April 13, 2009
Advice For Debating William Lane Craig
In light of the panel discussion with Christopher Hitchens as well as recent (disappointing) accounts of William Lane Craig’s debates with Christopher Hitchens and Richard Carrier, I thought I would post some unsolicited advice from a former debater, debate coach, and practicing attorney to anyone thinking of tackling Craig in a debate.
First, you should know that Craig employs a distinctive, persuasive style that is almost entirely identical to high school Lincoln-Douglas (LD) debate. This means that Craig maintains a flow, calls out drops, and extends arguments. If you don’t know what these terms mean, you are not qualified to debate William Lane Craig. Period.
So the first thing you need to do is to watch a high school LD round and talk to a high school LD coach.
If those two 17-year-olds kids have intimidated you, you are not qualified to debate William Lane Craig. Get yourself some coaching in the basics, watch the video again and again until you can flow it, judge high-level circuit LD, and immerse yourself in the activity until you’re not intimidated. This will take some time. It’s okay; Craig isn’t going anywhere.
Second, understand the principles of word economy. Now Craig doesn’t speak nearly as quickly as the debaters in the linked video — but he does speak deceptively fast, and he picks his words very carefully. In the panel discussion linked below, he offers seven arguments in four minutes. At a normal rate of delivery, four minutes is approximately 600 words — or one single-spaced 8.5 x 11″ page of text. One. If you cannot refute seven arguments in four minutes, you are not qualified to debate William Lane Craig.
This means that when you are preparing your introductory speech and your rebuttal notes, you need to edit and re-edit until you’ve eliminated superfluous verbiage. For example, take the following sample response to one of Craig’s arguments, adapted from an actual response given in an actual debate:
Okay, so the next thing that Dr. Craig says is that he endorses the teleological argument for the existence of God, or the argument from design. This is really nothing more than a gloss on William Paley’s watchmaker argument — if you see a watch in the woods, you know there’s a watchmaker, and it didn’t just occur by accident. Now, Dr. Craig substitutes the supposed “fine-tuning of the universe” for the “watch,” but it’s the same problem, and, like Hume, deserves the same set of responses. First, this is nothing more than an argument by analogy, and the formation of the universe is itself a singular event that is not analogous to any other event.
That paragraph is 106 words long, and will take the average person nearly one minute to read aloud. Keep in mind that Craig’s original claim was made in approximately 30 seconds. So you’ve now spent twice as much time as Craig spent making the claim trying to answer it, and you still haven’t gotten to your good responses! This is how Craig wins debates: he tosses out a ton of arguments in a very concise manner, waits for you to waste time with weak answers, non-answers, wandering anecdotes and excess verbiage, and then castigates you for your “drops” (i.e., the arguments of his to which you have not responded). These are standard debate tactics that every freshman high-school LD debater knows, and it shocks me that so-called “professional” debaters repeatedly don’t understand them.
So if you absolutely must indict the teleological argument as an argument by analogy — preferably as part of a series of responses — then consider the following LD-style response instead:
Next, the teleological argument. First, it’s a bad analogy; universes aren’t like watches.
That’s 13 words, and it makes the exact same point as argument #1 — but in approximately five seconds as opposed to fifty. The bottom line is that if you’re going to debate Craig, you need to be able to write and rewrite your presentation and practice your responses until you can deliver them in an economical manner.
Third, do your homework. As he did in his debate with Hitchens, Craig always offers at least five arguments in every debate: (1) the teleological argument or argument from design; (2) the cosmological argument; (3) the moral argument; (4) the argument from the historicity of the Resurrection; and (5) the argument that belief in God is “properly basic” as a function of religious experiences.
If you do not have multiple offensive responses to each of these points, pared down for purposes of word economy, and you’re not prepared to deliver them in a persuasive and efficient manner, then you are not qualified to debate William Lane Craig.
A corollary to this piece of advice is that you should do as little extemporanous speaking as possible. I don’t care how smart you think you are, you suck at extemporaneous speaking. It’s okay; everyone sucks at it. When you’re being extemporaneous, you speak more slowly and with less conviction, and you use more words to make fewer points. You should not get up there preparing to “wing it” on, say, whether belief in God is properly basic — you should have all of these responses down cold in advance, along with a bunch of others derived from Craig’s other debates. Period.
Fourth, challenge Craig’s efforts to frame the debate. In every debate, Craig will set up a list of criteria that he claims his opponent must meet in order to win. He does this every single time he debates (as do all good high school LD debaters). If you do not respond to this framework and offer a counter-framework, he’ll go back to it in rebuttals (calling out your “drop”) and show that you’ve lost the debate by failing to meet it.
Your prewritten opening speech absolutely must offer an evaluative framework that puts Craig to at least the same kind of burden he intends to put you (i.e., against Hitchens, he claimed that Hitch was required to answer all five arguments plus affirmatively prove an opposition case in order to win). If you’re not thinking strategically about how your arguments should fit in to an overall framework, then you are not qualified to debate William Lane Craig.
Fifth, you need to become familiar with the concepts of offering multiple responses and (in particular) offensive responses to Craig’s argument. An offensive response — in the debate world, this is called a “turn” — is when you show that your opponent’s claim, if true, actually supports your position and undermines his. That then shifts the burden back to Craig to answer your responses in his rebuttals, and not just attack your case and extend his own.
Let me give a practical example, again in the context of the teleological argument. One possible response is to correctly note that physicists disagree whether there is fine tuning; for example, Victor Stenger notes that a wide range of values for key physical properties of the universe nevertheless produce the conditions that permit for the rise of complex life. This is a defensive argument; you’re claiming that the fine-tuning argument isn’t true. That’s fine, but in the context of a debate, if this is all you say, then Craig can simply ignore it if pressed for time, particularly if he’s winning his framework (that you have to disprove all of his arguments). Read that sentence again, because it’s the key to understanding Craig’s strategy. He will simply ignore your defensive responses if pressed for time.
So what you need to do is couple your defensive responses with offensive responses, which Craig must answer. For example: after noting that the universe is not fine-tuned, you would then follow up with a second response that says something like, “In fact, the heavens do not declare the glory of God; they contradict everything specific the Bible has to say about the cosmos, and powerfully show that this is precisely the sort of universe we would expect if there is no God.
Throughout your debate with Craig, you must continually rock him back on the defensive by offering these kinds of offensive “turns” against his case, while at the same time understanding the offensive arguments to which you must respond. If you’re not prepared to think strategically — say it with me, people — then you are not qualified to debate William Lane Craig.
EDIT: Fixed opening paragraph and provided link to Richard Carrier’s writeup of his debate with Craig.