Name that Fallacy! Dawkins v Craig

I announced at the time a debate on November 13, 2010 in Puebla Mexico on the question: Does the Universe have a Purpose? The debate participants were Matt Ridley, Michael Shermer, and Richard Dawkins vs Rabbi David Wolpe, William Lane Craig, and R. Douglas Geivett.

This second post in the “Name that Fallacy” series draws on material from that debate. Remember that the question being addressed here is whether or not the universe has a purpose (I do not want to predispose you to find a particular fallacy anywhere). That is the only comment I will add on the issue in debate. To provide some background to today’s example, here’s a section from William Lane Craig’s statement:

In today’s debate, we on the affirmative side are going to defend two main contentions. First, that if God does not exist then the universe has no purpose, and secondly that if God does exist then the universe does have a purpose. Let me say a word in defence of each of those contentions.

First, if God does not exist then both man and the universe are inevitably doomed to death. Man like all biological organisms must die, and the universe too faces a death of its own. Astronomers tell us that the universe is expanding, and as it does so it grows colder and colder until its energy is used up. Eventually all the stars will burn out and all matter will collapse into dead stars and black holes. There will be no light. There will be no heat. There will be no life. Just the corpses of dead stars and galaxies, ever expanding into the endless darkness and the cold recesses of space, a universe in ruins. This is not science fiction. As unimaginable as it sounds, barring divine intervention, this will happen.

But if atheism fails to provide a purpose for life and the universe, what about biblical theism? According to the biblical worldview God does exist and man’s life does not end at the grave. Because of this we can live consistently and purposefully within the framework of such a worldview. And thus, biblical theism succeeds precisely where atheism breaks down.

Now, I’d be the first to say that none of this proves that God exists.

And now, the subject of this blog post, Richard Dawkins. Here is the relevant section from his presentation, which came later that day:

I think the whole case that the other side is putting really comes down to an emotional case rather than a rational one. William Lane Craig seemed to think that it would be so intolerable, so disagreeable that we are doomed to death, that the universe is doomed to death, somehow playing on the heartstrings, playing on the emotions, it’s not nice to think that we’re all going to die, it’s not nice to think that the universe is going to die a heat death and everything is going to come to an end. It’s not nice to think that everything is meaningless. Somehow that must prove that there is purpose in the universe and that there is some sort of top-down supervising God.

I will offer no further comment in this post on the above quotations. The floor is yours, folks. Name that fallacy!

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31 thoughts on “Name that Fallacy! Dawkins v Craig

  1. Dawkins is guilty of something like “false attribution” or constructing a strawman – misrepresenting Craig’s argument and then, presumably, attacking that one instead of the one Craig put forward.

    It has to be said, Craig was edging towards and appeal to emotion as well with his florid intro, even if he did follow it with “of course, that’s not an argument”. Why else would he have said it?

  2. He missed the point and used appeal to pity(“not nice…”) to play with our emotion as he attack a Straw man.

    It does not matter whether its nice or not, that the universe is doomed to a cold death.

    Craig already pointed that, that itself does not proves that God exists. Dawkins “somehow that must prove that there is purpose in the universe and that there is some sort of top-down supervising God” misses Craig’s point.

  3. Strawman I think. Craig’s argument is that for the universe to have purpose it needs a purpose giver, and if our lives are to be purposeful we must live forever. Now Craig does argue that life without the purpose he has conceived would be absurd, however his argument doesn’t rest on that but on inferences he draws from the existence of the Christian god.

  4. Simply Craig did not reason from the lack of purpose on atheism to theism he just outlined the differences by way of deflating any illusion of hope on atheism. On Dawkins misrepresentation Craig is said to have argued:

    1) If there’s no God there’s nothing to give hope in / for the universe or its content including man

    2) That’s undesireable

    3) Therefore its untrue

    4) Therefore there is a God that gives the universe and its contents hope.

    Craig did NOT argue a sequitur from 2) to 3)

  5. David, you might want to have another check of what Craig said. He didn’t say “of course that’s not an argument.” As you say, why else would he have said this if it wasn’t an argument?

    No, what he said is that this is not an argument showing that God exists. That’s not the point he was making. The point he was making, as he announced at the start, was that these two conditional claims are true: 1) If God does not exist, then the universe doesn’t have a purpose. 2) If (the Christian) God exists, then the universe does have a purpose. Defending those two claims does not amount to claiming that the universe does have a purpose, or that God exists.

    So a straw man also appears in the first comment. 🙂

  6. I should add that many atheists who watch my video can’t even grasp logic (at least that’s how it seems) because they always say “then why did Craig bother mentioning it”?

    To which I say, he’s giving support for the conditional. He can’t jump in and argue an antecedent without first showing how it’s relevant and affects the topic of the debate (i.e. “IF not-God THEN not-purpose” and “IF God THEN purpose”).

    Dawkins screws up in two ways:

    1) He confuses an argument for a conditional with an argument for an antecendent

    2) He mixes up the two contentions! Craig was arguing for contention one, but Dawkins accuses him of trying to prove the antecedent (and thereby ultimately the consequent) of contention two.

    Watch my video for more!

  7. It is a strawman calling it an emotional case… wait, oh it is not. Craig appeals to emotions… it is not a strawman.

    Craig provides a self contradicting statement to Dawkins “atheism fails to provide a purpose for life” knowing that atheism provides purpose for Dawkins. Doh!

    Then Craig play the false “excluded middle” argument stating “biblical theism succeeds precisely where atheism breaks down” while his premise is wrong. Atheism does not break down because of it. Doh!

    Proofs belong to math and logic. Both parties know that. Is this really what Christians think is a brilliant argument against Dawkins or atheism?

  8. ““atheism fails to provide a purpose for life” knowing that atheism provides purpose for Dawkins. Doh!”

    peter, that is nonsense. The debate was about whether the universe has a purpose, not whether individuals can occupy themselves with subjective purposes before it all gets wiped away. There is nothing about atheism which purposefully dishes out the objective to Dawkins “you must spread the word about atheism”.

    “Then Craig play the false “excluded middle” argument stating “biblical theism succeeds precisely where atheism breaks down” while his premise is wrong. Atheism does not break down because of it.”

    You merely assert that. Moreover, you mis-state him. Atheism doesn’t break down BECAUSE of biblical theism, atheism breaks down at giving the universe purpose. This would be true even if biblical theism didn’t exist.

    Moreover, you again parrot Dawkins by simply accusing Craig of appealing to emotion, despite everything Craig said about his words only supporting a conditional statement. Craig is actually staring the honest truth straight in the face: that the universe is, scientifically, on a path to heat death and that it will make everything we do objectively meaningless – and even the great atheist writers he cited had the guts to acknowledge this.

  9. David: “I can’t help but feel Craig is enjoying describing the purposeless universe a little more than the simple argument “no god, not purpose” requires.”

    Maybe he was. But so what? All that amounts to is some advice that even a Christian could provide.

    I personally think Dawkins spent too much talking about lobsters and weeds, but we’re talking about the actual logic of the arguments here. Dawkins accused craig of trying to use emotion to establish the conclusion “God and purpose exists” (from Contention 2) when Craig was merely trying to establish the conditional statement “If there’s no God then the universe has no purpose” (Contention 2). He did this by describing the findings of science and arguing for its existential implications (even quoting from atheist philosophers who recognize this, and even Dawkins himself who appears to agree that, in his own words, there is “no purpose”).

    The most you could do is say he had some emotion in his voice and used some vivid language. But, so what? Is Craig the only person to do this? Does Dawkins not use strong words like describing people as “lazy” and ideas as “pathetic”? It does nothing to change the actual structure of the arguments, which is what we’re talking about here given that it’s a round of “name the FALLACY”.

  10. I was going to pass this up until I saw how the nonbelievers really don’t see what’s going on here. I don’t mean to be condescending but…well look at this.

    “Craig provides a self contradicting statement to Dawkins “atheism fails to provide a purpose for life” knowing that atheism provides purpose for Dawkins. Doh”

    Whoever wrote this obviously doesn’t know what it means to make a self-referentially incoherent statement. It may be false that “atheism fails to provide a purpose for life” but that doesn’t mean that the statement falsifies itself.

    A correct example of a self-contradicting statement would be something like “There are no english sentences longer than 3 words”. I’ll let what I hope to be your natural rational intuitions figure out whats wrong here.

    Finally, Craig is not arguing that people can’t falsely, subjectively deem that their life has value by fiat. Craig’s arguing that there is no objective meaning to life if there is no God, not that a person cant’ simply claim that to be the case.

    So far as the fallacy afoot, I forget my fallacy titles so I’ll just say Dawkins is guilty of “missing the boat”. The initial contention was whether or not the universe had a purpose and what Craig argued was that in the absence of God it does not, and in the presence of God it does. And yet Dawkins manages to miss all of this and conclude that Craig’s arguments *for the existence of God* were invalid because he made appeals to emotions. But of course, Craig never argued that God existed, and so Dawkins is off neanderaing on a different hill than everyone else.

  11. Oh yea, I actually need to name the fallacy.

    Well, I’ll say the same as I put in my video:

    Straw man.

    (maybe that should be wicker man)

  12. Peter Byrom,

    Yes, I know, that’s why I said Dawkins committed a fallacy and Craig didn’t. But I think you’ll admit there is a lot more to debating than arguments (or, even, being right) and a I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say Craig is aiming for an emotional response with all that florid prose.

    On second reading, he also seems to conflate purpose in our lives with purpose in the universe:

    Because of this we can live consistently and purposefully within the framework of such a worldview

    Well, you can live consistently with purpose as an atheist, even if the universe has no purpose. Purpose is built into our brain.

  13. One interesting thing I note here, is that the discussion of Glenn’s post is not wether Dawkins is right and Craig is wrong, nor is it wether every argument Craig gives is sound, the question is wether the particular response by Dawkin’s is a fallacy and it clearly is.

    Something has gone really wrong in the intellectual life of freethinkers when they feel every argument offered by an atheist must be non fallicous and when they cannot concede that on some occasions some arguments offered by athiests fail. Its not uncommon in Philosophy to accept that while you agree with a conclusion, a particular argument for it might be bad and to freely note this. The fact that some skeptics seem unable to distinguish between the conclusion they agree with and an argument for it, and think that any argument for a conclusion they agree with must be good is kinda telling.

  14. david,
    Keep in mind that as an experienced blogger on religion, Matt has much experience with Dawkins fans outside of this blog. Likely, he has many more occasions in mind that are not represented in this comments section.

  15. Peter says: “It is a strawman calling it an emotional case… wait, oh it is not. Craig appeals to emotions… it is not a strawman.”

    Peter, you have it wrong. It’s true that a lack of purpose does make us want atheism to be false (many of us at least), so it produces an emotional pull towards theism. But that’s our fault, not the argument’s fault, and not Craig’s fault. The fact is that Craig was explicit about his conclusion, and Dawkins simply misrepresented the argument. It’s a common tactic of Dawkins.

  16. Peter Byrom,

    You stated:
    “The debate was about whether the universe has a purpose, not whether individuals can occupy themselves with subjective purposes before it all gets wiped away.”

    Your statement is irrelevant because Craig said “atheism fails to provide a purpose for life” which I addressed. You try to smuggle in “atheism which purposefully dishes out the objective” building a straw man. The interaction goes other way around. Dawkins sees a purpose in atheism in his life.

    You stated:
    “atheism breaks down at giving the universe purpose”

    Just like the theory of evolution breaks down at giving the gravity purpose.

    You stated:
    “you again parrot Dawkins by simply accusing Craig of appealing to emotion”

    Truth statements can be emotional. Craig’s statements like “both man and the universe are inevitably doomed to death” and “Man like all biological organisms must die” appealed to Dawkins emotions. So if it appealed to Dawkins’ emotions who you to challenged that?
    Surely Dawkins know his own feelings better. And I don’t see how your assertion everything we do is objectively meaningless if universe ends is true. How about some evidence?

    David Winter,

    Surely Matt is right. See:
    Peter is a freethinker;
    Something has gone really wrong in the intellectual life of Peter;
    Therefore: Something has gone really wrong in the intellectual life of freethinkers.
    Very appropriate for this thread.

  17. Chris,

    You are right. I should have worded is more carefully. I should have commented:

    Craig telling Dawkins that “atheism fails to provide a purpose for life” is like me telling Pope he is not Catholic.

    Glenn,

    You stated:
    “It’s true that a lack of purpose does make us want atheism to be false (many of us at least), so it produces an emotional pull towards theism. But that’s our fault, not the argument’s fault, and not Craig’s fault.”

    You seem to argue from both sites. Either it was emotional and Dawkins was right or it was not emotional and your statement is wrong. Please pick your side.

    Let’s have a one more look of the post. Dawkins states “the whole case that the other side is putting…” the other side is “Rabbi David Wolpe, William Lane Craig, and R. Douglas Geivett”. Article quotes only “relevant” part of Craig’s comment. Before making a judgment would it be fair to read all what was said before Dawkins’ or should we jump to conclusion and assume that a Christian writer has fairly presented all evidence? No? hmm… I guess not…

  18. peter, yours has to be the most incoherent comments I’ve ever read from an atheist.

    You claimed that atheism gave Dawkins a purpose:

    “atheism provides purpose for Dawkins”

    then you accused ME of smuggling it in. All I did was re-state what you were implying, which is that atheism somehow gives Dawkins a purpose. But how can it do that?

    Worse, you then use words to the effect of denying that atheism gives purpose after all:

    “atheism breaks down at giving the universe purpose”

    Just like the theory of evolution breaks down at giving the gravity purpose.”

    Well, yes! Evolution doesn’t do anything to give gravity purpose, just as atheism gives us no purpose whatsoever.

    “Craig’s statements like “both man and the universe are inevitably doomed to death” and “Man like all biological organisms must die” appealed to Dawkins emotions. So if it appealed to Dawkins’ emotions who you to challenged that?”

    Those words are mere statements of fact. If atheism is true then, yes, we are going to die; yes, we are doomed. It’s down to YOU whether you’re going to react emotionally.

    More to the point, you’ve said NOTHING to address Dawkins’ fallacy of:

    A) Confusing “Contention 1” with “Contention 2”

    B) Confusing an antecedent with a conditional statement

    C) Accusing Craig of trying to prove God when Craig himself explained, explicitly, “none of this proves that God exists”.

    Do you have anything to say to those?

  19. David my comments were not intended to be a claim about all freethinkers. You’ll see I used the qualifier “some” latter in the same passage.

    My point stands, there is a world of difference between denying X and stating that some arguments for X fail or that some people who defend X do a bad job of it.

  20. Something has gone really wrong in the intellectual life of Peter;
    Therefore: Something has gone really wrong in the intellectual life of freethinkers.
    Very appropriate for this thread.

    Had I actually argued this, you might have a point.

    But what I actually said was “Something has gone really wrong in the intellectual life of freethinkers when they feel every argument offered by an atheist must be non fallicous and when they cannot concede that on some occasions some arguments offered by athiests fail..

    This is not a claim about “all free thinkers” its a claim about a particular sub group. Note the qualifying statements I italicised. Moreover note what I say a sentence later

    “The fact that some skeptics seem unable to distinguish between the conclusion they agree with and an argument for it, and think that any argument for a conclusion they agree with must be good is kinda telling.”

    So Peter do you disagree, do you think that there is distinction between accepting a conclusion and accepting an argument for this conclusion

  21. Head in Sand. This reveals just how much Dawkins has ‘stopped his ears’, ‘hardened his heart’, and blindly carries on giving heed to seducing spirits and doctrines of devils.
    It exposes his utter ineptitude. He’s a complete Phony.

  22. Peter:

    You seem to argue from both sites. Either it was emotional and Dawkins was right or it was not emotional and your statement is wrong. Please pick your side.

    No, this is what I think you’re missing: The fact that an argument has a certain effect on us because of some further consideration that we also think carefully about does not mean that this effect is somehow required by the initial argument.

    In other words, Craig argues in the part I quoted that if atheism is true then the universe has no purpose. That’s it. Fact oriented, open and shut. End of argument.

    However, because many of us realise that this argument is a good one, and because some of us happen to have a desire for life to be meaningful, we will feel a pull towards theism. But at this point we have to be careful that we don’t allow our emotions to accuse Craig here – this is what you’ve done. You’ve noted your own emotional reaction to the argument, and you’ve incorrectly read those emotions into the argument itself.

    Try to treat the argument on its own merits. The emotional effect that it has on you is interesting, but it’s not part of the argument.

    In other words, Peter, keep your emotions out of it. 🙂

    As for your suggestion that “Dawkins was right,” it’s obvious that he was not. He claimed that Craig offered a conclusion that Craig quite plainly never offered.

  23. What if neither man is right? Don’t all religions have more in common than they have differences? What does it matter a man’s religion if we are all tolerant and civil toward one another?

  24. But if atheism fails to provide a purpose for life and the universe, what about Hinduism? According to the Hindu worldview God/Gods does exist and man’s life does not end at the grave. Because of this we can live consistently and purposefully within the framework of such a worldview. And thus, Hinduism succeeds precisely where atheism breaks down.

    Would this answer the question Does the Universe have a purpose?

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