Is Belief in God Reasonable?

The below debate between theist William Lane Craig and Alex Rosenberg, author of The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, was recently posted at YouTube. I post it here because Rosenberg is a scrappy and forthright defender of scientific naturalism, equal to Craig’s characteristic aggression. Both sides make good and occasionally fresh points.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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8 Responses to Is Belief in God Reasonable?

  1. Pingback: An interesting Debate « On the Apex

  2. Longtooth says:

    It was an entertaining debate. Along with the majority of viewers I think that Rosenberg lost. He got behind the eight ball early on and never really recovered, even though he gained ground toward the end. From the onset Craig’s delivery was slick and well rehearsed, replete with slides to reinforce his main points at all the right moments. In contrast, Rosenberg had no slides, his opening delivery was halting and tentative, and he was genuinely uncomfortable with the venue. Having said that, I think the major difference between the two was Craig’s relatively less intellectual approach to communicating his ideas to the audience.

    A notable instance was Rosenberg’s analogy to an atom spontaneously emitting an alpha particle although nothing discernible distinguished it from atoms of the same type that didn’t emit. Rosenberg intended this to support the notion that something can come out of nothing. I’m over my head when it comes to particle physics, but that’s exactly my point. Even though I’ve heard that it’s mathematically provable that something can come from nothing, Rosenberg’s analogy was difficult to swallow. Some underlying if undiscovered determining cause intuitively seemed more plausible. I think the failure of the analogy to take hold with the audience was a major deciding issue in the outcome of the debate. On the other hand, in spite of his well crafted although often subtly illogical arguments, Craig reached for the brass ring of absurdity when he declared the resurrection of Jesus to be an historical fact. God of the Deist’s and philosophers notwithstanding, there was quite obviously no home team bias is Craig’s quest for truth.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Longtooth:

      You noticed something that I also noticed. It seems that Craig happily resorts to creationist style argumentation. In other words, he puts out arguments that he knows his opponent can’t reasonably reply to in the time given–that the responses are necessarily complicated and nuanced and require background knowledge. But he is content to leave simplicity out there to influence the gullible even though he knows that there are nuanced responses (if time permitted) that would complicate his assertions.

      For example, Craig lets the idea of the self stand out there as common sense when he knows that atheist traditions like Buddhism have elaborate and important critiques of the experience of the self as a self. He also knows, however, that Rosenberg can’t go down that rabbit hole with an audience that is largely ignorant of Buddhist critiques of the self. Rosenberg can’t approach it from the Western philosophical side either (such as via Heraclitus and the nature of change), nor via the neurological side (via, say, brain studies of people who have had their corpus collosum cut, the part of the brain that connects the left to the right hemisphere), because all these require a great deal of intellectual preparation and background for an audience to even begin to follow the arguments.

      And Rosenberg’s key weakness, certainly, is that he basically admits in the debate that a good deal of atheist rationality rests in the assumption that we live in an infinite (or nearly infinite) multiverse where chance really can achieve just about anything for no particular reason whatsoever (including banging a whole lawful universe out of nothing, just via the dice roll of a quantum burp).

      –Santi

      • adambnoel says:

        “And Rosenberg’s key weakness, certainly, is that he basically admits in the debate that a good deal of atheist rationality rests in the assumption that we live in an infinite (or nearly infinite) multiverse where chance really can achieve just about anything for no particular reason whatsoever (including banging a whole lawful universe out of nothing, just via the dice roll of a quantum burp).”

        I think the problem is tying atheism to science. Science did not allow atheists to be fulfilled atheists. A lot of conceptions of gods are incoherent and that’s what the atheist should be focusing on. They should philosophically be showing that since the concepts of god presented seem incoherent to them and since they find the arguments weak they do not believe in a god. In the end debates like this are like debates over what your favorite food is… in the end it is all subjective evaluation of qualitative data

        In the end science backed arguments often backfire since science changes and then the religious end up saying “Aha! I told you so! God did it!” at which case science and religion become more conflicting and even greater opposition to science emerges. In the end you’re stuck with the question of why existence and I really do not think we can develop an appropriate answer to such a question. (This is different from where did the universe come from type of questions)

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        Adam,

        You make an interesting observation, that atheists too can get hoisted by their own petard by invoking science in support of their positions. Science, after all, might change.

        But your advice to atheists also feels a bit too conservative. It’s easy to critique particular religions and gods; harder to demonstrate what the hell is really going on absent any telos in the universe at all.

        I think of a line from Blake, in which he writes of the tiger’s “fearful symmetry.” Anything symmetrical has the appearance of design (because it is a departure from entropy and randomness). And thus “fearful symmetry” is what it all comes down to, in my view. The universe is Blake’s tiger. The universe started off very, very, very far from chaos, in a state of perfect and “fearful symmetry,” incredibly low in entropy (randomness). Then it decoupled, unfolding its intricate symmetries and revealing new ones with each tick of time. Where did all that perfect initial order come from? And what caused it to decouple into this gorgeous if fearful unwinding of symmetry into dissipation?

        These are the great questions: the universe’s fearful symmetry, where that symmetry came from, and why it’s now unraveling in the form of history. It’s as if one is witnessing from a pot of hot water on a stove, now left to cool, not steam rising from it, but stars, planets, dinosaurs, trees, and Shakespeare. It’s bizarre in the extreme to witness the dissipation and cooling of that first symmetry.

        I don’t think my analogy is silly, by the way. Hot water molecules, when they cool, give off steam. Given the right combination of physical laws, hydrogen molecules all by their lonesome (which is what the universe basically consisted of in the immediate aftermath of the Big Bang), when they cool, give off (if you wait long enough) Einstein. Think about how insane that is.

        –Santi

      • Longtooth says:

        Santi,

        ….Craig happily resorts to creationist style argumentation. In other words, he puts out arguments that he knows his opponent can’t reasonably reply to in the time given…

        See the attached link for a lively and satisfying cutting of Craig’s cheese.

        ….a good deal of atheist rationality rests in the assumption that we live in an infinite (or nearly infinite) multiverse where chance really can achieve just about anything for no particular reason…

        The weakness on the theistic side is that any conclusion for God comes with the burden of explaining the why of God’s existence. One can posit that God always was, but that’s at the expense of characterizing God as an uncreated cause. And that’s not far removed from the something-from-nothing argument that the atheist camp evidently prefers. Regarding the universe-multiverse issue, for all that anyone knows, if “God” possesses the assumed quality of timelessness then God might have deposited any number of universes prior to formulating this one. Since our universe is only 13.8 billion years old, there would therefore be the problem of accounting for God’s timeless presence/activity prior to it.

        Although not exactly the same issue, there are those who argue for the mathematical improbability of occurrence by random chance alone for all events that would lead from a mostly hydrogen beginning to complex biological life such as ourselves. A practical difficulty is that most of us don’t have the mathematical or subject-matter acumen to assess whether the arguments are sound. I tend to be skeptical. William Dembski of the Discovery institute uses mathematical arguments against random chance to support notions about irreducible complexity in biological systems. However, review by subject-matter experts have shown that Dembski’s mathematical analyses fall woefully short of accounting for all the biochemical variables involved. By the way, Professor Craig is a fellow at the Discovery institute. What a small world.

        Anyway, even if other mathematical arguments turn out to be unassailable, the only valid conclusion is that we don’t yet know every detail about how things got from point A to point Z. Although tantalizing to the theists, it falls short of substantiating devine intervention. The ultimate answer to whether “God” is actually real or simply a long standing product of human ideation is thus likely to remain a mystery for quite some time to come. That’s not such a bad thing from the standpoint of those who delight in debating the matter or witnessing such debate.

        In the Rosenberg-Craig debate, however, it seemed that Craig’s only interest in the god of the philosophers or the Deists was how those constructs might be exploited to validate the god of Abraham as revised by the New Testament scripture and theology. I’m inclined toward Adam’s take on where Rosenberg’s emphasis could have more effectively resided. Whenever Rosenberg challenged Craig’s claims about Biblical historicity, Rosenberg’s delivery gained traction beyond what his appeal to particle physics managed to accomplish. The meaning of the Bible as an historical artifact, although a difficult topic in its own right, is collectively a more tangible subject. I think it begs more emphasis in high profile debate about religion and reality. This is particularly so considering the evangelical community’s sense of mission and continued bias toward biblical literalism despite all the accumulation of evidence for ancientness of origin, natural selection, and common descent. Too often it’s assumed that any mention of “God” is a default to the biblical deity even though Deism for example does not depend on scripture for insight about God’s nature. In this, there are those from both polls of the god versus no-god debate who question the wisdom of holding culture hostage to the Biblical deity as the fundamentalists obsessively intend. Future debates could be more broadly constructive by focusing on the “reasonableness of belief in the historicity of the Bible” rather than belief or non-belief in God or gods per se.

  3. adambnoel says:

    Am I the only person who finds William Lane Craig makes a compelling case for the god of the philosophers but cannot make the jump to Jesus? I can appreciate religious ritual, church gatherings, fasting and ideas such as that but this jumping to Jesus thing just keeps knocking me down.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      I agree with you that deism is plausible while the full “Jesus Monty” is far less so. Whenever Craig starts defending the historicity of the gospels or the Bible’s morality (such as it is), he seems completely unhinged, like someone defending the stories in the Book of Mormon with appeals to discoveries in North American archaeology.

      –Santi

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