A clash of science and philosophy: our chat with Lawrence Krauss and William Lane Craig

INTERVIEW | Kaley Payne

Wednesday 14th August 2013

Last night, Sydney’s Town Hall hosted a full house for “Life, The Universe and Nothing”, a dialogue between Professor Lawrence Krauss and Dr William Lane Craig.

“Why is a Christian organisation bringing one of the world’s most famous atheists to Australia?” asked City Bible Forum’s Peter Kaldor, host of the event. “We believe only by respectful dialogue can we address these big questions.”

“I’d like to thank the Rationalist Society and Australian skeptics for spreading word,” he added.
Rachael Kohn, presenter of Radio National’s ‘The Spirit of Things’ provided a resolutely neutral moderator.

“Two renowned thinkers in two very different field and yet they overlap,” she said as she introduced the conversation between Krauss and Craig for what she was sure would be “more illuminating” than our political leader’s debate.

Krauss, who has been a regular in Australia over the past year, debating on Q&A with Centre For Public Christianity’s John Dickson, and again with Fred Nile, commended City Bible Forum for the invitation: “I have come to respect the City Bible Forum, including Ian who has given me whiskey in honour of my friend Christopher Hitchens. That’s the difference between an Australian and an American Christian group—an American one would never give me Whiskey.”

Following a debate in Brisbane, on whether science had buried God, the topic for the Sydney debate was ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ Both men will also visit Melbourne, discussing the question ‘Is it reasonable to believe there is a God?’ Tickets are still available for the August 16 Melbourne event, here.

Before their debate yesterday at Town Hall, Eternity sat down separately with both speakers, where they discussed what they’ve come to Australia to do, why they think debates like these are useful (or not useful!) and what they really think of their opponent’s arguments. Peter Bowditch, a freelance writer for skeptic publications, was also in both discussions. Below is the transcript of both conversations. We interviewed William Lane Craig first, so he is first up. To jump to the conversation with Lawrence Krauss, click here.


E: What do you think you can achieve out of this debate?

For tonight’s debate I want to try to convince people that belief in the existence of God provides a good reason for this most fundamental metaphysical question of why anything at all exists. That’s the goal in this particular one. Overall, I’m attempting to make the case for the existence of God as an intellectually viably option for thinking men and women today.

E: So in that sense, debates like this you think add to a philosophical discussion?

I’m afraid that Dr Krauss used the Brisbane event to pursue personal attacks upon me and chase red herrings. But normally, these events would be very enlightening and stimulating for further discussion.

Oh, well they should! They should. I’m afraid that Dr Krauss used the Brisbane event to pursue personal attacks upon me and chase red herrings. But normally, these events would be very enlightening and stimulating for further discussion. They can be a wonderful exchange of ideas if done in an academic and civil way.

By contrast, last night I had an event at the University of Technology with Peter Slezak, a philosopher from the University of NSW. He’s an atheist and we had a wonderful exchange together talking about the resurrection of Jesus and the best explanation of the historical evidence. And he and I get on so well, and he conducts himself so civilly. That kind of exchange represents the ideal.

E: Some Christians would say that if you don’t get the gospel out, or talk about Jesus in these discussions, then you lose. What do you think?

Oh, you won’t hear a gospel presentation tonight. It has nothing to do with Christianity per se tonight. We as Christians share with Jews, Muslims and even deists a common commitment to the existence of a creator and designer of the universe, who is the ultimate reality and from which everything else derives, and that’s what I’m defending tonight. This is a broad, theistic claim in opposition to Dr Krauss’ atheism.

You’ll get a philosophical debate tonight. I’m going to be defending a version of Liebniz’s so-called ‘argument from contingency’, for God as a metaphysically necessary being, or the sufficient reason for the existence of anything. So it’s very philosophical. In fact, I think Dr Krauss will try to turn the debate to science, because that’s what he knows about. But in fact the argument is really philosophical. It’s metaphysical, not physical.

I’ll argue that the physical theories to which he appeals, really have no relevance at all to Leibniz’s argument. Because in any case they’re not really talking about nothing, they’re talking about a physical system that changes from one state to another, and Dr Krauss really misleads the public by calling that nothing when in fact it’s not, it’s a physical reality. So I would be so bold as to say that he has, I think, hindered the public understanding of science rather than abetted it by the mischaracterisation of these theories.

…I think Krauss and others like him represent a fringe of the physics community that like to use this kind of terminology, but others recognise that this kind of quantum vacuum states are physical states, a sea of fluctuating energy, governed by physical laws and having a physical structure and they themselves have chastised Krauss and others for misleading people by saying that this is nothing.

E: What’s the most difficult thing for you to argue against?

Honestly, I don’t think he has any cogent arguments that I can think of because he’s not a philosophical thinker, he’s a scientist. And while he’s a brilliant scientist, these issues are metaphysical not physical in nature.

So, with respect to tonight’s question, I don’t think that he’s had anything of substance to say – it’s all red herrings, trying to start down rabbit trails to mislead people. He has a method that he describes as seduction—seducing the public. He says the public is really interested in science, but they don’t know it. And so he makes outrageous, provocative claims to arouse people’s interest so that they are seduced into learning something more about physical cosmology by wondering how he can make these outlandish claims. And I think he himself recognises that these claims are not really true, they’re just a way of provoking people. He said, ‘Nobody would have bought my book if I had titled it ‘A Marvelous Universe’’, but if you call it a universe from nothing, well you see, that’s provocative.

E: Are you always going to be knocking heads then, one being a scientist and the other a philosopher? Are you not arguing on different playing fields?

Tonight, I think that’s true, except in so far as he thinks these scientific fields are relevant and I’ll try to show that they’re not. But at the debate in Brisbane, and the debate in Melbourne; there, we are going to talk science. The debate in Brisbane on ‘Has science buried God?’, I showed three ways in which science and theology interact profitably together and one of these was that science can verify as well as falsify theological claims.

And the two examples I gave were the prediction that the universe is not eternal in the past but had a beginning, and then that universe is the product of intelligent design and I appeal to the fine-tuning of the initial conditions of the universe, but he chose not to talk about those, he did not respond. Instead, he went for things like God commanding the Israeli army in the Old Testament to slaughter the Canaanites —

E: … which is pretty much what Richard Dawkins has told anyone who debates you to do …

Yeah, because it’s so emotionally potent.

E: What do you think Christians can learn from atheists?

I think it can make one’s understanding of God more profound by considering these very difficult questions like ‘How could an all-loving God and an all good and all powerful God permit so much innocent suffering and evil in the world?’. Grappling with that question, I think, will produce a deeper understanding of God and providence and moral values and how these relate to God.

I read atheist literature constantly and I think I have a deeper and more profound faith because it’s like iron sharpening iron when you’re interacting with folks. It’s people who have a kind of brain dead thing, that never interact with folks of other opinions, that I think are lazy and their faith is never deepened with this kind of interaction.

Scientists in our culture have become the sort of new priesthood of authority, whose opinions on almost anything are taken as gospel. And yet scientists are typically not trained in philosophy at all as part of their education and so they’re actually extremely naïve when it comes to these sort of deep philosophical questions. I’m unimpressed when people talk about these polls, about how many scientists believe in God or something like that. I think polling a scientist about belief in God is like polling political scientists – they’re just not expert in that area, so why is it interesting?

You can’t adjudicate a question like God’s existence by taking polls.

E: What’s the one thing that Christians can do better when talking to atheists?

They need to do their homework first. They need to understand the rational grounds upon which their belief in God is based, and then they need to be able to articulate that to those who don’t share that belief.

PB: What is your best evidence there is no God, and what’s the best evidence there is a God?

Well, I would say that the best evidence that there is a God is that the hypothesis that God exists explains a wide range of the data of human experience that’s very diverse. So it’s an extremely powerful hypothesis. It gives you things like an explanation of the origin of the universe, the fine-tuning of the universe, of intelligent life. But also the presence of mind in the cosmos, an objective foundation for moral values and duties, and things of that sort—it’s a wide range of data that makes sense on a theistic worldview.

In terms of the atheistic argument, I think probably the argument on the hiddenness of God would be the best. That God seems so absent sometimes when we need him most. And I think that one response to that hiddenness is to say, well he’s not there. And so that would be, I think, perhaps the best argument that the atheist might offer.


E: What’s the point of debates like this?

There’s no point in my debating William Lane Craig—he’s not going to learn anything from me or listen. And I suspect there’s very little point for the audience either— the audience for the most is quite polarised. People who spend money to come will have strong feelings one way or the other.

In general, however I think the purpose of these kinds of debates is to talk to people in the vast middle who haven’t thought about these issues at all. And for me it’s always the same: it’s educating people about science and the scientific method and how we understand the world, and if the hook of religion comes as a way to get people to understand that, hey, you know what, you should force your beliefs to the evidence of reality rather than the other way round, that’s great.

If I can get people who aren’t adamant but realise that the real world and the force of physics is so much more compelling than the nonsense that was written down by iron age peasants before we knew the earth went around the sun, then they’ll open their eyes. But more importantly, I want to talk about the wonder of the universe and have people realise that science isn’t a threat, the scientific method is the way to understand reality. That’s much more important to me than debating religion.

In this particular case, I also do it because I happen to think William Lane Craig abuses science and says many, many, many things that are not only disingenuous but untruthful, but recognises that his audience won’t know that. So one of the reasons I like to do these, and certainly why I agreed to allow the first one to be videotaped, is to demonstrate explicitly examples of where he says things that he knows to be manifestly wrong, but also knows that the audience won’t have access to the information.

It amazes me because I wouldn’t presume to talk about theology and nor would I want to, although I’ve spent a lot of time with theologians. That’s what upsets me the most. I feel the same way about Deepak Chopra, who also usurps science in a different way. Dr Craig makes it appear as if (a) he understands the science, which he doesn’t and (b) as if the science provides some support. Where in fact, science tells us a wonderful story about the universe and it tells us that we don’t need anything beyond the laws of nature to understand what’s going on. That’s not a failing, that’s just the way it is.

In any case, tonight I’m going to talk about some science. I think most of the stuff we talk about will be goobledygook, I’ll spend a few minutes giving a science lesson so that at least some people in the audience will learn something and there will be some content to these two hours.

PB: Do you think Dr Craig is an exception to people who speak about religion, or does he say what other people say?

I’ve had discussions with theologians who I think are much more honest. I first debated Dr Craig in North Carolina. I agreed to do it for this group called Campus Crusade for Christ, but I agreed to do it anyway because I thought he was an honest intellect and we could have a discussion. I think he’s wrong, but I thought we could have a discussion. But the minute he started talking I thought, ‘this guy is a con artist’ and I still think so.

E: And yet you debate him again?

Well, I said I’d never debate him again. But I agreed to do it publicly because I wanted to show that he was a liar. I think I did that, in my opinion, in the last debate. And I’ll do it again.

Well, I said I’d never debate him again. But I agreed to do it publicly because I wanted to show that he was a liar. I think I did that, in my opinion, in the last debate. And I’ll do it again. I want to show what the science is. So I’ll show it again. Tonight I’ll show that he abuses the science but I agreed to do it mostly because the people who run this organisation [City Bible Forum] impressed me and against maybe my better judgement and after several meetings were I was highly suspicious, I was convinced that they were well-meaning people interested in honest discussion.

That’s why I said I wouldn’t do a debate, because cos Craig likes a debate, but debates aren’t about information, they’re about rhetoric. And he likes to debate because you can’t have a conversation. But I’m much more interested in information, not rhetoric, so I said I wouldn’t do it if it’s a debate.

I’m interested in education. To the extent that I think this could be educational, I thought it may be worth doing. I may decide at the end of it that it was a complete waste of my time.

At some level I hope to educate people about the nature of science, and that’s much more important to me than destroying religion. But in this case I think it’s also important to point out people who are dishonest and that people should be skeptical. But I mean, people should be skeptical of me, people should be skeptical of everyone. But I want them to … when Dr Craig says ‘Scientists say this’ without any support, without any references, that it’s just some quote from someone, or no quote at all … they should be suspicious of what he says.

I have a double purpose: to promote some aspect of science, and I don’t care what people take away from it except some amazing aspects of the universe, and if it reinforces their faith I don’t give a damn, but also to recognize that they should listen to people who are honest and not trying to sell bathrobes on their website and raise money for ‘A Reasonable Faith’ by doing whatever they can. I mean, I have a day job and I think people should recognise that when they’re buying ideas they should ask whether the people selling them are making money off them.

E: Is there any point in a philosopher and scientist having these arguments?

With honest philosophers I have interesting arguments … It’s always interesting to hear people’s thoughts. It is true that scientists and philosophers tend to talk past each other, and theologians are one step down from philosophers (or 100 steps down) but that’s what I want to point out.

I was at the Vatican, invited to the Pontifical Academy, and I said to them something that sounded facetious but it wasn’t. I was amongst theologians and philosophers and I said, ‘Look you have to listen to me, but I don’t have to listen to you’. I wasn’t being pompous, although it sounds like it.

But scientists don’t have to understand, or know anything about what philosophers write. They don’t; the proof of the pudding is that they don’t. They don’t read philosophers, they don’t think about what philosophers have to say. But a philosopher who wants to talk about the world has to know what science is talking about.
So unfortunately, philosophy certainly had a very important role early on, but it doesn’t play a role in furthering knowledge about the universe any more. It can reflect and critically analyse the knowledge, but the knowledge is produced by science, not be philosophy. The two parted a long time ago when national philosophy became science.

E: What is the most persuasive argument that Professor Craig has; the hardest to refute?

I’ve never heard one. I mean, they’re all subtle. I once said to someone, an old line from a Dick Van Dyke show: ‘what on the surface seems vague is in reality meaningless’. The point is that what [Craig] likes to do is take what may sound well defined, and it’s really sneaky. Back in Brisbane I showed a video of a guy nowhere near as subtle or smart as William Lane Craig, arguing that Jesus holds protons and neurons together, and it’s just laughable. But Craig does it much more subtly. It starts like it’s well defined and then he does some tricks.

I find… I will admit… I do believe, that in spite of the fact that I think he knowingly abuses science and other people’s arguments—distorts them— I think he does it because he believes in the end. He amazingly believes, wholeheartedly, in the scriptures. And I think his attitude is that because they’re right, anything goes to prove their right. But that’s not how we learn about the world.

We learn about the world by trying to prove ourselves wrong, not trying to find validation for our ideas. And that’s the dangerous idea that I want people to learn. It’s not just for religion, it’s for global warming and other important problems of our time. If you come into these problems knowing what’s right before even asking the questions, you’ll never get anywhere. So while Craig’s a good example of it, there are many others. Science teaches us to not trust our intuition and to be skeptical of ourselves as much as other people. And that I think is the most important thing.

PB: What is your best evidence there is no God, and what’s the best evidence there is a God?

There is no evidence of God. There absolutely is none. I mean, if there were, I’m a scientist! In fact, I was asked what would cause you to change your mind, and I said the slightest bit of empirical evidence. Just one piece. That’s what convinces me of things. And so, to me that’s the best evidence that there isn’t a God. You’d think that someone who created the universe would somehow make themselves known in a clear way. So the fact that there’s no evidence of purpose, design or any need for anything beyond the law of nature is to me the best evidence that there isn’t any. It’s just highly unlikely.

I don’t believe things. I don’t like the word ‘belief’. I form what convinces me not by what I think is good, or what I think it should be, but by what the universe tells me that it is. So I try to have my views governed by that. And if there was any significant evidence, I’d like to think I’m open-minded enough to change my mind, because I certainly have been about other aspects of the universe. The minute I’m not willing enough to change my mind (which is, by the way a property of science, and not religion), then I’ll become a theologian.

E: Is there anything atheists can learn from Christians?

I don’t label people. I don’t label myself atheist and I don’t label others as Christian. I think we can learn from each other by honest discussion. We can learn about each other and what’s important to other people. I think what I can learn in talks with Christians is what’s important to them and more importantly, what they fear.

What I can learn is what makes people to tick and what causes them to close their minds off to understanding the world and what matters to them, and that’s always a useful thing. I don’t label people according to their ‘isms’. But I don’t think I can learn anything from Dr Craig because I don’t think he’s an honest man.

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