Friday, May 4, 2012

The Derek Zoolander School for Kids Who Can't Debate Good

One important thing to learn when defending any position is to learn how to do it in an orderly, convincing, and coherent way. One's ability to do this often comes out in debate, or in their writing.

Love him or hate him, William Lane Craig is an excellent debater who wins most if not all of his debates on existence of God. That's why he is a great person to look at to learn how to debate, even if you passionately disagree with him. Here are some things I noticed when watching his debates and talking to other people about them (including atheists) that make him a really really really good debater.

1) Know your stuff, really really really well.

This kind of goes without saying, but its hugely important for winning debates and being persuasive.  As for William Lane Craig's Kalam Cosmological argument, he debates it in scholarly philosophical journals. However, many of the people who want to debate Craig in public underestimate how much he knows about his own argument, and are not philosophers themselves. So whenever they raise an objection, Craig already knows how to respond to it. This is a great skill to have no matter what position you are defending. In fact, Craig knows so much about his argument he is able to write an entire book and then a 100 page article on 3 sentences (his three premises). Agree with him or not, he certainly knows his argument, why he believes it, and what objections can be raised against it.

2) Have more than one argument for your position

William Lane Craig has been using the same opening speech in his existence of God debates for over 10 years. He usually has 5 or 6 different arguments to support his supposition that "God exists." These are set up as syllogistic arguments. Nevertheless, each premise in each of his 6 arguments itself has many supporting reasons. For example, one of the premises in the Kalam Cosmological argument is "The Universe began to exist." Craig has at least three sub-arguments for why that is true. He even sets up the sub-arguments in a syllogistic fashion. This way, the opponent has to tear down all 6 arguments for the contention "God exists" and has to tear down all of the sub-arguments for at least one of the premises in each argument. As I said before, love him or hate him, but a brilliant debate tactic. On the flip side, it is extremely important to not have your entire position depend on just one argument. This is what Stephen Law did in his debate with Craig, and I think it was a really bad idea.

This also works when responding to objections. If possible, always provide more than one reason why the objection is wrong.

A caution here. You have to be careful how many arguments you use in a debate, or its considered rude. For example, if Craig just listed off 40 syllogisms and expected the opponent to tear them all down, that would be rude and unproductive, especially when trying to persuade an audience. You need more than one or two arguments, but less than so many that its distracting and disorganized when the opponent goes to respond.

3) Dismiss or Concede Irrelevant Objections

When debating his opponents, Craig often concedes things that do not relate to one of his objections. For example, in his debate with Antony Flew, Flew brought up that Craig's God is unjust, because he uses eternal punishment. Craig responded by saying that they were just debating the existence of a generic monotheistic God, not the Christian God. (However, Craig did respond to the objection, since he is a Christian theist.)

Same applies to things like evolution, or Biblical inerrancy, or anything else that sounds like a rough objection on the surface. In most debates about Christianity, things like evolution and Biblical inerrancy are irrelevant objections. What does evolution have to do with whether or not Christ rose from the dead, or that a God exists? What does inerrancy have to do with whether or not Christ rose from the dead, or that God exists? We trust historical sources all the time, even though they sometimes contradict each other. So inerrancy doesn't even matter when proving Christ rose from the dead. These are moot points in the overall picture of things. So, make sure you do not get bogged down in difficult or distracting objections that do not necessarily relate to the contention at hand. The objection may be a good question to ask, but don't get distracted to it when it doesn't relate to one of your arguments.

4) Be very clear when presenting your argument.

As I said before, Craig presents all his arguments in syllogistic form. This way, it makes it very clear where the opponent has to disagree and what Craig has to defend. One does not always have to use syllogisms to be a good debater or to be clear, but it is certainly a good idea for some things. Nevertheless, the overall idea of being clear in the presentation of your argument and laying all the relevant components of it out on the table is a very important lesson to be learned. Furthermore, your overall structure should be very orderly and  something one could easily turn into an outline or bullet points.

5) Use Clear Analogies to Illustrate the Force of Your Point

Analogies are not arguments in themselves. But they are a great way to drive home the force of a particular argument. Craig's "Hilbert's hotel" and library illustrations are great ways to illustrate why he thinks its impossible for an infinite number of things to exist in reality.  Having good analogies are a great way to help your point sink in with your audience, and to help them understand why your point is so powerful.

6) Use Facts that Are Agreed Upon by Scholars in the Relevant Fields

When debating the existence of God, Craig does not appeal to possible flaws in evolution for his design argument. Creationism is rejected in most of the scientific community. (Craig is himself undecided on common descent.) However, he does point to cosmic fine-tuning as evidence for design, since the scientific community accepts cosmic fine-tuning.In addition, when debating the resurrection, Craig does not appeal to the guard at the tomb or doubting Thomas to prove his point. He appeals to facts that are accepted by the majority of historical Jesus scholars. This is an easier way to debate and makes your argument stronger.


So we have seen why Craig is such a good debater. These skills are useful in defending any position, but particularly so in defending the Christian faith.


  1. These seem like fair points to make. I will say, though, that I think you're wrong to suggest that Craig's opponents need to tear down all of his arguments.

    First, as you noted, Craig offers so many points in his speeches that it just isn't feasible to respond to all of them.

    Second, and more important, Craig's case for theism requires the success of several arguments. He could not prove theism merely with the kalam cosmological argument, or with the fine-tuning argument, or with the two of those combined. So, actually, his opponents don't need to even address those arguments. (Stephen Law was correct about this. Law realized that he didn't need to respond to kalam for the purposes of that debate, since Craig's case cannot succeed if all he has is that argument.)

    This is something that Craig's opponents usually don't realize. They can concede his first two arguments (kalam and fine-tuning), easily rebut his moral argument, and raise some serious worries about the resurrection and whatever other argument he might have used. This would be sufficient to show that Craig has not shown theism to be probable. If the opponent is burdened with proving atheism, he or she can focus their energy on whatever argument they find most compelling. This is what Stephen Law did in his debate with Craig--he focused on the evidential argument from evil, which he finds convincing.

  2. Great to hear your thoughts Landon. That was something I was wondering while I was writing this is how many arguments are considered polite to present during a debate? Your right Craig does present a lot of arguments, though I suppose his opponents could raise 6 positive arguments against him as well. But then again, this may raise the issue of a very chaotic debate if both sides did that. So are 3 arguments usually the norm? That was one thing I was unsure of when I was writing this post?

    With regards to Stephen Law and his debate with Craig, your right that the KCA itself does not prove God in the sense that proving he is good. There are other ways to prove God is good without Craig's moral argument (such as Richard Swinburne's argument). But nonetheless, Craig did depend on the moral argument for this aspect of God's nature.

    The problem I had with Law's approach was that if he concedes the cosmological and teleological argument, he is conceding a personal creator of the universe. So in my perspective, as far as the debate was concerned, Craig put forward 2 successful arguments for a personal creator of the Universe. Of course, a personal creator might not be good (and this would not be God). But it seems Law would not want the audience to think that he believes in a personal creator of the universe. Craig pointed out (and I think he ought to have emphasized this point more) that it is a very odd form of atheism that believes in a personal creator of the universe.

    I also personally thought Law's objection to the resurrection using UFO's was not very good. Using the UFO objection to demonstrate poor eyewitness testimony, Law seemed to concede that there was actually an object in the sky in the example he was using(people were simply mistaken about what it was). By analogy to the resurrection, that would rule out the hallucination hypothesis and only leave the "evil twin" and resurrection hypothesis standing.

    I realize you didn't say that his argument against the resurrection was good, but only that one has to show concerns with the resurrection after rebutting the two arguments to be successful. (Indeed, perhaps his argument against the resurrection was more substantive than I remember it). Nonetheless, the strategy you mentioned would seem to work in showing that one could not prove the existence of a good God, if one was successful against the opponent in using the strategy you mentioned.

    Thanks for taking the time to look at the post and respond to it. I am slow in getting this blog picked up off the ground so I am glad someone is reading parts of it, especially someone as well-read as yourself.

  3. I don't know if there are any "rules" about how many arguments one should present in a debate. I'll just say that it's unrealistic to expect somebody to have the time to respond to every point Craig makes in a debate. But more importantly, I want to say that they really don't need to. Craig always calls his opponents out on the fact that they've neglected to respond to this or that point. I say, his opponents should call him out for his mistaken apprehension that they even need to address all of his points.

    I'm not sure what it means to prove that God is good. I tend to think Craig himself is confused about this. He seems to think his moral argument does the job, but besides the fact that his moral argument is not very good, it also isn't clear how it proves that God is good! The conclusion of the argument is that "God exists," not that "God is good." Now, for Craig, moral perfection is part of the very concept "God." So, in proving that God exists (with the moral argument), he would indeed be proving that there is a morally perfect being--namely, God. But if perfect moral goodness is part of the very concept "God," what sense does it make to say that one can prove that God is good?

    Craig seems to imagine that kalam and the fine-tuning argument prove that God exists, and then there's just the remaining question as to whether God is good. If this is indeed what he is thinking, then he's being hopelessly inconsistent. But you noted yourself a telling remark from the debate: Craig says it's a "very odd form of atheist" who believes in a personal creator of the universe. Well, simply ask Craig what he means by "God" and "atheist," and you'll find out that Craig's complaint doesn't hold any water by his own lights.

    The fact that Law conceded kalam (not fine-tuning, since I don't think Craig used that argument in their debate) was a smart move, in my opinion. He didn't come out and say "Okay, I think this does prove that there's a personal creator of the universe." It was Craig who said that Law was conceding this. Law did mention that he thinks the argument is unsound, but he just didn't bother trying to prove it.

    By the way, you might enjoy Law's paper about the historicity of Jesus published in Faith and Philosophy, given some of your recent blog posts. I think he recently posted the paper to his blog.