Debate With Dr. Kevin Scharp Part 1

Debate With Dr. Kevin Scharp Part 1

It was expected to be a rather routine dialogue. It became a rigorous debate!


Transcript Debate with Dr. Kevin Scharp Part 1

KEVIN HARRIS: Dr. Craig, a few weeks ago you had an exchange at the Veritas Forum at Ohio State University.[1] As we talked about in previous podcasts and as you’ve also shared with the Defenders class, this dialogue took you by surprise in a few ways. Let’s talk about that once again. What was it about this exchange with philosopher Kevin Scharp that took you by surprise and made this suddenly from something that could have been rather routine into a really good exchange?

DR. CRAIG: I think two things. First was that I was expecting this to be a sort of schmoozy, friendly dialogue. That is the way it was billed to me by the Veritas Forum people. But Kevin came with hammer and tongs to really take me apart. So that was a surprise – the aggressiveness with which he went after me and my case. The other thing was how prepared he was. I so appreciate the fact that he took the time to read debates, listen to podcasts, prepare arguments and objections.

KEVIN HARRIS: All seven years of the podcasts!

DR. CRAIG: He listened to all seven years of Reasonable Faith podcasts, he told me before the debate. He made a point of letting me know he had prepared hard. That was evident with his PowerPoint slides and his long opening speech. As a result we got – finally – a really good exchange on some of these issues because we have here an opponent who came really prepared. So I think this is a good object lesson for our listeners. If you want to know what would a good philosopher at one of our fine state universities say in response to my arguments – will these arguments hold up? - take a look at this dialogue and see what you think.

KEVIN HARRIS: A note about the dialogue. Sometimes reading a transcript can bring out some nuances that maybe the video and audio can’t.

DR. CRAIG: That is absolutely right. That is why I have not even watched the entire video again. But I have read the entire transcript a couple of times. Because then you can pore over the arguments, and especially relate what is said earlier in the dialogue to, say, something that comes up again in the Q&A time or the dialogue time. By having it in print you can make these kinds of comparisons and really understand the argument that is going on. Whereas if you just listen to it or watch it, it goes by too quickly. Having said that, though, I did notice one thing about the transcript. As I was reading the transcript, I noticed that there were certain things attributed to me that I thought, “That doesn’t sound right. That is not what I think. Did I really say that?” What I discovered was, when I went back to the video, the inflection of one’s voice, the emphasis can put a totally different interpretation on one’s words than just seeing it flat on a transcript. In one case, for example, I was actually speaking to the moderator, not to Kevin Scharp. And that put a whole different interpretation on the words. So sometimes the rhetorical factors in an oral presentation – tone of voice, inflection, things of that sort – can be very important for understanding what is said.

KEVIN HARRIS: Two things I want to mention briefly that I really appreciate about Kevin Scharp. Dr. Scharp first of all was very complimentary to you. We will talk about some things that probably still need to be shored up, but that is going to keep the level of dialogue and debate up there and civil, rather than seeing them devolve into shouting matches which could easily happen. So this kept the bar high on preparation. He was very complimentary. He said you have really held atheists' feet to the fire in your debates and you have showed them that you better come prepared. So he was complimentary in that area. Raised the bar. In a private conversation he offered his condolences to me in the loss of my son, Tanner, because he heard those podcasts. So I want to publicly thank Kevin for that. You gave your case first. What were your points that you brought up?[2]

DR. CRAIG: Since the topic under discussion was not Christianity but “Is there evidence for God?” I wanted to present a case for generic theism that would be acceptable to Jews and Muslims and deists as well as Christians. So I presented the Leibnizian argument from contingency, the kalam cosmological argument, the argument from the applicability of mathematics to the physical world, the design argument from fine-tuning, the moral argument, and finally the proper basicality of belief in God. I felt that this gives a good cumulative case for theistic belief.

KEVIN HARRIS: I want to mention that because people looking at the transcript of the debate – I don’t want them to go past and say, “I know Dr. Craig’s case. He is going to do 1, 2, 3, 4. He’s going to do the resurrection. He’s going to do this.” Well, look into this because there are some new things. Even the way that you word them.

DR. CRAIG: I am always working on these arguments to hone them and improve them as I can. One thing that is significant about this – this does play a factor in the debate because Kevin Scharp interpreted the question “Is there evidence for God?” to mean “Is there evidence for the Christian God?” He thought that when you have a capital-G in the word “God” this is referring to the Christian God. That, of course, is not true. Jews and Muslims, deists, all believe in God – the God of classical theism with a capital-G. Kevin, I think, misunderstood the debate topic and was looking for arguments for Christianity as opposed to simple theism.

KEVIN HARRIS: He begins by saying that he wants to defend what he calls 21st century atheism, that we’ve learned some important insights from the 20th century about philosophy of religion, and it is time to take advantage of those insights. He begins with, I think, what we could call the confidence argument and then the weakness argument. First the position of the confidence argument.

DR. CRAIG: It seemed to me that this so-called 21st century atheism was a bit of chronological snobbery. There is nothing 21st century about this at all. In fact it is very old-fashioned. What he basically is saying is that belief in God is incompatible with modern science, and that if we believe in modern science we should not believe in God. We have greater confidence in the truths of modern science than we do in God, and modern science is incompatible with God, and therefore we should not believe in God. That is just old-line modernist Enlightenment mentality. There is nothing 21st century about that. What is odd, even though he says in his opening statement that belief in God (with a capital-G) conflicts with our best scientific theories in biology, chemistry, and physics, he doesn’t prove it! I thought this was so strange because it was precisely to the best evidence of modern science that I appeal in many of my arguments to show the rationality of belief in God such as the kalam cosmological argument, the argument from fine-tuning,or the applicability of mathematics to the physical world. So he really has a burden of proof here if he is going to claim that science is incompatible with theism or Christian theism, and he never discharges that burden of proof. He just asserts it.

KEVIN HARRIS: Just a quick note. When you say “chronological snobbery” you are not calling Kevin a snob. That is a term that means . . .

DR. CRAIG: That the recent is always better – that these people in the past were benighted, ignorant people, and we now have come of age. So what is current is the truth and these people in the past are sort of looked down upon. You hear this all the time when people say, “These are iron age beliefs that Christians hold.”

KEVIN HARRIS: Yeah. That's chronological snobbery.

DR. CRAIG: Yeah.

KEVIN HARRIS: We have better relationships today because we have cell phones. Well, that could be argued either way! The first thing that kind of struck me that I wanted to run past you is he said, “We should be formulating theism and atheism in terms of confidence levels from zero percent to 100 percent, not in terms of belief.” Kevin really complimented you on building systems.[3] He wants to build a system here it seems – a philosophical system, systematic theology, systematic philosophy. But the argument itself is going to require confidence. Are you confident in the confidence?

DR. CRAIG: I'm not! And I made that point over and over again. I have no confidence whatsoever in his claim that in order to believe in God I need to have a probability significantly higher than 51%. He gave no argument for that other than just an example. He gave an illustration that he thinks it is 51% probable that Hillary Clinton will win the presidential election. But that is not enough for him to believe that she will win. Well, fine, that is just an illustration. But in many other cases, 51% might be enough for a person to believe in something, especially (as William James pointed out) if this is a pressing conclusion that imposes itself upon you and is a matter of great urgency and importance, William James argued that in a case like that you are perfectly rational to believe in something even without evidence. This is James' famous essay, “The Will to Believe.” This idea that in order to believe something you have to be significantly more than 51% confident in it, I think is person-relative and subjective. For some people that might be true, for other people it might not. For some beliefs it might be true, but for other beliefs (as James said) it may not. I agree – I have no confidence in his argument from confidence!

KEVIN HARRIS: While I really appreciate precision – being precise (this is something he is calling for as well) – boy, I just got a headache thinking about . . . he says we need to start thinking about “I am a theist about X, and I am an atheist about Y.” In other words, I'm an atheist with regard to Zeus, I'm a theist with regard to Yahweh. Boy, we are going to have to go through a lot of gods – what? Every Indian god? Every pagan god?

DR. CRAIG: This is a typical Internet atheist gambit that really is unworthy of a sophisticated philosopher. The sort of popular slogan is, “We are both atheists. I'm just an atheist about one more god than you are.” That is just silly. The monotheist believes the proposition, “God exists.” The atheist thinks that proposition is false. And there is a world of difference between those two. I am not an atheist in any sense of the term. I am a theist because I believe that proposition is true. It is just, I think, a sort of, frankly, silly atheist slogan to try to say we are all atheists.

KEVIN HARRIS: If a person says, “I'm a Christian theist,” that is enough. That is going to wipe out Zeus and everybody else.

DR. CRAIG: And it certainly would wipe out atheism. He is not an atheist if he is a Christian theist in any sense of the word.

KEVIN HARRIS: Then he gets into the weakness argument. Perhaps that is something you could call it. That is distinguishing between weak religious views and strong religious views. He says, “A weak religious view is greater than 50 percent confidence. A strong religious view is high enough to count as knowledge or outright belief. So, using these points, we can map out the various options.” Again, that is a lot of mapping.

DR. CRAIG: It is related to this confidence claim that he has. He thinks that even if you conclude from the arguments for God's existence that it is more probable than not that God exists – suppose you come to that conclusion on the basis of these arguments – he would say that is not enough confidence for you to believe that God exists. Well, who says? There are plenty of people who believe in God on far less evidence than that. There is no reason to think that a person who believes that it is more probable than not that God exists would therefore believe in God. It seems to me that this is person-relative, it is arbitrary, and this argument from weakness is simply a bad argument.

KEVIN HARRIS: Apparently his threshold is very high. Even though he just uses this as an example, he says, let's say the threshold for belief is at 80%. That might kind of show where he thinks something ought to be before he is going to count it as either knowledge or belief.

DR. CRAIG: Right.[4] He wants to raise the bar for success in natural theology as high as he can. Whereas, you see, my strategy is to try to set the bar as low as you can. I want to make it easy for people to become theists. He wants to make it become difficult for people to become theists. So he wants to raise the bar as high as he can. You've got to have 70 or 80% confidence level that God exists in order to believe that God exists. Again, who says?! Maybe that is true for Kevin Scharp but that may not be true for me or for most people. It is purely arbitrary and person-relative.

KEVIN HARRIS: It is person-relative. It is era-relative.

DR. CRAIG: But even more fundamentally – and I hope our listeners grasp this point – it is irrelevant. This weakness argument is irrelevant. Why? Because what he is attacking here is not the arguments themselves. What he is attacking are my criteria for good deductive arguments. In my published work, I've argued that in order for a deductive argument to be a good one it needs to have true premises, secondly the conclusion needs to follow from the premises by the rules of logic, and thirdly the premises need to be more plausible than their opposites. If those conditions are met then you've got a good deductive argument. That is what he is attacking. He is saying those criteria are too lax; that it is not enough for the premises to be more plausible than not, because that only gives you 51% probability. That is too weak for belief in the conclusion. Suppose he is right about that. That is fine. That doesn't affect my arguments at all. That would just say I need to revise the criteria for what counts as a good deductive argument. But he has never shown that my arguments fail to meet any high standard of probability or confidence. I think that these arguments establish their conclusions to far greater probability than 51%. I am just saying this is the minimum level for a deductive argument to be a good one. But, in fact, the arguments I offer are based on premises that are far more probable than that. Think of the kalam cosmological argument. I'd say the first premise that “whatever begins to exists has a cause” has virtually 100% probability. It is impossible for something to come out of nothing. The probability that the universe began to exist, I'd say given the philosophical and scientific evidence, is very high indeed. So the conclusion will be (no less than I should say) than the probability of that second premise. Even on his criterion for a good argument, I think these arguments are very good arguments. They establish their conclusions to a very high degree of probability. He is just attacking my criteria for a good argument and not attacking the arguments themselves.

One final point about this that I think is a misunderstanding on Dr. Scharp's part. He seems to think that the probability of the conclusion of a deductive argument cannot be any higher than the probability of the conjunction of the premises. You take the premises together and ask, “How probable is it that all of these premises are true?” And that will give you the probability of the conclusion. That is false in a deductive argument. The probability of the conjunction of the premises only sets a minimum probability for the conclusion. So if the probability of the premises is 51%, all that proves is that the probability of the conclusion cannot be less than 51%.

KEVIN HARRIS: Cannot be less than 51%.

DR. CRAIG: That's right. It shows merely that the probability of the conclusion cannot be less than 51%. But it could be much higher. It could be 70, 80, 90%. I think Dr. Scharp was under the misimpression that the conclusion to a deductive argument has a probability which is simply equal to the probability of the conjunction of the premises. That is why he thought that I was offering weak arguments. Because I said in a good argument the premises need to be more probable than not.[5] The premises have to have a 51% probability. And he thought that therefore I was saying the conclusion is only 51% probable. That is simply wrong. That is not the way deductive logic works. What it implies is the conclusion is no less than 51% probable. But it could be much, much higher.

KEVIN HARRIS: He seemed to put it like this. There is a conflict. Dr. Craig is arguing for this much certainty (he is really confident in God), but he is only offering arguments that reach this much confidence (way down here, this is the minimum). There is a conflict.

DR. CRAIG: He seemed to be saying that sometimes. It is not entirely clear. I think more often what he was saying was in order to believe in God you need to have this high confidence level. But Dr. Craig is only claiming that his arguments show God exists to 51% probability. I think both of those assertions are false. You don't need to have super-high confidence in order to believe something. That is person-relative and belief-relative. And it is not true that the arguments that I give have conclusions that are only 51% probable. So the whole weakness argument, I think, is just misconceived.

KEVIN HARRIS: Let's continue this on our next podcast. We'll get into Dr. Scharp's arguments that he presents.[6]



[1] For the video and link to the transcript, see http://www.reasonablefaith.org/media/craig-vs-scharp-the-veritas-forum-ohio-state-university (accessed June 20, 2016).

[2] 5:06

[3] 10:01

[4] 15:02

[5] 20:00

[6] Total Running Time: 22:43 (Copyright © 2016 William Lane Craig)