Thursday, July 15, 2010

encountering William Lane Craig

smooth operator

I spent some time yesterday looking at video talks and debates featuring one William Lane Craig, theologian and philosopher who has, apparently, a reputation as a debater, and of course quite a big Christian following in the US. Of course he's no match for a scrupulously analytical thinker like the Jesus Seminar's Robert Price, but such people are rare. Craig is completely incapable of scepticism, so he's both a philosopher and an evangelist, so suavely sure of himself that he manages to make plausible the most manifest absurdities. The cosmological argument - Kalam or not - is a particularly weird one, which seeks to base the existence of Yahweh or Adonai or however you name that particular god out of thousands, on the old first cause conundrum. Something can't come out of nothing, and the something that the universe came out of must have been greater, more complex than the universe, so presumably it must've had intention [?], etc etc, all of which has nothing whatever to do with a personal god who had a son via a virgin and who answers prayers, but yes, Craig, like Roy Williams of Yahweh, Actually, swallows the whole kit and caboodle. Daniel Dennett has a thoughtful reflection on Craig here, in which he acknowledges Craig's enthusiasm and erudition, and points out the difficulty of combating that erudite confidence 'on the hop' so to speak, in a debate. This of course is the problem with debates. No issue of any moment in philosophy has ever been decided by a debate. That's just not how ideas win out over other ideas. Debates are won, presumably, by those who are most confident about their position - and most articulate, well-organised, etc. Almost by definition, the sceptic isn't going to be that person. Scepticism is generally about uncertainty. Scepticism wonders and dithers. Debates are fun, like boxing matches, and Wittgenstein thought that philosophers should always be ready to get in the ring, and debates certainly hone some useful skills, but I don't think any debate will cross the bridge between the natural and the supernatural. There will never be any evidence for supernatural causation, thus it can never be more than an article of faith. In this debate with Robert Price for example, Craig smoothly enumerates 'facts' about Jesus' death and supposed resurrection, and comes to the only reasonable conclusion, according to him, that the god called God rose him from the dead. As Dennett says, Craig makes a habit of presenting a handful of apparently reasonable and anodyne premises which lead up to the most absurd conclusion. He speaks confidently, enthusiastically and without a trace of scepticism, steamrolling his way through a presentation that mixes putative historical evidence with more or less disguised supernatural claims as if this is all perfectly normal. Yet we know that people don't 'rise from the dead'. We know the physiological impossibility of this, and we know of no empirically proven examples of this ever having happened. We also know that claims about supernatural intervention were routinely made, even at the highest levels, in ancient, so-called pagan times. They're routinely made today, too, though rarely at the highest levels these days, leaving aside the divinely guided George W. So, in spite of Craig's claims that no other burial story like that of Jesus exists, it is still of a pattern with ancient legends, death and resurrection being, after all, as ancient as our understanding of the seasons. Having said that, bodily, human resurrection was quite a new idea. The pagan cults, after all, were practised by pragmatic country folk, by and large, who saw clearly enough what happened to the body after death, and they weren't bothered by texts such as the book of Revelation - their beliefs were orally transmitted, and grounded, at least to some degree, in common sense.

Really, though, I don't know why I'm getting into this. Examining gospel texts, canonical or otherwise, isn't going to convince any reasonable sceptic that somebody rose from the dead, or was the son of a deity. Craig would at best convince some wavering believer with no scientific understanding. This miraculous stuff was dealt with centuries ago by Hume, and the argument has only tightened since then. Craig makes much of the consensus of New Testament scholars, probably a bogus consensus, but that isn't important since the vast majority of New Testament scholars are Christians. I'd be much more interested in what human physiologists might have to say about coming to life again once you're dead - but of course Craig would respond that this wasn't a physiological phenomenon but a divine one. The only response to that is to shrug. A divine phenomenon is something always beyond evidence, so all discussion must grind to a halt. I would just ask people, with Hume, which was more likely - a miracle, or that people let their imaginations, filled with supernatural possibilities, get the better of them?

We have no difficulty in deciding between these two options with 'paganism', the religion that Christianity had to compete with once it spilled out of Palestine. Robin Lane Fox, in Pagans and Christians, examines a whole host of examples of the gods - most notably Apollo, but also Asclepius [the son of Apollo], Hermes, Athena, Dionysus, Isis, Serapis and others, being thanked or acknowledged for their intervention in human affairs. Fox, of course, isn't interested in the truth of these claims, and he assumes his readers aren't either. He's interested in patterns and influences, the way inscriptions and treatment of the gods varies from region to region and through time. Imagine our surprise if, suddenly, in describing an inscription to Asclepius [a god of healing, and so naturally a god often consulted in the Graeco-Roman era], Fox argued that the inscription's claim that the god had cured someone of a mortal illness was corroborated by more than one contemporary writer, each of whom had 'somewhat' similar accounts of the god appearing at the woman's bedside just before she made a swift and apparently miraculous recovery. Imagine then that Fox claimed this to be pretty substantive evidence that Asclepius really had cured the woman. How would we respond?

We would feel that the usually dependable Fox had suddenly, unaccountably, taken leave of his senses. After all, Asclepius never existed - we all know that. So thoroughly has paganism been uprooted and replaced by Christianity. The number of corroborating accounts wouldn't much influence us, because those writers were all believers. We know better. No contest. Neither is there any contest in the case of William Lane Craig. What's the difference exactly between a dead supernatural being like Asclepius and a 'living' one like Jesus? I suppose the difference is that one is kept alive by belief. But belief isn't evidence - far from it.


  1. I don't believe many really care what you think.

  2. Well, I'm sure you right about that, just as not many people care about what you think about what I think, but what does that have to do with anything? I write to try to make sense of the world - why do you write?