be a transcendent cause; …

    This isn’t true at all. It’s as assertion without proof or data and may be dismissed on that basis, Hitchen’s Rule.

    It’s part of the Aquinian First Cause and Kalam cosmological argument. These aren’t even faulty logic, they are just word games.

    1. It’s god of the gaps.

    Lack of Knowledge does not = god
    Lack of knowledge = Lack of Knowledge

    2. There are many possible explanations for the beginning of our universe. For that matter, one could hypothesize that advanced aliens left over from a previous universe did it.

    Most recent cosmological models lead to the Multiverse. AFAICT, this is becoming the favored model. And our universe is just a quantum fluctuation that kept going and a bubble in a larger sea.

    There is one critical piece of data. The net energy of the universe is…zero. No one is too sure what that means but is unlikely to be a coincidence and has to mean something.

  4. Nihilismus says

    From Carroll:

    He defended two of his favorite arguments, the “cosmological argument” and the fine-tuning argument; no real surprises there. In terms of style, from my perspective things got a bit frustrating, because the following pattern repeated multiple times: Craig would make an argument, I would reply, and Craig would just repeat the original argument. . . . I was honestly a bit surprised at the lack of real-time interaction . . . .

    Debate prep is more than just knowing which arguments your opponent will make. It also includes knowing how your opponent will make those arguments — knowing your opponent’s debating tactics. What Craig did is what he always does, and even watching just a few of Craig’s debates should have given Carroll a head’s up. So Carroll should not have been surprised by the lack of real-time interaction and the repeating of original arguments.

    Carroll should have called Craig out for not responding to his counterarguments. And that’s not just to “win” the debate, but it goes to Carroll’s goal of giving the audience something to think about. That is, let the audience think about whether a good-sounding and confidently-spoken argument was just a repeat of what they heard earlier, and let them think about whether the lack of a true response to a counterargument means the counterargument is better than the original argument.

  5. Rob Grigjanis says

    Craig’s schtick is sophistry in defense of his theology. He certainly puts a lot of work into it.

    The nonsense is easily seen in this Craig piece I referred to in an earlier thread, with this closing quote;

    Most theorists resolve the [twin] “paradox” by adopting a four-dimensional view of reality, such as was proposed by Herrmann [sic] Minkowski, which does away with reference frames and enduring three-dimensional objects in favor of shifting perspectives on four-dimensional objects in spacetime. But such a view, if taken metaphysically seriously, entails a tenseless theory of time which comes with a very high and, I think, unacceptable, price philosophically and theologically.

    My bolding.

    First bolded part is a lie. The 4D view of reality is almost inescapable given the invariance of the speed of light, plus a couple of very simple assumptions. And it was not ‘adopted’ to resolve the ‘paradox’. The apparent paradox arose from a naive application of SR.

    The second bolded part gives the real game away. No matter the success of a theory, it must be discarded if it is ‘philosophically and theologically’ unacceptable. And, as we’ve seen, the discarding must be defended “by any means necessary”.

  6. says

    The difference between what Craig does and what a philosopher does is this: when the philosopher is informed that there’s a good refutation of their argument, they either stop using that argument, modify it, or refute the refutation. Craig just repeats what he said the first time.

    Shorter: Craig is intellectually dishonest, whereas “philosophy” (love of wisdom) cannot be.

  7. astrosmashley says

    “Socratic dialogues favored by Carroll are best achieved by having short back-and-forth exchanges where you can quiz the other person”

    But the the problem there is that Socratic dialogue necessarily assumes both parties are engaging in good faith. There is no way to ‘win’ (at least that I’ve ever seen) against a bad faith player.

  8. colnago80 says

    Re #5

    The problem for Craig in this type of debate is that he is debating against a physicist/cosmologist who is far more knowledgeable on the subject matter then he is. Time dilation was demonstrated when it was found, after the invention of the synchrotron, that fast muons had, on average, longer lifetimes then slow muons. It is also evident that, in his discussion of the so-called twin’s paradox, that he is unaware of the distinction in special relativity between an accelerated and a non-accelerated frame of reference.

  9. Ceres says

    @Rob G It seems you are the one who misinterpeted Craig.

    First bolded part is a lie.
    Its not . Does the 4D reality not solve the paradox? Your intereptation of Craig is faulty.
    The 4D view of reality is almost inescapable given the invariance of the speed of light, plus a couple of very simple assumptions.
    No its not. The only way youy can get there is verificiationist assumptions. There are other valid interpretations of SR and relativistic effects observed in physics.
    And it was not ‘adopted’ to resolve the ‘paradox’. The apparent paradox arose from a naive application of SR.
    Craig never said that in the passage you quote and he talks about the reasons other philosophers adopted this interpetation.
    The second bolded part gives the real game away. No matter the success of a theory, it must be discarded if it is ‘philosophically and theologically’ unacceptable. And, as we’ve seen, the discarding must be defended “by any means necessary”.
    1)There are empirically equivalent interpetations of SR. Are you familiar with scientific anti-realism? Why must we accept a realist view of space-time as opposed to an anti-realist view. So you claim that Craig is denying this success of some theory is false 2) Are you saying there are no conclusions that are philosophically unacceptable? Say you read Peter Singer and you concluded it was ethical to kill babies under 2 years of age and to kill people in order to free farm animals. Is this a philosophically acceptable conclusion? Most people I think would say the conclusion was philosophically unacceptable and reject it. It seems you are the one engaging in sophistry and misrepresetation , not Craig,

  10. sc_fe04a3f01f0ad5a9575e53e25607cc08 says

    God is the most reasonable answer to the question–thats why the overwhelming majority of mankind throughout history believes in a creator. To act like this is joke–that no one had any reason to draw this conclusion only makes normal people turn on you. What the overwhelming majority thinks in Psychology is called “Normal”. You can disagree–but you cannot act as if the “Norm” is crazy without proving you’re the one who is crazy. You have to grant that people have come to these conclusions because they have weight.

    To suggest that science, in any way whatsoever undermines God, is a guaranteed loss at any debate. Atheists never win these things. The “Norm” is belief in God. . That determination has come from many of the greatest minds in history and just about everyone else inbetween. So you have to look within yourself and reason…why do I not conform to the norm? What is my bias? It has to be there…scientists went into this thing claiming the world only “appears” designed” and find out the math is infinitely more designed than the appearance and that causes them to debate and write books with even more opposition????

    Claiming science undermines God, in this context, sounds like the first stage of grief. If these people would just come clean and admit that it is judgment that causes this bias I’d think we’d all be a little more understanding. I mean, if your theory on the Atom is wrong…your not gonna be doomed because of it. But if your wrong on this..its the biggest mistake a person can possibly make. There can be no bigger bias..no larger reason to stick your fingers in your ears and accept not a single point against your view. Its the mom whose son is a murderer. She will not accept anything that could possibly point to her sons guilt. Everyone else is nuts.

    Anyway, I’m writing this advocate honesty at the very least, because we’re all looking at you guys through the monkey bars and its getting embarrassing that you wont concede even the slightest reasonable point in the discussion. I dont mind the corner atheist but when a scientist is advocating non belief–as if its their life’s mission…you’re just doing harm to yourself and your field and will cause people not to trust anything you say on any subject. A reasonable normal human being will not stand up and proclaim there is no God. Someone once said(and I think it was me)…When you think the whole worlds reasoning is crazy and yours is not…its time to consider if its you.

  11. Junnie says

    To the poster above me, you’re wrong and you’ve committed the fallacy appeal to majority. Saying a generic god is an answer is simply a fancy way of “I don’t know”. Invoking a generic deity explains nothing.

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