Thursday, July 17, 2008

God Would Be Dead, If He Existed in the First Place (Part I)

The July issue of Christianity Today features an article entitled "God is Not Dead Yet" by William Lane Craig, claiming a major revolution in philosophical argumentation over the existence of a god.

You might think from the recent spate of atheist best-sellers that belief in God has become intellectually indefensible for thinking people today. But a look at these books by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchins, among others, quickly reveals that the so-called New Atheism lacks intellectual muscle. It is blissfully ignorant of the revolution that has taken place in Anglo-American philosophy. It reflects the scientism of a bygone generation rather than the contemporary intellectual scene.

The turning point probably came in 1967, with the publication of Alvin Plantinga's God and Other Minds: A Study of the Rational Justification of Belief in God. In Plantinga's train has followed a host of Christian philosophers, writing in scholarly journals and participating in professional conferences with the finest academic presses... Atheism, though perhaps still the dominant viewpoint at the American university, is a philosophy in retreat.

This all sounds quite impressive. From this, we could almost expect to see Christian philosophers lining up to receive their Nobel Prizes for the discovery of a super-intelligent non-human life form, and completely overhauling the science of cosmic origins. At the very least, we would expect the article to contain new, revolutionary arguments for a god's existence that are compelling enough to make atheists seriously reconsider their position.

Instead, Craig just serves up the same old arguments we've all seen before: the Cosmological Argument, the Kalam Cosmological Argument, the Teleological Argument, the Moral Argument, and the Ontological Argument. Each argument is preceded by an ejaculation of name-dropping, listing ostensibly credible intellectuals who subscribe to it.[1] Despite his fulsome praise for Plantinga, he doesn't even cite Plantinga's "revolutionary" argument, which will be addressed at the conclusion of this series.

So let's have a look at the vaunted "sophisticated" Christianity we atheists are supposed to be blissfully ignorant of. The arguments cited here (with the exception of Plantinga's argument) are taken directly from the article in Christianity Today, with the name-drop paragraphs omitted. All quotations are from the article, unless otherwise specified.

The cosmological argument.

1. Everything that exists has an explanation for its existence, either in the necessity of its own nature or in an external cause.

2. If the universe has an explanation of its existence, that explanation is God.

3. The universe exists.

4. Therefore, the explanation of the universe's existence is God.

Like all of these "sophisticated" arguments for Christianity, this one rests on a giant non-sequitur. We find it here in premise #2. There is simply no reason to leap from "the universe has an explanation for its existence" to "that explanation is the deity who got mad at a talking snake in the Book of Genesis." I think we can be confident that Christians would not accept this argument as convincing if we altered premise #2 to state, "...that explanation is Amun-Re."

The existence of a god is the issue at hand, so merely asserting it as the explanation of Universe's existence as a premise is begging the question. Craig tries to defend premise #2 as follows:

Premise (2) might at first appear controversial, but it is in fact synonymous with the usual atheist claim that if God does not exist, then the universe has no explanation of its existence.

I've read a number of books arguing the case for atheism, including The God Delusion, The End of Faith, and God is not Great (the "New Atheist" bestsellers Craig refers to at the beginning of his article) and I do not recall encountering this "usual" claim. Atheists discuss possible explanations for Universe's existence all the time (e.g. the Big Bang theory, M-Theory, Lee Smolin's hypothesis of cosmic natural selection, etc.). If atheists did make such a claim, it would be a non-sequitur. The non-existence of the Christian deity would not eliminate other deities, or other sorts of possible explanations for Universe's existence.

Besides, (2) is quote plausible in its own right. For an external cause of the universe must be beyond space and time and therefore cannot be physical or material.

Non sequitur. Multiverse cosmologies describing ways a Universe (self-contained Big Bang cosmos) like ours could emerge as a "daughter universe" causally disconnected from its "mother universe" (such as Lee Smolin's hypothesis of universe-creation via black holes) or M-Theory do propose physical explanations for the existence of what we now call "the universe." These theories are certainly debatable and may well be wrong, but they use mechanisms of physics we know something about, and mathematical tools that have worked quite well for us in the past.

Contrast this with the "A super-big invisible magic person did it" theory, which employs nothing but the inherently unknowable. Consider the track record of "invisible magic person" (IMP) theories. Until very recently in historical terms, all of humanity was convinced that invisible magic persons were responsible for virtually all phenomena of nature, from weather to disease to human and animal fertility. Where the IMPs once controlled the entire territory of human experience, the advance of science has routed them time and time again. Today, IMPs can only hide within the Big Bang singularity. And now science is drawing up the most powerful siege engine ever created, the Large Hadron Collider, to assail that final redoubt. On the basis of history alone, we should be wary of clutching at an IMP explanation for anything.

Now there are only two kinds of things that fit that description: either abstract objects, like numbers, or else an intelligent mind.

Not so. I can think of at least one other possibility off the top of my head: a generalized operational principle, like "triangles are self-bracing," or "natural selection."

But abstract objects are causally impotent. The number 7, for example, can't cause anything.

Generalized operational principles can be "causative." For example, if you start making shapes at random from gum drops and tooth picks, test them for stability, keep the more stable structures and destroy the unstable structures, you will inevitably end up with a bunch of triangulated shapes. The triangle is the only self-bracing polygon, so shapes based on triangles will be more stable than shapes based on squares or other polygons. "Triangles are self-bracing."

The process of destroying the unstable shapes and keeping the stable shapes is natural selection. No matter how randomly the shapes are built, those two principles will leave you with triangle-based shapes, especially if you continue the process for multiple generations, basing succeeding shapes on small modifications of surviving shapes from the previous generation. Thus, the two generalized operating principles have "caused" a non-random result (triangulated shapes) to emerge from a random process of assembly.

What sort of generalized operational principle would it take to "cause" a Universe like ours to exist? "'Nothing' is unstable."

Therefore, it follows that the explanation of the universe is an external, transcendent, personal mind that created the universe--which is what most people have traditionally meant by "God."

Fail. First of all, an abstract "mind" is as causally impotent as an abstract number. If it were otherwise, magic would work. A "brain in a vat" cannot affect reality merely by thinking, feeling, wishing, repeating incantations to itself, etc.. I can wish day and night for Abigail at ERV to fall in love with me, but that won't cause it to happen. I'd have a better chance by doing something materialistic, like sending her flowers. Our minds are causal because they're connected, physically to physical interfaces (our heads and bodies) that can act in Universe. Mental acts alone are not causal in reality.

Second, a "mind" isn't a floating abstraction "beyond space and time." Our minds (the only ones we have any experience with) are emergent properties of the massively interconnected neurons of our brains. If that system is altered, say, by alcohol or Alzheimer's, the "mind" is also altered. The concept of a disembodied "mind" of "God" is not only causally impotent, it is nonsensical.

Third, this last sentence of Craig's is a devious intellectual smuggling operation. Let's look at it again:

Therefore, it follows that the explanation of the universe is an external, transcendent, personal mind that created the universe--which is what most people have traditionally meant by "God."

He lists a whole set of attributes for his proposed "God" that he just takes as given. His "God" is singular, external, transcendent, and personal. Where does he get these proposed attributes? They're "what most people have traditionally meant by 'God.'" Most people--in the West, since the Middle Ages. Other cultures have proposed deities that are immanent in Nature rather than external, plural rather than singular, and sometimes impersonal rather than personal (e.g. Brahman, the Tao).

Why should we assume automatically that gods, if they exist, are anything like what we humans imagine them to be? The Universe revealed to us by modern science has certainly come as a shock, comparing it with ancient cosmologies. Even the "sophisticated" Christian philosopher would have to admit that the divine, whatever it may be (if it exists at all) is an extremely subtle phenomenon, since it has not been detected by our most sensitive instrumentation. On what basis should we assume that ancient peoples, who were completely in error concerning the things we can reliably discern with our scientific instrumentation (e.g. the size and workings of the physical cosmos) would be spot on with regards to some transcendent something-or-other existing beyond all space and time? That's just nonsense on stilts!

Craig and other Christian apologists wielding these "sophisticated" arguments are counting on us to just let them sneak by with the unspoken and unvalidated premise that "the Christian God = the only possible sort of god." The vast panoply of human religious and spiritual thought completely destroys this premise. Without it, all of the "sophisticated" arguments fail to accomplish their goal of establishing Christianity (and not every other religion) as a rational viewpoint.

For example, even if the Cosmological Argument above were irrefutable in all its steps, there is no reason to assume only one transcendent Mind, or to assume that it's male, (i.e. the Christian God rather than the Goddess of the Minoans), that it has multiple personality disorder (the Trinity), that it ghost-writes books like the Bible or the Quran, or that the Bible, rather than the Quran, the Vedas, or the ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts, is the (only) book that it ghost-wrote.

Watch for this smuggled premise in each of the other arguments as this series progresses.


1. In his introduction the Teleological Argument, Craig spurts out the name of William Dembski, which calls into question his ability to pick credible sources.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post Kevin! There's a lot to think about in it. -Jim

7:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


-you know who I am >:(

9:12 AM  

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