A Summary of the Craig vs. Tooley Debate at UNCC – #8 Post of 2010

Post Author: Bill Pratt

On March 24, 2010, Christian philosopher William Lane Craig debated agnostic philosopher Michael Tooley about whether God exists.  I attended the debate and thought I would share a summary with you.

Craig opened with 5 well-known arguments for the existence of God (some of which we’ve presented on TQA in the past – follow the hyperlinks):

  1. cosmological
  2. teleological
  3. moral
  4. resurrection of Jesus
  5. religious experience

Tooley opened with one argument for the improbability of God’s existence: the argument from evil.

Let’s look at this argument more closely.  Tooley defined God as an all-powerful, all-knowing, and morally perfect being.  What he wanted to show is that the existence of this kind of God is improbable because of the existence of evil.

He first catalogued all sorts of evils – the list was quite thorough and even poignant.  Following this shop of horrors, he argued that there are certain kinds of evil where the unknown good properties of that evil (granting that God can bring good out of evil) are outweighed by the bad properties that we know come from evil.  Put another way, he admitted that an all-powerful and all-knowing God could have good reasons for evil, but that we can inductively show that these good reasons cannot outweigh the “bad” from these evils.

His conclusion: since it is improbable that an all-good God could have sufficient good reasons for evil that outweigh the bad associated with evil, then it is is improbable that this all-good God exists.

How did Craig respond?  Craig responded by pointing out that you cannot assign probabilities to the existence of unknown good reasons for evil.  It’s like someone holding a giant bag of marbles and asking you: “What is the probability that, if you reached in, you would pull out a red marble?”  You could not assign a probability because you don’t know if there are any red marbles in there at all!  Tooley, likewise, is somehow claiming to assign probabilities to whether God could have unknown (his word) good reasons for evil.  This is clearly impossible to do with an all-knowing and all-powerful being.

How did Tooley respond to Craig’s arguments for God’s existence?  Well, he didn’t really address the cosmological and teleological arguments, content to let them stand.  He did address the moral argument by claiming that you can have objective moral values without the existence of God – he pointed to several philosophers who have tried to argue this way.

He addressed the argument from the resurrection by saying that all this proves is that the God of the Old Testament exists, and that this God is demonstrably not perfectly moral – he quoted many passages from the OT that seem to indicate an immoral God.

He addressed the argument from religious experience by saying that people from all sorts of religions have religious experiences, so this cannot establish the God of Christianity.

There were, of course, rebuttals given by Craig to Tooley’s critiques, but I won’t go into all of that today.  In the end, here is how they closed.

Tooley claimed that his argument from evil demonstrated that an all-good God is unlikely to exist.

Craig claimed that since Tooley had not addressed the cosmological or teleological arguments, that Tooley was, in effect, admitting that an intelligent, powerful, personal, non-spatial, timeless, creator of the universe exists; he just disputed that this creator was perfectly good.  The fact that Tooley conceded so much in the debate was not lost on the audience.  It was strange that he focused solely on the morality of God.

One final point to mention is the debating style of Michael Tooley.  Tooley is obviously an accomplished and brilliant scholar, but his presentation was extremely difficult to follow.  He presented a host of PowerPoint slides that he read from in rapid-fire fashion.  Since his argument from inductive logic was quite complex (he said as much), I would wager that a very small percentage of the audience could follow it.  That was unfortunate because none of us are served well by failing to understand all sides of a debate.  I have studied these kinds of arguments for many years, and I was barely able to follow his argument; he was just moving way too fast.

In addition, Tooley prepared slides for his rebuttals ahead of the debate and so found himself prepared to refute Craig on points that Craig never introduced.  He relied almost 100% on these prepared slides, again reading from them, line by line.  It was as if he did not want to respond real-time to Craig, and this came across poorly, since Craig did respond real-time to Tooley’s arguments.

Much more could be said about the debate.  If anyone else attended, tell us about what you thought.  We’d love to hear from you.

  • Boz

    maybe the christian god could achieve the good outcome without having the evil event occur.

  • Brad

    Maybe b/c man is sinful, evil events occur, despite an all-loving God…

  • The key word is “may be” the point however in probabilistic arguments is how do you know?

  • anselm

    It seems like Tooley’s argument would also fail if the ontological argument is true, since it establishes a perfectly good being. I believe Dr. Craig used this argument in his recent debate with Victor Stenger, and Stenger had no good response.

  • Bill Pratt

    Do you think the ontological argument works? I’ve never seen a version that convinces me. Which version did Craig use?

    Thanks for the comment,

  • anselm

    Dr. Craig uses Alvin Plantinga’s version of the ontological argument, which is more sophisticated than the original version because of the use of modal logic and concept of “possible worlds.” Basically, if it is even possible for God to exist in any possible world, he must exist necessarily in all possible worlds, since he is a necessary being.

  • Anselm, maybe I’m straining at something because I haven’t read Plantinga, and that is the word “possible”
    For God to be perfectly good, potent, wise etc, He must also be changeless, in that no development is possible. He is without potential, but is pure actuality. As such, it would seem that He certainly exists in any actual world, but not in any possible but un-actualized worlds
    But maybe I’m missing something of what he said?

  • anselm

    William Lane Craig has a good summary of Plantinga’s argument on pp. 184-189 of his book “Reasonable Faith” (3d ed).

    CRAIG: “Plantinga conceives of God as a being which is ‘maximally excellent’ in every possible world. Plantinga takes maximal excellence to entail such excellent-making properties as omniscience, omnipotence, and moral perfection. A being which has maximal excellence in every possible world would have what Plantinga calls ‘maximal greatness’. Now the property of maximal greatness, Plantinga avers, is possibly exemplified, that is to say, there is a possible world in which a maximally great being exists. But then this being must exist in a maximally excellent way in every possible world, including the actual world. Therefore, God exists.”

    So God as a “maximally excellent” being does not have potentiality in either possible or actual worlds, since there are not excellent-making qualities he lacks. And as a “maximally great” being, God exists in every possible world, including the actual world.

  • While researching various views on “conscience,” I read “Jung on Evil” (Princeton University Press 1995). He offers an unimpassioned view of evil which is totally dependent on humans.

    The editor, Murray Stein, summarizes Carl Jung: When humans adopt a more disinterested viewpoint, they transcend the categories of good and evil to an extent and view human life, human behavior and human motivation from a vertex that sees it all as “just so.” Human beings love each other and we hate each other. We sacrifice for each other and destroy each other. We are noble and base. And all of this belongs to human nature. The judgments we make about good and evil are bound to be biased by our own interests and tilted if favor of our pet tendencies and traits.

    In my e-book at http://www.suprarational.org I wrote a short paragraph: Evil and deliverance. Many orthodox religions personify evil as Satan, the Devil, Iblis, Mara, or other demonic forces. Most mystics hold us responsible for our own evils, not an external source. Some say that evil exists only in rejection or lack of awareness of good, or to balance good in the apparent dualities of this life…not in unitive eternal life. Mystics have to eliminate personal wrongs to realize divine oneness. Deliverance comes by overcoming the selfishness of our egos, ignorance of our minds and stubbornness of our senses.

  • One point Craig mentioned is that Tooley’s argument apart from relying on objective probabilities assumes that God has duties and that even if God exists a divine command theory is false. Given Craig and many theists deny both these assumptions, Tooley needs to do more than show Brink or some other philosopher accepts naturalism and the objectivity of morality, he needs to show that even if theism is true a divine command theory is not viable.

  • Bill Pratt

    Jung’s views sound like garden variety moral relativism. There is no objective right and wrong, only people expressing their personal tastes. I wonder if he actually practiced what he preached. I have never seen a moral relativist who did.

    Thanks for the comment,

  • Fladabosco

    Two people with theological points of view trying to argue with logic. That’s like having a cooking competition and giving the chefs fishing weights, socks and a hoe. Logic is simply the wrong tool here.

    Either you believe the ancient scripture or you don’t and logic has NOTHING to do with it.

  • Fladabosco

    Bill writes “I wonder if he actually practiced what he preached. I have never seen a moral relativist who did.?”

    Hard to read that without wondering if Bill knows anyone who actually acts like Christ or even as Christ said we should.

    And I am insulted by people who believe there is no morality without adherence to ancient scripture. You think there was no morality before the Bible? You think that people who grew up on isolated islands had no morality? Once again incredible arrogance.

  • Flad, there are a number of logical errors here. First, your claim that logic has nothing to do with whether or not we can believe scriptures is self-defeating. For you either are making a bare assertion (in which we have no reason to believe) or you are making a logical argument. But your logical argument about theology is that we have no logical arguments about theology!

    Your next post is, at best, appeal to hypocrisy, and at worst, a blatant red herring. No one is arguing that if moral relativism is false, Christianity is true. Just that people who claim the former don’t seem to be able to live it, even in principle. Finally, it seems you have misunderstood the theistic claim in the moral argument. No one is saying you must have the Bible in order to know or to do morality. But knowledge and action don’t tell us of the grounds of objective morality! What the Christian says is that objective morality has no legitimate grounds outside of God. I hope that helps.