Sunday, June 3, 2012

Poke it with a stick - Dr. Craig's Cosmological Argument

This is the second in a number of posts reviewing, line-by-line, the 1995 debate on "Does God Exist" between Dr. William Lane Craig and Massimo Pigliucci, held at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.

The initial post covered just the first three paragraphs of Dr. Craig's opening statement. This longer post will address his famous "argument from first cause".

A note that I should have added last time: since the transcript of the debate is from Leadership University, I leave the outline headings from there in place here. For example, you will see that "Second Question" and "First Question" appear as distinct sections.

Another note: I linked previously to Common Sense Atheism's post William Lane Craig on Debating Atheists. There, Dr. Craig claims to have the better arguments, with which Luke (the principle blogger there) agrees. Luke goes on to state:

Dr. Craig is correct. Craig’s dominance in debating technique is not the only reason he wins nearly all his debates.

Dr. Craig also wins his debates because Dr. Craig gives better arguments.

Let me explain what I mean. It might be the case that, for example, none of Craig’s arguments are as ‘good’ as an argument from evil or an argument from reasonable nonbelief, two popular atheistic arguments. However, Dr. Craig’s arguments are almost always stronger than the atheist’s arguments as presented in these debates.

It's important to note that debates are contests in which the opponents are judged on the strength of their arguments. It is not a court of law, and it is not a community of scientists trying to understand how the world works. It is much nearer to a popularity contest in this setting when compared to even the more traditional Lincoln-Douglas debates held scholastically. Dr. Craig uses his formidable knowledge of philosophy and theology, sprinkles in just enough cosmology, mathematics and other current hard sciences, then applies the mix in a predictable and disciplined manner to WIN THE DEBATE. That's what he does. Whether we non-believers like it or not, he wins. That doesn't mean that he has evidence that God exists - he clearly has never presented it. We wouldn't have debates about the existence of God if God could take time out from his busy schedule to put a stop to all this horsing around. So let's keep our eyes open and see what Dr. Craig does to win this debate.

A final note for the day. Dr. Craig uses the term "logic" in his Opening Speech. For the record, there is a distinction between sound and unsound logic that we will point out where ever we see it. I found a succinct explanation at that's worth noting:

1. truth: a property of statements, i.e., that they are the case.
2. validity: a property of arguments, i.e., that they have a good structure.
(The premisses and conclusion are so related that it is absolutely impossible for the premisses to be true unless the conclusion is true also.)
3. soundness: a property of both arguments and the statements in them, i.e., the argument is valid and all the statement are true.

Dr. Craig may have valid arguments (the structure is good), but does he have sound ones (are they structured correctly and the conclusion is true)? I'll be keeping that in mind as we progress.

Let's hear his Second Question:

Second Question

Now with respect to the second question, I'll leave it up to Dr. Pigliucci to present the reasons why he thinks that this hypothesis is false. Atheists have tried for centuries to disprove the existence of God, but no one has ever been able to come up with a successful argument. Dr. Pigliucci, on the other hand, in his article "God as a Falsifiable Hypothesis," says, "My position is that belief in God can be falsified" on the basis of the evidence.{1} So rather than attack straw men at this point, I'll just wait to hear Dr. Pigliucci's answer to the following question: What good evidence is there to show that God does not exist?

Through this point in the debate, Dr. Craig has only spoken for a minute or so of his 20 minute allotment, and throws down a challenge that can't be met - to falsify the hypothesis that God exists. It's a winner for Dr Craig two ways - 1) the non-believer must address it and expend valuable time explaining to the audience how science works and how "God" is not a testable hypothesis. Addressing this steals time from either making a positive case for non-belief, or rebutting claims that are weak. 2) the non-believer can ignore the challenge, but Craig can then claim that they "dropped" it, and impress on the audience that he wins this point by default because the non-believer can't or won't answer the challenge. He doesn't have to lie, cheat or steal, he just wins by default. Honestly, this is brilliant! Now, Pigliucci says "belief in God can be falsified", so it will indeed be interesting to see how he delivers that argument in a reasonable time, and how WLC attacks (or drops) it.

The "you can't disprove that God exists" gambit above is a common tactic you may have encountered if you've ever discussed theology. I mentioned last time that "falsifiability" is an intended characteristic of any hypothesis that seeks to be accepted as an explanation for a phenomenon. Dr. Craig surely knows this, and even more surely knows that most people don't know that this is the case, so it will sound to the audience as if the non-believer has failed to make the case for non-belief if they fail to address this.

Dr. Craig continues:

First Question

Let's look, then, at the first question: What evidence is there that serves to verify God's existence? Tonight I'm going to present five reasons in support of the specific hypothesis that a personal Creator and Designer of the universe exists, who is the locus of absolute value and who has revealed Himself in Christ. Whole books have been written on each one of these, so all I can present here is a brief sketch of each argument and then go into more detail as Dr. Pigliucci responds to them.

What impresses me here is just how specifically he describes God. It's been said many times, an argument for an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, omnibenevolent creator is not an argument for a specific religion's favored representation of that, so I expect that he'll have trouble justifying the claim.

He get's to the real meat:

First Argument

1. The origin of the universe. Have you ever asked yourself where the universe came from? Why everything exists instead of just nothing? Typically atheists have said the universe is just eternal and uncaused. But surely this is unreasonable. Just think about it a minute. If the universe is eternal and never had a beginning, that means that the number of past events in the history of the universe is infinite. But mathematicians recognize that the idea of an actually infinite number of things leads to self-contradictions. For example, what is infinity minus infinity? Well, mathematically, you get self-contradictory answers. This shows that infinity is just an idea in your mind, not something that exists in reality. David Hilbert, perhaps the greatest mathematician of this century, states, "The infinite is nowhere to be found in reality. It neither exists in nature nor provides a legitimate basis for rational thought. The role that remains for the infinite to play is solely that of an idea."{2} But that entails that since past events are not just ideas, but are real, the number of past events must be finite. Therefore, the series of past events can't go back forever; rather the universe must have begun to exist.

In this introductory paragraph to Dr. Craig's Argument from First Cause, we observe a number of maneuvers that further frame the debate in his favor. He says "Typically atheists have said the universe is just eternal and uncaused." This straw man is an oversimplification in at least three ways: 1) atheists, while a convenient "other" that serves to focus the argument in the eyes of believers on an adversary that they already despise, distrust and/or fear, are not the only people that don't agree with the Christian God that Dr. Craig's specifically arguing for. Seventy percent of the world doesn't believe in Yahweh; 2) the generalization that "the universe is just eternal and uncaused" is a bit of detail that Dr. Craig doesn't provide evidence for. It may be that non-believers hold that the Big Bang Theory ("BBT") really implies that space-time began at that moment. It may be that they believe there is a cyclic universe (still uncaused, but naturally generated as "everything" cycles between matter and antimatter over quadrillions of years. It could be some "many worlds" conception. It may be one of Buddha's belches that brought the world into existence. It may be any other supreme non-yahweh figure. All he's doing is clarifying the battle lines and preparing for a "first cause' argument through the use of a false dilemma.

Dr. Craig moves on to argue that an actual infinite is impossible - but he uses citations out of context. David Hilbert would have been correct in saying that an "actual infinite" is never found in nature, but that just speaks to the limits on what we can observe and the amount of space, matter and energy that we can detect within the observable universe. S0 far, we can only estimate a finite amount of space, matter and energy. Dr. Craig is on solid ground with the average lay audience, because we instinctively say "yes, no matter how big the numbers get, they're still not truly infinite". The more scientifically inclined may say "it's too early to tell", but I'll bet that they're in the minority in most theology debates. See the discussion on "Craig's mistakes re infinite hotels". It's too much to refute in a twenty minute debate segment, but points out why Dr. Craig's argument misses the mark.

Let's move on to his next paragraph before winter returns:

This conclusion has been confirmed by remarkable discoveries in astronomy and astrophysics. The astrophysical evidence indicates that the universe began to exist in a great explosion called the "Big Bang" 15 billion years ago. Physical space and time were created in that event, as well as all the matter and energy in the universe. Therefore, as Cambridge astronomer Fred Hoyle points out, the Big Bang theory requires the creation of the universe from nothing. This is because, as you go back in time, you reach a point at which, in Hoyle's words, the universe was "shrunk down to nothing at all."{3} Thus, what the Big Bang model requires is that the universe began to exist and was created out of nothing.

I love - LOVE - Dr. Craig's use of current science - regardless of whether he's portraying it accurately. It gives a sense that this is a man that's done his homework! The use of BBT to "confirm" that the universe had a definite beginning from nothing is one of his most effective pieces of rhetoric.

Before I cut into it further, it must be said that this debate is 16 or 17 years old, and the research has advanced somewhat, so I won't get into Hawking's and Krauss's explanations on how "from nothing" is possible. Instead, given that state of knowledge in 1995, Dr. Craig still misused what BBT did actually say. It says that the universe once existed in a smaller, dense, hotter state approximately 13.7 billions years ago. It most specifically did not say that the universe arose from nothing. In fact, in the small hot dense state that scientists can measure (and/or calculate) the laws of quantum physics break down, and given the limitation at present, nothing further can be known. Dr. Craig is smart to use the lay persons natural inclination to assume that this small hot dense mass, when extrapolated back further, would be a single point, and would further be infinitesimal or nothing if extrapolated to it's extreme. Science does not make that claim. It couldn't be considered a "law" until there was sufficient evidence and testing down to rule out other competing theories. We are tens, hundreds, even thousands of years away from that day.

More Dr. Craig:

Now this tends to be very awkward for the atheist. For as Anthony Kenny of Oxford University urges, "A proponent of the big bang theory, at least if he is an atheist, must believe that the . . . universe came from nothing and by nothing."{4} But surely that doesn't make sense! Out of nothing, nothing comes. So why does the universe exist instead of just nothing? Where did it come from? There must have been a cause which brought the universe into being.

Here Dr. Craig doubles down on the "universe from nothing" gambit by citing Dr. Kenny saying that " atheist, must believe that the . . . universe came from nothing and by nothing". Now, why do we give a rat's patootie what Anthony Kenny of Oxford University says? First, I had to Google him to see that he's a philosopher and not a dishwasher. Second, is Dr. Kenny reliable? We have no way of knowing. Third, is Dr. Kenny espousing the consensus view? We have now way of knowing. We can be sure that Dr. Craig chose the citation to bolster the argument that believing something came from nothing is absurd, but he hasn't yet given us that valid and true argument that closes the deal.

He summarizes:

We can summarize our argument thus far as follows:
1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause.
2. The universe began to exist.
3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.

This is the traditional formulation of the argument from first cause, and is uncontroversial as stated, in spite of having presented no evidence that the universe didn't previously exist in some way. Notice that this formulation of the argument says nothing about the nature of the first cause.

He fills in the blanks next:

Now from the very nature of the case, as the cause of space and time, this cause must be an uncaused, changeless, timeless, and immaterial being of unimaginable power which created the universe. Moreover, I would argue, it must also be personal. For how else could a timeless cause give rise to atemporal effect like the universe? If the cause were an impersonal set of necessary and sufficient conditions, then the cause could never exist without the effect. If the cause were timelessly present, then the effect would be timelessly present as well. The only way for the cause to be timeless and the effect to begin in time is for the cause to be a personal agent who freely chooses to create an effect in time without any prior determining conditions. Thus, we are brought, not merely to a transcendent cause of the universe, but to its Personal Creator.

Here's where WLC goes off the rails completely.

By claiming "this cause must be an uncaused, changeless, timeless, and immaterial being of unimaginable power which created the universe. Moreover, I would argue, it must also be personal." - he is making a specific claim as to the characteristics and behavior that he hasn't lifted a finger to justify. A non-technical term for this is called "pulling it out of your ass". There is not a shred of supporting argument or evidence that will bolster this claim. Depending on what direction you look at this, one or all of these fallacies are committed in this brief paragraph:
  • a bare assertion - making a claim without supporting argument or evidence
  • a false dilemma - asserting that if not A, the only answer is B.
  • argument from ignorance - "I can't think of a conclusion, therefore my preferred (unsupported) conclusion is the only possible answer"


Dr. Craig concludes his argument from first cause:

Isn't it incredible that the Big Bang theory thus fits in with what the Christian theist has always believed: that in the beginning God created the universe? Now I put it to you: which makes more sense: that the theist is right or that the universe popped into being uncaused out of nothing? I, at least, have no trouble assessing these alternatives!

To a theist audience, this probably sounds like "game, set, match" - but it's clearly not. That final paragraph introduces what - to the critically minded - should be an unnecessary complication in Dr. Craig's argument. The appearance of the universe out of nothing - still unproven by science - would still be infinitely simpler that a universe that appears as an effect from a cause by another unexplained entity. He's ignored that the believer believes the same thing as the non-believer, except has to insert the eternal all-powerful being to make it all happen, and then claims that this eternal all-powerful being needs no explanation. This is also known as "special pleading". The non-believer would be right to counter with "if God is eternal, then that proves something can be eternal, thus the universe could be eternal, eliminating the necessity for God. Occam's Razor tells us this is the simpler and more likely answer". Game. Set. Match.

My impression so far, after having read the transcript a few times, and having written out this analysis, is that the argument from first cause to prove the existence of Yahweh flat doesn't work. You can argue that there is an uncaused cause effectively, but that's all. It doesn't have to have a specific set of characteristics as Dr. Craig claims, and his argument was not good in this regard. The volume or argument and evidence required to make Dr. Craig's scheme work make this line of "reasoning" fall way short of conjectural ... it's really just making stuff up.

What you miss when you read a transcript as opposed to viewing the video is the even, calm pace with which Dr. Craig delivers his arguments - he's professorial, good natured, and reasonably likeable. He also speaks clearly and almost completely without affectation - no "ummm" nor "uhhh" - no hesitation nor backtracking. I've not watched all his debates, but I'd venture to say that his demeanor and fluidity are always better than his opponent.

Next time - Dr. Craig's second argument - the complex order in the universe.

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