Posts Tagged ‘Science’

Video of William Lane Craig’s misrepresentation of Sam Harris during and after their debate on morality

03/02/2014

Further to my posts reviewing the debate on morality between atheist Sam Harris and Christian apologist William Lane Craig, together with Craig’s distortions of Harris’ written work, nooneleftalivekibo has cited my first post in the above video, for which I am grateful and flattered.

Having watched a few nooneleftalivekibo’s other videos, I recommend those that expose Craig’s misrepresentation and quote-mining of Stephen Law, Michael Ruse and Stephen Hawking.

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William Lane Craig’s misrepresentation of Sam Harris’ written work during their debate on morality

23/09/2013

William Lane Craig –v- Sam Harris, “Is the Foundation of Morality Natural or Supernatural? / Is Good from God?”, University of Notre Dame, Indiana, United States, 7 April 2011

MP3 Audio

Transcript of Craig’s and Harris’ main speeches and rebuttals
(I have removed the irritating ‘Er, uh’s in my citations below)

Video edited to be only Sam Harris speaking
(So the rest of us can cut to chase!)

As part of my post discussing Sam Harris’ debate against William Lane Craig on whether the foundation of human morality was natural or supernatural, I discuss Craig’s presentation of Harris work alongside their true context in Harris’ books The End of Faith [London: Simon & Schuster UK Ltd, 2006], The Moral Landscape [London: Transworld Publishers, 2006] and Free Will [New York: Free Press, 2012], together with his articles “Response to Critics of The Moral Landscape and The Moral Landscape Challenge” and give my verdict on how Craig sought to misrepresent Harris.

Craig’s opening statement:

[Harris] rightly declares, “If only one person in the world held down a terrified, struggling, screaming little girl, cut off her genitals with a septic blade, and sewed her back up, … the only question would be how severely that person should be punished …”

This quote appears on pp. 66 – 67 of my edition of The Moral Landscape and is in fact Harris citing psychologist Steven Pinker’s book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature [New York: Viking, 2002, p.273], who in turn is quoting Donald Symons.  The full quote continues:

…, and whether the death penalty would be a sufficiently severe sanction.  But when millions of people do this, instead of the enormity being magnified millions-fold, it suddenly becomes ‘culture,’ and thereby magically becomes less, rather than more, horrible, and is even defended by some Western ‘moral thinkers,’ including feminists.

The passage appears in Chapter 2: “Moral Truth” in The Moral Landscape under a segment entitled “Moral Blindness in the Name of ‘Tolerance’”, which includes Harris’ transcript of his conversation with a female advisor on President Obama’s Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues who thought that it was better to “respect” a hypothetical ancient culture’s crackpot religious tradition of removing the eyeballs of every third child than to declare them morally wrong.

Craig’s quotation of this passage (notwithstanding that it was not even from Harris’ pen!) is misleading in that it gave the audience the impression that Harris simply advocates stern retribution to those who carry out female circumcision.  However, Harris’ argument runs much deeper than this as he is decrying the appalling moral relativism of secularists who are too afraid to criticise the practices of religious cultures in respect of actions that they would find morally repugnant were they carried out in isolation by individuals.

Craig’s opening statement continues:

So how does Sam Harris propose to solve the Value Problem?  The trick he proposes is simply to re-define what he means by “good” and “evil”, in non-moral terms.  He says, “We should “define ‘good’ as that which supports [the] well-being” of conscious creatures.  So, he says, “questions about values … are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures.”  And therefore, he concludes, “it makes no sense … to ask whether maximizing well-being is ‘good’.”  Why not?  Because he’s redefined the word “good” to mean the well-being of conscious creatures.  So to ask, “Why is maximizing creatures’ well-being good?” is on his definition the same as asking, “Why does maximizing creatures’ well-being maximize creatures’ well-being?” It’s just a tautology. It’s just talking in circles!  So, Dr. Harris has quote-unquote “solved” the Value Problem just by re-defining his terms.  It’s nothing but wordplay.

If Harris actually uses the term “Value Problem” with the pages of The Moral Landscape, let alone explicitly redefining what we mean by “good”, then I must have missed it.  The term seems to have been something constructed by his critics.  However, in his article “Response to Critics of The Moral Landscape published in January 2011, three months before his debate against Craig, Harris discusses the issue in detail; too much detail for me to include in this post in its entirety, but I present some relevant extracts.  Harris is responding to philosopher Russell Blackford’s review:

The Value Problem

My critics have been especially exercised over the subtitle of my book, “how science can determine human values.”  The charge is that I haven’t actually used science to determine the foundational value (well-being) upon which my proffered science of morality would rest. Rather, I have just assumed that well-being is a value, and this move is both unscientific and question-begging.

(…)

[T]he same can be said about medicine, or science as a whole.  As I point out in my book, science is based on values that must be presupposed—like the desire to understand the universe, a respect for evidence and logical coherence, etc.  One who doesn’t share these values cannot do science.  But nor can he attack the presuppositions of science in a way that anyone should find compelling. Scientists need not apologise for presupposing the value of evidence, nor does this presupposition render science unscientific.  In my book, I argue that the value of well-being—specifically the value of avoiding the worst possible misery for everyone—is on the same footing.  There is no problem in presupposing that the worst possible misery for everyone is bad and worth avoiding and that normative morality consists, at an absolute minimum, in acting so as to avoid it.  To say that the worst possible misery for everyone is “bad” is, on my account, like saying that an argument that contradicts itself is “illogical.”  Our spade is turned. Anyone who says it isn’t simply isn’t making sense.  The fatal flaw that Blackford claims to have found in my view of morality could just as well be located in science as a whole—or reason generally.  Our “oughts” are built right into the foundations.  We need not apologise for pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps in this way.  It is far better than pulling ourselves down by them.

Harris clearly acknowledges that he is starting with a scientific and philosophical presupposition, but one that is both reasonable and applicable to other areas of science.  It certainly makes far more sense than the theist presupposition of goodness which is whatever God commands is automatically good.

It is also rank hypocrisy on Craig’s part to accuse Harris of tautology and wordplay since throughout the entire debate he offered no evidence whatsoever of the goodness of God’s character but simply engaged in Anselm-esque ontological word games that God’s character was the definition of goodness rather like the definition of a bachelor is that he is unmarried.

Craig’s opening statement continues:

Sam Harris believes that all of our actions are causally determined and that there is no free will.  Dr Harris rejects not only libertarian accounts of free will but also compatibilistic accounts of freedom.  But, if there is no free will, then no one is morally responsible for anything! In the end, Dr Harris admits this, though it’s tucked away in the endnotes of his volume.  Moral responsibility, he says, and I quote, “is a social construct,” not an objective reality: I quote: “in neuroscientific terms no person is more or less responsible than any other” for the actions they perform.  His thoroughgoing determinism spells the end of any hope or possibility of objective moral duties because on his worldview we have no control over what we do.

Harris discusses his views on “free will” on pp. 135 – 147 of The Moral Landscape under the sections entitled “The Illusion of Free Will” and “Moral Responsibility” as well as in his short book Free Will.  It is clear to me that just because Harris believes that human thoughts and actions are governed by prior causes over which we have no control (“determinism”), this does not negate the existence of human choice and moral responsibility.  On p. 143 of The Moral Landscape under the section “Moral Responsibility”, Harris writes:

Of course, we hold one another accountable for more than those actions than we consciously plan, because most voluntary behaviour comes about without explicit planning.  But why is the conscious decision to do another person harm particularly blameworthy?  Because consciousness is, among other things, the context in which our intentions become completely available to us.  What we do subsequent to conscious planning tends to fully reflect the global properties of our minds – our beliefs, desires, goals, prejudices, etc.  If, after weeks of deliberation, library research, and debate with your friends, you still decide to kill the king – well, killing the king really reflects the sort of person you are.  Consequently it makes sense for the rest of society to worry about you.

The endnote in The Moral Landscape to which Craig refers is endnote 109 on p. 279 of my edition which itself refers to a passage in the main text on pp. 143 – 144 under the section “Moral Responsibility” and again is Harris quoting another author; this time the neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga from his paper “Forty-five years of split-brain research and still going strong”, Nat Rev Neurosci, Volume 6, Number 8, 653 – 659.  The full passage from Gazzinga, with the parts that Craig quoted in bold, is as follows:

Neuroscience will never find the brain correlate of responsibility, because that is something we ascribe to humans – to people – not to brains.  It is a moral value we demand of our fellow, rule-following human beings.  Just as optometrists can tell us how much vision a person has (20/20 or 20/200) but cannot tell us when someone is legally blind or has too little vision to drive a school bus, so psychiatrists and brain scientists might be able to tell us what someone’s mental state or brain state is but cannot tell us (without being arbitrary) when someone has too little control to be held responsible.  The issue of responsibility (like the issue of who can drive school buses) is a social choice.  In neuroscientific terms, no person is more or less responsible than any other for actions.  We are all part of a deterministic system that someday, in theory, we will completely understand.  Yet the idea of responsibility, a social construct that exists in the rules of a society, does not exist in the neuronal structures of the brain.

The endnote continues in Harris’ own words with the extracts that Craig quoted in bold:

While it is true that responsibility is a social construct attributed to people and not to brains, it is a social construct that can make more or less sense given certain facts about a person’s brain.  I think we can easily imagine discoveries in neuroscience, as well as brain imagining technology, that would allow us to attribute responsibility to persons in a far more precise way than we do at present.  A ‘Twinkie defence’ would be entirely uncontroversial if we learned that there was something at the creamy centre of every Twinkie that obliterated the front lobe’s inhibitory control over the limbic system.

But perhaps ‘responsibility’ is simply the wrong construct: for Gazzaniga is surely correct to say that in ‘neuroscientific terms, no person is more or less responsible than any other for actions.’  Conscious actions arise on the basis of neural events of which we are not conscious.  Whether they are predictable or not, we do not cause our causes.

The relevant paragraph on pp. 143 – 144 of the main text to which the endnote refers reads as follows:

While viewing human beings as forces of nature does not prevent us from thinking in terms of moral responsibility, it does call the logic of retribution into question.  Clearly, we need to build prisons for people who are intent on harming others.  But if we could incarcerate earthquakes and hurricanes for their crimes, we would build prisons for them as well.

Accordingly, it is clear to me that Harris’ views on “free will” are far more complex and layered that Craig let on in the debate.  It is equally clear that Craig has simply skimmed through Harris’ book, noted that Harris does not agree with the theist concept of “free will” and hastily concluded that Harris thinks there can be no moral responsibility on a deterministic view of “free will” without actually reading the remainder of Harris’ views, or at least reading them properly.

See also my recent post setting out Harris’ views on “free will” which links to a number of relevant web articles and lectures he has given on the topic.

Craig’s first rebuttal

Dr Harris has to defend an even more radical claim than that.  He claims that the property of being good is identical with the property of creaturely flourishing.  And he’s not offered any defence of this radical identity claim. In fact, I think we have a knock-down argument against it.  Now bear with me here; this is a little technical.  On the next-to-last page of his book, Dr Harris makes the telling admission that if people like rapists, liars, and thieves could be just as happy as good people, then his “moral landscape” would no longer be a moral landscape.  Rather, it would just be a continuum of well-being whose peaks are occupied by good and bad people, or evil people, alike.

Now what’s interesting about this is that earlier in the book, Dr Harris explained that about three million Americans are psychopathic.  That is to say, they don’t care about the mental states of others.  They enjoy inflicting pain on other people. But that implies that there’s a possible world, which we can conceive, in which the continuum of human well-being is not a moral landscape.  The peaks of well-being could be occupied by evil people.  But that entails that in the actual world, the continuum of well-being and the moral landscape are not identical either.  For identity is a necessary relation. There is no possible world in which some entity A is not identical to A.  So if there’s any possible world in which A is not identical to B, then it follows that A is not in fact identical to B.

Now since it’s possible that human well-being and moral goodness are not identical, it follows necessarily that human well-being and goodness are not the same, as Dr Harris has asserted in his book.

Now it’s not often in philosophy that you get a knock-down argument against a position.  But I think we’ve got one here.  By granting that it’s possible that the continuum of well-being is not identical to the moral landscape, Dr Harris’ view becomes logically incoherent.

For once, Craig has actually quoted Harris’ own words (although notice the rather ominous and accusatory description that they appear “on the next to last page of his book”).  The full passage is at pp. 241 – 242 of The Moral Landscape in Chapter 5 “The Future of Happiness” under the section “On Being Right or Wrong”:

It is also conceivable that a science of human flourishing could be possible, and yet people could be made equally happy by very different ‘moral’ impulses.  Perhaps there is no connection between being good and feeling good – and, therefore, no connection between moral behaviour (as generally conceived) and subjective well-being.  In this case, rapists, liars, and thieves would experience the same depth of happiness as the saints.  This scenario stands the greatest chance of being true while seeming quite far-fetched.  Neuroimagining work already suggests what has long been obvious through introspection: human co-operation is rewarding.  However, if evil turned out to be as reliable path to happiness as goodness is, my argument about the moral landscape would still stand, as would the likely utility of neuroscience for investigating it.  It would no longer be an especially ‘moral’ landscape; rather it would be a continuum of well-being, upon which saints and sinners would occupy equivalent peaks.

Worries of this kind seem to ignore some very obvious facts about human beings: we have all evolved from common ancestors and are, therefore, far more similar than we are different; brains and primary human emotions clearly transcend culture, and they are unquestionably influenced by states of the world (as anyone who has ever stubbed his toe can attest).  No one, to my knowledge, believes that there is so much variance in the requisites of human well-being as to make the above concerns seem plausible.

Like all good scientists, Harris has actually armed his opponents with the tools that they need to disprove his thesis.  Yet, contra-Craig, he has only admitted that in one possible World his thesis would require amendment, but would not be completely invalid.  However, Harris spends all of Chapter 2 “Good and Evil” arguing that love, compassion and well-being can be understood as good for us at the level of the brain and that psychopaths do not in fact occupy the same peaks of happiness and well-being as those who exude love and compassion toward their fellow creatures.

Just because it is possible to imagine a scenario where Harris’ thesis does not apply does not invalidate is applicability in The Real World.  Yet again, Craig takes Harris’ words out of their true context, cobbles together a possible World where they do not makes sense and declares Harris’ thesis null and void on that basis.

Conclusion

As I stated in my main post discussing the outcome of the debate, at the time of publishing this post, this is actually the last debate of William Lane Craig’s that I have watched.  As with many other atheist bloggers, after seeing so many of his debates and lectures, I am fed up of the lies, distortions and dishonest tactics that he uses in his attempts to overthrow his opponents.

I only wish that Sam Harris was not the only one to call him out on it.

Sam Harris beats William Lane Craig in their debate on morality

23/09/2013

William Lane Craig –v- Sam Harris, “Is the Foundation of Morality Natural or Supernatural? / Is Good from God?”, University of Notre Dame, Indiana, United States, 7 April 2011

MP3 Audio

Transcript of Craig’s and Harris’ main speeches and rebuttals
(I have removed the irritating ‘Er, uh’s in my citations below)

Video edited to be only Sam Harris speaking
(So the rest of us can cut to chase!)

Although I watched this debate when it was first posted online over two and a half years ago and intended to do a full write up of it then, I was still on an extended blogging sabbatical and had not read Sam Harris’ book on morality and ethics, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values.  Now that the dust of their clash has settled, I have read Harris’ book more than once and offered my own thoughts on the burden of proof in showing that the source of human morals is divine, and Harris has issued The Moral Landscape Challenge”, I now feel that I can dissect this encounter properly.

Debate overview

As with most religious debates, opinion on the blogosphere is divided with as many handing the debate to Harris as to Craig.  Luke Muehlhauser at the now-archived Common Sense Atheism (who I repeated described as the web’s most fawning Craigophile atheist, both on my blog and his!) declared Craig the winner on rhetorical grounds (which I believe he consistently overvalued in any event), yet conversely considered the debate a victory for the New Atheists as it gave the wider the public the hear their arguments for secular morality

It is abundantly clear – even more than is usually the case with Craig’s atheist opponents – that Harris has a different speaking and debating style.  The format for this debate with 20 minute opening statements and then rebuttals for each side of 12, 8 and 5 minutes, was much more structured than any other debate I have seen Harris participate.  At most, Harris and his opponents have been given a few minutes to state their case before the debate turns to a back-and-forth discussion between the two participants and the moderator.  In many of Harris’ debates, he has been faced with a very biased moderator who has turned out to be an additional opponent to him!

Harris received much criticism for supposedly straying off-topic in his rebuttals by discussing the problem of evil, Yahweh’s atrocities in the Old Testament, the plurality and diversity of the World’s religions, and the contradictions of Christian theology regarding the supposed existence of a good God and hell.  However, from the opening sentence of his first rebuttal – “Well, that was all very… interesting…” – it was clear to me that he was not going to conform to Craig’s rules of debating and let him railroad the discussion in an argument of semantics, syntax and philosophical “logic”.

Just because Craig does not want to debate certain issues such as the problem of the “unevangelised” and his own repugnant “divine command theory” in justification of Yahweh’s atrocities in the Old Testament, does mean that they are irrelevant to the topic under discussion.  In his second rebuttal, Craig makes the extraordinary (and presumably unintentional) concession:

[Harris] then responds, “But there’s no good reason to believe that such a being exists.  Look at the problem of evil and the problem of the unevangelized.”  Both of these, as I explained in my opening, are irrelevant in tonight’s debate because I’m not arguing that God exists. Maybe he’s right; maybe these are insuperable objections to Christianity or to theism.  It wouldn’t affect either of my contentions: that if God exists, then we have a sound foundation for moral values and duties; if God does not exist, then we have no foundation for objective moral values and duties.  So these are red herrings.  [My emphasis]

This would be like Craig arguing, “It’s irrelevant as to whether or not unicorns do in fact exist; I’m arguing that the foundation for human morals are unicorn tears.”  Craig offered no evidence to show that God’s character was good other than Anselm-esque word games such as (in his final statement):

Dr Harris [argued]… against this position is to say that you’re merely defining God as good, which is the same fallacy I accused him of committing.  I don’t think this is the case at all.  God is a being worthy of worship.  Any being that is not worthy of worship is not God.  And therefore God must be perfectly good and essentially good.  More than that, as Anselm saw, God is the greatest conceivable being, and therefore he is the very paradigm of goodness itself.  He is the greatest good.  So once you understand the concept of God, you can see that asking, “Well, why is God good?” is sort of like asking, “Why are all bachelors unmarried?”  It’s the very concept of the greatest conceivable being, of being worthy of worship that entails the essential goodness of God.

Similar to atheist objections to the ontological argument for God’s existence, this is still nothing more than mere sophistry.  Word games will not suffice, Dr Craig; we demand evidence in support of your arguments.

As Harris posted shortly after the debate:

While I believe I answered (or pre-empted) all of Craig’s substantive challenges, I’ve received a fair amount of criticism for not rebutting his remarks point for point. Generally speaking, my critics seem to have been duped by Craig’s opening statement, in which he presumed to narrow the topic of our debate (I later learned that he insisted upon speaking first and made many other demands.  You can read an amusing, behind-the-scenes account here.)  Those who expected me to follow the path Craig cut in his opening remarks don’t seem to understand the game he was playing.  He knew that if he began, “Here are 5 (bogus) points that Sam Harris must answer if he has a shred of self-respect,” this would leave me with a choice between delivering my prepared remarks, which I believed to be crucial, or wasting my time putting out the small fires he had set.  If I stuck to my argument, as I mostly did, he could return in the next round to say, “You will notice that Dr Harris entirely failed to address points 2 and 5.  It is no wonder, because they make a mockery of his entire philosophy.”

As I observed once during the debate, but should have probably mentioned again, Craig employs other high school debating tricks to mislead the audience: He falsely summarises what his opponent has said; he falsely claims that certain points have been conceded; and, in our debate, he falsely charged me with having wandered from the agreed upon topic.  The fact that such tricks often work is a real weakness of the debate format, especially one in which the participants are unable to address one another directly.  Nevertheless, I believe I was right not to waste much time rebutting irrelevancies, correcting Craig’s distortions of my published work, or taking his words out of my mouth.  Instead, I simply argued for a scientific conception of moral truth and against one based on the biblical God.  This was, after all, the argument that the organisers at Notre Dame had invited me to make.

While fellow-atheist blogger Chris Hallquist initially sided with Craig that Harris had strayed off the topic of the debate, he subsequently conceded:

In two paragraphs, Harris just owned Craig and proved he’s smarter than probably everyone else who’s ever written about Craig, myself included.  I’m embarrassed to say that, in my initial write-up of the debate, I unthinkingly accepted Craig’s claims that Harris had strayed off topic.  This was partly, I guess, because I knew going into the debate that Craig would try to frame it as a debate about the conditional claim “if God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist.”  Had I been debating Craig, I probably would have figured it wasn’t worth the energy to fight him on the framing.

But thankfully, Harris was debating Craig, not me, and he never forgot that Craig’s interpretation of the topic wasn’t the actual topic.  They were supposed to be debating “Is Good from God?” and it’s completely ridiculous to claim that questions like “does God exist?” and “if there were a God, what could we infer about his character?” are irrelevant to that question.  Similarly, it isn’t at all obvious that the “God” there can only be referring to some very abstract god, and not the god that Craig actually believes in.

I still think Harris would have benefited from taking 30 seconds to point out how ridiculous and hypocritical Craig’s accusations of “irrelevance” were.  Nevertheless, I think he largely had the right strategy, and it’s humbling to realise I’m still vulnerable to such silly debating tricks after years of watching Craig.

I maintain that Victor Stenger and Bart Ehrman retain their joint-crown of Atheist Opponent Who Has Made Craig Look Like A Complete Fool At The Lectern, however, Harris in his own quiet and subtle way utterly destroyed Craig and everything for which he stands.  Craig simply defined God as good and argued from inside the “theological bubble” (aka “CraigWorld”) whereas Harris argued from the Real World and discussed scientific examples of human behaviour about which religion as little, if anything, useful to say.

Harris also demonstrated with reference to the World’s appalling suffering and the Bible (which after all Craig maintains is the inerrant word of the creator of the Universe) that if some kind of supernatural being is at the heart of the Universe, he must be cruel, capricious and unworthy of worship.  Craig dismissed these arguments as “red herrings” and “village atheist objections”, but ultimately Harris won the evidential case as to God’s true character.

It was also a stark contrast in presentation styles.  Harris in his plain black suit and open-necked blue shirt was calm, collected and considered.  If anyone needs some lessons in public speaking before taking the podium, they could do no better than to watch a few Sam Harris lectures.  Craig on the other hand, in his gold-buttoned navy blazer, starched white shirt and neck-crunching tie, looked and sounded harried as the debate progressed as evidenced by the increased volume of his smug, nasally voice at the beginning of his second rebuttal when he became severely irate at Harris’ description of certain Christian beliefs as psychotic.  His Gish Gallop was turned all the way up to eleven, particularly in the rebuttals, and stood ill at ease with Harris’ slow and methodical delivery that was filled with pauses at key moments.

As fatuous as some of these comments may appear, there is always an element of “beauty parade” in all public appearances.  Harris was JFK.  Craig was Nixon.

Craig’s quote-mining of The Moral Landscape

In the middle of Harris’ opening statement he warned the audience not to trust Craig’s reading of his work and that half of the quotes Craig gives in his opening statement are not from Harris himself, but are in fact Harris quoting other authors and “often to different effect”.

I have been through Harris’ book and Craig’s remarks in the debate with a fine tooth comb and on another post I discuss Craig’s presentation of The Moral Landscape together with their true presentation by Harris.

Psychogate

During Craig’s second rebuttal, he upped the Southern nasally drawl aplenty when he accused Harris of accusing all Christians of being psychopaths.  When Harris next took the lectern he invited the audience to “sort it out on YouTube”.  I have taken up Harris on his invitation and now present the full transcript of the subject under disagreement.

Harris’ first rebuttal

We are being offered a psychopathic and psychotic moral attitude… it is psychopathic because this is a total detachment from the well-being of human beings. It so easily rationalises the slaughter of children.  OK, just think about the Muslims at this moment who are blowing themselves up, convinced that they are agents of God’s will.  There is absolutely nothing that Dr Craig can say against their behaviour, in moral terms, apart from his own faith-based claim that they’re praying to the wrong God.  If they had the right God, what they were doing would be good, on “divine command theory”.

Now, I’m obviously not saying that all that Dr Craig or all religious people are psychopaths and psychotics, but this to me is the true horror of religion. It allows perfectly decent and sane people to believe by the billions, what only lunatics could believe on their own [my emphasis].

Craig’s second rebuttal:

[Harris] also says it’s “psychopathic” to believe these things.  Now, that remark is just as stupid as it is insulting.  It is absurd to think that Peter Van Inwagen here at the University of Notre Dame is psychopathic, or that a guy like Dr Tom Flint, who is as gracious a Christian gentlemen as I could have ever met, is psychopathic.  This is simply below the belt.

Harris’ second rebuttal:

Well, perhaps you’ve noticed Dr Craig has a charming habit of summarising his opponent’s points in a way in which they were not actually given, so I will leave it to you to sort it out on Youtube.  Needless to say, I didn’t call those esteemed colleagues of his psychopaths, as I made clear.

Right here, Craig well and truly lets his mask slip.  He gives up the pretence of honest debate and intellectual discourse for the sake of scoring a cheap and dishonest point against his opponent.  In his post-debate podcast Craig stands by the accusation saying that Harris has argued in his written work that religious belief is a form of insanity.  However, this is another misrepresentation of Harris’ work; he makes clear in The End of Faith:

Clearly, there is sanity in numbers.  And yet, it is merely an accident of history that it is considered normal in our society to believe that the Creator of the universe can hear your thoughts, while it is demonstrative of mental illness to believe that he is communicating with you by having the rain tap in Morse code on your bedroom window.  And so, while religious people are not generally mad, their core beliefs absolutely are.  [London: Simon & Schuster UK Ltd, 2006, p. 72]

This incident, together with my comments in respect of Craig quote-mining Harris’ book is the strongest evidence yet that Craig has no interest in advancing science and human knowledge, but simply to reinforce his own dogmatically held religious convictions.

At the time of publishing this post, this is actually the last debate of William Lane Craig’s that I have watched.  As with many other atheist bloggers, after seeing so many of his debates and lectures, I am fed up of the lies, distortions and dishonest tactics that he uses in his attempts to overthrow his opponents.

I only wish that Sam Harris was not the only one to call him out on it.

The clinching moment?

I fully accept that one of the other “Four Horsemen”, Christopher Hitchens, lost his debate against Craig on the existence of God at Biola University in April 2009.  Hitchens conceded the debate at Craig’s final rebuttal before the audience Q & A: he smiled and chuckled to himself when Craig invited him to become a Christian, he raised his arms and applauded when Craig walked past him on his way back to his seat and he leaned forward to the moderator, Hugh Hewitt, to give up his five minute rebuttal so there could be more time for questions from the audience.

There was no such gesture from Harris throughout his debate with Craig, but possibly a glimmer of concession from Craig towards Harris.   During the audience Q & A period (c. 1 hour 23 minutes on the tape) the two men locked horns on the question of Craig’s “divine command theory”.  Harris states that if God issued such a command to exterminate an entire race of people he would be evil.  Craig retorts that Harris has no basis for making such objective moral judgements.  Harris replies, “I’ve tried to give you a basis… sorry.”  The audience laughs and applauds.  Craig glances towards the moderator, raises an eyebrow and then suppresses a frown with a goofy smile that betrays his frustration and confusion.

Craig lost the argument that day, and he lost badly.  Not even his attempt to re-write the debate in his two-part post-debate podcast that runs to nearly an hour and features extra encouragement by the fawning Kevin Harris – who clearly gets his money by turning up to kiss CraigButt – can repair the damage.

The Moral Landscape Challenge

Harris has recently issued The Moral Landscape Challenge: readers can win $20,000 if they can disprove his central thesis in an essay of 1,000 or less and Harris will recant his thesis.  Even if none of the essays can make Harris recant his thesis, the best essay will still win $2,000.

It has been nearly three years since The Moral Landscape was first published in English, and in that time it has been attacked by readers and non-readers alike.  Many seem to have judged from the resulting cacophony that the book’s central thesis was easily refuted. However, I have yet to encounter a substantial criticism that I feel was not adequately answered in the book itself (and in subsequent talks).

So I would like to issue a public challenge.  Anyone who believes that my case for a scientific understanding of morality is mistaken is invited to prove it in 1,000 words or less.  (You must address the central argument of the book—not peripheral issues.)  The best response will be published on this website, and its author will receive $2,000.  If any essay actually persuades me, however, its author will receive $20,000, and I will publicly recant my view.

Submissions will be accepted here the week of February 2-9, 2014.

(…)

Here [is my central thesis]: Morality and values depend on the existence of conscious minds—and specifically on the fact that such minds can experience various forms of well-being and suffering in this universe.  Conscious minds and their states are natural phenomena, fully constrained by the laws of the universe (whatever these turn out to be in the end).  Therefore, questions of morality and values must have right and wrong answers that fall within the purview of science (in principle, if not in practice).  Consequently, some people and cultures will be right (to a greater or lesser degree), and some will be wrong, with respect to what they deem important in life.

You might want to read what I’ve already written in response to a few critics.  (A version of that article became the Afterword to the paperback edition of The Moral Landscape.)  I also recommend that you watch the talk I linked to above.

This is either an admiral display of honest inquiry from a brilliant scientist who wants his views to be criticised in order to facilitate self-improvement or a display of unbridled arrogance, depending on your point of view.

Whichever is true of Harris’ motives, suffice it say, a certain Dr William Lane Craig is already out of pocket.

Sam Harris: Free Will

10/09/2013

HarrisFreeWillCoverI am currently researching an epic pair of posts re-examining Sam Harris’ debate on morality against William Lane Craig from April 2011 at The University of Notre Dame and in particular Craig’s wilful misrepresentation of Harris’ written work.  This has necessitated me engaging in the mammoth – albeit wonderfully rewarding – re-reading Harris’ books, The End of Faith, Letter to a Christian Nation, The Moral Landscape and Free Will.

I have always loathed the faithful’s concept of “free will” but have never had the means to tackle it head-on.  I invariably put the term in scare quotes to signify my distain.  It is part of the disgusting branch of theological “thought” called “theodicy”, aka making excuses for your imaginary best friend’s failure to do anything about all the evil and suffering in the World.  Theists argue that God have given us “free will” to act how we please and to believe in him or not and our rejection of him.  However, poor old God’s heart is broken when we abuse our “free will” to reject his boundless love and commit atrocities against our fellow man.

For me, this concept is philosophically and semantically incoherent to the point that I had no idea how to mount an argument against it.  How can you have a choice not to believe in God?  Taking the coward’s way out with Pascal’s Wager is at best feigning a belief in God.  There are plenty of facts about the World that I do not especially like – such as the existence of famine, genocide and the wonderfully designed AIDS virus – but have to accept because there is plenty of evidence for their existence regardless of whether or not I find them comforting.

If presented with sufficient evidence for God’s existence – such as a big face and a booming voice sticking out of the clouds striking sinners down with fire and brimstone rather like the God of the Bible I was made to learn about in school – I would believe.

Harris –v- “Free Will”

In his gem of a short book Free Will, Harris explodes the concept of “free will” as philosophically incoherent and scientifically unsupportable; our thoughts and actions are entirely deterministic.  Here are some of Harris’ key points:

  • You are no more in control of the next thought you think than the next thought I write.  Thoughts appear in your head at random and you have no control over them.  As you try to concentrate on one of Sam Harris’ lectures to which I link below, you may well suddenly think, “Gosh, he does look a bit like Ben Stiller!”
  • You are not free to choose options of which you are not aware.  For example, if someone asks you to think of a film, you would not be able to choose The Maltese Falcon if you have never heard of it.
  • Modern neuro-imagining shows that our brains have formed our decisions seconds, sometimes minutes, before we are aware of them.
  • All of our thoughts and actions are governed by a string of prior causes over which we have no control: genes, upbringing and environment.
  • Even people who believe in “free will” accept that certain medical conditions will affect a person’s thoughts and actions such as depression, diabetes and brain tumours.  Therefore, you have as much “free will” to be a homosexual as you have to be black or white skinned.
  • Compromise positions on “free will” such as “compatibilism” that concede that our thoughts and actions are influenced by prior causes over which we have no control amount to saying “a puppet has free will as long as it loves its strings”.
  • As counter-intuitive as it seems, it makes no more sense than to hate a psychopath who has tried to cut you up with an axe than to hate a grizzly bear who has tried to eat you.
  • Retribution and personal hatred of people makes no sense as we are punishing people for acts for which ultimately they are not responsible.  Our criminal justice should be geared towards protection of the public at large (which does include incarceration) and rehabilitation but not retribution and revenge.
  • If we developed a pill that could cure psychopathy with no side effects, it would make no sense to withhold it from a violent psychopath as a punishment for what they have done.
  • Swallowing determinism whole by “throwing the oars out of the boat” and doing nothing but drift through life and seeing what happens is a course of action over which we have no control and is therefore impossible.  Just try staying in bed and waiting for something to happen: very soon you will feel the urge to get out bed and do something, like eating or going to the loo!
  • Good and evil, morality and happiness do not depend on the existence of “free will”:

In my view, the reality of good and evil does not depend upon the existence of free will, because with or without free will, we can distinguish between suffering and happiness.  With or without free will, a psychopath who enjoys killing children is different from a paediatric surgeon who enjoys saving them.  Whatever the truth about free will, these distinctions are unmistakable and well worth caring about.

  • Personal effort and choice do still count even on a deterministic view of “free will”:

Might free will somehow be required for goodness to be manifest?  How, for instance, does one become a paediatric surgeon?  Well, you must first be born, with an intact nervous system, and then provided with a proper education. No freedom there, I’m afraid.  You must also have the physical talent for the job and avoid smashing your hands at rugby.  Needless to say, it won’t do to be someone who faints at the sight of blood.  Chalk these achievements up to good luck as well.  At some point you must decide to become a surgeon—a result, presumably, of first wanting to become one.  Will you be the conscious source of this wanting?  Will you be responsible for its prevailing over all the other things you want but that are incompatible with a career in medicine?  No.  If you succeed at becoming a surgeon, you will simply find yourself standing one day, scalpel in hand, at the confluence of all the genetic and environmental causes that led you to develop along this line.  None of these events requires that you, the conscious subject, be the ultimate cause of your aspirations, abilities, and resulting behaviour.  And, needless to say, you can take no credit for the fact that you weren’t born a psychopath.

Of course, I’m not saying that you can become a surgeon by accident—you must do many things, deliberately and well, and in the appropriate sequence, year after year. Becoming a surgeon requires effort.  But can you take credit for your disposition to make that effort?   To turn the matter around, am I responsible for the fact that it has never once occurred to me that I might like to be a surgeon?  Who gets the blame for my lack of inspiration?  And what if the desire to become a surgeon suddenly arises tomorrow and becomes so intense that I jettison my other professional goals and enrol in medical school? Would I—that is, the part of me that is actually experiencing my life—be the true cause of these developments?  Every moment of conscious effort—every thought, intention, and decision—will have been caused by events of which I am not conscious.  Where is the freedom in this?

  • Determinism does not undercut the human concept of “love”, yet assists in a better understanding of “hate”:

What many people seem to be missing is the positive side of these truths.  Seeing through the illusion of free will does not undercut the reality of love, for example—because loving other people is not a matter of fixating on the underlying causes of their behaviour.  Rather, it is a matter of caring about them as people and enjoying their company.  We want those we love to be happy, and we want to feel the way we feel in their presence.  The difference between happiness and suffering does not depend on free will—indeed, it has no logical relationship to it (but then, nothing does, because the very idea of free will makes no sense).  In loving others, and in seeking happiness ourselves, we are primarily concerned with the character of conscious experience.

Hatred, however, is powerfully governed by the illusion that those we hate could (and should) behave differently.  We don’t hate storms, avalanches, mosquitoes, or flu.  We might use the term “hatred” to describe our aversion to the suffering these things cause us—but we are prone to hate other human beings in a very different sense.  True hatred requires that we view our enemy as the ultimate author of his thoughts and actions.  Love demands only that we care about our friends and find happiness in their company.  It may be hard to see this truth at first, but I encourage everyone to keep looking.  It is one of the more beautiful asymmetries to be found anywhere.

Harris differs from Daniel Dennett, who defends “free will” simply by redefining its terms:

Fans of Dan’s account—and there are many—seem to miss my primary purpose in writing about free will.  My goal is to show how the traditional notion is flawed, and to point out the consequences of our being taken in by it.  Whenever Dan discusses free will, he bypasses the traditional idea and offers a revised version that he believes to be the only one “worth wanting.”  Dan insists that this conceptual refinement is a great strength of his approach, analogous to other manoeuvres in science and philosophy that allow us to get past how things seem so that we can discover how they actually are.  I do not agree.  From my point of view, he has simply changed the subject in a way that either confuses people or lets them off the hook too easily.

Sam Harris lectures on the illusion of free will

Caltech, 2012:

Festival of Dangerous Ideas, Sydney Opera House, 2012:

Bon Mot Book Club, Vancouver, 2012:

Reddit.com Q&A, 2011:

David Robertson’s Fleabytes: On Science and Faith

13/11/2010

manicstreetpreacher is back.  Yeah, baby!

Hello again the blogosphere!  It has been a good few months since my last post ruminating on my blogging burnout, but the manicstreetpreacher has psychologically recovered more or less and the iconoclastic fire is beginning to burn again in his soul.

I have been tempted to blog on a number of topics in my time away, but after 119 posts and innumerable hours on other blogs and debate forums, I was beginning run out of topics to write about and nothing was exciting me anymore.  However, one area that has escaped my net thus far is the question of religious education of children.  With this post, I kill two birds with one stone by blogging on a previously untouched topic and taking a pop at an old adversary.

Pastor David Robertson of St Peter’s Free Church of Scotland, Dundee is an ardent opponent of the New Atheism and author of The Dawkins Letters: Challenging Atheist Myths, a Christian response to Richard Dawkins’ 2006 anti-religious polemic, The God Delusion.

After hearing his first two appearances on Premier Christian Radio’s sceptics’ debate show, Unbelievable? I penned a vitriolic open letter and had an exchange of emails that turned from rather angry to really quite civilised before finally debating him in September 2009 on the show on religious debate online and whether Europe should be atheist or Christian along with Christian convert, Richard Morgan.

During my sabbatical I have been following Robertson’s own blog and in particular his “Fleabytes” series of YouTube videos in reply to Dawkins’ Channel 4 series, Root of All Evil? (Google Video links: Part I / Part II).

I registered for a user account with the St Peter’s Church website under my usual Internet moniker so that I could post replies to these videos, but my application was not approved.  I was not provided with an explanation, despite emailing the site’s administrator, copying in Robertson himself to that email.

Since I have not been allowed to post on Robertson’s website directly, below is a copy of the reply I had intended to post:

Dear David

I have been watching these instalments with fascination.  If you really believe that Christian faith is based on evidence and – as you state quite categorically in your book – the moment that evidence is disproved you will cease to believe, then I take it you must teach the young members of your congregation to think about the things that ought to make them stop believing in Christianity.

Some religious people claim that trust in science and particular Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection is as much a faith claim as belief in a personal creator God.  I must point out to you that science is self-validating and scientists are constantly striving to prove each other wrong, and even themselves wrong.  Stephen Hawking jokes that he became famous for proving that the universe and space time began with a singularity known as the “Big Bang” and then he became famous again for proving that the universe and space time didn’t begin with the Big Bang.

While I appreciate that you “don’t know and don’t care” about the scientific truth of evolution (while still ridiculing Richard Dawkins’ main argument in The God Delusion as amounting to nothing more than “evolution is true, therefore God does not exist” and asserting that Darwin’s idea of “favoured races” inspired Hitler’s eugenics and Stalin’s atrocities with the other side of your face), Darwin in fact dedicated an entire chapter in The Origins of Species discussing the potential problems with his theory and stated in no uncertain terms what would be required to disprove it:

If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed, which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down. But I can find out no such case.

As you can see, Darwin is explicating laying down the gauntlet to his opponents and saying “Come and have a go if you think you’re smart enough”, and even providing them with the weapons to defeat him.  Over 150 years later, no one has managed to do so.

Continuing is this vein of self-scrutiny and the constant quest for falsification, I expect you provide the children in your congregation with the tools to examine critically their Christian faith.  For example, they ought to consider whether:

  1. an all-good, all-loving God would be so intent on remaining hidden from his treasured creations.  After all, it has been said that the invisible and the non-existent look very similar.
  2. there is any more evidence to support the Gospels’ account of Christ’s resurrection than Almighty Zeus sending his only begotten son Perseus to Earth to wield his big, strong weapon to slay Medusa and rid humanity of the Kraken.  If you can’t believe what you saw this morning on a bastion of daily journalism such as Sky News, how can you accept something that was written two-three thousand years ago by people who were primitive by our standards, decades after the events they purport to describe and copied and recopied by scribes who were careless or grinding their own theological axes?
  3. all New Testament scholars see the basic Gospel narratives as an accurate depiction of history.  For example, Robin Lane Fox’s The Unauthorized Version describes Luke’s nativity as “historically impossible and internally incoherent”, particularly in relation to the apparent fabrication of a Roman census that had the onerous requirement for the population to return to their town of origin.
  4. the miracles of Jesus reported in a two thousand year old text are any more believable than those allegedly performed by today’s charlatan gurus and mystics that are testified as authentic by thousands upon thousands of devoted followers – including many Western educated people – and available to view on the modern miracle of YouTube.
  5. there is any evidence outside the text to confirm the events of the Old Testament, in particular the Israelites’ Exodus from Egypt.  Biblical “maximalists” such as James Hoffmeier and Kenneth Kitchen are satisfied that the  stories of Moses and Joshua are historically accurate, however, “minimalists” such Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman have declared that there is no corroborating evidence whatsoever for these stories and have consigned them to the same mythical status as Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table.  How come we do not see such disagreements in relation to other historical characters such as Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan?
  6. double-blind controlled experiments on the effectiveness of intercessory prayer show that Christian prayers have an objectively higher success rate than those of other religions.
  7. one child being plucked from the sea following a plane crash that killed 153 really constitutes a divine miracle as the girl’s family claimed.
  8. if there is a divine link between morality and metrology, as the then Bishop of Carlisle pronounced in July 2007 blaming the recent floods in Northern Yorkshire on gay marriage, then why don’t we see a few more tidal waves crashing down the centre of Manchester’s Canal Street during Pride?
  9. regardless of whether the resurrection is an historical fact, the Pope is morally right to go to sub-Saharan Africa, where 2 – 3 million people die of HIV/AIDS in any one year and actually say words to the effect, “AIDS might be bad, but condoms might be worse”.
  10. they ought to view programmes like Root of All Evil? and read books like The God Delusion for themselves without any prior input from your good self, their religious parents or school teachers.

Please understand that I am not claiming that I hold the correct view on any of these issues; I am merely advocating them as food for thought for you and your flock.  I therefore look forward to the fly-on-wall episode showing one of your Sunday school classes discussing these very points.

With best wishes for Christmas and 2011 to you, your family and your congregation

manicstreetpreacher

Stephen Law’s ‘Evil God’ Challenge

03/05/2010

The Saturday, 1 May 2010 edition of Premier Christian Radio’s Unbelievable? is well worth a listen for philosopher Stephen Law’s ‘Evil God’ Challenge: Why is it more reasonable to believe in an all-good god than to believe in an all-evil god?

Law’s opponent on Unbelievable? was Denis Alexander of The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion.  You can download the PDF of Law’s paper.  Scanning the blogosphere, Luke over at Common Sense Atheism has published two discussions of Law’s challenge:  Part 1 discusses the ‘Evil God’ Challenge itself, while Part 2 gives some Christian responses.

It is hard to see why an all-powerful, all-good God would unleash so much suffering upon the sentient creatures of Earth over hundreds of millions of years.  Why not posit an all-powerful, all-evil God to explain all this suffering, as many religions have done?

In defence of the Evil God hypothesis, we can use reverse versions of the theodicies that Christians use to defend the Good God hypothesis:

  1. Free will. Evil God gave us free will, so we sometimes choose to do good, even though Evil God hates it.  And free will also allows us to be morally responsible for evil acts, which Evil God loves.  He could have made us into puppets that only do evil, but then he would not have the pleasure of seeing us choose evil.  To maximise evil, Evil God designed us so that we can perform evil acts from our own will.
  2. Character-destroying. Why does Evil God create some beautiful things?  For contrast.  To make the ugly things look uglier.  Why does Evil God make some of us unusually healthy and wealthy?  To make the suffering of the sick and poor even greater.  Why does Evil God let us have children that love us unconditionally?  So that we will worry endlessly about them.
  3. First order goods allow second order evils.  Some evils require certain goods to exist.  For example, jealousy could not exist without there being someone who has something good for you to be jealous about.  Evil God had to give some of us good things so that the rest of us could feel jealousy.
  4. Mystery.  Evil God has a plan for how all the apparent goods in the world will ultimately lead to maximal evil, but Evil God is so far beyond our reasoning ability that we cannot understand his plan.

The ‘Evil God’ Challenge is an ingenious exposition of how utterly vacuous theology is as an academic subject.  The theologians’ conclusions have been arrived at before they have conducted any research or put pen to paper.  They invent various models of gods out of something that does not even qualify as thin air and move the essential characteristics of that god around like the rows on a Rubik’s Cube so that their god is logically consistent and broadly conforms to the empirical facts of the universe.

However, like characters in a computer game with superhuman powers, the models of these gods have little application to the real world.  They exist very much in a world called “virtual reality”.

Michael Specter at TED 2010: The danger of science denial

24/04/2010

I end my brief blogging sabbatical by posting this superb lecture I saw from the TED podcast a couple of weeks ago.

Vaccine-autism claims, “Frankenfood” bans, the herbal cure craze: all point to the public’s growing fear (and, often, outright denial) of science and reason, says Michael Specter.  He warns the trend spells disaster for human progress.

TED link

RichardDawkins.net page

Common Sense Atheism page

Michael Specter’s homepage

Michael Specter’s Wikipedia page

Michael Specter: Authors@Google

Evolution: Special Investigation

17/01/2010

manicstreetpreacher is pleased to report that NonStampCollector has done it again!

At the end of last year, I compiled the best of Aussie YouTube genius, NonStampCollector.  I am thrilled that the turning of the new decade has only enhanced his satirical skills when it comes to all things theocratus lunaticras.  Watch the video below which reconstructs a typical creationist interview with an atheist evolutionary scientist.  P Z  Myers has described it as “Every creationist argument I’ve ever had” and the video has also been posted on RichardDawkins.net.

Enjoy:

The clip is based on P Z Myer’s infamous radio debate in 2008 against Discovery Institute hack Geoffrey Simmons: someone with doctoral qualifications who didn’t know the scientific meaning of the word theory, and used it as a pejorative.  Quite a few elements of the script clearly came from that exchange (whales, ignorance, etc.).  See the relevant threads on Pharyngula and RichardDawkins.net: apparently there was a thread briefly posted on William Dembski’s blog Uncommon Descent where the commenters handed the debate to Myers, even though they disagreed with his point of view!

No wonder Richard Dawkins refuses to debate creationists!

Victor Stenger debates William Lane Craig on the existence of God: Transcript of Stenger’s main speeches

20/12/2009

Another manicstreetpreacher post where the clue is in the title

American cosmologist Victor J Stenger, author of Has Science Found God? and God, the Failed Hypothesis debated the motion “Is there a God?” against Christian apologist William Lane Craig at the University of Hawaii in 2003.  You can read my analysis of the debate on another post.

The YouTube video (which goes to audio-only for the cross-examination, closing statements and audience Q&A) starts here:

The whole debate is available to download as an MP3 audio.

I found a transcript of Stenger’s three main speeches, to which I have updated and revised for inaccuracies.  No need to post Craig’s transcript.  He doesn’t say anything you haven’t heard a million times before or since!

Opening Statement: 20 minutes

There Is No God

Well, aloha.  It’s certainly wonderful to be back in Hawaii where Phyllis and I spent so many happy years.  Our children were both born in Hawaii, both graduated here from the University of Hawaii, and it’s certainly great to be back.  In fact, it’s almost exactly forty years to the day that we first landed in Hawaii and this is the first time we’ve actually visited Hawaii in all that time.  And so we’re here as tourists and now I can understand why so many people keep coming back to visit Hawaii.

I would like to express thanks to Keli’i and the other organizers and the sponsors of this debate for inviting me.  It’s certainly an honor to share the platform with William Lane Craig.  I’ve read that he is one of the world’s foremost Christian apologists and he’s given ample evidence of that today.

In his opening remarks, Dr Craig has appealed to your common sense.  You know what common sense is.   Common sense is the human faculty which tells us that the Earth is flat.   On the other hand, objective observation tells us that the Earth is round.

In tonight’s debate, I will argue that objective observation as well as reason and logic lead to the conclusion that a God with the traditional attributes of the Christian God does not exist beyond a shadow of a doubt.

I will give four arguments to support my position.

1. Attributes are self-contradictory

The attributes of the Christian God are self-contradictory.  They are like a square circle.

2. Attributes incompatible with what is known

The attributes of the Christian God are inconsistent with what we know about the world.

3. Naturalism is a better explanation than supernaturalism

Supernatural explanations for events in the universe are unnecessary.  Natural explanations are simpler, are based on objective observations, and are fully consistent with all we know about the world.

4. God’s actions should be observable but are not

The attributes of the Christian God imply actions that should be objectively observable.  But they are not.  God has not been detected.

Attributes of God

Let me list a set of attributes that are traditionally associated with the God of the monotheistic religions, but particularly Christianity:

  1. He is the creator of the universe.
  2. He is immaterial and transcendent.
  3. He is all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good.
  4. He is perfect in every way.
  5. Furthermore, God is a person.  He loves humans and wishes us to know him.
  6. He is forgiving and merciful.
  7. He speaks to humans, revealing truths to us that we would not otherwise know.
  8. He answers our prayers, as he sees fit.
  9. He performs miracles, violating natural laws.

Incompatible attributes

Many philosophers have argued that the traditional attributes of God are logically incompatible. Here are just a few of these:

  1. Perfect –v- Creator.  If God is perfect, then he has no needs or wants.  This is incompatible with the notion that God created the universe for some divine purpose.  Divine purpose implies that God wants something he doesn’t already have, which makes him imperfect.
  2. Transcendent –v- Omnipresent.  How can a God beyond space and time be at the same time everywhere within space and time at the same time?
  3. Just –v- Merciful.  To be just means to treat a person exactly as they deserve. To be merciful means to treat a person better than they deserve. You can’t do both.
  4. Immaterial –v- Personal.  To be a person is to have a material body, to have a brain, to have a mouth that you speak with and so on.

So a God with these attributes and many of the other attributes traditionally assigned to him does not exist.

Existence of non-belief

The God of monotheism also has attributes that are inconsistent with what we know about the world.  For example, an all-powerful, all-knowing God who also has the attribute of wanting all humans to know and love him is inconsistent with the fact that there are non-believers in the world.

The Problem of Evil

Perhaps the most ancient and strongest of the arguments for God’s non-existence is the problem of evil.  An all-good, all-powerful, all-knowing God is simply inconsistent with the fact of evil and gratuitous suffering in the world.

God’s reasons for evil and suffering

Theologians have, of course, grappled with the problem of evil for centuries, and they still do.  For example, a prominent contemporary theologian Richard Swinburne says of the problem of evil:

If the world was without any natural evil and suffering we wouldn’t have the opportunity… to show courage, patience and sympathy.

Certainly, pain has a role in warning us of illness or injury.

Is so much suffering necessary?

But does God really need so much suffering to achieve his ends?  Is there any good purpose behind so many children dying every day in the world of starvation and disease; perhaps one every few seconds?  How are they helped by the rest of us becoming more sympathetic?

Logically consistent gods

Dr Craig and many other theologians have spent their lives building models of God that are logically consistent and at the same time in broad agreement with the traditional teachings of Christianity.

This has mainly consisted in trimming God’s characteristics one by one until he is defined mostly in the negative: non-material, not in space or time, not seen or heard.  Apologists have reduced God to an almost undetectable background: something like what we physicists used to call “the aether”, until we found that the aether doesn’t exist either.

I have no doubt that a logically consistent picture of some kind of God can be devised and I never claimed to disprove the existence of every conceivable God, that’s why I’ve been very careful to focus on the God with the traditional attributes of Christianity and to certain extent the other monotheistic religions as well.  While it’s possible to create a logically consistent God, I seriously doubt that this God can be made consistent with Christianity.

Computer games

In any case, these theologians and their logical consistent Gods remind me of the creators of computer games.  Programmers invent whole new universes in which the characters have all kinds of superhuman powers and many of our familiar laws of physics are violated.  Yet the rules these games are logically consistent.  They wouldn’t run on a computer if they weren’t.  But the computer game universes have little connection to the universe we see around us.  They exist in what is called “virtual reality”.

God’s actions should be observable, but are not

Just because something is logically consistent, it doesn’t necessarily follow that it exists.  For the theologians’ logically consistent God to actually exist, he must have something to do with the observed universe; some attributes that can be objectively observed.  Otherwise God is as useless as the aether.

Naturalism is a better explanation than supernaturalism

Even if a God can be devised who is consistent with logic and with observations, natural explanations for phenomena are still better than supernatural ones.  They better explain the existence of non-believers.  They also better explain the existence of believers.  They explain the existence of evil and gratuitous suffering as the unfortunate results of evolution.  They better explain the origin and structure of the universe of life, and mind.  And these notions are based on objective observations and theories that are testable.

Supernaturalism offers no explanation at all except “God did it”.  And to say “God did it”, as Dr Craig does, passes on no more information than to say “Santa Claus did it” or “the Easter Bunny did it” – it could be any entity.

Most scientists do not believe

Only seven percent of the members of the National Academy of Sciences believe in the personal God worshipped by perhaps 80 – 90 percent of other Americans.  Most scientists don’t believe in God because they don’t see any objective evidence for him!  When they look at the world around them, they see no sign of God.  They don’t see God when they peer through their most powerful telescopes.  They don’t detect God with their most sophisticated microscopes and other instruments.  Furthermore, scientists find no need to introduce God or the supernatural in any form into any of their explanatory theories.

Here are a few of the famous scientists who have been outspoken in their non-belief: Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking, Richard Feynman, Stephen Jay Gould, Francis Crick; the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, Steven Weinberg; perhaps the greatest living theoretical physicist, and the incomparable Carl Sagan.  Let me add that none of these scientists would not believe if they were present with sufficient evidence.

Objectively observable actions of God

A God with the attributes I have listed implies phenomena that should have been easily observable by now.  For example, let us consider three actions: revelation, prayers, and miracles.  Let’s begin with revelation.

Revelation

Most people believe in a God who has a substantial and detectable role in the universe and in human affairs.  One common characteristic attributed to this God is that he communicates with humans and provides them with verifiable new knowledge.

The theistic religions have traditionally taught that God speaks to humanity.  Their scriptures are widely assumed to be the word of God and he’s believed to have revealed knowledge to religious leaders in the past that they would otherwise not have known.  Many believe that God still does this today, speaking even to the average person.

Revelation is verifiable

Surprisingly, these claims can be easily verified­ if they are true.  All we have to do is find some fact supposedly gained by divine revelation that was unknown at the time of the revelation, and then confirm this fact at a later time.

For example, suppose the Bible had predicted that men would walk on the moon in two thousand years.  Then we would have a rational basis to take seriously what else is written in the Bible.  Unfortunately, we do not.

No revelations

No revelation of previously unknown knowledge has ever been empirically validated.

The scriptures contain nothing that could not have been known to or imagined by the ancients who wrote them.  The Bible reads exactly as we would expect it to read, based on existing knowledge at the time it was composed.

Failed revelations

Furthermore, there are many examples of the failure to confirm of Biblical revelations.  Consider the failed prophecy of the Second Coming:

In Matthew 24: 30 Jesus says, “They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory.”  And a few verses later he says, “I will tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.” (Matthew 24: 34)

Well, we’re still waiting.  It was supposed to happen 2,000 years ago.  It’s time to give up and move on.

All in the head

Those who have claimed to talk to God have provided no knowledge that was not already in their heads.  Many people have claimed religious experiences in which they felt the presence of God, but they never return from those experiences with any exceptional knowledge that could easily verify their claim.  What I’m saying is that there is a way that God can be detected, and this is one of them and has not been.

Furthermore, religious experiences can be induced in the brain by drugs, electromagnetic pulses, and oxygen deprivation.  For example, when pilots undergoing high-G training in a centrifuge, they will often experience a kind of tunneling of their vision, narrowing of their vision with the “light at the end of the tunnel” that is characteristic of the near-death experience that is supposed to happen with the religious significance.

Does God choose to hide?

You might say that God has chosen to hide himself from us.  He certainly has – if he exists has – hidden himself from us.

However, Saint Paul makes it very clear that even though God is invisible, his nature and diet have been clearly perceived in the things that have been made.  In other words, God may be invisible, but his actions are visible.

[Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely his eternal power and deity, have been clearly perceived in the things that have been made.

– Romans 1: 20]

In other words, God may be invisible but his actions are visible.  Theists might respond that God’s actions are obvious to those who wish to see them.  Well, I would love to see them, but they are not obvious to me, or to the millions of other non-believers in the world.

Prayers and miracles

Another commonly believed attribute of God is that he listens to entreaties from humans to change the natural course of events.  He can be expected to grant a sufficient number of these requests so that the results should be observable.  Otherwise, what’s the point in praying?

Many people will testify that they’ve had prayers answered.  But personal testimony is insufficient since it doesn’t rule out other more mundane, simpler, natural explanations.  For example, if someone is ill and then recovers after praying, it could be that the prayers had nothing to do with it.  After all, the body, sometimes with medical help, does a pretty good job of healing itself.  In fact, it works every time except once – the last time.

If prayer had value in healing we’d have doctors prescribing Prayer Aspirin. “Say three ‘Our Fathers’ and four ‘Hail Marys’ and call me in the morning.”

Convincing evidence for a God who answers prayers can, in principle, be scientifically demonstrated – it’s not impossible – with high probability if he really exists.  Well-designed experiments on intercessory prayer should turn up solid, statistically significant results on the success of prayer in healing.

In fact, some studies claiming positive effects of prayer have been published in refereed medical journals to great media hoopla.  However, you can’t rely on media reports but need to look at the actual published papers.  Applying the same criteria that are used in conventional science when testing extraordinary claims, you’ll find that none of the reported effects is significant.  Furthermore, most of these experiments are severely flawed and none of the claimed positive effects have ever been successfully replicated.

Mayo Clinic Study (2001)

Perhaps the best study was done by the Mayo Clinic a few years ago.  They studied some 800 patients over a period of half a year.  The patients – they were coronary patients – were divided up into two groups, some prayed for, some not prayed for, and the results were no significant effect that would suggest that prayer had any good whatsoever.

[The results of 26 weeks of intercessory prayer, a widely practiced complementary therapy, were studied in 799 patients randomized to an intercessory prayer group or to a control group after discharge from a coronary care unit. As delivered in this study, intercessory prayer had no significant effect on specifically defined medical outcomes, regardless of risk status.]

Summary

So let me summarise:

  1. The traditional attributes of God are self-contradictory, so such a God cannot exist.
  2. The traditional attributes of God are incompatible with objective facts about the world. So such a God cannot exist.
  3. Natural explanations are superior to supernatural explanations.  No basis exists for anything supernatural.
  4. The traditional attributes of God imply actions that should be objectively observed, but they’re not.

It’s possible to hypothesize a God whose attributes are logically compatible with each other, but it does not follow that such a God exists unless he has objectively observable consequences.  And as I said no consequences have been observed.

So if God exists, where is he?

First Rebuttal: 12 minutes

I’m going to respond now mainly to Dr Craig’s opening remarks.  However, I will add some further comments on what he has just said.

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence

Carl Sagan said: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”.  He probably wasn’t the first one to say that.  Dr Craig has made the extraordinary claim that certain empirical facts require supernatural explanations.

In order to refute that, all I need to do is provide plausible natural explanations for these phenomena.  I need not prove these.  If he wants to argue that God is required to exist in order to explain the observed universe, Dr Craig must disprove all possible, natural explanations for these phenomena.

Let’s start with his cosmological argument.

Cosmological Argument

Dr Craig argues that:

  1. Whatever begins must have a cause
  2. The universe had a beginning
  3. Therefore the universe must have had a cause

Not everything that begins has a Cause

However, we know from physics that not everything that begins has a cause.  Physical bodies begin to exist all the time without cause.  Let’s consider radioactive decay of an atomic nucleus, the alpha particle or beta particle or gamma particle that are emitted in a radioactive decay, those particles coming into being, come into existence, begin to exist spontaneously, without a cause.  The beginning of the Big Bang the universe was like a subatomic particle, so these ideas could apply.  Again, I can’t prove it but I don’t have to prove it.  Here is one example that refutes Dr Craig’s claim that everything that begins must have a cause.

Is the Big Bang is evidence that the universe had a beginning?

But even if everything that begins has a cause, this does not necessary apply to the universe if the universe did not have a beginning.

Dr Craig argues that the Big Bang is evidence that the universe had a beginning.  However, the universe need not have begun with the Big Bang.  And I’m not just talking about this one particular speculation from my book.  There are many prominent physicists and cosmologists who publish papers in reputable scientific journals proposing various scenarios by which the Big Bang appeared naturally out of a pre-existing universe that need not itself have had a beginning.  One such recent example is the Cyclic Universe.

Does an infinite universe have a beginning?

Dr Craig also claims that the universe had to begin because if it were infinitely old, it would take an infinite time to reach the present.

However, if the universe is infinitely old, then it had no beginning – not a beginning infinitely long ago.  Furthermore, the universe can be finite – and I actually believe that the universe is finite – it can be finite and still not have a beginning.

Universe can be finite and still not have a beginning

Einstein defined time as what you read on a clock.  It’s a number, the number of ticks of the clock.  We count time forward time: one, two, three, four, five ticks.  We never reach infinitive time.  We can also count time backward and never reach minus infinity.  The notion that the universe had either a beginning or will have an end are theological notions, not scientific ones.

Is the universe fine-tuned for life?

Now, what about this fine-tuning argument?  Again, it’s an argument that’s based on the low probability of our kind of life.  And that not only means carbon-based life but also life with the existing physical laws as we know them.  Even if the probability of a particular form of life was highly improbable to have occurred by natural process, some kind of life could still be highly probable.  Probably not silicon – I agree that silicon is a poor candidate – but that’s with our existing laws of physics.

Another form of life might still evolve in a universe with different physical laws or different physical constants.  We simply don’t have the knowledge to rule that out.  To say that there’s only possible form of life and only one possible set of laws of physics and only one possible set of constants is extremely narrow thinking and not at all required by anything that we know about science.

Argument from improbability

In this argument and other arguments about the design in the universe, Dr Craig claims that the universe and life are too improbable to be solely natural.

The improbable happens

However, this is a fallacious argument.  To use probability to decide between two alternatives requires a comparison of the probabilities of each alternative.  Dr Craig claims that these natural probabilities are exceedingly low.  But he hasn’t told us anything about what the supernatural probabilities are and yet it’s a comparison of these two that must be made.

What’s the probability that the laws of nature are violated?  What’s the probability that there’s an all-good, all-powerful, all-knowing but undetectable­ super-being behind all of this?  Complex things are common.  We see natural events every moment.  We’ve never seen a supernatural event.

Furthermore, low probability events happen every day.  What’s the probability that my distinguished opponent exists?  You have to calculate the probability that a particular sperm united with a particular egg, then multiply that by the probability that his parents met, and then repeat that calculation for his grandparents and all his ancestors going back to the beginning of life on Earth.

Even if you stop the calculation with Adam and Eve, you are going to get a fantastically small number.

To use words that Dr Craig has used before, “Improbability is multiplied by improbability by improbability until our minds are reeling in incomprehensible numbers.”

Well, Dr Craig has a mind-reeling, incomprehensibly low probability – a priori probability – for existing.  Yet here he is before us today.

Modern versions of the argument from design – both the fine-tuning argument and the intelligent design argument – share this fatal flaw.  They are based on the idea that natural causes can be ruled out by some arbitrary notion of low probability.

Why is there something rather than nothing?

Dr Craig also asks why is there “something” rather than “nothing”, why does the universe exist rather than “nothing”?

Well, why should “nothing” be a more natural state than “something”?  Why would you expect “nothing” rather than “something”?  In fact, how could “nothing” even exist?  If it existed, wouldn’t it be “something”?

And finally, why is there God rather than “nothing”?  Dr Craig doesn’t answer those questions.

Genesis confirmed?

Dr Craig claims the Big Bang confirms the Biblical view of creation.

Genesis falsified

But what does Genesis actually say?  It says that Earth was created before the sun, moon and stars.  This is at odds with modern cosmology which says that the Earth did not form until seven billion years after the Big Bang.

There are many other disagreements.  Genesis implies that the universe is only about 6,000 years old.  Here’s a picture of a quasar.  The light from this quasar left 12 billion years ago.  Billions and billions of years before the Earth was even formed.

Every one of the thousand or so religions in the world has a creation myth.  Most of them probably resemble modern cosmology as well or better than Genesis.  Here we are in Polynesia and some of the Polynesian myths are more closely resembling to the modern cosmology than Genesis.

Objective morality

Dr Craig calls upon our common sense – our inner feelings – to attest that morality is objective and so must come from God.

Subjective morality

Not everyone shares the same morals.  So, there is no evidence for objective morality.  But, even if morality were objective, its source could be natural: an evolutionary process that aids in human survival and is built into our genes.  I don’t see how Dr Craig has disproved that possibility.

Is the Gospel historical?

Dr Craig claims the Gospel stories describe actual historical events, such as the empty tomb.

The Empty Tomb

There is no evidence for this outside the Bible.  The story of the empty tomb is second and third hand, written years after the event from the oral testimony of supposed eyewitnesses.  Paul did not even know about it, yet Paul regarded the resurrection as very important, yet he didn’t know anything about the empty tomb.  Furthermore, eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable.

But even if the story of the empty tomb is accurate, you could have a simple, natural explanation.  Dr Craig seems to think most scholars don’t believe, but I don’t see how they can know that.

If you went to the Napoleon’s tomb in Paris one morning, and found that his remains were not in their usual place of honour, would you conclude Napoleon had risen bodily into heaven?  Hardly.  You would figure that somebody took the body!  Dr Craig cannot prove that Jesus’ body could not have been removed by somebody.  So that remains a more plausible, natural explanation and a supernatural explanation is not required by the data.

Personal experience of God

On personal experience, Dr Craig says that a personal experience should tell us that God exists.  However, that’s subjective and not everyone shares that experience.

No Evidence for God

So plausible natural explanations exist for all phenomena in the universe and God is not required to explain the universe and so Dr Craig has not proved that God exists.

Closing Remarks: 10 minutes

Dr Craig believes in the God of the Gaps.  That’s the God who is used as a substitute explanation for something that we don’t understand, until the time comes along that we do.  Dr Craig cannot see how the universe came about naturally, so it must have come about supernaturally.  He cannot see how the universe became orderly by natural processes, so order must have come about by supernatural processes.  He cannot see how objective morality can come from humanity, so it must have come from God.  He cannot see how Jesus’ tomb could have been empty, so he must have risen from the dead.  And finally Dr Craig cannot see how his inner experience of God could be a simple physical brain process, so it must be a true experience of God.

In each of these cases we can give a plausible, natural explanation that violates no known principles of science and requires no divine action.  Dr Craig does not succeed in proving that these natural explanations are wrong; he tries to argue that they are implausible but in fact everything I’ve talked about is consistent with all the knowledge we have in science and is in perfect agreement with existing experimental and theoretical facts.  So I don’t think Dr Craig succeeds in proving that God exists.

But even if the goal of the debate were not proof, but simply arguing to the best explanation, Dr Craig fails: secular humanism or materialism is a better explanation than theism or supernaturalism.  It’s simpler, more consistent with empirical observations. In fact, Dr Craig offers no explanations at all.  It’s not an explanation for the order the universe to say, “God did it”.  How did God do it?  Where did God come from?  All you do when you say that “God did it” is you push the explanation back one level; it doesn’t explain a thing.

I’ve argued that a God with the attributes assumed by traditional theism can be proved not to exist if those attributes of course exist.  You can play with the attributes.  You can redefine God so that he doesn’t have all these attributes.  For example, an all good God might not be all perfect or all powerful let’s say and then is not responsible for evil, doesn’t have control over evil.  In fact, that was a line that was taken by Rabbi Kushner in his best-selling book When Bad Things Happen to Good People that God can’t help it – that bad things just happen.  However, if you assume that God has the power to prevent evil then the fact that he doesn’t and evil still exists is clearly an inconsistency – a logically impossibility.

A God who reveals knowledge about the universe that was not previously known could have been objectively verified.  A God with such properties clearly does not exist.  The God who answers prayers and performs miracles that can be objectively verified does not exist.  I readily admit that I can’t disprove every conceivable God.  But there’s no basis for believing in a God who does not produce objectively verifiable attributes.

I’m sure that I’ve not convinced many of the believers in the audience; I certainly haven’t convinced Dr Craig.  You’ll testify as Dr Craig does that you can feel the presence of God in your hearts.  Now I’m sure you do.  I understand that conviction.  I was raised in a devout Catholic family and heard this conviction expressed by almost everybody around me.  But as I grew up, I found that I could not share this faith.  Despite the importance of religion to my family and friends, I could not believe in God because I saw no evidence that he existed.  No one told me about humanism or atheism – I read no humanist or atheist books – I just found that the arguments and evidence that everybody continued to cite to me were unconvincing.  Not knowing how all this came about doesn’t mean that it came from God, it just means that we don’t know how all this came about.  And sincere personal testimonies of deeply held faith were not the sort of objective evidence that we have come to rely on in modern life.  Indeed, I saw so many conflicting religious points of view all based on primitive, superstitious ideas that I knew that they couldn’t all be right.  I decided most likely they were all wrong.

Most scientists share my view.  Are we being too sceptical?  Are we being dogmatically unwilling to entertain the possibility of a personal creator God?  I don’t think so.  There are many examples in the history of science that demonstrate its willingness accept ideas that challenge conventional wisdom.  But the data must require it.  In the early twentieth century the theories of relativity and quantum mechanics revolutionised some our most basic concepts about the nature of reality.  I think most scientists would be thrilled if evidence were founded for previously undetected materials and forces.  Think of all the funding opportunities that would open up.  I would come out of retirement.  But even if that were to happen, I doubt that the world that was then being uncovered would bear any resemblance to the fantasies from the childhood of humanity that constitute traditional religious belief.

People like what they see when they look in the mirror illuminated by the light of faith.  It reflects an image of themselves as fallen angels who sit on this planet with divine purpose to rehabilitate themselves so they may rejoin their fellow angels in paradise.  Unfortunately, the universe exposed to the light of science does not reveal a special place for humanity in the cosmos or any prospect for life after death.  I would not honest if I tried to sugar coat those facts just because they conflict so dramatically with common yearnings.

Saint Paul said, “When I was a child, I thought as a child, I understood as a child.  But when I became a man, I put away childish things, for now we see through a glass darkly.”  Humanity has moved beyond childhood.  We no longer need to depend on imaginary friends for company or a mythical sky father to provide for our needs.  We can take care of ourselves.  We can find ways to live our lives that are consistent with the universe revealed to us by science.

Finally, an all good, all powerful, all knowing God – if one existed – he would have the power to comfort a child dying an excruciating death from leukaemia.  He chooses not to do so.  Is there a person in this room who would not ease that child’s suffering given the power?  I would do it.  Jesus Christ could appear before me and tell me not to do it because it has some ultimate purpose, I WOULD STILL DO IT!  Even if I faced eternal damnation I would do it…

Victor Stenger debates William Lane Craig on the existence of God

20/12/2009

manicstreetpreacher analyses an occasion where for once William Lane Craig gets a proper pasting.

I have referred to this debate countless times on my own blog and comments on other blogs that I thought it was high time I supplied all the links together with all my comments in one post.

Victor J Stenger, American cosmologist, atheist and author of Has Science Found God? The Latest Result for the Search for Purpose in the Universe and God, The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist debates Christian apologist William Lane Craig at the University of Hawaii in 2003 on the motion “Is there a God?”

The YouTube video (which goes to audio-only for the cross-examination, closing statements and audience Q&A) starts here:

The whole debate is available to download as an MP3 audio.

Analysis

Opinions among the commenters at Debunking Christianity and on YouTube are divided, but personally, I think for once Craig received an absolute flogging!  Stenger may not be a great showman, but what he lacks in flare, he more than adequately makes up for in authority and clarity.

William Lane Craig ought to be easy to beat in a debate since he uses exactly the same arguments every time, but frustratingly he is not.  This is due in part to many of his opponents failing to research his arguments and tactics properly, but also because Craig has a range of dirty tricks up his sleeve.  One of such dirty trick is to shift the burden of proof onto his opponent when he is the one making the positive claims.

However, Stenger skilfully refutes every single one of Craig’s lame “arguments” and presents positive reasons for non-belief over and above mere the absence of evidence for God.  Craig fails to respond to three quarters of Stenger’s opening address: the failures of revelation, the ineffectiveness of prayer, the existence of non-believers, and the absence of special knowledge in the Bible.  Stenger even trashes him in areas that one would think would not his forte, such biblical scholarship.

In his first rebuttal Craig actually agrees with Stenger that naturalistic explanations are preferable to supernatural explanations, but then argues that when naturalism falls short, we have no alternative but to resort to a supernatural explanation.

So basically Craig’s cosmology boils down to, “The zeros after the decimal point are too many, it’s all too complex and improbable for my tiny mind…  I’VE GOT IT!!!  It must have been The Thing That Made The Things For Which There Is No Known Maker!”

Stenger runs so many rings around Craig that this is the only debate where I have not heard Craig finish his closing statement by preaching to the audience how JC changed his life forever and that they should try reading the New Testament as well.

Make sure you listen to the tape all the way through to the Q & A after closing statements because Stenger even manages to steamroller Craig on his biblical scholarship thus: “Dr Craig continually talks about ‘majorities of scholars’.  I don’t know where he takes these polls.  Does he take them at Bob Jones University?!”  Genius!

Highlights

I’ve published the transcript of Stenger’s three main speeches on another post, but listen carefully at the following points on the audio where Stenger produces some real gems:

32 minutes Stenger demonstrates philosophically that the mere existence of the universe is evidence against God!
38 minutes Stenger points out that saying “God did it” is about as useful as saying “Santa Claus did it”.
39 minutes Stenger sticks two fingers up to NOMA by informing us that the world’s greatest scientists do not see God with their telescopes, microscopes and other powerful instruments.
42 minutes Stenger points out that we’ve waited too long for JC’s Second Coming and it just ain’t gonna happen.
46 minutes Stenger cites the failed double-blind prayer experiments and imagines an alternative universe where doctors prescribe “prayer aspirin”.
68 minutes Stenger rubbishes Craig’s argument from improbability by asking what is the probability of God and then showing that every person’s very existence is stupendously improbable without requiring any supernatural aid.
70 minutes Stenger asks why we would automatically expect “nothing” rather than “something” if God does not exist and why there is God rather than nothing.
71 minutes Stenger puts paid the notion that modern cosmology confirms Genesis (!).
102 minutes Stenger exposes Craig’s “arguments” as nothing more than gap theology.
108 minutes Stenger would come out of retirement at the prospect of the all the funding opportunities that scientists would be presented with if evidence of a personal creator God were discovered.
110 minutes Stenger movingly shows up Craig’s rancid theodicy for what it is by saying that he would gladly accept eternal punishment if he could stop the suffering of a child dying in agony of leukaemia if he had the power.  So why won’t God?
114 minutes Stenger floors Craig on his argument from “the universal opinion of modern scholarship”.
122 minutes Stenger wonders how the hell Craig can possibly know what he has just said!
143 minutes Stenger quotes the Good Book to show that God admits that he is the cause of evil (Isaiah 45: 7).  Further along Craig appeals to “context” and “translation” to show that the passage should not be taken literally.  The King James Version is not the inerrant edition of the Bible, I take it?  Biblical scholarship FAIL!
152 minutes Stenger tells Craig that most of the evil and suffering in the world most certainly does not come from humans.  And child torture and the Holocaust are wrong.  With or without God.

Finally!  One of Craig’s opponents who actually did his homework, which alas Christopher Hitchens did not.  Why, I do not know.  Hitchens bangs on about how great Stenger’s God, The Failed Hypothesis is and even wrote the foreword for the paperback edition.  He ought to have re-read it in preparation for meeting Craig, since Stenger demolishes Craig’s arguments within its pages!

Stenger and the New Atheism

Stenger has recently published a booked called The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason where he summarises the arguments of Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens and his own in the God debate as well as the often underhanded attempts by religious apologists to refute them, such as misrepresenting what they actually say and quote-mining prominent atheist scientists to give the impression that they support theism.

I haven’t read Stenger’s new book for myself, but I’d recommend this recent lecture where he comments that he refuted Craig’s cosmological argument during their live debate on the basis that Stephen Hawking in A Brief History of Time recanted his and Roger Penrose’s earlier thesis and now state that the universe did not begin with a singularity known as the “Big Bang”.  According to Stenger, Craig is clearly “lying” to his scientifically ignorant audiences by continuing to use the Kalam Cosmological Argument.

William Lane Craig and evolution

In years gone by Craig has been non-committal about his belief in the truth of Darwinian evolution.  In his 2007 debate in London against British embryologist Lewis Wolpert, author of Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast: The Evolutionary Origins of Belief, Craig stated that he neither believed nor disbelieved in evolution, but reserved his opinion on the grounds that the evolution of Homo sapiens may have been so “improbable” that there simply isn’t enough time for the process to be completed before the sun burnt out.

As Wolpert pointed out at the time, this is complete nonsense.  However, in the last year or so Craig has hardened his scepticism towards evolution and has turned around its plausibility as only he knows how.  During his debate against Christopher Hitchens at Biola University in April, Craig cited John Barrow and Frank Tipler’s The Anthropic Cosmological Principle stating that there were ten stages in human evolution each of which were so “improbable” (!) that the amount of time required to complete the process would be so great that our sun would have ceased to become a main sequence star and exploded into a red giant.

In Craig’s world, if evolution did occur it would quite literally be a miracle and therefore evidence for God’s existence.  This next clip is from another event, but it is virtually identical to what Craig said in his debate against Hitchens:

Since then, Craig has become what he claims a tentative advocate of Intelligent Design “Theory” and debated theistic evolutionary scientist Francisco Ayala at Indiana University on 5 November 2009.  Contrary to the fawning opinions of certain Craigophilies, Ayala did reasonably well against Craig.  I’m not going to review that debate as well but Ayala is a lecturer, not a debater.  And besides, Craig did his job for him by using fallacious reasoning by arguing that end products of unguided genetic mutations are too improbable and therefore an invisible, undetectable, unknowable designer is a rational alternative.

Stenger actually corrected this flawed argument in their debate six years ago.  From Stenger’s first rebuttal:

Argument from improbability

In this argument and other arguments about the design in the universe, Dr Craig claims that the universe and life are too improbable to be solely natural.

The improbable happens

However, this is a fallacious argument.  To use probability to decide between two alternatives requires a comparison of the probabilities of each alternative.  Dr Craig claims that these natural probabilities are exceeding low.  But he hasn’t told us anything about what the supernatural probabilities are and yet it’s a comparison of these two that must be made.

What’s the probability that the laws of nature are violated?  What’s the probability that there’s an all-good, all-powerful, all-knowing but undetectable­ super-being behind all of this?  Complex things are common.  We see natural events every moment.  We’ve never seen a supernatural event.

Furthermore, low probability events happen every day.  What’s the probability that my distinguished opponent exists?  You have to calculate the probability that a particular sperm united with a particular egg, then multiply that by the probability that his parents met, and then repeat that calculation for his grandparents and all his ancestors going back to the beginning of life on Earth.

Even if you stop the calculation with Adam and Eve, you are going to get a fantastically small number.

To use words that Dr Craig has used before, “Improbability is multiplied by improbability by improbability until our minds are reeling in incomprehensible numbers.”

Well, Dr Craig has a mind-reeling, incomprehensibly low probability – a priori probability – for existing.  Yet here he is before us today.

Modern versions of the argument from design – both the fine-tuning argument and the intelligent design argument – share this fatal flaw.  They are based on the idea that natural causes can be ruled out by some arbitrary notion of low probability.

My point is that Craig has been told that his arguments from fine-tuning and improbability are fallacious on many occasions.  Outright dishonesty – in effect, “telling lies for God” – is the only inference to the best explanation we can draw in respect of his pronouncements.