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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).

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Steve Zara on William Lane Craig and debating technique

An interesting - and I think cogent - observation by Steve Zara over here.

An example is when he raises the issue of morality in debates about the existence of God. Craig says that without God there can be no objective morality. Now, even if you believe in objective morality, this is clearly nonsense, but it can some explaining. If a full explanation can't given in a few minutes, this leaves Craig's opponent looking like they are in defence of baby-killing and all kinds of horrors because Craig then comes across as someone who has moral standards!
I do think that a problem with these sorts of debates is that it is possible to make emotionally appealing pro-religion arguments very quickly, whereas unpicking what is wrong with them takes much more time.

Not that all theistic debaters are tactically astute to this, but Craig undoubtedly is.


Verbose Stoic said...

"I do think that a problem with these sorts of debates is that it is possible to make emotionally appealing pro-religion arguments very quickly, whereas unpicking what is wrong with them takes much more time."

I'd actually drop the "pro-religion" part of that statement, and it would be equally true. And I'd say that some non-theistic debaters have learned the same lesson.

I think the real problem is that debates force things into a confrontational approach, as opposed to one where people simply get to outline their views to the best of their ability. It's all about winning, but focusing on winning leaves such options open. Emotionally appealing arguments or quick asides about the rationality of your position don't work when the response from your opponent is "And precisely what do you MEAN by 'Faith is irrational' or "There's no objective morality without God'?"

Patrick said...

Its a general problem with timed debates. Stupid but intuitive arguments are always quicker to present than intelligent but counter intuitive arguments.

I had a debate about global warming once where the other side threw out, "Global warming can't make the ocean levels rise because the water level in a glass of water goes down when the ice in it melts."

That was the entire argument.

Come up with the best response to that argument you can, and see if it takes you more than 25 words to present. And then remember that every second you spend on this argument is one less second you get to spend on something serious.

In high school debate this is called "spreading your opponent." You make, say, 10 arguments each designed to take twice as long to rebut as they take to present. Your opponent probably does a good job on 5 of them. So you forget about those 5 and hammer him on the 5 he answered poorly.

This is a particularly powerful tactic in front of a friendly audience predisposed to believe you and inclined to assume "not answered well" means "can't be answered well."

James Sweet said...

I'm pretty sure I can discredit divine command theory, using a simplified version of Euthyphro, in under sixty seconds. My shortened, simplified version doesn't actually refute divine command theory, but it shows that at the very least it's an untenable position for anyone with a less than Phelpsian view of God's alleged words.

The condensed version of it on my website is 178 words. So a minute might be pushing it, but not by much.

Of course, this does not at all challenge Zara's basic point: In order to answer that one rapidly, you have to have already thought it through, and you have to be willing to speak a little imprecisely to get the point across for a lay audience in a short time frame. In addition, forcing your opponent to go the Euthyphro route causes an abrupt topic shift, which can at least disrupt the coherency of their message.

And in any case, even if you can shred divine command theory in under a minute, it takes only ten seconds to toss it out there. As long as the ratio of time to debunk stupid shit vs. the time it takes to say stupid shit remains greater than one, the Gish Gallop remains an option for intellectually dishonest debaters.

prasad said...

A similar point to the divine command morality one holds re free will. It's quite quick to point out that if you want a naive free will, an omniscient and omnipotent deity poses problems substantially similar to those in a lawful, ordered universe. You've probably got to make a sensible compatibilism work, whether or not there are gods.