Debate Styles

In critical rationalism, justificationism, popper, wittgenstein on 12/07/2011 at 12:54 pm

There’s a lovely debate that’s been around for some time between Christopher Hitchens and William Lane Craig at Biola University. I recommend that you watch it — or watch parts of it, namely Christopher Hitchens’s turns at the podium. William Lane Craig is an awful speaker. Christ must have granted Hitchens a silver tongue and Craig a wooden ear. If you can bear through Craig’s turn at the microphone, then you’ll witness a great ‘debate’ between a philosopher-hack and a public intellectual.

What I find most interesting about the debate — besides the subject of ‘Does God exist?’ — is Hitchens and Craig’s respective debating styles. I will start with Hitchens:


His position falls within the critical rationalist style of debate: he questions Craig’s underlying assumptions and does not seek to justify any of his arguments. Instead, he invites criticism from Craig on most points he brings forward; his role is that of the Doubting Thomas, and he performs it admirably — it is unfortunate that Craig did not deliver.

Furthermore, he routinely admits his own — and science’s — fallibility on cosmology: Hitchens does not appeal to the results of science as much as the manner of the enterprise of science, and all the best scientists, operate.


Craig, however, takes a Wittgensteinian approach to the debate (as theists such as Plantinga have done for some time), referring numerous times to ‘properly basic beliefs.’ He experiences God immediately, therefore God exists.

Craig, at least implicitly, argues for the incommensurability between his and Hitchens’s experiences. More than ever, incommensurability betrays its real nature: it proves to be a quick retreat when confronted with criticism. It is an easy way out of problems, for it invites critical disengagement. Instead of confronting problems, Craig may always appeal to incommensurability to avoid them: he treats his experience of God as a properly basic belief, and no criticism of this belief is admissible.

Furthermore, when cornered by Hitchens over Craig’s on inability to provide evidence in favor of the Christian God (and not just a deity), Craig takes the tu quoque defense by asking for Hitchens to justify his adoption of atheism.


Hitchens brings up an explosive criticism of Craig’s supposed evidentialism (his willingness to look for evidence for or against Christ’s divinity) versus presuppositionalism (a view influenced by Wittgenstein) on this point, saying

This distinction strikes me first as a very charming distinction, and second as false. Or, perhaps as a distinction without a difference. … It is open to the faithful to say [here he is referring to the evidentialists] that now that they come to know it [evolution], now they can say that ‘Ah, on second thought, evolution was all part of the design’.

Well, as you recognize, ladies and gentlemen, there are some arguments that I can’t be expected to refute or rebut, because there’s no way round that argument. … This tactic or style of argument … I would rechristen ‘retrospective evidentialism’: in other words, everything can, in due time, be made to fit. …

Here’s what we argue: we argue quite simply that there is no plausible or convincing reason, certainly no evidential one, to believe there is such an entity. … I have to say that I appear as a skeptic who believes that doubt is the great engine, the great fuel, of all inquiry, of all discovery, and of all innovation, and that I doubt these things. The disadvantage seems to me in the argument goes to the person that says ‘I know. I know it is true.’ …

Retrospective evidentialism is … a concession made to the need for fact. … But look at what Dr. Craig says in his book. I’ll quote directly: he says, “Should a conflict arise between the witness of the Holy Spirit, to the fundamental truth of the Christian faith, and beliefs based on argument and evidence, then it is the former that must take precedence over the later.”


I’ll leave it to the reader to decide if the justificationist or critical rationalist debating tactics are best-suited for a critical discussion and not just appealing to the crowd.

The debate.


  1. The YouTube videos have been taken down.

  2. Islamic epistemology uses two words for faith:iman and marifah. The former signifies the psychological aspect of faith which is fearlessness adherence to truth and being safe in divine, while marifah is the intellectual aspect which means recognition of truth. Quran 67:10 mentions two paths of attaining knowledge or certainty, the aural path of revelation and cognitive path of reason. In the aural path of revelation, Quran 21:30 accurately describes singularity at big bang along with other facts like expansion of universe, primordial gas and waves in space, all of which cannot be naturalistically explained as mere coincidences which are evidences of a divine author/supernatural intelligence. On the rational path, Muslim philosophers formulated kalam cosmological argument which is being continuously refined by Craig and Hamza Tzortzis a greek convert to Islam. I am an orthodox Muslim electrical enigneer, and I might to studying quantum mechanics soon, so I aim at refining it in the light of it which is not an equivalent of human freewill at all, but a subtle form of stochastic determinism which cannot take place in a vacuum. Averroes was a Muslim philosophical opponent of retrospective evidentialism and he clearly said in case of conflict between reason and revelation, reason takes precedence and revelation will require radical reinterpretation in the light of reason.

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