Debate reflection: Lawrence Krauss vs. William Lane Craig in Melbourne

I’ve now watched two of the three “Life, the Universe and Nothing” debates between cosmologist Lawrence Krauss (LK) and apologist/theologian William Lane Craig (WLC), and wanted to share my reflections. While some will undoubtedly try, it is impossible to assert who really “won” in any of these debates – they are (thankfully) better described as dialogues – and you’ll notice that in any event most opinions about such a thing tend to line up with the person’s preferences beforehand. I will try my best to be objective, but to guard against any bias will also make a point to post reviews that differ with mine as I find them. Of course, the best thing you can do if you’re interested is to simply watch the debates yourself.

First, to mimic Krauss’ opening statement in the Brisbane debate (I’ll post my reflections on Brisbane later), I want to lay out my biases in detail. I consider WLC a minor intellectual (case in point, he’s more famous for his activity on the debate circuit and for his Christian apology books than for any scholarly work or major contributions to philosophy), and think he is often deceitful in his use of language and argument. He is, in my opinion, much more style than substance, and has a habit of making sweeping generalizations about areas outside his specialty, namely ancient history and cosmology, as well as taking others’ words out of context and/or distorting their intended views. I have also never seen him (and can hardly imagine him doing so) concede that he was or has ever been wrong. This last point is a major concern, as it’s difficult to trust someone who is not legitimately open to changing his or her opinion given new arguments or information.

Also, in full disclosure, I think the ethos of science – characterized namely by skepticism, peer-review, open inquiry, and test-ability – is more effective at determining truth than the general ethos of religion – characterized namely by deferral to authority, tradition, revelation, and personal experience.

With that said, I will just make the following observations about the dialogue in Melbourne, for which the topic was “Is a belief in God reasonable?”:

  • LK over-stated the similarities between Jesus and contemporary pagan/mythic Gods like Dionysus, Krishna, Horus, et al. The tropes of these mythic stories do have similarities with Jesus, including virgin births and resurrections, but I agree with WLC that the evidence Jesus was a whole-sale copy of any of these Gods is lacking. If anyone knows of credible scholarship in this area, please let me know, as I’ve been unable to find much.
  • I think WLC is (charitably) exaggerating when he says the testimony of the Gospels can be traced to “within 5 years” of Christ’s death. This seems absurdly early compared to the estimates I’ve heard elsewhere, and he would have to get there indirectly because the earliest written accounts we have do not come up until at least 20 years after Christ’s death. Again, any sources on this would be helpful.
  • LK is a bit out of his element in discussing morality and moral philosophy, and does much better when sticking to questions of science and particularly physics. That’s not to say Krauss is wrong, because I actually agree with him, but he’s just not as well-versed as Craig in this area and it gives the impression he’s losing the argument. Yale philosopher Shelly Kagan does a terrific job handling Craig on the question of morality in this debate.
  • Craig’s syllogisms, as Krauss correctly points out, are over-simplistic and based on premises that are likely wrong and very far from certain. Time and time again, what is astounding to me as I watch William Lane Craig present his 6 arguments (he always offers the same six) is how tenable the premises are, yet how certain he seems of their conclusions. The Cosmological Argument, for example, does what’s known in introductory logic as “begging the question” that is, assuming the conclusion in a premise intended to confirm the conclusion. To show how over-simplistic Craig’s syllogisms are, Krauss gave the audience a humorous one: “1) All mammals display homosexual tendencies, 2) William Lane Craig is a mammal … ” In any event, even if Craig’s syllogisms were proved correct, they wouldn’t get you from deism to theism, and certainty not from theism to Christianity. Debate opponents, other than Hitchens, tend to forget to point this out to Craig.
  • To me, the most effective part of Krauss’ strategy in this debate was just to continually ask Craig, “how do you know that?” and to show that there is nothing like absolute certainty in cosmology or ancient history, and that it’s therefore unreasonable to make such grand claims – and God is certainly a grand claim – without equally grand evidence.
  • Krauss effectively argues that Craig’s arguments could be used to support almost all the creation myths. Craig demurs on this, pointing out that few non-Christian creation stories having creation literally coming from nothing, but Krauss again argues that if you take those other stories metaphorically, they could just as well be supported by his syllogisms. He also traps Craig in highlighting the contradiction between saying the Bible isn’t a science textbook on one hand, then pulling out the pieces that agree with science and trying to prop it up as a book prescient of modern cosmology.
  • I think Craig’s weakest argument is the one regarding the resurrection. He – and this makes me pull my hair out every time I hear it – seems convinced that it’s actually more likely that 1) God exists (NOT a trivial assumption) 2) the Bible is true 3) Jesus was divine 4) Jesus rose from the dead and 5) Jewish oral tradition was immaculate, than it is that somebody stole Christ’s body and/or his followers either hallucinated or made-up visions. We have evidence for the latter happening all the time (think of UFO’s or the many cults that go in and out of existence each decade), but absolutely no evidence for someone rising from the dead (or of oral tradition being remotely consistent over large swaths of time). How is the former more reasonable than the latter? Craig seems to distort the alleged visions of Christ into a very narrow band, whereas he images hundreds of people having almost identical, independent experiences of Jesus at the same time. There’s just no objective evidence for that, and it’s such a cartoony, simplistic way to imagine the past that I feel embarrassed for him every time he utters it – he’s just so committed to believing in the Bible that he will ignore any evidence against it.

Before watching this debate, I heard rumors that Krauss dominated. I don’t think that’s the case (I actually think he did better in Brisbane), but I do think he was effective in showing uncertainty as a very real issue in cosmology and history, and thus demonstrated the inherent problems with Craig’s overly simplistic syllogisms.

Krauss seemed at times tired and more than frustrated at having to engage with a man who is so unlikely to ever change his views. As LK pointed out several times, Craig “assumes the answer before even asking the question,” and I can’t think of anything more opposed to reason than that.



Watch Now: William Lane Craig and Lawrence Krauss, Melbourne debate now up!

The Melbourne discussion between William Lane Craig and Lawrence Krauss has now been posted (meaning we’re only waiting on the one in Sydney). Jerry Coyne has a good overview of all the events here, and you can read my previous posts as well.

“Is it reasonable to believe in God?”

Watch: William Lane Craig vs. Lawrence Krauss Brisbane debate. Now up!

It’s here!

See previous post for background. Slight caveat – if you’re not familiar with WLC, you might think the other guy, Lawrence Krauss, is coming across a little rudely. He is, but that’s only because he considers WLC dishonest (see post here ) and agreed to the discussions (this is the first of three) mostly to make that point.


Life, the Universe and Nothing: Has science buried God? from City Bible Forum on Vimeo.

William Lane Craig and Lawrence Krauss debate videos to be up tomorrow?

UPDATE 8-28-2013, 7:45am CST: Still nothing posted on the web, but should be sometime today. As far as I’m aware, it will only be the Brisbane video released for now (recall there were 3 events with both WLC and Krauss, and one with just Krauss in Perth). In the meantime, Krauss did tweet an update on his film, The Unbelievers, hinting it may come to NY and LA later this fall:

  1. hope to have update on Unbelievers distribution within a week. Spoiler alert: if you live in NYC or LA think late fall. Elsewhere stay tuned

After weeks of waiting, representatives from Life, the Universe and Nothing have stated that we should expect debate videos from this series featuring cosmologist Lawrence Krauss and apologist William Lane Craig to appear…tomorrow! Now, I’m not sure if that’s tomorrow in Australia, or tomorrow here, but I will post as soon as they are released.

Does God Exist? William Lane Craig and Lawrence Krauss, First Post-Debate Analysis

If you read my post here, you know WLC and Lawrence Krauss just finished a three-night debate series at various locations throughout Australia. The host organization is currently working on editing the videos, and they should be released soon. In the meantime, I’ve been following Life, the Universe and Nothing’s facebook page to read reactions from those in attendance, trying to piece together how each performed.

As you might expect, comments are mixed, with theists generally siding with WLC and skeptics with Krauss. Surprisingly, however, there is a little buzz suggesting that Krauss actually trounced WLC in the final debate (recall that WLC is almost never beaten in debates by atheists, not because he makes good arguments, but because he’s such a practiced and formidable debater). Here’s a brief review from Christadelphian Unbelievers:

I never thought that I would live to see William Lane Craig beaten in a debate with an Unbeliever; but tonight (16 August 2013) I saw him outgunned by Lawrence Krauss.
The moderated discussion in the Melbourne Town Hall was packed to the back and it was a thrilling night. Bill spoke first with his usual style and closely reasoned arguments. It was WLC at his best and I cringed at the thought of Lawrence having to handle such a strong presentation.But when it was LMK’s turn to speak we were treated to a devastating barrage of blockbuster points one after another that never seemed to end.

The moderated discussion afterwards was poorly moderated by someone who hardly spoke a word and at times looked as if he was reading a newspaper. The two protagonists tore into each other unrelentingly; but WLC sensed that he was fighting a losing battle and before long Krauss had taken over the evening.

In one sense there was nothing new in the points made. It was the dazzling new style of Krauss that amazed me. He’d done his homework, learned from his losses to WLC in the past and lifted his game substantially.

Nevertheless, Bill did well and acquitted himself with his usual dignity. He was firm, but respectful to Lawrence; his keen intelligence added considerable depth to the scintillating discussion. I only wish that the discussion had lasted into the early hours of the morning. It was superb.

I’m excited for the videos, and have been checking for them every day since last week (I will post as soon as they go up). Krauss apparently used a “bullshit” buzzer in the first debate to combat inaccuracies and lies, in addition to creating this post-debate video:

Lawrence Krauss to Debate William Lane Craig – Thank You, Australia!

I’m surprised but very pleased to learn today that physicist Lawrence Krauss and Christian apologist William Lane Craig have agreed to a three-part debate series in Australia to take place this August. Details here. Each night will focus on a different topic:

  • August 7th, “Has science buried God?”
  • August 13th, “Why is there something rather than nothing?”
  • August 16th, “Is it reasonable to believe there is a God?”

Krauss of course is director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University, a respected physicist (there were Nobel rumblings at one point), and more recently a vocal advocate for scientific literacy. Along with Richard Dawkins, he will be the subject of the upcoming documentary, The Unbelievers (see Richard’s reason for not debating Craig here). William Lane Craig (or WLC) is a philosopher, theologian, and popular Christian apologist (though popular mostly with the public, not so much intellectuals – see post here). He also has a somewhat well-deserved reputation as a formidable debater.

The two have gone head to head before, but I think Krauss clearly “lost” in terms of style. You can watch the whole thing here, but be warned the audio quality is poor. Krauss is much too loose, informal, unprepared, and at times discusses scientific concepts in far too much detail to get his point across. That said, he’s gotten much better (I think this was one of his earliest attempts at debating a theologian), and you can watch a more recent debate here (Intelligence Squared) and his fantastic Science of Storytelling series here (featuring Bill Nye, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Richard Dawkins, and Brian Greene, among others).

I’m not sure who’s the favorite in this match-up. Looking solely at the last time they debated, I’d be forced to go with WLC, but if the format is informal, as Krauss prefers and WLC dislikes, then it could be very interesting. Directly below is a debate WLC had with philosopher Shelly Kagan, in which he looks more uncomfortable than ever because of the conversational style of the latter half. And directly below that video is a debate where Krauss got a little angry (they tried to segregate women and men in the audience at the start of the event) and took it out on poor Hamza Andreas Tzortzis, repeatedly calling attention to his ignorance of science and mathematics.

Here’s looking forward to August!