Debate Analysis: God's Existence (Craig vs. Washington)

12 July 2006

On February 9, 1995, William Lane Craig debated Corey Washington on the question “Does God Exist” at the University of Washington. This debate is available online at this location and is jointly hosted by the Internet Infidels and Leadership University. I will offer a critical analysis of the debate portion, but will omit any discussion of the question and answer period.

Opening Statements

For his opening statement, Craig defended six arguments in favor of theism. These were the Argument from Abstract Objects, The Cosmological Argument, The Teleological Argument, The Moral Argument, The Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, and The Experience of God.

The Argument from Abstract Objects states that God is the plausible metaphysical foundation for the existence of abstract entities. I was quite surprised at Craig’s first argument, for several reasons. First, he does not usually employ the Argument from Abstract Objects either in other debates nor in any of his other writings, to my knowledge. Secondly, it seems to me that this argument is only persuasive to a Platonist (i.e., someone who believes that numbers and other mathematic entities have a corresponding existence in the real world.) Yet, Craig does not seem to be a Platonist; in fact he attempts to discredit Platonism in his book The Kalam Cosmological Argument. For example, he states “And, in fact, the Platonist-realist view is not tenable. It has been decisively discredited by the irresolvable antinomies to which naive Cantorian set theory gives rise.” 1 But, if Craig rejects Platonism, it is hard to see why he should think that abstract entities need to be accounted for by a divine mind. He may be using this argument because Washington is a Platonist himself, but I am not sure if this is the case. But unless Platonism is not needed for the argument to go through, the Argument from Abstract Entities seems both unconvincing and inconsistent with Craig’s own views.

Craig’s Cosmological, Teleological, Moral, and Resurrection arguments are all well-presented and convincing. As for Craig’s argument from the Experience of God, I have mixed ideas about whether this is relevant for the debate. It is an important point that God can be known apart from rational argumentation. However, as Craig himself admits, it isn’t really an argument for God’s existence. Although I can understand Craig’s use of the ‘argument’ for tactical purposes, as far as enhancing his actual case for the existence of God it is not productive.

To start off his opening statement, Washington apparently attempts to establish doubts about Craig’s objectivity. Citing a passage from Knowing the Truth About the Resurrection, Washington points out that Craig believes one can confidently know the resurrection occurred wholly apart from historical evidence, on the basis of personal experience. Thus, Craig asserts that historical evidence is not required for rational affirmation of Christ’s resurrection. Washington writes that “This confuses me because I assume that we’re here to debate this issue seriously. And I assume that we are going to come in a spirit of honesty and a sense of philosophical open-mindedness.”

Unfortunately, this concern of Washington’s is both misplaced and irrelevant to the debate. It is misplaced because Craig is not necessarily saying that evidence cannot persuade him against belief in the resurrection. He is merely pointing out that there are two avenues to knowledge of the resurrection- experiential and evidential. Now, since Craig has experiential convictions that Christ is raised and a confident evidential basis for believing that Christ was raised from the dead, he is indeed quite confident of his beliefs. In other writings Craig seems to claim that the experiential reality of the living Christ basically trumps any evidence which could be adduced against the occurrence of the resurrection, so one may conclude that it is impossible to convince Craig that the resurrection did not occur. However, he also seems to insinuate that an erosion of the historical evidence for the resurrection would weaken his confidence in his own personal experience of Christ, such that he would be less confident that he was not simply delusory. But, he holds (rightly, I think) that in absence of extremely good reasons to reject the resurrection, he is justified in believing that Christ was raised on the basis of his strong experiential knowledge.

But in any case, this is all besides the point. The fact of the matter is that Craig’s objectivity and open-mindedness are not relevant to the debate at hand. The arguments that Craig provides stand or fall on their own, irrespective of Craig’s motivations or approach to the issue. It seems that Washington is illegitimately trying to establish skepticism of Craig’s objectivity when in fact he should be dealing with the arguments that Craig provides, not with Craig’s motivation for providing the arguments or his supposed close-mindedness.

Next, Washington objects to Craig’s strategy of quoting authorities to bolster his arguments. However, I find this charge to be somewhat unfair, for two reasons. First, Craig generally backs up quotations with arguments, so that he is not simply relying on authority to make his case. Secondly, Craig cites relevant authorities who actually do provide support for his case. Not all uses of authority are fallacious. For example, Walton points out that an appropriate citation of an authority can effectively be used to shift the burden of proof, provided that the authority cited has credentials in the relevant field. 2

Washington’s first argument against the existence of God is the “Argument from Harm.” This is essentially the Problem of Evil, and Washington points out that one would expect a world with little or no suffering if an omniscient, omnipotent, and all-good God created the world. Since this is not the case, he concludes that God does not exist.

Washington’s second argument is that God’s existence is contradictory, since it is impossible for Him to act in the world. Washington’s reasoning here is curious. He claims that “As far as I know, it’s common to think of God as an abstract object.” I must admit that I am unaware of where he may have gotten this idea, for I certainly don’t view God as an abstract object, and I have a hard time believing that this view is at all common. Yet, for Washington’s argument here to go through, it is essential that God be construed as an abstract object. He does offer an argument for this idea, stating “God is said to be timeless, and the only timeless things around are abstract objects.” But in fact most theists, including Craig and I, would construe God as a disembodied mind. Unless Washington can show that a disembodied mind, or a timeless mind are impossible, his argument cannot go through.

Washington tries to rebut Craig’s Cosmological Argument using a common strategy. He claims that the argument cannot show that God is omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent, personal, or intervening. I find this response completely unreasonable. The Cosmological need not, and need not be expected to, reveal the existence of the God of classical theism in one fell swoop. Moreover, Washington cannot maintain his atheism in the face of the existence of any sort of God. It is ludicrous for him to concede that there is a Creator of the universe, but complain that the Cosmological Argument does not prove enough.

Additionally, Washington is incorrect that the cause of the universe need not be personal, due to the nature of the cause, as I point out HERE, and as Craig points out in his first rebuttal. Also, the Cosmological Argument does indeed show that God “intervenes”- inasmuch as He has intervened to create the cosmos ex nihilo. In any case, Washington cannot concede so much ground if his atheistic viewpoint is to be intellectually tenable.

Against the Teleological Argument, Washington grants for the sake of argument that the odds of the universe allowing life are quite small. However, he argues that the improbability of an event does not guarantee design- it can simply be coincidence. However, his example of the lottery drawing is misleading. Although it is unlikely for Washington to win the lottery, someone has to win indeed. But his winning the lottery is not specified by any preconditions.

The analogy I would use is a poker hand. Now, any random five cards are equally improbable, but a Royal Flush has specified improbability because a certain five cards represent the most valuable possible hand. Suppose I was sitting down at a poker game at a particularly violent casino, and I was informed by the dealer that, unless I receive a Royal Flush of hearts in my next hand, I will be shot. Now this would be quite disconcerting, since I have played hundreds of games of poker and have yet to receive a Royal Flush, much less a Royal Flush of Hearts. Now suppose that I actually receive a Royal Flush of hearts, which are odds of 2.6 million to one against. After breathing a large sigh of relief, I would suspect a conspiracy. It seems very reasonable to suppose that this dealer was playing a trick on me, and actually purposely dealt me a Royal Flush of hearts. It is important to recognize, however, that 2.6 million to one odds does not even approach the extreme improbability of life-compatible universes. So the inference to design is certainly justified.

First Rebuttals

Against the Argument from Harm, Craig demonstrates that there is no logical incompatibility between God’s existence and the existence of harm. On the Argument against Divine Causality, Craig simply claims that God’s timelessness does not entail that God is an abstract object.

To support the Cosmological Argument, Craig denies that the argument need to demonstrate the full existence of the God of Christian theism, and tries to demonstrate that the cause of the universe must be a personal agent using a form of the principle of determination. To defend the Teleological Argument, Craig claims that the outcome in case of the universe is specified, which is what I claimed previously.

On the Resurrection of Christ, Craig defends himself against Washington’s complaint of close-mindedness. Here Craig would have benefitted by mentioning that Washington’s complaint is essentially an ad hominem attack that has nothing to do with the subject of the debate.

To start off, Washington again tries to undermine Craig’s credibility and objectivity again. As I have already explained, this is at best an ad hominem attack of no relevance.

Next, he tries to support his Argument against Divine Causality, Washington asserts that “…there are basically only two types of things in the world: material and abstract objects. And that’s assumed by all practicing philosophers.” However, this assertion seems to be overstated, at best. Many philosophers support a dualistic view of nature, in which mind is distinct from matter. This may be a minority view, but I actually find dualism (even substance dualism) to a be a philosophically compelling thesis, and this view has able defenders. 3 Thus, Washington will have to do more than assume that matter and abstract objects are the only things that exist.

Washington then reveals that he purposely offered the logical problem of evil in his opening statement, and anticipating Craig’s response, wished to offer the evidential version. This is an understandable strategy. By describing an intensely gruesome viral disease, Washington attempts to demonstrate that it is unreasonable to belief that God has minimized suffering in the world, as an omnibenevolent God would do.

Washington addresses the Argument from Abstract Arguments and dismisses the Experience of God. Against the Moral Argument, Washington suggests Euthyphro’s dilemma- are things good because God commands them or does God command things because they are good? The first possibility is unreasonable because then claiming that God is good is meaningless, since ‘good’ is merely what God commands. The second possibility concedes the existence of objective morals apart from God.

Second Rebuttals

In the second rebuttal, Craig does a poor job of refuting Washington’s evidential Argument from Harm. He continues to try to undermine the logical Argument from Harm, not the evidential one. Furthermore, in order to justify his dismissal of the argument, he attempts to merely establish skepticism about the possibility of our knowing what God’s reasons for harm might be. He does mention that natural evils may be the result of necessary physical processes, and that suffering may lead people to accept God. However, if Craig is to undermine the evidential argument from evil, he must show that these explanations are likely, not simply possible.

In order to counter Euthyphro’s dilemma, Craig replies that good is the very nature of God and that the commands of God flow necessarily out of His moral nature. Thus, the horns of the dilemma are split. I am not sure if this is a good response to the dilemma. However, Craig points out further that Washington has failed to really address the Moral Argument. He must deny one of the premises in order to deny the conclusion.

Washington first tries to deal with the Teleological Argument. He claims “[Craig] said that suppose someone with Mafia connections kept winning the lottery, three or four times in a row. You certainly would suppose it was rigged, and rightly so. But here, you already know somebody is running the lottery. You know someone is out there, you know pulling these numbers already. You don’t know that in the case of the universe.” However, this objection is confused. The Teleological Argument is an argument for the existence of a designer- the example involving Mafia connections is merely meant to show that the improbability must be specified, as it is in the case of the universe (the universe being specified for the possibility of intelligent life.) Returning to my poker analogy, it is true that I should not infer a conspiracy merely because I receive a royal flush. After all, royal flushes do occur. But when the dealer specifies that I will be killed if I do not receive a royal flush, then my receiving a royal flush is indeed grounds for supposing that a trick is being played.

When we look at the structure of the universe, we realize that a multitude of different constants had to be precisely tuned for life to exist at all. The odds are much less than the odds of me receiving a royal flush. Thus, an inference to design is justified, just as it was when I was dealt a royal flush. Washington might still object that in the poker hand I already had knowledge of a dealer. However, the existence of a dealer is not what is being proved by the royal flush- it is the existence of design, a plan, a trick. But if we likewise infer that there is design, a plan, or a trick in the universe, then the designer, planner, or trickster must be supernatural- outside the space-time universe.

On the Argument from Harm, Washington rightly points out that Craig basically concedes the argument by providing “we don’t know why” types of responses. Although I think it is fair for the Christian theist to honestly admit that he cannot explain every instance of evil in the world, he must at least have some good reasons why God would allow evil of various types and degrees in the world. Washington also asks a good question- is God justified in causing/permitting evil in order to achieve the greater good? Washington objects that unrestricted utilitarianism is a questionable moral theory.

However, I find unrestricted utilitarianism to be quite plausible from God’s perspective. Since He is omniscient, He knows exactly what needs to be done for the best net result. Unrestricted utilitarianism is implausible for finite humans because we lack the foresight to truly know the consequences of our actions. Additionally, as Craig points out in his conclusion, God can easily compensate for anyone’s suffering in this world in the afterlife, so utilitarianism may be even more justifiable from His perspective.

Washington attempts to address the Resurrection of Christ with the Humean argument against the possibility of establishing miracles. He compares Christ’s resurrection to ‘President Gerderberg’ ascending to heaven. Since we would not believe the latter on the basis of human testimony, nor should we believe the former. However, as Craig points out in his conclusion, Christ’s resurrection involved a historical-religious context which increases the likelihood of the event, particularly if one already has good reasons for believing that God exists. 4.

Conclusions

For his conclusion, Craig restates his objections to the Argument from Harm and then recaps all of his arguments. At the end, he provides a very brief personal testimony of his own conversion as a teenager. He points out that God can be a living reality, not merely an academic entity.

On the Argument from Harm, Washington states, “All of us have this moral intuition that it’s just wrong to harm an innocent person for a greater good. It’s just wrong. If it’s wrong for us to do it, why would it be good for God to do it?” But what is Washington really suggesting here? Is it better for God to allow the world to be even worse? If God were not to permit/cause suffering, maintains the Christian theist, then the world would be worse than it is. But it seems strange for Washington to be saying that God should allow the world to be worse than it needs to be simply because He would not want to use/permit harm for the greater good. In any case, I don’t think that all of us have such a moral intuition- for example, I don’t have such an intuition. I have an intuition that we should seek for the best overall state of affairs. Although utilitarianism may lead to complicated moral dilemmas, I would simply deny Washington’s intuition.

Washington complains that the majority of suffering caused by natural disasters affects poor and weak people. According to him, if God allows suffering so that our moral character can be improved, then it is mostly the rich and comfortable who will develop their character and the poor and weak that will die. But the Christian theist need not adopt such a position, for several reasons. First, the weak and poor can still develop moral character through suffering, since they do not all die immediately. Secondly, it seems inherently false that only the rich develop moral fortitude when natural evil occurs. Actually, they are less likely to develop morally, since they are less affected by it and because they are more likely to develop pride and snobbery. Washington’s analysis is therefore wide off the mark.

Unfortunately, Washington perpetuates the idea that Christianity was influenced by paganism and “dying and rising gods.” However, this view has virtually no scholarly support since, among other reasons, the examples provided are spurious and there is no evidence of actual influence in first century Palestine. 5 By supporting the copycat thesis, Dr. Washington only reveals his ignorance of history. He also makes the unsubstantiated claim that people in that time were “more credulous” than people now.

Analysis of the Debate

Craig offered six different arguments. Washington barely replied to The Argument from Abstract objects, but I was unconvinced because Craig provided little justification for taking things like sets and numbers to have actual existence. His Cosmological Argument was almost completely untouched. Against this argument, Washington only argued that you could not get a personal God from the conclusion. However, by foregoing a reply to any of the premises, Washington essentially concedes that the universe requires a Creator, furthermore, Craig successfully showed that the Creator had to be a personal being. Likewise, the Teleological Argument was almost completely unscathed. Washington granted the unlikelihood of a life-supporting universe, and basically replied that we can’t prove design just because it is unlikely. But just as Craig’s Mafia example and my poker example show, the improbability is specified and thus leads to the conclusion of design.

Washington’s response to the Moral Argument was Euthyphro’s dilemma. However, he only weakly responded to the actual argument. He denies the premise “if God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist,” but does not explain where objective moral values come from. In fact, in his conclusion he admits that he doesn’t know. Thus, since he affirms objective moral values, the Moral Argument seems to be at least somewhat persuasive, especially since Craig responded to Euthyphro’s dilemma (which is the only reason Washington offers for rejecting the Moral Argument).

Neither Washington nor Craig go into deep detail on the issue of Christ’s resurrection, due to time constraints undoubtedly, but Washington’s response to what Craig offers is remarkably weak. He does not contest the empty tomb or the appearances. All he does is regurgitate the Humean argument against the possibility of establishing miracles, and then he endorses the copycat thesis which enjoys virtually zero credibility from contemporary informed Biblical scholars.

As for the Experience of God, Washington points out that such evidence cannot really be taken into consideration in a debate format. My sympathies here are with Washington.

As for Dr. Washington’s case, Craig easily discounts the Argument against Divine Causality, pointing out that God is an unembodied mind. Against the Argument from Harm, however, Craig is decidedly weaker. He fails to distinguish between the logical and evidential versions of the argument. Many of his points are valid, but in order to fully rebut the Argument from Harm he needed to show that explanations for why God permits evil are likely or at least reasonably plausible.

Overall, the case for theism given in this debate was vastly superior to the case for atheism. Just the Cosmological and Teleological Arguments alone decisively demonstrate God’s existence, and Washington fails to establish doubt about the success of these arguments. Although the Argument from Harm was persuasive, it is simply not strong enough to tear down the strong cumulative case provided by Craig’s arguments.

NOTES:

1. Craig, William Lane. The Kalam Cosmological Argument (Wipf and Stock Publishers: 1979) p. 89.

2. Walton, Douglas. Informal Logic: A Handbook for Critical Argumentation. (Cambridge Press: 1989)

3.

4. See my article HERE for more on this. In the article, I explain that Christ’s resurrection, on the hypothesis that God exists, is only unlikely insofar as God apparently does not oftentimes raise people from the dead. However, Christ’s radical ministry and claims to be uniquely close to God provide a religious-historical context in which God’s raising Christ as vindication of Christ’s claims is much more probable.

5. See J.P. Holding’s collection of online articles HERE.




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  1. Professor Craig’s argument from abstract objects is consistent with his own view of conceptualism, actually. If you have them at your disposal, I would recommend checking out both “Creation out of Nothing” and “Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview.” They both have sections articulating the different views on abstract objects and the mind of God, particularly chapter 3 of “Creation out of Nothing.”


    — SMG    Nov 7, 09:07 AM    #
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