Saturday, May 16, 2020

Handicapping the Craig/Oppy debate

I already did one brief post on the Craig/Oppy debate:

I subsequently added a sentence to the first part of my two-part response. 

Now I'm going to comment on the rest of the debate. A few preliminary observations:

1. For a 70-year-old, Craig is remarkably quick on his feet, especially considering the highly abstract, technical subject-matter of the debate.

2. Oppy is a superior mind wasted on atheism. Even if atheism were true–especially if atheism were true–what's the point of mounting such a sophisticated defense of atheism? What's the point of defending atheism at all? What's the point of anything? If atheism is true, then human life is worthless, so why devote so much effort and intelligence to defending a position that renders human life worthless? Maybe Oppy doesn't view it that way, but a number of candid atheists do.

Consider defending a worldview in which it's okay to take a butcher knife and carve your mother up alive. Consider developing sophisticated arguments to defend that proposition. 

3. Moving to the meat of the debate, I think there was some miscommunication regarding Craig's statement that atheists have no explanation for the phenomena he adduces in his argument. I'm sure that's shorthand for the claim, not that atheists have no naturalistic explanations to offer, but that their naturalistic alternatives are explanatory failures. 

4. Due to time-constraints, the debate didn't have a clear-cut winner or loser, because both sides had insufficient time to expound their positions and respond to objections. Sometimes Craig had the better of the exchange, sometimes Oppy had the better of the exchange, but in some cases that's because of how the exchange abruptly ended. If each side had more time to explain their position and develop their replies, they might have a better comeback. That said, I think Craig did better overall. 

5. In the first round they got bogged down on the question of what motivates mathematicians. Here I think Craig commits an unforced error in how he formulates the first premise of his argument. That's because his formulation is overly-realiant at this point on Wigner's essay. But his argument doesn't require him to take a position on what motivates mathematicians. The issues is what's been discovered as a result of their work, regardless of their motivations. Pure math with practical applications they've developed as a result of their work, regardless of their motivations. Craig's fundamental argument is the unreasonable effectiveness of math, however mathematicians were motivated to stumble upon that insight. So Craig could rehabilitate his argument by reformulating the first premise. 

6. Initially, Craig's argument seems to hinge on scientific realism. Oppy gave examples which might support scientific anti-realism. I think Oppy had the better of that exchange. Craig needs to be able to do one of two things: (i) defend scientific realism or (ii) reformulate his argument so that it works on scientific realism and antirealism alike. 

Later in the debate Craig says the argument is about how the world appears to us. The mathematical equations allow us to describe with amazing accuracy in an uncanny number of cases the physical phenomena. Yet that seems inconsistent with earlier argument Craig and Oppy were having. But perhaps we can treat this as a clarification of the argument. 

7. On a related note, Oppy appealed to many failed theories, where the math didn't prove to be uncannily effective. Craig responded by saying the realm of math infinite while the physical world finite, so it's to be expected that in many cases the math fails to match up. I think Craig had the better of that exchange.

8. Apropos (7), I'd make an additional point. The failures that Oppy cited don't disprove the unexpected effectiveness of math (unexpected if atheism is true). Rather, they simply illustrate the fallibility of physicists. 

9. Craig appealed to the causal inertness of mathematic objects. I think Craig had the better of that exchange. 

10. Because Craig's argument appeals to laws of nature, Oppy challenged his argument on that score inasmuch as the concept or status of such laws is contested in the philosophy of science. However, when outlining his alternative to Craig's position, Oppy posting the necessity of the laws of nature. So he's faulting Craig's theistic position for a commitment which his own naturalistic alternative shares in common. Indeed, he stakes out a more ambitious claim than Craig since he regards the laws of nature as necessary whereas Craig regards the laws of nature as contingent. So that objection seems to be contradictory and self-defeating on Oppy's part. 

11. Apropos (10), while Oppy's objection was inconsistent, the lingering issue remains of whether Craig's argument is committed to some version of the laws of nature. If so, that makes his argument vulnerable at that point to disputes in the philosophy of science regarding the concept and status of such laws. It would be better if Craig could reformulate his argument so that it's not dependent on that assumption. 

Offhand, I don't see that it requires that commitment. The basic argument is that pure math has surprising empirical applications. That makes sense if the universe was "constructed on God's mathematical blueprint" (as Craig put it). It doesn't make sense if atheism is true. This might also be a way for Craig to sidestep the scientific realist/antirealist debate.

12. Oppy outlined his alternative:
A theory of modality. Every possible world shares some initial history with the actual world. Diverges from it only because chances play out differently. Those are the only possibilities that there are. The laws are necessary, the boundary conditions are necessary. Doesn't matter if you're thinking about one universe or many universe model. Where contingency comes in is the outplaying of chances. Couldn't possibly have failed not to be the case. No explaining why something is necessary. 
i) It's hard to evaluate his alternative since his presentation was so sketchy. But an acute failing of his alternative (at least as stated in the debate) is the failure to explain where the math comes from. What is Oppy's ontology of mathematics? 

ii) His commitment to nomological necessity shoulders a high burden of proof. 

iii) While it's true that once we reach necessity, that terminates further explanation, that doesn't sidestep the question of whether we rightly identified what's necessary, or what makes it necessary–in contrast to what's contingent. 

iv) What does he mean by chance? Is he alluding to quantum indeterminism? If so, there are deterministic versions of quantum theory, so he must defend his particular interpretation. 

v) Then there's his concept of the possible world. However, as commonly understood, the actual world used to be a possible world. So possible worlds don't derive from the actual world. 

In addition, from a Christian perspective, both possible worlds and the actual world derive from God. God stands behind both as their common source.


  1. My uninformed two cents.

    Craig needs to be able to do one of two things: (i) defend scientific realism or (ii) reformulate his argument so that it works on scientific realism and antirealism alike.

    I think the latter is the way to go. Arguing for scientific realism is not only difficult, but it might be arguing for something ultimately false. Maybe instrumentalism/opperationalism is ultimately all we can hope for prior to the eschaton. When God will answer many of our questions.

    Craig has asked his fellow apologists [e.g. Bishop Barron] how ones goes about incorporating beauty in ones' evangelism and/or apologetic. One way to bypass the scientific realism vs. antirealism debate is to appeal to beauty and elegance. I suspect Craig relied heavily on Wigner's essay to the degree he did partly because he knew that it would be a way to avoid having to defend realism. If so, its a brilliant move. Emphasizing apparent beauty, elegance and creativity in the way mathematics maps onto the physical world weakens the case for the alternatives of necessity or contingency, and strengthens it for intelligent volitional design.

    Craig has publicly referred to Oppy as "scary smart". It's so sad to see people so smart that it becomes an added disadvantage in believing in God. It just goes to show that humans aren't perfectly rational computational machines.

    At the same time Pascal's Wager is not as straight forward as it can appear. See for example:

    Should We "Wager" on God? Cosmic Skeptic vs Liz Jackson

    Nevertheless the cumulative evidence for God should make the skeptic shudder. As the Triabloggers have show over and over. For example:

    Evidence for God

    Required reading for atheists

    Making a case for Christianity

    A case for Christ

    "The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible"- Albert Einstein from "Physics and Reality"(1936), in Ideas and Opinions, trans. Sonja Bargmann (New York: Bonanza, 1954), p292.

    1. This desire for autonomy can reach very substantial proportions, as with the German philosopher Heidegger, who, according to Richard Rorty, felt guilty for living in a universe he had not himself created. Now there’s a tender conscience! But even a less monumental desire for autonomy can perhaps also motivate atheism.- Alvin Plantinga

      "These findings, now available, make the idea that God created the universe a more respectable hypothesis today than at any time in the last 100 years."- Frederick Burnham [science historian]
      The Los Angeles Times, Saturday 2nd May 1992.

      Little science takes you away from God but more of it takes you to Him- [allegedly] Louis Pasteur

      The first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will turn you into an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass, God is waiting for you. - Weerner Heisenberg (Christian) 1932-Nobel Prize in Physics "for the creation of quantum mechanics"

      Christianity and science are opposed...but only in the same sense as that which my thumb and forefinger are opposed - and between them, I can gasp everything. - [allegedly] Sir William Bragg, Nobel Prize for Physics (1915)

      It is true, that a little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism; but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion. For while the mind of man looketh upon second causes scattered, it may sometimes rest in them, and go no further; but when it beholdeth the chain of them, confederate and linked together, it must needs fly to Providence and Deity.- Francis Bacon (confirmed quote)

      Small amounts of philosophy lead to atheism, but larger amounts bring us back to God.- [allegedly] Francis Bacon

      If you study science deep enough and long enough it will force you to believe in God- [allegedly] Lord William Kelvin