Thursday, February 16, 2017

Advice for Michael Nugent on Debating William Lane Craig

It was recently announced that Michael Nugent, the Chair of Atheist Ireland, will be debating Christian apologist William Lane Craig.

Michael reached out for advice over Twitter and while I gave him a quick bit of info, I wanted to put together a primer for him on a few key points he may want to use in his upcoming debate.  I figure this can possibly be useful for people looking for a quick overview on counter arguments to Craig's standard argument line as well.

Before I get into the grimy details, I wanted to note a few things.

A bit of Humility

I must admit I feel a bit odd writing this, given the fact that I'm 20 years younger than Michael Nugent and the fact that he's been leading a major atheist organization for some time and I'm just a pseudonymous blogger and YouTuber.  Who the hell am I to give advice to him?

Well, part of my justification is that I've treated studying and debunking the kinds of arguments Craig gives as a bit of a hobby for some time. I'd like to think I've paid close enough attention to figure out exactly where the philosophical slights of hand occur in his arguments and how best to show that they don't come anywhere close to establishing their conclusions.  Sadly not enough atheists pay enough attention to the Philosophy of Religion to be able to properly handle someone as well versed as Craig, and so our position doesn't come out looking as good as it really is when debates happen. 

I do know Michael reached out for advice and so I'd like to give it in the hopes that some of it could prove useful.

A bit of Humor

I can't help but notice the fact that Michael Nugent as the head of a national atheist organization is exactly the kind of person you would expect to be on a debate stage with a famous apologist like William Lane Craig, but he does not have a PhD.

I for one, don't think a PhD is required to be qualified to debate the existence of a god at a high level, even against credentialed philosophers.  The funny part is that William Lane Craig does think that his debate opponents need to have PhD's to debate him. This is his excuse for avoiding debates with relatively famous and qualified atheist debaters who have spent years honing their craft in refuting apologetic arguments. I'm speaking of people like Jeffrey Jay Lowder and Matt Dillahunty.

One wonders why Craig would continue to duck these individuals when there are reports that groups have attempted to setup debates between them only for Craig to play the credential card to avoid it.

The Meat

The thing is, I think I know why Craig wants to avoid individuals who have spent a long time studying apologetic arguments. This is because effectively countering apologetic arguments is merely a matter of properly understanding the arguments and then uncovering key premises or assumptions they make that are implausible.

Fortunately, much of the hard work on this has already been done - it's just a matter of sifting the good objections from the bad.

With that lets get to responses to key arguments Craig makes.

The Kalam

The Kalam Cosmological Argument is Craig's baby. It's what he's specialized in and it will certainly be coming.  There are a few key things to bring up in a debate about the Kalam:

Disabuse the audience of the idea that the conclusions of modern science/cosmology support theism. This is the main "draw" of arguments like the Kalam, and it is absolutely false.

One key line to prime the audience that something is wrong with the argument is to point out that the vast majority of modern cosmologists are atheists.  This includes the cosmologists that Craig likes to cite in his presentation of the Kalam: Alexander Vilenkin and Alan Guth can be seen on the Closer to the Truth program stating they do not believe in any personal creator god.  In fact even Evangelical Christian physicists like Don Page admits that he doesn't think the Kalam is a very good argument (Source).

This fact doesn't prove the Kalam wrong, it just is an indicator that there may be some philosophical slight of hand going on when a theologian tells you cosmology makes god's existence more probable and the majority of physicists disagree.

So what philosophical slight of hand is going on?

1. The Kalam has an assumption that is not immediately obvious - it is predicated on what's known as the A-Theory of time.  This is embedded in Craig's definition of "Begins to Exist" where he states that tensed facts exist. 

This view of time is rejected by nearly the whole of working physicists, and with good reason - the methods of science point to the fact that it is most likely false. The truth is that science undercuts the Kalam, it doesn't support it. I go into extreme detail on this point here.  If one conceives of time as the majority of physicists do, then even if the universe has a beginning it is misconceived to say that it must have had a cause. 

The key thing to note here is that Craig's justification for accepting the A-Theory of time is based on dubious metaphysical arguments (see the metaphysics section here), and is in spite of the evidence we get from modern science. 

2.  Modern science does not support the idea that the universe began to exist.  At best our current theories take us to the first Planck second, at which point our lack of a theory of quantum gravity means we don't know what happens before that time.  Now just because we don't have a theory that has been proved out, it doesn't mean we don't have a few candidates.  The loop quantum gravity theory was used to create a well defined model of an eternal, self-contained universe by Anthony Aguirre and Stephen Gratton.  In WLC's debate with physicist Sean Carroll, he tellingly never addressed this model.  However, on the second date of that conference one of WLC's co-authors Jim Sinclair gave a talk and at the end of which he admitted that the Aguirre-Gratton model is eternal to the past.

3. The Borde-Guth-Vilenkin Theorem is just like any theorem - it is only as valid as its assumptions, and we have no evidence that those assumptions are correct. The main thing that the BVG theorem tells us is that the space-time universe can not always have been expanding. That is to say that the expansion of our universe had a beginning, which is not the same thing as stating that all of physical reality has an absolute beginning. In fact we have reason to think quite the opposite.

4. Sean Carroll's "Quantum Eternity Theorem".  I've referenced the Carroll vs Craig debate previously, and it's worth a watch (or two).  One point Carroll brought up that was never really addressed by Craig was the Quantum Eternity Theorem, to quote Carroll:

“Quantum Eternity Theorem” (QET) — under conventional quantum mechanics, any universe with a non-zero energy and a time-independent Hamiltonian will necessarily last forever toward both the past and the future."

In the case where the total energy in the universe is zero, the QET states that time is not fundamental, but emergent.  This isn't some atheist specific quackery or a dodge. In fact Christian physicist Don Page is at least partial to the idea that time is not fundamental(Source).

Craig does try to address this point in a Q&A on his website, but the most charitable interpretation of what he's saying is that while quantum mechanics looks as if it has always existed - it's quite possible that god simply created a physical universe that looks as if it has always existed.  Craig says that QET at best means the universe is information preserving, but that we need to see what the evidence states.  He points to problems with the second law of thermodynamics - but fails to mention that well defined models like Aguirre-Gratton do solve this issue.

The main point is that given what we know in cosmology it is far from unsettled. In fact both theism and atheism are completely compatible with the ideas of a universe having existed for eternity or with the universe having a beginning. The key difference here is that theists and atheists will disagree about the nature of time itself in these scenarios.

5. Craig's conception of a timeless god creating the universe (and hence creating physical time) has the exact same problems he claims an eternal physical universe has.

Craig claims that before creating the universe, god existed "timelessly" and "willed from eternity to create the universe". This already is hard to make any sense out of, but some further analysis reveals a major problem.  If god "willed from eternity to create the universe" and god was timeless/changeless before creating said universe - then how exactly is the physical universe not as old as god? The supposed finite age of the universe is a problem for the theist. The only way out of this problem is for Craig to re-introduce the concept of time through the back-door. What he calls "metaphysical time" in his literature, which he equates with god's sequence of mental events.  But if god is changeless before creating time, how can he have a sequence of mental events? The entire concept just becomes confused.  I go into this in some detail in the "What is Time" section of this article.

Conclusion...for now!

I intended this to be a relatively short post for Michael, but the Kalam section is an area I've spent a lot of time thinking about and so I've given a lot of info. Hopefully at least some of the major points here are useful to Michael in crafting his rebuttals.

I will continue later on with admittedly shorter sections on other arguments Craig is likely to use.


  1. Wait, didn't WLC had a rule not to debate non-PhDs, which is why he was ducking debating some atheists. I guess the rule is meant to be broken on opponents he thinks he can beat.

  2. Here's what you do- set up a team debate: you cover the KALAM, Lowder covers fine tuning/resurrection, Dillahunty covers Craig's moral argument. Debate an empty chair like Craig did to Dawkins

  3. If you’re looking somewhere to sharpen your debate pen is the place to hone your debating skill. Unlike forums, Facebook or wherever it’s structured! It’s just you and your opponent (1v1 and 2v2) locked in for 2-6 to rounds. (rather than going on infinitely with random people jumping into the middle of the debate) It's a cage match for your brain!