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From International Philosophical Quarterly, 45:1, 2005. Review of William Lane Craig and Antony Flew, Does God Exist? The Craig-Flew Debate. Edited by Stan Wallace. Burlington: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2003. Pp. 230.

Anthony Flood

July 20, 2011


Review of Does God Exist? The Craig-Flew Debate

James A. Sadowsky, S.J.

The core of this book contains the edited tran-script of a debate on the existence of God between William Lane Craig and Antony Flew.  This debate took place at the University of Wisconsin in the year 1998, the fiftieth anniversary of the Russell-Copleston debate on the same subject.

The core is surrounded by eight chapters authored by writers who are well known to those whose field is the philosophy of religion.  Some of the articles support Craig while the others support Flew.  In this review I shall concentrate on Flew and Craig.  Suffice it to say that the other chapters are well worth reading because their contents complement the debates themselves.

How does Craig argue for the existence of God? He does so in several ways.  In the first place the world needs a cause because it began to be.  It began to be because otherwise we should find ourselves confronted by a consummated infinity of past events, and a consummated infinity is impossible.  To say that you have a consummated infinity is to say that no matter how many things you have, there is always one more thing.  This is different from the claim that no matter how many things you have, you could have another but in fact do not have another.  That is what we mean by potentially infinite, or—better—infinitely potential. We are talking about an infinite possibility, not the possibility of something infinite.  What, according to Craig, makes this plausible is the absence of any serious argument for a consummated infinity as well as the paradoxes that this notion entails.  Several of the contributors raise difficulties against Craig’s arguments.  In my opinion they are unsuccessful.

Flew does not engage Craig’s argument.  He concedes in fact that the universe had a beginning. Instead he challenges the claim that the material universe as a whole requires a cause, even though everything within it needs a cause.

Of course, if by “universe” you mean “all that there is,” you cannot take for granted that what we call the material universe is in fact coextensive with the universe. For if there is a god, then that god is an element of the universe.  He would be, strictly speaking, not the cause of the universe but of the rest of the universe.  The universe, understood as the sum total of reality, would not have a cause because there is nothing outside of all that is.  The real question is whether the universe contains something that is not an effect.  To say that everything is an effect entails a consummated infinity.

Craig makes much of the argument from fine tuning.  In effect it says that it is astounding that the world in its origin was so structured that life could come into existence.  If the original structure of the world had been ever so slightly different, there would have been no such thing as life.  Therefore the world in its original structure is the work of an intelligent designer.

If the world in its origin had been even slightly different, it would have evolved into something different from our present world.  Why does not that particular result show that the original structure of that world was designed to produce the final result? In other words, the argument proves too much.  It “proves” that any world would be the result of design.  This raises the question: What would an undesigned universe look like?  So, all the information about the complexity of life is irrelevant.  The argument is not empirical at all.

Flew considers the doctrine of hell to be inconsistent with the goodness of God.  Craig rightly points out that theism as such does not entail the existence of hell.  Indeed, Flew himself recognizes that there are theists such as Jehovah’s Witnesses who reject the doctrine of hell.  In fact, as Craig tells us, Flew caricatures the doctrine as it has been understood by traditional theologians when he claims that it entails God’s torturing people for all eternity. According to these theologians, the pains of hell are self inflicted: they are the result of our willful separation from God, and the conflict between it and our natural desire for God.  C. S. Lewis says that in the last analysis there are only two classes of people: those who say to God “thy will be done” and those to whom God says “thy will be done.”

Craig claims that there would be nothing special about human beings if they had not been created by God.  This seems to be a form of the genetic fallacy. Surely we have the qualities we have regardless of how we got them.  Imagine two humans: one created by God and the other not.  What would be the difference?

Craig maintains that there would be no objective moral values if there were no God.  I take this to mean that nothing would be really right or wrong if God did not exist.  Ultimately this implies a divine command theory of morality.  Doing the right thing involves obeying the divine commands.  This raises the question: why are we obliged to obey the divine commands?  Because God commands us to obey them?

So Craig wins some and Flew wins some.

Is the book worth reading?  My verdict is yes.  If nothing else, it will show the student that the question of God’s existence is a genuine philosophical question.