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The Sciences

Debating William Lane Craig

Cosmic VarianceBy Sean CarrollApril 5, 2011 6:23 PM

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William Lane Craig is a philosopher and theologian, most famous for advocating the Kalam cosmological argument for the existence of God. As far as I can tell, he is fairly well-respected in the theology community; I cited him among other people in my recent paper. He's also a frequent participants in debates against atheists. These are slightly weird events; everyone says they're a terrible idea, but everyone seems to willingly participate in them. Personally I think they can be a very useful forum, if done well. Craig recently debated Lawrence Krauss in an event that got a lot of publicity. You can read Craig's post-mortem reflections here; in response, Krauss has offered his own thoughts on how things went down, which are posted at Pharyngula. You can watch the whole thing on YouTube, but be warned it's a long multi-part extravaganza. [embed]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=71ZhJL56bdQ[/embed] As to who won, it's a mixed bag. Craig is a very polished debater, and has his pitch honed to a fine sheen; every sentence makes a succinct point. On the other hand, many of his sentences are simply false. For example, he argues that the universe can't be eternal, because infinity is an self-contradictory notion, because "infinity minus infinity" has no correct answer. This is not an unfair paraphrase. In response, Lawrence was game, but much more impressionistic, with a style more appropriate to a public talk than to a formal debate. It depends on what you're looking for, of course; he did have the advantage of being right. Craig is sufficiently good at debating that atheists are now advising each other to stay away from him for fear of looking bad -- e.g. here and here. I sympathize with the general message -- don't get into something like this unless you know what's coming and are truly prepared -- but not with the final impression, that atheists should just steer clear. We should be good at presenting our arguments, and ready to do so. Craig is wrong about many things, but he's not an out-and-out crackpot like Hugh Ross or Ken Ham. A good debate could be very interesting and helpful to thoughtful people who haven't yet made up their minds. Being correct is already a huge advantage; we should be able to make our side clear using the force of reason, like we're always telling people we do.

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