Is There Evidence for God?

North Carolina State University recently sponsored a debate asking “Is There Evidence for God?” Debating on behalf of evidence for God was Dr. William Lane Craig, and arguing that there is not evidence for God was Lawrence M. Krauss.

I should begin by saying that I admire both for entering into such a public debate. This is a highly charged topic, and it seemed that the phrasing of the question left both sides in a quandary. I’m not sure that it is so easy to argue for evidence for God, but, as the new atheists are fond of pointing out, proving a negative is not so easy, either.

Dr. Craig’s style would not have been my own; his presentation sounded a bit technical to me up front. His use of philosophical rhetoric, however, was remarkably consistent and coherent. But philosophy is demanding, and modern American audiences are not in the habit of patiently sifting dispassionately through chains of logical reasoning, which is what Dr. Craig’s presentation required. Dr. Krauss’ rebuttals often seemed to miss the point, and I suspect that this would have been the case for much of the audience, in which case, Dr. Krauss would come off sounding correct. As an example, Dr. Craig stressed repeatedly the distinction between necessary and contingent beings, and yet Dr. Krauss and several questioners seemed not to understand (or at least admit) the distinction at all.

Perhaps part of the problem in this point of the argument would have been solved if the question had been “Is there evidence for the Christian God?” and then some kind of definition of God as a necessary Being, et cetera, provided. By not limiting what we mean by ‘God’, we open the door to all kinds of different notions of God, ones less congenial to the modern Western mindset, itself conditioned by the Jewish and Christian notion of God. So Dr. Krauss was able to make easy scores by comparing faith in God to faith in flying saucers, and was able to invoke fear of fanaticism by claiming that evidence for God (necessarily?) leads to terrorism and throwing acid in women’s faces.

Dr. Craig’s last point, where he argued the historicity of the Resurrection, struck me as the weakest. Given the scope of the debate, it seemed that there was too much time taken up in debating the resurrection, an issue related to, but separate from evidence for God. Furthermore, since the nature of God, or confessional understanding of God had not been specified, the assumption that ‘God’ meant ‘Christian God’ might have given the impression that Dr. Craig was motivated by personal conviction rather than reasoned assertion. For such historical arguments, I personally prefer Pascal’s highlighting of the stubborn persistence of Jewish belief in spite of millennia of efforts to eradicate the original monotheists.

Given all of that, I also felt that Dr. Craig won the debate going away. Dr. Krauss came off as smug, overconfident, and dismissive. Most lamentable of all, his arguments did not hold together logically and frequently did not address the point. About halfway through the debate, it occurred to me that the weaknesses of his arguments all came down to a false premise that he continued to invoke. At several places, he said that the only admissible evidence was scientific evidence. But this is the fallacy of assuming precisely what needs to be proved. By definition, science must exclude God as a material cause of any observable phenomenon. The sort of evidence we gather to articulate physical theories therefore, by its selective nature, cannot be evidence for God. But we use different kinds of evidence all the time. The difference between murder and manslaughter is the difference of intention. What sort of evidence do we use to get at a person’s intention? We must make inferences from our experience as reasoning, imaginative, moral beings, from a wide variety of considerations, few if any of them scientific.

Even Dr. Krauss’ appeals to the methodology of science were problematic, which genuinely surprised me. He expressed his own disdain of philosophy, but didn’t hesitate to misrepresent the (philosophical) theory of falsifiability, when it suited his ends. I thought I had incorrectly remembered him stating that evidence must be falsifiable, but I was reluctant to search through the entire debate a second time. Thankfully, he made the same claim in the question and answer period. The problem is that only assertions are falsifiable. Evidence is not. Evidence is neutral, and this is why the same evidence can be used to support differing assertions, as any lawyer knows.

This might seem like nitpicking, but it was part of a larger sloppiness on Dr. Krauss’ part that included admission of irrelevant hearsay (“I’ve talked to four Catholics and none of them claimed to believe in the Virgin Birth!”), use of emotionally freighted language (when Dr. Craig continued to hit upon the probability of God, given the evidence he presented, Dr. Krauss blurted out, “Dr. Craig is fixated on this idea of probability!”–with all the unpleasant Freudian connotations), and repeated accusations of intellectual laziness against Dr. Craig and other theists. Dr. Krauss continued to assume that Dr. Craig was arguing a ‘God of the gaps’, as an explanation for physical phenomena difficult to understand. But the only such gap that Dr. Craig was referring to was the ontological one between contingent and non-contingent, and it didn’t sound to me like Dr. Krauss was willing to expend the intellectual effort necessary to grasp that fundamental distinction.

I don’t know which of them ultimately ‘won’ the debate; a student jury was to vote on the presentation. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Dr. Krauss won, even decidedly. I wouldn’t fault Dr. Craig for this. I’m not sure how well prepared we are today to assess evidence in a dispassionate manner. We certainly struggle as a nation to have anything like a reasoned political debate, and the quick resort to sound bites and talking points in most such discussions is evidence of my point. Here I would note a final weakness in Dr. Krauss’ approach that appears to be a strength from our imperialistic cultural perspective. For me, the resort to ridicule, loaded terminology and the like is evidence that one does not really believe in what one claims. Rather, it is a concession to the ‘might makes right’ situation that we are in. Drown out the quiet appeals of reason with snippets of snark, and one might win the battle, but ultimately one will lose the war. I will end with a long quote on this idea from Alasdaire MacIntyre (I might only want to change the word ‘defensive’ in the last sentence to ‘pugnacious’ to reflect the current situation):

“The slightly [this was written in 1981!] shrill tone of so much moral debate…may have an additional source….If we possess no unassailable criteria, no set of compelling reasons by means of which we may convince our opponents, it follows that in the process of making up our own minds we can have made no appeal to such criteria or such reasons. If I lack good reasons to invoke against you, it must seem that I lack any good reasons. Hence it seems that underlying my own position there must be some non-rational decision to adopt that position. Corresponding to the interminability of public argument there is at least the appearance of a disquieting private arbitrariness. It is small wonder if we become defensive and therefore shrill.”

After Virtue, p. 8

1 Comment

  • Jeroen says:

    Krauss is inexperienced as a debater, whereas Craig is very experienced. I think that that would be obvious to anyone who watched the debate. Craig laid out his case orderly, while Krauss’ response was very chaotic.

    But to me that difference in debating style reinforced the impression that Craig’s case was rather stale, while Krauss was making more interesting points.