Thursday, 10 October 2013

I don't believe in William Lane Craig

Below is an article I've written for publication in Macquarie University's student magazine. It may require further editing before they publish it, but here's the raw version.

I don’t believe in William Lane Craig.

Back on Monday the 5th of August, Macquarie University hosted a superstar (of sorts). You doubtless noticed the heroic chalking campaign by the Christian Union which helped to draw around two hundred people to a visit from the world’s best-known Christian apologist, Doctor William Lane Craig – a very skilled and intelligent debater indeed. Sam Harris once called him “the only Christian apologist to have put the fear of God into my fellow atheists”. A crowd of people with diverse personal beliefs filled out rooms on the third floor of the Campus Hub to hear his arguments for believing in God (with a capital G: the Christian God, and his particular version).

Despite his status as the apparent world leader in Christian apologetics, Craig's arguments, though sometimes interesting, generally receive a lacklustre reception from both professional philosophers and the lay public. He is, however, quite skilled at preaching to the choir – his arguments predominantly find support among those who are already evangelical Christians, though I’m sure they occasionally sway other un-critical listeners as well. So why don’t they trouble more careful listeners and thinkers? There are two main reasons: his arguments, in themselves, are not very convincing (I’ll get to that in a moment), and his approach is disingenuous.


What is he apologising for, anyway?

Before tackling the arguments it’s important to know a little about the arguer. I normally try to refrain from ad hominem arguments (explained later) but I make an exception for Craig, since his dubious methodology and evangelical background are so tightly linked to his arguments that to really understand the latter, it's helpful to have context on the former. Craig converted to evangelical Christianity in junior high, and by all accounts it saved him from a pretty angry and dark place – good for him. Armed with his faith, he went on to earn a PhD in philosophy of religion in England and then a Doctorate of Theology in Germany. Since then he has worked as an academic philosopher of religion at Christian universities, and otherwise busied himself debating, apparently with anyone and everyone who wishes to – Islamic apologists, atheists, Catholics and other Christians, moral philosophers and more. He must have participated in hundreds of debates, and you can watch a bunch of these, if so inclined, on Youtube. He has also written books and maintains a website called reasonable faith.

That title really summarises his whole shtick: that people can reason and argue in support of God’s existence. He has a bunch of arguments which he’ll deploy in different combinations depending on who he’s debating, but his enthusiastic misuse of logic, reason and argument bely his scorn for them: none of his arguments appear to have changed very much over the years despite thorough counter-argumentation. Not because his arguments are rock-solid (as we’ll see below) but because, by his own admission, he is a philosopher with an agenda: Christian first, philosopher second. In short, Craig believes that reason should be servant to faith,  and if people shouldn’t rely too heavily on reason for their faith or they might have doubts (!).


So why debate? If he’s not interested in genuinely engaging with other ideas, what’s the point? Simple: saving souls. Craig debates often, and debates well, because, he has admitted, it's an opportunity to spread the Gospel. He’s not honestly debating – he’s evangelising with argument, and that one insight does more to explain his tactics than any other. And can be a very, very effective debater.


Fighting dirty in the army of God

I hope it's clear by now that my problem with Craig is not that he tries to argue people into sharing his beliefs - that's just dandy. Rather, it's the underhand and dishonest tactics he employs in doing so. As many others have noticed, Craig gives the impression of engaging in bona fide discussions while in fact doing nothing of the sort. He conducts this one-man assault on sincerity with many different tools, but a few in particular form his core arsenal.

For example, Craig generally opens a debate by skimming over many (usually five to eight) arguments and claims the opponent must first refute them, and then make their own arguments, in order to win. There are two problems here; first, deploying a great number of poorly developed arguments is a common tactic to overwhelm the refuting abilities of your opponent known as a Gish Gallop (formally called spreading in debating); and second, shifting the burden of proof onto his opponents when he's the one making the positive claim (usually he speaks on the affirmative) is not how debating, or any assessment of a claim, works. By not developing his arguments in detail, they remain sufficiently vague that when opponents do address these arguments, Craig can simply dig down to the next layer of meaning (which he did not supply in the original statement) to make the objections appear unfounded. Not providing your audience or opponents with details of your arguments does not make them convincing (though Craig uses phrasing and tone to superficially make them appear so), but it does make a whole lot of work for your opponent if they are to comprehensively rebut them. Craig presents a vague target and his opponents largely end up punching fog.

The burden of proof issue is similarly dishonest - it is upon the claimant to supply convincing evidence supporting their claim, not for the critic to supply evidence of the negative case. A common example is Bigfoot - we don't have to provide solid evidence he does not exist (e.g. by exhaustively surveying wildlife in the area he is supposed to inhabit, checking every cave et cetera), it's enough that the evidence for his existence (faked footage, faked footprints etc.) is not convincing. This analogy is not meant to trivialise the question of whether God exists - it's a very, very serious question on which good people can reasonably disagree. But it fundamentally mischaracterises how the atheist argument works: not "God doesn't exist, and here's the evidence to prove it", but "none of the arguments or evidence for God's existence are sufficiently convincing - and until they are, the best way to act is on the basis that God does not exist". It's a subtle but important difference. My lack of belief in God is provisional - not an unshakeable belief but what I see as the best position until convinced otherwise. With this understanding, it's easy to see how Craig's claim (that atheists must prove "atheism is true") either misunderstands how the argument works or, more likely, deliberately misrepresents it. Craig holds the opposite approach: his faith in God comes first and will (probably) never waiver, regardless of evidence or argument.

Another favourite tactic of Craig's is an artful combination of appeal to authority (citing the opinion of authority figures as evidence for your claim) and using very selective quoting to misrepresent people. Typically, Craig will state that X purported professionals support his view without saying why, or use quotes to suggest someone holds and opinion which in fact they do not. For example, during his debate with Sam Harris, Harris said: "Half the quotes he used are actually from my book where I'm quoting someone else".

Arguments from authority and out of context quotes are vexing in a debate, where you can't actually look up what people really said or meant, and allow Craig to effectively put words in peoples' mouths. He also overstates the importance of opinion - many professionals might believe something, but without supplying their reasons it's inappropriate to act as though such beliefs are particularly reliable: you haven't supplied any actual arguments or evidence regarding the claim itself so, unless your opponent is familiar with the context, all they can say is "well I don't know why they were saying that so I can't address it".

That doesn't exhaust the list of Craig's remarkable sophistry, but it should give you a sense. As I mentioned above, such an extended ad hominem is not normally warranted, but in this case his style is so relevant to his arguments that it cannot go unconsidered. That's not to suggest his opponents are models of scrupulous debating - often, they do not stick to the format or the conventions, make irrelevant points, and are rather unprepared (which, among other things, leads them to seriously underestimate Craig). But they, generally, are not guilty of the sin of dishonesty, which is rather central to Craig's success. I also am not suggesting that his only talent is shifty debating. Craig is an erudite and skilled philosopher who speaks fluently the language of reason and logic - probably one of the reasons he is the object of a sort of horrified fascination by atheists who may feel a certain ownership of these qualities.


"That's not an argument, that's just contradiction!"

"No it isn't!"

All my criticisms above might be absolutely valid, yet Craig could still be right. That's because the preceding section constitutes an ad hominem, literally arguments "to the person" rather than actually addressing their arguments directly. So let's get down to brass tacks. I don't have the time, space or knowledge to comprehensively refute Craig's arguments, but below I will present a sketch of those arguments he presented at Macquarie University and one or two reasons why they are not convincing. However, these are well-worn arguments from Craig and have been extensively addressed by others, so interested readers will easily find more than enough detail from a quick web search.

Craig opened with some controversial remarks. He claimed that theism has been resurgent in academia since about the 1960s - with philosophy leading the charge. Here he's just asserting something to be the case anecdotally, without backing it up with data - so I'll leave it to you, readers, to look up actual studies. Suffice it to say that I suspect the data points in rather the opposite direction. Craig also stated that the so-called "New Atheism" is merely a pop-culture phenomenon with no deeper philosophical or academic underpinning. This assertion shows a lack of insight into the phenomenon. Firstly, many things about new atheism are not new at all - the philosophical underpinnings have a long a rich history, bolstered by scientific progress in the last few hundred years that have out-competed religious dogma as explanations for events - such as the germ theory of disease being a better explanation than demons for illness. Second, to dismiss widespread engagement with atheist, secular and humanist ideas (predominantly among young people) as merely a pop culture phenomenon is doubly concerning: it fails to understand the contribution of wider availability of information, and it is elitist. Thanks to universal, quality education and the internet, young people are better equipped to criticise faith and find alternatives - and the Pew Forum survey, finding that atheists and agnostics are more knowledgeable about religion than believers, backs this up. So to suggest that the rise of atheism is a shallow, faddish trend is rather unjust, and unjustified. 


Now, on to his arguments. I pick few bones with his logic - if we grant Craig the premises (i.e. initial claims) of his arguments, his conclusions are generally sound. It's the premises themselves that are problematic. I shan't exhaustively criticise every argument but merely present a good reason (or two) why they are not particularly convincing prima facie, and encourage you to read further if you find the ideas interesting. They have all been discussed at great length by others more qualified than I, and some excellent material is easily found on the web. I'll provide a few links.


Argument from contingency

This is one of two arguments Craig uses that I find most difficult to wrap my head around - the other being the Kalam cosmological argument (next) - because they deal with things like infinity, the nature of existence and causality, the origins of space-time, and so forth. These things are difficult to think about because they are so far outside our ordinary experience, and we must be cautious about applying our intuitions to such counter-intuitive concepts. The argument was first put by Thomas Aquinas, and runs thusly:


1.      Everything that exists has an explanation of its existence (either in the  necessity of its own nature or in an external cause).

2.      If the universe has an explanation of its existence, that explanation is  God.

3.      The universe exists.


4.      The universe has an explanation of its existence.

And from 2 and 4 it logically follows:

5.      The explanation of the universe’s existence is God


The awkwardly-worded point 2 is the main weak point; this essentially presupposes the existence of God and so the argument is rather circular. It's pretty obvious that if we assume the explanation is God, our conclusion will be that the explanation is God.




Kalam cosmological argument

This is the argument for which Craig is best known, and the more difficult metaphysical question. Here Craig has developed a more nuanced version of an argument from 9th century Islamic theology, for which he earned his first PhD. Here it is:


1.      Everything that begins to exists has a cause

2.      The universe began to exist


3.      The universe has a cause


As you can see, this in itself is not an argument for the existence of a deity (Craig follows up with some arguments about why the cause has to be a deity). But taking the argument on its face, it falls down on points one and two; some things exist arguably without having a cause, like particles created as a result of certain non-deterministic quantum processes. An example is the decay of radioactive nuclei - as far as modern science can tell, there is absolutely nothing that causes a nucleus to decay when it does; the event is utterly random and unpredictable. And suggesting that the universe began to exist is problematic since time only began as an apparently essential property of the universe; so it's unclear how there could be a point before the beginning of time itself. I don't mean to suggest that these points by any means settle the argument; a great deal more could be said on both sides. But at least I hope to have shown Craig's argument is not exactly an incontrovertible truth.


Argument from the applicability of mathematics

This is a weird one. Craig essentially asks why numbers work when we try to use them to do stuff, and claims it's because God made it so, it can't just be coincidence. As opposed to the alternative; you know, we develop and select mathematical systems because they make sense in our universe.


Argument from fine-tuning

An oldie but a goodie: isn't it amazing that the Universe is able to support life at all? The coincidence seems too great that we should be a certain way and the universe obligingly arranges itself to permit our existence. Obviously this is because God has shaped the universe to our advantage! Of course, the argument has it almost completely backwards. My favourite analogy is of a puddle in the road observing the astounding accuracy with which its environment, the hole in the road, fits its shape. The other counter-argument being, had the universe not been able to support human life, of course we wouldn't be around to notice. This is known as the weak anthropic principle.


Argument from intentionality

This is an argument for God by way of the existence of souls. For an excellent discussion of the various concepts of a soul, and the evidence for their existence, I very highly recommend Yale Professor of Philosophy Shelly Kagan's free online lecture series on death. Here Craig claims that mere material objects cannot have the property of being about something. We obviously, can think about things, so we are not mere material objects - the about-ness must come from a soul. My main counter-argument is that documents are examples of purely material objects that are about something. Also, when we are thinking about something, it's not clear exactly what Craig claims is different about us at that moment - the fact that we are having thoughts about something doesn't mean that somehow our very being and nature is suffused with some metaphysical quality of about-ness. It's just that we're having a particular type of thought. You know, in our brains and minds.


Argument from morality

Now Craig starts to scrape the bottom of his philosophical barrel to support his God argument. Incidentally, this is rather the nub of the problem with his particular take on philosophy, which (as he has himself openly admitted) begins with the conclusion - that his God exists - and then devises arguments to support it. Rigorous philosophy is rather the inverse; an exploration, following reason wherever it may lead, with an open mind and no foregone conclusions.


Craig's argument from morality posits that without God, there can be no objective moral truths; things would just be right or wrong as a matter of opinion rather than fact. But, he then claims, objective moral truths do exist - some things are just objectively wrong as a matter of fact, not merely opinion - he generally cites rape as his example. Therefore, these moral truths must exist, and must come from God.


I take issue with both claims; that objective moral truths obviously exist, and that if they did they must of necessity come from God. In his debate with Craig, the aforementioned Shelly Kagan explained a plausible alternative by which objective moral values might be arrived at. The debate is available on YouTube (search "Shelly Kagan William Lane Craig") and I highly recommend it.


Argument for historicity of Jesus's resurrection

Addressing this argument would take far more space and knowledge than I have here, but I would direct you to the work of Robert M. Price and Richard Carrier, who construct very convincing historical cases against the reliability of the Jesus narrative.


Gnostic argument

Finally, Craig makes less of an argument than an assertion. It boils down to "Things must be as I say they are because that's how I feel". Fine, no problem - but that line is also available to everyone else. If that's your standard of evidence, then anything can simply be asserted as revealed knowledge, including the existence of all other gods.



I've tried to show that William Lane Craig is not quite the reliable source he is made out to be. His arguments are shaky, his methods dishonest, his motives missionary and his scruples few. Although certainly thought-provoking, he should hardly inspire mass conversions. There's a bit of a discussion among people he debates (philosophers and high-profile heretics - both atheists and idolators) as to whether it's even worth engaging with him - left to his own devices, his exposure would largely be to already-evangelised home crowds, whereas by debating him they could be lending him an air of legitimacy which he, in fact, does not possess. Obviously, since I'm writing this article, I'm not squarely in that camp. Although I heartily disagree with Craig's methods and conclusions, I nevertheless find the concepts he discusses interesting and worthy of thought. After all, there are few larger questions in life than the existence and nature of God. If you also find it interesting, I highly recommend doing some follow-up reading. Just make sure you bring your critical thinking skills.

Monday, 5 August 2013

This is a PSA: Pursuing a PhD can be bad for your health (part 1).

“You know,” said the counsellor, “a PhD shouldn’t occupy ninety per cent of your time”.

I still can’t quite believe that, even though he’d also been through one and is probably right. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Two and a half years ago, here’s a snapshot of me getting off the plane in Sydney: I was confident, outgoing, and healthy in mind, body and relationships. I had rarely had to work very hard to achieve anything, so I never worked hard.  Fast forward two years and most of that was going backwards fast – though luckily my relationships remained supportive. I was gaining weight, losing fitness, felt totally incompetent and worthless, and worrying about being kicked out.

How did I get there? On March 16th 2011, I left my family, friends and Ash (my partner) in Perth to pursue a PhD in Sydney. Fascinated by microbes, I had completed my BSci (Honours) about three years earlier, and then contracted as a graduate microbiologist for a (now-defunct) mining technology startup and taken six months to travel with Ash. On returning, I half-heartedly looked for research assistant jobs while filling the time waiting tables, working for SciTech as a science communicator and at rock climbing gyms and camping stores. I eventually got a research assistant position in cancer research, but after the three-month probation my permanent employment was not confirmed (i.e. I got the boot) because I had not met the high standards set by the PI. My self-confidence took a serious beating and I was scared off research for a while, staying in my un-demanding part time positions despite my dissatisfaction.

I re-entered the world of research through holes in the ground. While travelling, Ash and I had visited the Grotte di Frasassi, the largest cave system in Europe. The effect on me was indescribable. I was spellbound, bewildered, disoriented, fascinated and charmed. There were entire ecosystems that had as their foundations not the energy of the sun, but chemo-thermal energy from sulphur-rich waters welling up from deep in the hot crust, feeding a bizarre microbial community which in turn supported diverse larger forms of life. For a kid who had to be dragged away from the microscope in high school, obsessed with the miniature, vibrant and complex world of pond water, this was like a whole new planet to explore. Having decided years before that microbiology research was at the top of my career list, a further certainty filled me, then and there, that caves were the most fascinating topic of study.

Back in Australia, while working at the camping store, I met someone who belonged to a caving club and joined up. Being underground was amazing, though it’s difficult to explain why, especially to people who don’t feel the same. The tight corners occasionally gave me reason to be nervous (I am six foot two in my socks) and I had yet to master the art of comfortable camping, but for some reason it was like a spiritual revelation to know we were a few metres below the surface, yet in such a different place. I felt like an explorer on a beautiful, strange alien planet. I had been searching for researchers in Australia (not wanting to move overseas) with whom I might do a PhD on cave microbiology. As you can imagine, I had little luck. Eventually, I gave up and enrolled in a diploma of education – I’d always wanted to be a high school science teacher after a research career, but it looked like I might have to skip that first part. The DipEd was fantastic, but a few months in I got an email from a researcher in Sydney who had heard there was someone asking around about cave microbiology PhDs. He had a project in the obviously related field of groundwater and there might be scope for some cave work as well. I applied, was accepted, and moved over, completely na├»ve of what I was in for.

Sunday, 26 February 2012


I moved to Sydney from Perth in 2011 to start a PhD - and ended up doing a lot of climbing and other shenanigans. I figured I'd start a blog to share these experiences with distant friends and family. Typically though, I'm too busy right now to do a proper entry - have to run of and do some labwork before meeting my supervisor.