I’ve now watched two of the three “Life, the Universe and Nothing” debates between cosmologist Lawrence Krauss (LK) and apologist/theologian William Lane Craig (WLC), and wanted to share my reflections. While some will undoubtedly try, it is impossible to assert who really “won” in any of these debates – they are (thankfully) better described as dialogues – and you’ll notice that in any event most opinions about such a thing tend to line up with the person’s preferences beforehand. I will try my best to be objective, but to guard against any bias will also make a point to post reviews that differ with mine as I find them. Of course, the best thing you can do if you’re interested is to simply watch the debates yourself.
First, to mimic Krauss’ opening statement in the Brisbane debate (I’ll post my reflections on Brisbane later), I want to lay out my biases in detail. I consider WLC a minor intellectual (case in point, he’s more famous for his activity on the debate circuit and for his Christian apology books than for any scholarly work or major contributions to philosophy), and think he is often deceitful in his use of language and argument. He is, in my opinion, much more style than substance, and has a habit of making sweeping generalizations about areas outside his specialty, namely ancient history and cosmology, as well as taking others’ words out of context and/or distorting their intended views. I have also never seen him (and can hardly imagine him doing so) concede that he was or has ever been wrong. This last point is a major concern, as it’s difficult to trust someone who is not legitimately open to changing his or her opinion given new arguments or information.
Also, in full disclosure, I think the ethos of science – characterized namely by skepticism, peer-review, open inquiry, and test-ability – is more effective at determining truth than the general ethos of religion – characterized namely by deferral to authority, tradition, revelation, and personal experience.
With that said, I will just make the following observations about the dialogue in Melbourne, for which the topic was “Is a belief in God reasonable?”:
- LK over-stated the similarities between Jesus and contemporary pagan/mythic Gods like Dionysus, Krishna, Horus, et al. The tropes of these mythic stories do have similarities with Jesus, including virgin births and resurrections, but I agree with WLC that the evidence Jesus was a whole-sale copy of any of these Gods is lacking. If anyone knows of credible scholarship in this area, please let me know, as I’ve been unable to find much.
- I think WLC is (charitably) exaggerating when he says the testimony of the Gospels can be traced to “within 5 years” of Christ’s death. This seems absurdly early compared to the estimates I’ve heard elsewhere, and he would have to get there indirectly because the earliest written accounts we have do not come up until at least 20 years after Christ’s death. Again, any sources on this would be helpful.
- LK is a bit out of his element in discussing morality and moral philosophy, and does much better when sticking to questions of science and particularly physics. That’s not to say Krauss is wrong, because I actually agree with him, but he’s just not as well-versed as Craig in this area and it gives the impression he’s losing the argument. Yale philosopher Shelly Kagan does a terrific job handling Craig on the question of morality in this debate.
- Craig’s syllogisms, as Krauss correctly points out, are over-simplistic and based on premises that are likely wrong and very far from certain. Time and time again, what is astounding to me as I watch William Lane Craig present his 6 arguments (he always offers the same six) is how tenable the premises are, yet how certain he seems of their conclusions. The Cosmological Argument, for example, does what’s known in introductory logic as “begging the question” that is, assuming the conclusion in a premise intended to confirm the conclusion. To show how over-simplistic Craig’s syllogisms are, Krauss gave the audience a humorous one: “1) All mammals display homosexual tendencies, 2) William Lane Craig is a mammal … ” In any event, even if Craig’s syllogisms were proved correct, they wouldn’t get you from deism to theism, and certainty not from theism to Christianity. Debate opponents, other than Hitchens, tend to forget to point this out to Craig.
- To me, the most effective part of Krauss’ strategy in this debate was just to continually ask Craig, “how do you know that?” and to show that there is nothing like absolute certainty in cosmology or ancient history, and that it’s therefore unreasonable to make such grand claims – and God is certainly a grand claim – without equally grand evidence.
- Krauss effectively argues that Craig’s arguments could be used to support almost all the creation myths. Craig demurs on this, pointing out that few non-Christian creation stories having creation literally coming from nothing, but Krauss again argues that if you take those other stories metaphorically, they could just as well be supported by his syllogisms. He also traps Craig in highlighting the contradiction between saying the Bible isn’t a science textbook on one hand, then pulling out the pieces that agree with science and trying to prop it up as a book prescient of modern cosmology.
- I think Craig’s weakest argument is the one regarding the resurrection. He – and this makes me pull my hair out every time I hear it – seems convinced that it’s actually more likely that 1) God exists (NOT a trivial assumption) 2) the Bible is true 3) Jesus was divine 4) Jesus rose from the dead and 5) Jewish oral tradition was immaculate, than it is that somebody stole Christ’s body and/or his followers either hallucinated or made-up visions. We have evidence for the latter happening all the time (think of UFO’s or the many cults that go in and out of existence each decade), but absolutely no evidence for someone rising from the dead (or of oral tradition being remotely consistent over large swaths of time). How is the former more reasonable than the latter? Craig seems to distort the alleged visions of Christ into a very narrow band, whereas he images hundreds of people having almost identical, independent experiences of Jesus at the same time. There’s just no objective evidence for that, and it’s such a cartoony, simplistic way to imagine the past that I feel embarrassed for him every time he utters it – he’s just so committed to believing in the Bible that he will ignore any evidence against it.
Before watching this debate, I heard rumors that Krauss dominated. I don’t think that’s the case (I actually think he did better in Brisbane), but I do think he was effective in showing uncertainty as a very real issue in cosmology and history, and thus demonstrated the inherent problems with Craig’s overly simplistic syllogisms.
Krauss seemed at times tired and more than frustrated at having to engage with a man who is so unlikely to ever change his views. As LK pointed out several times, Craig “assumes the answer before even asking the question,” and I can’t think of anything more opposed to reason than that.