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Logic vs. Emotion: Discovery Institute Fellow William Lane Craig Debates Christopher Hitchens on "Does God Exist?"

On Saturday April 4th, I attended a debate between Discovery Institute fellow William Lane Craig and "new atheist" Christopher Hitchens on "Does God Exist?" As the debate venue was Biola University, the audience was partial towards Craig. But a sizeable number of Hitchens-fans turned out as well, though they probably weren't energized by Hitchens' admission during the debate that "there's nothing new about the new atheists, it's just that we're recent."

Craig's opening statement presented 5 arguments, but I will only recount two (maybe three) at present: the Cosmological Argument, the Teleological Argument, and the Moral Argument. As it turns out, Darwinian evolution and the "cruelty" of biological processes played a major role in Hitchens' arguments against the proposition that God exists.

1. The Cosmological Argument: No Rebuttal Whatsoever From Hitchens
William Lane Craig laid out the "Cosmological argument" as follows:

1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause.

2. The universe began to exist.

3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.
As Craig pointed out repeatedly during the debate, Christopher Hitchens attempted no rebuttal whatsoever to this argument.

2. The Teleological Argument: Hitchens Drops the Issue and Turns to Emotion After Craig's Forceful Rebuttal
Craig then presented the teleological argument as follows:

1. The fine-tuning of the universe is due to either law, chance, or design.

2. It is not due to law or chance.

3. Therefore, it is due to design.
Craig made it clear that this argument does not necessarily lead one to believe in the God of Christianity, but it does logically lead to an intelligent designer.

As Craig rebutted the multiverse objection in his opening statement, Hitchens' only rebuttal was to assert that Darwin refuted the teleological argument in biology, and therefore teleological arguments are subject to refutation, and we don't know enough physics at this time to know if this argument will hold up in the future. Hitchens also asserted, "I don't know any physicist" who accepts the fine-tuning argument for cosmic design, which he called an "arrogant assumption."

Hitchens' statement says more about his lack of familiarity with physicists than it says about physicists themselves. Thus Craig forcefully refuted Hitchens' response by quoting some prominent physicists and philosophers of science not only endorsing the teleological argument for cosmic design, but also stating that the more we learn about physics, the stronger the evidence of fine-tuning is becoming. According to the quotes given by Craig, this evidence of cosmic fine-tuning is unlikely to change anytime soon.

I would have added quotes from Nobel Laureate physicist Charles Townes endorsing cosmic design as follows:

"Intelligent design, as one sees it from a scientific point of view, seems to be quite real. This is a very special universe: it's remarkable that it came out just this way. If the laws of physics weren't just the way they are, we couldn't be here at all. The sun couldn't be there, the laws of gravity and nuclear laws and magnetic theory, quantum mechanics, and so on have to be just the way they are for us to be here. Some scientists argue that 'well, there's an enormous number of universes and each one is a little different. This one just happened to turn out right.' Well, that's a postulate, and it's a pretty fantastic postulate -- it assumes there really are an enormous number of universes and that the laws could be different for each of them. The other possibility is that ours was planned, and that's why it has come out so specially."

('Explore as much as we can': Nobel Prize winner Charles Townes on evolution, intelligent design, and the meaning of life," By Bonnie Azab Powell, UC Berkeley NewsCenter, (June 17 2005).)

Or I might have mentioned that physicist Paul Davies observed that "[t]he temptation to believe that the Universe is the product of some sort of design, a manifestation of subtle aesthetic and mathematical judgment, is overwhelming. The belief that there is 'something behind it all' is one that I personally share with, I suspect, a majority of physicists."

Craig also dispatched with Hitchens' references to Darwin by observing that Christian theism is not incompatible with evolution--though it quickly became clear that by "evolution," Craig meant change over time or common ancestry, and did not mean classical unguided and blind Darwinian evolution. After quoting scientists discussing the astronomically low odds of the unguided occurrence of various stages in human evolution, Craig stated that "if evolution did occur, it was literally a miracle and evidence for the existence of God."

Craig's argument about the unlikelihood of unguided human evolution was recently bolstered by biologists writing in the journal Genetics, who observed:

Our previous work has shown that, in humans, a new transcription factor binding site can be created by a single mutation in an average of 60,000 years, but, as our new results show, a coordinated pair of mutations that first inactivates a binding site and then creates a new one is very unlikely to occur on a reasonable timescale.

(Rick Durrett and Deena Schmidt, "Waiting for Two Mutations: With Applications to Regulatory Sequence Evolution and the Limits of Darwinian Evolution," Genetics, Vol. 180: 1501--1509 (November 2008), emphasis added.)

Throughout the course of the rest of the debate, Hitchens dropped any further attempts to logically rebut Craig with regards to the teleological argument. Instead of logic, Hitchens turned to emotion, repeatedly citing suffering in nature and high extinction rates of species as purported evidence against teleology. Specifically, Hitchens cited:

  • "mass extinction"
  • "death"
  • "cruelty"
  • "incompetent" design
  • The assertion that we're born into "a terrifying world of unknown" where "everything is a mystery"
  • ...and all around suffering in nature
  • Hitchens said on this point, "believe it [religion] if you can," but "it doesn't work for me." At one point he even said that "I would be very depressed if [theism] was true."

    In response, Craig observed that logically speaking, none of these arguments refute the existence of God, because many designed objects we know from the human realm (such as cars) will one day stop working, so designed objects quite readily can break down and die off. Additionally, something can have an evil moral purpose, and yet still be designed.

    Having dispatched with Hitchen's emotional objections to teleology in nature, Craig observed that of course the question for himself as a Christian is whether such observations are compatible with not just any designer, but the God of Christianity. It was during this exchange that Hitchens completely contradicted himself.

    During the Q & A session, Craig was posed with the question of whether human suffering or natural evil can be reconciled with belief in the all-loving, all-powerful, and all-knowing God. After presenting a classical Christian explanation for the existence of evil and suffering, Hitchens actually stated that he AGREED with Craig that a theist can logically reconcile the existence of suffering with God. Specifically, in reference to suffering, Hitchens said, "I'm not an atheist who goes around saying God owes us an explanation."

    Did you catch that? Given that Hitchens had built so much of his prior arguments on the existence of cruelty, death, suffering, and natural evil, it seemed that Hitchens had no idea that he had just contradicted himself and thereby conceded the point on one of his central arguments (which didn't even rebut the teleological argument in the first place).

    3. The Moral Argument: Hitchens Fails to Respond to Craig's Argument
    As a final note, William Lane Craig also argued that the existence of objective moral values can only be explained by the existence of God. Hitchens did not rebut Craig's argument, but instead repeatedly stated that non-religious people can still live moral lives even if they don't believe in religion. Surely for many people that is true, but as Craig observed, that point doesn't rebut the argument. Again, Hitchens was relying on emotion, trying to establish the high moral standards of atheists, rather than logically rebutting Craig's argument.

    In fact, Craig didn't argue that you can't make moral decisions if you aren't religious. What he argued is that there is no logical basis for asserting an objective moral standard apart from the existence of God. Sure, people might still make moral choices if they aren't religious (the theist would argue that this is because God has imprinted a moral compass into the hearts and minds all humans, whether they recognize its divine origin or not), but that fact in no way constructs a logical basis for asserting an objective moral code apart from God.

    Hitchens' rebuttal on this point was an emotional one, not a logical one, and he offered no good rebuttal to Craig's argument that, logically speaking, a purely naturalistic evolutionary worldview leads to moral relativism where whatever exists in nature (whether rape, altruism, genocide, or cooperation) is biologically justified.