April 25, 2009
Advice for Debating William Lane Craig, part 5
1. One of the most important things you should be doing to prepare for any kind of formal debate — and I can’t believe I didn’t mention this earlier — is to practice debating the other side. Atheists, that means you should find the best debater you know (other than yourself) and set up a practice round in which they come in with a case for atheism that you haven’t seen, and you play the role of William Lane Craig.
And you should play dirty! Make unfounded assertions, logical leaps, spread a ton of arguments — do whatever it takes to “win” that practice round.
Why should you do this? Well, a lot of reasons, but the primary one is so that you don’t fall in love with your own arguments. Debating both sides of a proposition helps you evaluate the claims you’re making with greater objectivity.
It will also help you understand how best to counter those sorts of tactics when William Lane Craig uses them against you! (And trust me, Craig can’t help himself; he tried to spread and extend against Christopher Hitchens when Hitchens was outnumbered five to one on a panel discussion (and thus it was really inappropriate to call out drops). Craig can’t help himself from debating in that style and you absolutely, positively must be ready for it. The best way to do that is to use it against someone else and then switch sides and have them do it to you.
That’s what “professional” high-school and college debaters do. When the topic is “Resolved, that capital punishment is justified,” my liberal students couldn’t simply go in and forfeit every affirmative round. They had to learn the very best arguments for capital punishment and make them as sincerely as possible. Similarly, when the topic was “Resolved, that health care is a universal human right,” my conservative students couldn’t just take the negative position every time.
So play the theist in a practice debate. Then switch sides. Then switch sides again. You’ll quickly learn what theistic arguments are effective in the confines of a debate round, which is a valuable lesson against the likes of William Lane Craig.
In fact, I think I’m going to add this to my formal list of criteria for being a good atheist debater: a good atheist debater should be prepared to debate the theist position.
2. Next, John Loftus asks:
Andrew, not ot belabor my point too much (and since I said I was done perhaps I am), I was hoping you would be able to explain why you think it would not be to my advantage to debate Craig first rather than have several debates under my belt where Craig can see how I argue? Why do you think it would be to my advantage if I first debated several people before I debated Craig, given that he would not know in advance my strategy and I would know his inside and out? If you cannot support or defend your contention then why not call for a debate between Craig and me?
I’m not sure if John is suggesting that he intends to surprise Craig with new arguments, or surprise him with his debating style, but it seems to me that neither of these is a sufficient justification for not engaging in prior debates.
a. First, a large part of what I’m calling for people like John to do is to debate privately, get private coaching, and judge high school Lincoln-Douglas debate. So there’s no disclosure problem in any event.
b. Second, I think the idea that disclosure puts you at a disadvantage is silly. In fact, experienced high school and college debaters often disclose their arguments to the other side in advance of a round. In any event, if you have some sort of secret awesome killer argument, feel free to hold it in reserve in your public debates until you debate Craig. (But try it in practice rounds in private; it might not be as killer as you think it is.)
c. Finally, the notion that you can keep a “style” secret from Craig is very silly. Craig already has the best debating style there is. That doesn’t mean that it’s perfect, and it certainly doesn’t mean that I agree with the substance of his arguments. But in terms of tactics, if your goal is to win public debates, your goal should be to do what Craig does.
Hiding your “style” from Craig is thus of no advantage to anyone. When Craig prepares to debate you, if you have no prior experience, he will assume that you’ll debate properly (i.e., using his style). The more you deviate from that, the more he’s prepared to take advantage of it. If he has access to prior debates in which you showcase your style, it won’t affect his preparation for you one bit.
In sum: prior debate practice is essential in order to develop the skills you’ll need if you’re going to beat William Lane Craig. Those practices can all be private if you want, but if you skip the preparation, you will get crushed. Period.
3. Commenter Dave2 asks about the difference between offensive and defensive responses:
I’m no debate expert, but this makes no sense to me.
Are you saying that if an atheist masterfully shoots down and picks apart all four of Craig’s arguments, and provides a devastating argument for atheism and successfully defends it against every criticism, then the atheist loses?
No. I’m saying that won’t happen due to time constraints. Here, let’s try and map out a potential round. I’m only going to look at Craig’s argumentation here just to illustrate a point; in a real round, the atheist would also have an introductory (“constructive”) speech. But bear with me:
A. Craig offers a 10-minute introductory statement in which he sets forth his five arguments for the existence of God.
B. In the five-minute rebuttal period, the atheist devotes one minute to each of Craig’s five arguments.
Now, Craig is going to look at speech (B) and figure out how best to salvage as many arguments as he can from his initial constructive (A). This is the first thing a good debater does. He’s not going to go to his “favorite” argument; he’s not going to go in the order you’ve presented, he’s going to go to the argument that has the fewest, weakest responses and “extend” it, and say “the atheist can’t deal with this evidence for God.”
If Craig is really pressed for time, and all you’ve done is made defensive responses to his claims (“X isn’t true”), then Craig gets to pick and choose the arguments to which he wants to respond. He can drop anything else, so long as he’s winning his overall framework.
So the atheist’s job in that rebuttal speech is to make it as hard for Craig to answer as humanly possible. The best way to do that is with “turns,” or offensive responses. In other words: when you respond to Craig’s claims about the universe, don’t just say “the universe isn’t fine-tuned,” claim that the universe is fine-tuned against the universe described in the Bible (it is, you know!). That way Craig must respond or you can claim victory in your final rebuttal.
Do that enough times and you can counter Craig’s natural advantages in word economy. That will give you the opening you need to emphasize the arguments of your own that Craig has under-covered.
Hopefully, those of you who are would-be debaters are starting to get a sense of the strategic and tactical elements that go into every debate round regardless of subject. I promise you that William Lane Craig is aware of these issues; you should be, too.