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Revisiting a Famous Debate - Part Three

March 05, 2017     Time: 17:22
Revisiting a Famous Debate - Part Three


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 3


KEVIN HARRIS: Welcome back to Reasonable Faith with Dr. William Lane Craig. I’m Kevin Harris. We are going to conclude this series with Walter Sinnott-Armstrong's interview. Again, you might want to get the book. Dr. Craig debated Walter Sinnott-Armstrong several years ago and that became a book called God? A Debate Between a Christian and an Atheist. It is a really good exchange and was a couple of debates that were put in book form. It explored the Big Bang, fine-tuning of the universe, the existence of objective moral values, evidence for Jesus, hiddenness of God. Lots of topics in that book, and you can get it at So pick up the paperback at This series has given us a chance to revisit some of the topics of that debate. When we saw that Robert Kuhn had interviewed Walter Sinnott-Armstrong we wanted to interact with that a little bit and see if we can update some of the topics.

ROBERT KUHN: Often times they would be joined together and then the dichotomy would be the law of chance on one side and the personal Judeo-Christian God on the other. That, indeed, is a false dichotomy because there are innumerable explanations that are not either one of those.

DR. CRAIG: Let’s pause there. That is unfair by Robert Kuhn. He knows better than this. People who propound the fine-tuning argument aren’t arguing for the Judeo-Christian God. They are saying that some sort of intelligence has designed the universe. Similarly, the intelligent design theorists who argue for intelligence behind biological complexity aren’t arguing for the Judeo-Christian God – they would even say for God at all! They are just arguing for the hypothesis of intelligent design.

KEVIN HARRIS: More of a generic theism.

DR. CRAIG: Not even theism.



KEVIN HARRIS: Just an intelligence?

DR. CRAIG: Just an intelligence. It could be that we are in the laboratory of some superhuman alien intelligence that has formed our universe in their laboratory, or something like that. That would be an intelligent design hypothesis.

With regard to intelligent design, the claim there (at least by intelligent design theorists with regard to biological complexity) isn’t even theism. I don’t think they are being disingenuous about this. I think they are quite sincere. Now, they are theists obviously. William Dembski, Michael Behe, Stephen Meyer. They are theists. But the argument they offer is not an argument for theism per se. I think they are quite sincere when they say that.

So when Richard Dawkins says in that famous interview that he would prefer to explain the evolution of biological complexity by extraterrestrial intelligent life rather than God, that is an appeal to intelligent design. That is an intelligent design hypothesis. A non-theistic one, but that is an appeal to intelligent design.

ROBERT KUHN: I am not saying those other explanations are right or even more probable. Some of them may be very obscure. But from a logical point of view you have not exhausted the universe of possibilities at all by setting up that dichotomy.

DR. SINNOTT-ARMSTRONG: Exactly. When someone lays out a dichotomy or a trichotomy then what you need to ask yourself is: are those really incompatible?

DR. CRAIG: This is a fair point. Say you are given a body of data to explain. What the theorist does (whether it be a scientist or a historian or whatever) you then assemble a pool of live explanatory options. You leave out the crazies. Then you assess these live explanatory options in terms of things like their explanatory power, their explanatory scope, and so forth. It might be possible that you could combine some of these. That would be an explanatory [inaudible]. That is fair enough. Or you might look for another explanatory option that wasn’t in your original pool. So those points are fine.

DR. SINNOTT-ARMSTRONG: The other thing you have to ask yourself is: is there a fourth possibility . . .

DR. CRAIG: There you go.

DR. SINNOTT-ARMSTRONG: . . . that they’ve left off the list?

ROBERT KUHN: Right, because the only way to make that argument an effective one is if you can demonstrate universal exhaustion.

DR. CRAIG: No. That is unfair. That would make science impossible if you had to have universal exhaustion of alternatives.

KEVIN HARRIS: Good luck with that!

DR. CRAIG: It is just simply literally impossible. That is not the way science works. As I said, when the scientist is explaining a body of data, he assembles a pool of live options to explain it and he leaves out the crazies.[1] For example, that this happened because Jane Eyre, when she was writing Pride and Prejudice, somehow had a transtemporal causal connection to cause a mutation in the animal, and that was beneficial. You don’t do that.

KEVIN HARRIS: That’s not a live option. That’s a dead option.

DR. CRAIG: That’s right. As I say, in talking about the fine-tuning of the universe, you read the literature and you can discern what the live explanatory options are in the literature. If there is another live option, go ahead and propose it. Of course, that would need to be considered. But don’t tell us this nonsense about you have to have universal exhaustive knowledge of every alternative and eliminate it.

ROBERT KUHN: Universal exhaustion. So you have covered everything. Then you also, to really have a logical argument, you have to have mutual exclusivity. So you have to have universal exhaustion so that every possibility conceivable is on your list or embedded within the ones on your list. And that they are exclusive in some way so it is logically impossible for more than one to be true. If you can do that then the argument is a valid one.

DR. CRAIG: He just destroyed science! You don’t deal in logical possibilities. We are dealing here in what is the best explanation.

KEVIN HARRIS: Did he actually say if you can do that (exhaust it and everything) the argument is valid?

DR. CRAIG: That is what he said.

KEVIN HARRIS: Does he mean valid and sound . . . ?

DR. CRAIG: I think so. He would say if you have been able to prove that it is either A or B or C or D ad infinitum and that it is not B or C or D or E ad infinitum then you can validly conclude that it is A.

KEVIN HARRIS: And by the way I’ve exhausted all the options for this argument that I am making right now.

DR. CRAIG: Oh. Yeah. That’s a good point. These assertions that he is making . . .

KEVIN HARRIS: Have they been exhausted?

DR. CRAIG: Have they been proven in this way? Why should we believe what he says?


ROBERT KUHN: But it is almost impossible to defeat.

DR. CRAIG: It is impossible.

DR. SINNOTT-ARMSTRONG: Well, I don’t know. There are some pretty good arguments of that form, but maybe not in this area.


DR. SINNOTT-ARMSTRONG: Another fallacy is equivocation. Very often a term will be used in different ways in the course of the same argument. You can make one step when it means one thing, but then you can’t make the later step.

DR. CRAIG: OK. Let’s talk about that. This is the informal fallacy of equivocation where you use a term with two different meanings. For example, “Greek is a language. Socrates was Greek. Therefore, Socrates is a language.” That would be fallacious because you are using the word “Greek” with two different meanings – one to talk about a linguistic type and the other to talk about a nationality or ethnicity. That would be fallacious. That commits the informal fallacy of equivocation.

KEVIN HARRIS: You notice the title here – “Fallacies when arguing for God.” It is also for lobsters. Anything. Equivocation is a fallacy no matter what.

DR. CRAIG: Yeah, these are not fallacies in arguing for God in any particular sense.

DR. SINNOTT-ARMSTRONG: You can make that later step but then you can’t make the earlier step. So you have to look at multiple meanings of the term. “Universe” for example. Sometimes it means just the physical universe as we experience it and what we live in. Sometimes it includes God. Sometimes it includes what happened before the Big Bang. That term gets thrown around and used in many different ways. That creates problems in a lot of the arguments that use that concept.

DR. CRAIG: Right. It is important to define your terms clearly because they are often used with different meanings. I find this especially true in discussions of biological evolution. The word “evolution” is an accordion word which can be expanded and contracted to mean many different things. Sometimes it simply means “common descent from a primordial ancestor.” Other times it will refer to reconstructing the tree of life and showing how things emerged from previous life forms. Other times evolution refers to the explanatory mechanisms of random genetic mutation and natural selection. That is why it is so misleading when somebody says, Do you believe in evolution? The question is impossible to answer until you’ve defined your terms. The point he is making is a good one we all need to keep in mind.

KEVIN HARRIS: To his favor, he did at this point at least give an example when equivocation when arguing for God would be wrong.

DR. CRAIG: You mean with respect to the word “universe” could be used with different scopes.[2]

KEVIN HARRIS: Yeah. He is giving an example of equivocating when arguing for God when really all of these fallacies apply to everything.

DR. CRAIG: Sure.

KEVIN HARRIS: But at least he has given an example here.

DR. CRAIG: He is trying to.

ROBERT KUHN: What are some other fallacies?

DR. SINNOTT-ARMSTRONG: Another very common fallacy is the strawman fallacy. You present your opponent’s position as a strawman – something that can be easily torn up. Then you make fun of your opponent, but it is not really their position so it is not a fair move. One example of that is when theists say that atheists must believe that nothing is really morally right or wrong, there is no objective morality.

DR. CRAIG: That is not a strawman. That is a position as he earlier admitted is affirmed by many atheists like Nietzsche, Russell, Sarte, and on today’s seen Rosenberg, Marks. There are lots of atheists who do affirm that there are no objective moral truths, no objective moral values and duties. That is not a strawman. That is a prominent and respected position. Now, it is not one that all atheists hold. In fact, probably most don’t. But it is a position that merits examination and criticism. That is not a strawman. A strawman fallacy occurs when you misconstrue your opponent’s argument and you attack your caricature of the argument rather than the argument itself.

DR. SINNOTT-ARMSTRONG: Who wants to have somebody who doesn’t believe that rape is wrong marry their daughter? You are going to be able to make fun of atheists and get people to turn against atheists by ascribing to atheists a position that they don’t hold.

DR. CRAIG: Let me pause there again. It is not a matter of making fun as he suggests. You can offer legitimate criticisms of positions like the one that he mentioned. It is not at all a matter of making fun. Even in attacking a strawman, it is not that you are making fun of the strawman argument; it is that this is a different argument than the one your opponent offered. That is what makes it a strawman. You are attacking this false representation of your opponents argument. But that doesn’t mean you are making fun of it. That is not where the fallacy is.

DR. SINNOTT-ARMSTRONG: Another example of the same fallacy is with regard to, for example, the resurrection of Jesus. It is reported in the New Testament that three women found the tomb of Jesus empty after the crucifixion after he had been buried in the tomb. Theists will sometimes say to atheists, What do you think? These three women were lying? I don’t want to accuse these three women of lying so it puts me in a very difficult position.

DR. CRAIG: I would agree with Sinnott-Armstrong that when Christians attack the skeptic’s view and saying that on the skeptic’s view the disciples were all liars and deceivers that that would be a strawman because that isn’t what the modern skeptic says. But I have to say that in the past that is exactly what they said! When you look at the history of literature on this, in the late 18th and 19th century that was the claim – that the disciples were liars and deceivers who made this up. Unfortunately, some Christian apologetics are still fighting the battles of yesteryear and are attacking those alternatives. So it is not so much that they are strawmen as they are obsolete. That isn’t what the modern skeptic is saying. He is not saying the disciples were liars and deceivers.

KEVIN HARRIS: I have to ask you. Doesn’t that sound like Sinnott-Armstrong is a little unsophisticated in his critique of the resurrection? He just said, Somebody will say to me these three women found the tomb empty and were they lying? They weren’t lying. Is that what he thinks is the state of the art?

DR. CRAIG: I’m a little surprised at that, I must say. I agree that would be to attack a strawman, but nobody that I am aware of says such a thing. I’ve not seen this in any literature whether scholarly or popular for that matter.

KEVIN HARRIS: He might have just erected his own strawman! [laughter]

DR. CRAIG: You know, that’s a good point. Maybe he has just illustrated the strawman fallacy.

DR. SINNOTT-ARMSTRONG: Because my response is: I don’t know exactly what did happen. I just know I don’t think that he rose into heaven. Maybe they were lying. Maybe they were deluded. Maybe somebody else took it before they showed up. I don’t know. But don’t saddle me with a position of accusing these women of lying.

DR. CRAIG: OK. That is not a strawman fallacy. I think he is just simply misidentified it. If you say neither lying nor deluded nor someone else stole the body, that is simply eliminating the live explanatory options. There is nothing strawman about that.

ROBERT KUHN: With all of these fallacies, some of them emerging from what we would both consider very smart people, philosophers, why do you think these occur?

DR. SINNOTT-ARMSTRONG: I think the real motivation for religious belief comes from morality. People believe that if you don’t believe in God you can’t be a moral person. They want to be a moral person. And it also comes from religious experience. People really do have these religious experiences. They don’t know how to understand them in any way other than through their typical religious and theistic doctrines. So when they really want to believe something, they want to argue for a conclusion, they’ve already decided what conclusion they want to reach. Then these arguments come along. When people start deciding on the conclusion first and constructing the arguments later, that’s when you typically get fallacies.

DR. CRAIG: An argument is sound or not regardless of the person’s motivation for propounding that argument. The argument could be offered by a machine and still be sound or unsound. To try to attack an argument because of the motivation of the person offering it is a fallacy! That is the fallacy ad hominem – attacking the person and his motivations rather than the argument itself. So Sinnott-Armstrong ends his video interview on logical fallacies by committing one and giving us a prime example.[3]

  • [1]

    [1] 5:03

  • [2]

    [2] 10:07

  • [3]

    [3] Total Running Time: 16:52 (Copyright © 2017 William Lane Craig)