Friday, July 9, 2010

Banging my head on yet another brick in the wall, part III - debating theists

I've had some ongoing health issues and some additional illnesses - I'm still somewhat invalid, and as a result my brain really hasn't been up to much intellectual work.

So instead I've had a number of discussions with theists.

Many of those discussions have had a somewhat similar character, and one in particular sums the whole experience up. This is a brief summary of the course of that typical case.

At the beginning, in response to a comment I made about modern apologetics, a very pleasant theist (let's call him Michael) tells me that William Lane Craig is a "really clever guy" with "persuasive arguments", and I "really should read his book" (they generally mean Reasonable Faith, but sometimes it's another book).

I respond that while I haven't read his book, I have seen video of him debating, and I have seen detailed reviews of his book that discuss some of Craig's arguments and I have had some of his arguments presented to me before, and that I am inclined to doubt the assertion that Craig's arguments are actually very persuasive.

I ask Michael to present to me what he thinks of as one of Craig's best arguments. His response is "the Kalam Cosmological argument".

Well, let's leave aside the fact that he only named the argument, he didn't actually present it - but instead left me to find the argument (I've seen it before, so it wasn't all that hard to find again, but I find it interesting how I always seem to get left with all the heavy lifting in these things - I have to locate the argument, check that this is really what my opponent means and then explain why it's wrong).

(Let's also leave aside the fact that the Kalam scholars were busy establishing the existence of the god of Mohammad, not the Christian god of the New Testament that Michael worshipped. If his argument went through I wasn't going to make him change religions.)

So anyway, I present Michael's argument to him and he says, yes, that's completely convincing, the conclusion definitely follows form the premises and the premises are "obviously true".

So I take him carefully through an analysis of the premises. Fortunately my correspondent is an extremely honest debater, so this only takes us several days.

Long story short - he ultimately agrees that in fact the premises consist of multiple sub-premises, not all explicitly stated, and that none of the sub-premises are actually established. Not one.

Indeed, he comes to agree that at best one of them is "probably true", and is reduced to arguing that the other premise is "not definitely established to be false".

After some prompting he agrees that yes, he does actually need to have them both be "definitely true" before he can try to apply the argument, and that's not the case.

So Michael's choice of "best argument" from Craig turns out to be a house of cards.

We end the discussion amicably. Michael departs with the suggestion that I still go read Craig's book "because some of his other arguments are really good".

I can't clearly apprehend quite how the cognitive dissonance doesn't make his brain explode into pink mist, but I am satsified that at least (given hours of effort and an honest counterpart), I can actually show one person that one of their "best" arguments for god isn't an argument at all.

(I have come to find that this is about as good an outcome as any such discussion is going to get.)

So, at least slightly satisfied, I return to the discussion from where our little debate originated.

What do I find? Another earnest Christian telling me that I "should read the book by William Lane Craig" and that it has "really good arguments".

I resist the temptation to spend several more days - if I am lucky - removing just one item from this new guy's list of "really good arguments".

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