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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Martin S. Pribble on William Lane Craig

This post somewhat dissents from the common view that Craig is a master debater. Sample:
After watching a few of his debates, I’m sorry but I can’t take Craig seriously anymore. He sticks his fingers in his ears and says “But why? But why? But why?” without any intention of listening to a reasoned and rational response.
I don't really agree with this, insofar as I've watched a number of Craig's debates by now, and I think he's technically very good (i.e. very good in debating technique) ... but it's refreshing to see a different perspective. I certainly don't think that Craig is unbeatable - e.g. I think that John Shook got the better of him in a debate in Vancouver a couple of years ago. I haven't seen the Kagan debate that Pringle refers to, but by all accounts Kagan did well.


J. J. Ramsey said...

The catch that I see is that being a good debater is about being able to sway an audience, rather than about being able to convey a coherent argument that holds up to scrutiny. Craig can easily be good at the former while failing at the latter.

(I live in the U.S., and it's easy to see from the national politics in my neck of the woods just how little being cogent and reasonable has to do with being convincing. Ugh.)

Sean (quantheory) said...

I find Craig to be fairly eloquent in any particular single debate, but if you've seen two or three debates of his (on different subjects), he pretty much runs out of convincing points after that.

I think that there are two very simple things that most people who are debating Craig should do, and that most of them seem to neglect.

The first is that they should try to speak first and go on an immediate offensive. Craig immediately tries to distill the debate into a very small number of clear points, which allows him to frame an issue in a way that is both advantageous to him and memorable. An atheist who controlled the framing of an issue from the get-go would have an advantage.

The second is that more people should point out the difference between a possible explanation for something, and a probable explanation. Craig often argues very "rigorously" in favor of his main points by glossing over a bunch of supporting assumptions that are much harder to defend. Rather than trying to take Craig down one assumptions at a time, it's sometimes better to simply take note of these and ask him to explain them.

Examples from the top of my head: Does he know that God's commands are sufficient to constitute an objective morality, or does he simply assert such "obvious" facts because he doesn't know how to prove them? Does he know that everything that begins to exist has a cause, or that a supernatural Ultimate Cause is more reasonable than a material one? Does he have a scriptural or theological reason to believe that hell is a mere separation from God, rather than literal torture?

I don't think that most people who (I've seen) debate Craig actually walk into it with a very good battle plan. Craig has a lot of experience and a number of simple tricks, but for all that he strikes me as remarkably bad at adapting to his opponent intellectually, whenever he doesn't have a rhetorical contingency plan.

Spencer Troxell said...

Thanks for tipping me off to Craig's debate with Kagan. Kagan had by far the most convincing approach and argument in that exchange.

Martin S Pribble said...

Hi And thanks for visiting my blog. I think you are right, in that particular blog I wrote I was being overly flippant with my description. I think however that my assessment of Craig's techniques are better described in the preceding 2 blogs.

Part 1 and part 2.

Russell Blackford said...

Okay, I'll have a look.

K said...

I never really get why people say Craig is a good debater - I can only think they're referring to his technique and ability for rhetoric - in terms of content I find him so dishonest that it's hard to imagine that anyone could look past some of his sleazy moves as being part of an honest discussion. If that's being a good debater, then bring on the bad ones.

Anonymous said...

Kel, how has he been dishonest? An example would be very helpful. Thanks.

K said...

One example was in his debate with Massimo Pigliucci. The topic was "Does The Christian God Exist?" In the debate, Pigliucci dismissed Craig's main three arguments as non sequiturs as they weren't arguments for the Christian God as the arguments weren't for the topic at hand. Craig responded that Pigliucci had conceded the arguments, something Pigliucci didn't do. Dismissing them as non sequiturs is not the same as saying the arguments are solid - just that they don't establish what is being argued.

There were a few more instances in that debate where Craig flat out lied - like every possible quote in the bible of God doing bad things is taken out of context. Another instance in that debate was him conflating objective morality with universal morality, dismissing any morality that wasn't universal by arguing they weren't objective. Pigliucci repeatedly called him out on it, but he kept doing it.

Badger3k said...

Craig has also been repeatedly corrected on his physics (and other sciences), yet in his next debate (if he waits that long) simply repeats his talking points, never incorporating (or even acknowledging) the corrections. Craig is a one-trick pony, and if you listen to several debates you can pretty much see how he stays on his script.

He basically is a high-school debater, aiming for points rather than actually trying to use reason or evidence. His polished style (as it is) and his reputation may cause people to hesitate, and he's mastered many logical fallacies and Gish Gallops, but it doesn't matter since he debates to shore up the beliefs of the people who support him. His debates aren't for discussion or discovery, but are straight out apologetics, making it really useless to debate him. There isn't any point, unless it's to expose his poor reasoning and contemptible positions to the skeptical. Just my two cents worth.

Chris Hallquist (Uncrediblee Hallq - http://www.uncrediblehallq.net/category/people/william-lane-craig/ ) has also written a bit about Craig.