Revisiting a Famous Debate - Part One

Revisiting a Famous Debate - Part One

Dr. Craig discusses an interview with Dr. Walter Sinnott-Armstrong revisiting the issues of their debate as well as some new topics.

Transcript Revisiting a Famous Debate – Part 1

KEVIN HARRIS: Welcome to Reasonable Faith with Dr. William Lane Craig. Glad you're here! I'm Kevin Harris. A few years ago Dr. Craig had a couple of debates with Dr. Walter Sinnott-Armstrong. Those debates were put into a popular book. Recently Robert Kuhn of the TV program Closer to Truth interviewed Walter Sinnott-Armstrong. We want to get some interaction on that from Dr. Craig – some of the issues that they discussed in their debate and some new issues have come up in this interview. (By the way, I think we pronounced Robert's name as “Koo-n” in this interview but as I checked that he pronounces it “Queue-n.” He has a very good program. As we mentioned, Dr. Craig has been interviewed by Robert Kuhn. This is going to be a multi-part series. Today, part one of an interview with Walter Sinnott-Armstrong.

Here is a name I haven't heard in a while, Dr. Craig - Walter Sinnott-Armstrong. You had a debate with Walter.

DR. CRAIG: A couple.

KEVIN HARRIS: A couple of debates! One was put into a book form. What do you recall of those days and that debate?

DR. CRAIG: The book was actually a compilation out of both of the debates. He is a very congenial fellow. We got along really well. He's good-natured. I gave my positive arguments for theism, and then he argued positively for atheism using arguments based on the problem of evil and the coherence of theism. So it was a good exchange.

KEVIN HARRIS: He teaches philosophy.

DR. CRAIG: He does. When I first met him he was at Dartmouth. He has since moved on. I'm not sure of his current affiliation.

KEVIN HARRIS: OK. He was on a program that you've been on yourself. Robert Kuhn's Closer to Truth. He is talking about the coherence of theism in this interview. Let's watch and we'll pause it from time to time and get your comments.

ROBERT KUHN: Walter, one of the arguments against theism is that the various characteristics of God are not coherent. They don't fit together.

DR. SINNOTT-ARMSTRONG: First I would want to distinguish consistency from coherence. I think the theological view of God is logically consistent. To be inconsistent would have to imply a contradiction. That is not what is happening here. To say it is incoherent is to say that there is a conflict here between the features of God and other things that we know. The problem of evil brings out one of those incoherences.

DR. CRAIG: He is defining his terms in an idiosyncratic way. The coherence of theism is typically used to describe the internal consistency among God's attributes. For example, is it compatible with God's being personal to say that God is also timeless? Some have alleged the idea of a timeless person is incoherent. But what Sinnott-Armstrong seems to be allowing is that theism could be a perfectly consistent concept but when he says it is not coherent he means it doesn't jive with the facts of experience. He was just going to mention the problem of evil. That is not an internal coherence problem. That would be usually taken to be some sort of evidential problem. It is important for our listeners to understand that he is using the word “coherence” of theism in an idiosyncratic way.

DR. SINNOTT-ARMSTRONG: If God is all-powerful and all-good, you can't understand why there would be so much evil of so many different types in the world. There is another incoherence brought out by another argument – the argument from action. If God is eternal or if God is even unchanging but in time, you can't understand how God could bring about changes in the world if God doesn't change himself. Or for that matter how God could be a person if he doesn't change. I've never met a person who doesn't change. What makes somebody a person is the way in which they act and change in the world. If you had something that doesn't change from one moment to another it couldn't be a person.

DR. CRAIG: All right. He brings this argument from action up in our book. What I point out there is a couple of things. First, it depends on your theory of time. If you hold to a tenseless theory of time according to which there really is no intrinsic change but everything exists – past, present, and future – it is very easy to see how a changeless God could exist outside this four-dimensional spacetime continuum and be causally related to everything in it. If you do adopt a tensed view of time (such as I do) then you probably won't think that God is timeless with creation. That is the view that I, myself, would take. God, since the moment of creation, is in time and therefore there just is no problem of action as he, himself, admits. A temporal God could be involved in changing activities.[1]

As for the coherence of God's personhood and God's timelessness, this was exactly the illustration I gave a moment ago. I've argued in my book, Time and Eternity, that there is no good reason to think personhood and timelessness are incompatible with each other. What the atheist would have to show is that there are certain essential properties to personhood which cannot be possessed by an atemporal person. The theist can respond by either showing that these properties are not essential to personhood (for example, properties like remembering and anticipating are not essential to being a person) or else he can show that these properties can, in fact, be possessed by a timeless person. For example, freedom of the will, decision, and so forth. In my chapter I look at the arguments against atemporal personhood and I think I show that these are all inconclusive.

DR. SINNOTT-ARMSTRONG: Sure, there are lots of different theological traditions. But what happens is these theological traditions often interact with other theological traditions or those theological traditions arise from many different people at many different times. That is how the incoherence gets in there. The Old Testament was written by many people. Then the New Testament comes along and there is Greek influence, and you get other doctrines. It is not surprising that so many people writing at so many different times would produce different views of God that are incompatible. If you just add “every word's true” there you've got incoherence.

DR. CRAIG: Let's just pause there. That is obviously too facile. The arguments that he gave before don't arise from biblical authorship or reflection over time. These are philosophical objections that would require a philosophical theologian, like an Aquinas or Anselm, to deal with. He didn't give any examples there of incoherences.

KEVIN HARRIS: There is a whole family of incoherence arguments.

DR. CRAIG: Oh, yes. This is a very rich area for philosophy of religion. I think the atheist critiques have actually been very helpful because the biblical concept of God is underdeterminitive. For example, the biblical data don't make it clear whether God is timeless or temporal. The biblical data state clearly that God is eternal (that is to say without beginning or end) but it isn't clear whether this means that God endures throughout beginningless and endless time or whether it means God transcends time altogether. That is a question for philosophical theology to decide, not biblical theology. Therefore, these atheist critiques can be very helpful to theists in formulating a philosophically coherent concept of God.

ROBERT KUHN: You would see then the contradiction, the incoherence, between different characteristics as opposed to some logical trick of words which really don’t have any impact?

DR. SINNOTT-ARMSTRONG: Yeah. I think a lot of the discussions that depend on those logical tricks of words I completely agree with that characterization of them. Those don’t really get at the issues, and most people who believe in God or disbelieve in God know that those don’t really get at the issues.

DR. CRAIG: I don’t know what he is talking about when he talks about “logical tricks with words.” I have no idea what he is referring to. This, to me, sounds like a kind of condescending secular attitude to the work of philosophical theologians like Anselm, Aquinas, Scotus, and others who were extraordinarily careful about drawing distinctions, using words properly. I didn’t hear any good example given of this sort of word-trickery that he is referring to.

ROBERT KUHN: God being omniscient – knowing everything. Some would say that just the statement of knowing everything would so clutter God’s mind with all sorts of crazy things that that is incoherent on its own value.

KEVIN HARRIS: I want to point out right there that at least Robert Kuhn right there is taking it back into a legitimate coherency argument. He just said, “Can God think his thoughts?” or “Is his mind cluttered with the infinite?”

DR. CRAIG: Let me address Kuhn’s concern before Sinnott-Armstrong replies. What Robert Kuhn seems to be assuming in thinking God’s mind would be cluttered is that every belief that God has has to be occurrent in consciousness. That is clearly wrong. I have all sorts of beliefs that I am not now consciously entertaining.[2] I have beliefs about arithmetic (1+1=2, 2+3=5, and so on). I have all sorts of beliefs about my wife, my station in life, what I had for lunch today. But those beliefs are not occurrent in consciousness. I am not thinking about those things. What Robert Kuhn would have to show is that it is somehow essential to theism that everything that God knows is occurrent in consciousness. I’ve never heard anybody give a good argument for that.

DR. SINNOTT-ARMSTRONG: I assume that when you say “God knows everything” it doesn’t mean that God thinks about everything at once.

DR. CRAIG: Ah! Good for him!

DR. SINNOTT-ARMSTRONG: If God knows everything but selects the information that is needed for a particular task then God can do fine even knowing everything. I know a lot of different theorems in mathematics but I’m not thinking about them right now. I know a lot of historical facts that I am not thinking about right now.

DR. CRAIG: Good for you, Walter.

DR. SINNOTT-ARMSTRONG: . . . try to access all of that information at once. I don’t see why God would have to do that. As long as you admit that God changes. But if you say God doesn’t change then God doesn’t access some information at some times and other information at other times. Instead, God has to access all the information at once. Then there might be a problem.

DR. CRAIG: OK. Let’s pause. This gets back to the question of timelessness and personhood. On the view that I hold, and I think probably most Christian philosophers would hold, at least since the moment of creation, God is in time and therefore knows what are called tensed facts like “It is now 9:15,” “It is now 9:16,” “It is now 9:17.” This kind of change in the contents of consciousness on God’s part is unproblematic. It is not an imperfection. On the contrary, it is a perfection to know what time it is.

KEVIN HARRIS: Do we need to be more precise in what we mean by God’s being changeless and unchanging? In other words, is it perhaps that his nature – God’s nature – is unchanging but there could be change in God’s knowing that it is 2 o’clock and then it is 3 o’clock and then it is 4 o’clock.

DR. CRAIG: I think that is right. Theologians who do systematic theology and want to affirm either God’s changelessness or his immutability need to make it clear to us in what respects they think that is true. Do they think God is entirely utterly immutable in the way Thomas Aquinas did? Or do they think, as you just said, that God may be unchanging in certain respects but changing in others, as I am inclined to believe. That requires nuance and articulation of what you mean.

ROBERT KUHN: Theologians have a difficulty. Because if they say that God changes, that means that God has a past and God has a future. If God has a past, that means there are things that God can never do again and that are forever removed from him. That makes him less perfect. That is why that doctrine emerged. People are trying to fiddle with God and make him so perfect, and a perfect being would not have events that are no longer accessible. Also events in the future that are not under direct control because that would be less than perfect.

DR. CRAIG: I don’t think that is the argument for divine perfection that I’ve heard or that divine perfection requires that. It is logically impossible to do something again for the first time. Theologians have always recognized that the omnipotence of God doesn’t mean his ability to do the logically impossible. Let me just say I don’t see that God’s perfection is incompatible with change. What that assumes is that every change in God must be a change for the worse. But why can’t there by a change that is simply neutral? If you think of good-to-bad as a vertical scale, why can’t there just be horizontal change? Like knowing what time it is – that is neither a change for the better nor for the worse.

DR. SINNOTT-ARMSTRONG: You’ve got to have God as unchanging, but you forget that by adding unchanging in order to keep omnipotence that is going to conflict with active in the world.


DR. SINNOTT-ARMSTRONG: You lose the omnipotence because now he can’t act in the world. So the problem is to keep the whole thing into a coherent bundle. Even if there is not a logical contradiction in there, I don’t see how that is going to happen.

DR. CRAIG: Yeah, if there is no logical contradiction then there is no problem! It is coherent.

KEVIN HARRIS: He continues in this segment talking about fallacies in arguing for God.


ROBERT KUHN: Walter, you don’t believe in God, right?

DR. SINNOTT-ARMSTRONG: Not only do I not believe in God, I believe God does not exist.

ROBERT KUHN: OK, good. You are also a professor of philosophy who looks at logical arguments.


ROBERT KUHN: You have spent part of your career – a small part, but a part – looking at the arguments of some pretty smart people who believe in the existence of God. Right?


ROBERT KUHN: As you look at these arguments, how do you analyze them? And why do smart people have arguments to believe in God? What are some of the fallacies that you see in those arguments?

DR. SINNOTT-ARMSTRONG: How do you deal with the arguments? The first thing you want to do when you deal with an argument is lay it out carefully, clearly, step-by-step and try to be sympathetic. Try to really understand how the argument works and what could have led them to believe the conclusion on the basis of these premises.

DR. CRAIG: He is giving some very good advice here for all of us. When we look at an opponent’s position we treat it sympathetically, don’t treat it as knocking down a strawman, and we try to identify its premises that lead to the conclusion and ask what would make this person come to believe this. We will want to see if the conclusion follows logically from the premises, and then we will want to ask what warrant there is for each of the premises.

KEVIN HARRIS: Did you hear what Robert Kuhn said? You don’t believe in God. He said, I not only don’t believe in God, I believe that God does not exist.

DR. CRAIG: OK, so he is an atheist.

DR. SINNOTT-ARMSTRONG: Too often people just make fun of other people’s arguments. Maybe I will make fun of some argument, but . . .

ROBERT KUHN: I may make fun of yours!

DR. SINNOTT-ARMSTRONG: Fine! Fair enough. But you want to try at first to understand them as charitably as possible. Then you accuse them of a fallacy only if you can’t find any other way to understand their argument. Some of these fallacies are old and common. St. Thomas Aquinas gave five proofs of the existence of God. They contain fallacies.

ROBERT KUHN: Give me some of the fallacies.

DR. SINNOTT-ARMSTRONG: One example is what I call the fallacy of bloated conclusions.

DR. CRAIG: Now, I’ve heard Sinnott-Armstrong do this before. These are not, properly speaking, fallacies – the fallacy of bloated conclusions. This isn’t a logical fallacy. There is no misstep here in using the logical rules of inference or anything of that sort. These would be at best informal fallacies. There it is going to be much more subjective as to whether or not your opponent or you are guilty of drawing a bloated conclusion, as he puts it. I just want our listeners to understand he is not talking about logical fallacies here. These informal fallacies that he gives his own kind of cute names to.

KEVIN HARRIS: It is quite common, I hear. You can name your own fallacies.

DR. SINNOTT-ARMSTRONG: You get some premises that will yield one conclusion – which is a pretty weak conclusion – and then you bloat it up so it looks like you’ve really proven the existence of God.

ROBERT KUHN: So you used a logical argument.


ROBERT KUHN: You have some premises which may be acceptable and they logically result in a conclusion.


ROBERT KUHN: So that works, but then because the conclusion is weak you add stuff to it.

DR. CRAIG: OK. Now, Kuhn gets the point. The argument is logically airtight. The conclusion does follow logically from the premises. So you’ve committed no logical fallacy. But then you treat the conclusion as more than what you’ve really proven. That is not a fallacy per se except in some sort of informal sense.

KEVIN HARRIS: Let’s stop there. We’ll continue with part two next time on Reasonable Faith with Dr. William Lane Craig. Thanks for joining us.[4]

[1] 5:06

[2] 10:03

[3] 15:00

[4] Total Running Time: 19:03 (Copyright © 2017 William Lane Craig)