Wednesday, November 16, 2011

William Lane Craig vs The God Delusion

This post is a few comments on the event held on 25th October at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford and broadcast on the Unbelievable radio show and podcast from Premier Christian Radio. You can also watch the entire event on YouTube.

The event wasn't a debate like other events in Dr Craig's recent UK tour, but was a response by Dr Craig to Richard Dawkins's now infamous book 'The God Delusion'. Dawkins was invited to attend the event and defend his book, but he declined. The defence of the book, such as it was, was provided by three short presentations by three other atheist/agnostic Oxford dons.

The format of the evening was basically a 45 minute lecture by William Lane Craig, followed by the three 8 minute responses by the others, followed by another response by Dr Craig, then a Q&A session with questions from the audience.

As Dawkins's book (which I still haven't read) is an attack on the very concept of God, rather than a specific attack on the Christian God, the lecture by Dr Craig stayed firmly in the 'God of the Philosophers' territory - the only time the event strayed towards the specifically Christian God was in the Q&A session at the end.

This post is not a review of the event, and I don't intend to go into this in as much detail as I went into for the debate between Dr Craig and Dr Law. These are just some comments and thoughts on what I heard. In the mean time, I have also listened to another debate featuring Dr Craig (vs Peter Millican) and I may comment on that sometime too.

The Cosmological Argument

This was the core of Craig's lecture and is clearly his primary argument in favour of the existence of God. He presented it in much the same way as in previous debates. Basically, as the universe began to exist, it must have had a cause, and the cause must have been God.

Most of this argument is reasonably watertight, except Craig's leap of reasoning (about 14 mins into the YouTube video) that the transcendent first cause is "plausibly personal". He claims the personhood of the cause is implied by its "timelessness and immateriality". He then claims that the only entities able to have these properties are either (a) "abstract objects, like numbers", or (b) an "unembodied mind". Because the first cause obviously wasn't something like a number, it must therefore have been an unembodied person.

There is some clever sleight of hand going on here, and none of the other speakers picked up on it. Option (a), the 'abstract object, like a number' is there in the role of a straw man - it is only put there to be torn down. It is only put there to make option (b) seem like the only reasonable choice. Yet option (b) is not reasonable either. Craig offers no supporting arguments for there only being two options here, or indeed for there being any options here. He offers no justification for believing that an unembodied mind is actually anything other than science-fiction.

In other words, we know of no objects, entities or concepts that actually are immaterial and timeless. None. Not one. So to say that an immaterial and timeless thing must be one of two options is a cheat - it is nether of them, because we have no evidence that it is even possible, let alone plausible or probable.

Later on, Craig claimed that this timeless, changeless, eternal, infinite, unembodied yet personal entity must have had freewill in order to bring about the first cause. I think there's a logical flaw in that reasoning. In order to use freewill, the personal entity must make a decision and act. In order for a decision to be made there must be a 'time' or state 'before' which the decision was made (i.e. the entity's mind was not yet made up) and a 'time' or state 'after' which the decision had been made. Similarly with the action. A changeless entity cannot transition from one state to the other. I'd go as far as to say that personality requires change. If something is changeless, it cannot be a person and if something is a person, it cannot be changeless.

Basically I think the whole concept of God (or a god) existing outside of time is absolute bunk. (As I've said before, if it is even possible to have a being outside of time, then that being must be morally neutral - neither good nor evil.)

All this leads me to the point of concluding that if there was a timeless 'first cause' it remains so far outside of our understanding that we can't really know anything at all about it. The message of Jesus is 'God with us', God presented, as a person, in a way that we can understand. The philosophical first cause is so far removed from the person of Jesus, that I can see no justifiable way of connecting the two. If Jesus represents God for us, then the first cause is not God, and vice versa.

The ontological argument

This argument is the most bunk spouted by apologists. It dates back to Anselm in the 11th Century, although it was refined by Descartes and others. It goes like this: we can conceive of a God who is a "supremely perfect being" and who holds all perfections. One of the perfections we can conceive of is the perfection of existence and, thus, God must exist. There's more to it than that, but that's the gist.

The thing is, nobody who does not believe in a God will be persuaded by this reasoning. Its only function is to make theist apologists sound clever to their own supporters. Philosophers can tie themselves in knots over the logic, but no rational person will accept the claim that the existence or otherwise of God depends on whether or not we can conceive of him. It also relies on a lot of 'omnis', and I have very big issues with claiming that a God with all the omni-characteristics is actually compatible with reality as we observe it.

The responses

The responses were mostly adequate but not really up to the task of taking down Craig's assertions. Craig has being doing this style of debate for decades and the opponents were simply not in the same rhetorical league.

The only miss-step by Craig came in the Q&A session when he (incorrectly) claimed that God never commanded the Israelites in the old testament to kill women & children in the 'Canaanite Genocide' - the story says quite clearly that he did. Furthermore, Craig claimed that the Israelites were never told to hunt down and kill all of the Canaanites, only to drive them out. Well this is broadly true, but what of the Amalekites? The OT is quite clear, the Israelites were commanded not to allow an Amalekite to live. However, the format of the evening did not give Craig's opponents the opportunity to follow up on this, and I suspect none of them were well enough versed in the OT to actually know this anyway.

But enough of this 'brief' comment... I have some books to review for you sometime soon...

14 comments:

Steven Carr said...

'Furthermore, Craig claimed that the Israelites were never told to hunt down and kill all of the Canaanites, only to drive them out. '

David Irving maintains that Hitler never wanted to kill all the Jews, only to drive them out of Germany.

There is a remarkable similarity in the arguments of Craig and Irving.

Anonymous said...

Are you serious!? You seem to be implying that if the KCA more or less works as an argument for a transcendent first cause of the universe (i.e. the God of the philosophers) then the incarnation must be false.

The whole point of the traditional Christian doctrines of the incarnation and the trinity is that the otherwise unknowable divine manifested itself in a form that we could understand. The traditional Christian answer to these different conceptions of God is not either/or but both/and. More to the point, even if WLC's argument that the transcendent first cause must also be personal fails it doesn't follow that such is possible, as you admit we're talking about things so far beyond our experience that we're not in a position to rule out much of anything.

Anyway, the whole point of WLC's presentations is that the kind of naturalist metaphysics that currently dominates the academy is woefully inadequate in terms of giving a coherent account of reality as we experience it. This is relevant because the post-Enlightenment modernist critique of religion is for the most part a metaphysical critique.

- NW

Ricky Carvel said...

NW,

Yes. I'm serious.

But the serious point I'm trying to make (in a round about way) is that the Cosmological Argument doesn't work.

Yes, I think you're right in deducing that I think that IF the 'God' of the Cosmological Argument exists, then he never incarnated on the first Christmas. I think there is a fundamental incompatibility between the 'God of the philosophers' and the God of the Bible. They cannot be the same entity. At least one of them doesn't exist.

I think I'll elaborate on this in a future blog posting.

I dispute your statement that the 'whole point' of the incarnation and the trinity is to make the otherwise unknowable into someone knowable - the OT never claims that God is unknowable - ask Moses who talked to him face to face, ask Enoch who walked with God, etc.

beowulf2k8 said...

"Later on, Craig claimed that this timeless, changeless, eternal, infinite, unembodied yet personal entity must have had freewill in order to bring about the first cause. I think there's a logical flaw in that reasoning."

I think there is a logical flaw in any position that posits it as even being possible for a being to exist without freewill. And yes this is the only part of the post I feel like remarking on, since arguments between atheists and theists are utterly boring to me.

beowulf2k8 said...

Ok, maybe there is one more thing to comment on. "The OT is quite clear, the Israelites were commanded not to allow an Amalekite to live." And yet despite Saul killing every last one of them--except Agag the king who is killed by Samuel--we find them running around a few chapters later. Saul and Samuel wiped them all out--at Samuel's, not God's command--and yet they somehow survive.

I want to emphasize that the text doesn't present God himself as giving the command, but Samuel as giving it and claiming it came from God, and I want to emphasize it to bring out the political dimensions of the story. We are told that Saul did not obey Samuel. He killed everyone but Agag and some sheep, and Samuel has a conniption fit saying he didn't obey and that the kingdom will be taken from him and given to another. But Saul tells Samuel plainly he intends to sacrifice Agag and the sheep in Gilgal (thus finally fulfilling the command to kill them all). So Saul was obeying! Samuel, therefore, simply wanted an excuse to get rid of Saul--he already had David picked out. The rest of the story about God choosing David and so on is bunk. What we have is political intrigue. Samuel sent Saul off to war in the hopes that we would fail and die, and this would make it easy to replace him with David. When this plan fails, and Saul returns victorious, with the enemy King a captive of war, Samuel must deprive Saul the honor that would come from a public execution (or sacrifice) of the king, and so robs Saul of this 'honor' by doing the deed himself, and then proceeds with his plan to try and replace Saul with David.

Jake said...

Hi Ricky,

I think you're misunderstanding the "logical leap". Craig is saying the immaterial timeless cause must be either personal or non-personal. This is not fallacious because these are mutally exhaustive. The fact that the universe is contigent, not necessary, requires some personal cause.

I don't buy your argument that freewill requires the mind be in time. Why can't God have always intended to create? There's no mind changing. The act of creating was the first event in time from our perspective. But God doesn't experience time like we do. He sees the past present and future all at once. I think you're limiting God to what our minds in time could/couldn't do.

Ricky Carvel said...

Jake,

If WLC had intended to say that the first cause was either personal or non-personal, then I'm sure he would have said that. I agree, that choice covers both options, but he would then need to present evidence for one option over the other. Instead he proposes two non-mutually-exclusive options and ridicules one, thus making the other look more reasonable. Its a pure 'straw man' fallacy.

Opting to choose personal over non-personal requires more evidence than WLC ever gives, so his argument fails at this point.

That's not to say that the first cause wasn't personal, its just to say that there is a flaw in the argument and we can't come to that conclusion from here.

Regarding my 'personality requires time' argument, your reasoning works if and only if God's sole purpose was to be the creator of this universe. If that was his one and only intent, then maybe it works. But nobody actually believes that. Christians all believe that God is self sufficient and has/had greater purposes than merely the creation of this universe.

Furthermore, Christian belief is that God existed from eternity in three persons in constant relationship with one another. Relationship involves exchange and change, which must (in my reasoning) occur within time. Thus an eternal trinity implies an infinite regress of 'events', which WLC has already demonstrated to be a nonsensical argument.

My point here is not to demonstrate that there is not God. But rather to demonstrate that the arguments presented are flawed.

Jake said...

Hi Ricky,

Dr. Craig often explicitly expresses the argument premise as "the cause must be personal or non-personal". I'll take your word for it, that he did not say it in this lecture. But it is clearly the the implied premise he uses. He then gives examples of non-personal immaterial timeless entities such as numbers or propositions. What else could fit this description that Dr. Craig is ignoring, that would be a reasonable first cause?

In your original post, you indicate that we know of not one timeless immaterial entity. Well isn't that the point of all these arguments? To prove the necessity of an immaterial timeless being to be the creator of the universe, source of objective morality, and the best explanation of the resurrection of Christ? You appear to be rejecting the argument due to materialist presuppositions.

I don't believe that love must be in time. I loved my wife yesterday and you could ask me, well how much time did you spend loving her? Well, there was no time yesterday that I was not loving her. Even if I didn't think about my wife for a single second yesterday, and at 12:01am today you asked me, "Did you love your wife yesterday?" I believe I could fairly say yes, even though there was no event in time that demonstrated this.

Well you may argue that there was a time before I loved my wife. The trinity must have also had this pre-love period. I don't think this is an appropriate analogy. For I have a definite beginning and I exist in time, so of course my life can be seen as a linear progression. However, the trinity is eternal and cannot be thought of as a linear timelne. The only way the trinity can be seen in time is from our perspective as compared to other events in time.

Ricky Carvel said...

Jake,

Fair point. Maybe WLC generally expresses things with more clarity. He didn't here. I believe he's written a book on the subject, so he obviously has a lot more to say than was said here.

... He then gives examples of non-personal immaterial timeless entities such as numbers or propositions. What else could fit this description that Dr. Craig is ignoring, that would be a reasonable first cause?

I have no idea. I have no conception of what a non-personal timeless first cause could be. But then again, I have no conception of what a personal timeless first cause could be. That's the problem, if we can't define the options, we can't justifiably choose one either.

In your original post, you indicate that we know of not one timeless immaterial entity. Well isn't that the point of all these arguments? To prove the necessity of an immaterial timeless being to be the creator of the universe, source of objective morality, and the best explanation of the resurrection of Christ? You appear to be rejecting the argument due to materialist presuppositions.

I didn't come to this with materialist presuppositions. Indeed, I am quite comfortable with the possibility of something supernatural. I just don't think these philosophical arguments work unless there is some supporting evidence to go with them.

I don't go for arguments that demonstrate the necessity of something without demonstrating the reality of them. I suppose I have realist presuppositions.

Regarding your example of love, I'm not sure it works. If you didn't interact with your wife in any way yesterday, didn't think of her or didn't have any feelings towards her, to say you loved her is meaningless. It is only through actions (which must occur within time) that love becomes real. If you define love without action, then we're not talking about the same thing.

With regard to the Trinity, if there is no interaction, there is no love.

Jake said...

Hi Ricky,

One other thing, did you know that Dr. Craig has written several books on the theory of time?

That's not to say it proves he's correct, just that he's given a lot of thought to the matter. He's not just throwing baseless premises out there.

1. The Tenseless Theory of Time: A Critical Examination
2. God, Time and Eternity.
3. Time and The Metaphysics of Relativity.
4. Time and Eternity: Exploring God's Relationship to Time.

Ricky Carvel said...

Thanks. I'll add them to the (very long) list of 'books to read eventually'...

Jake said...

Ricky,

"If you didn't interact with your wife in any way yesterday, didn't think of her or didn't have any feelings towards her, to say you loved her is meaningless."

So if I told you "I love my wife", it would not tell you anything about me?

If I told you I was republican or a substance dualist, it would not tell you anything about me?

Surely each of these facts tell you something about me and have meaning, absent any evidence that I have acted on any of these states of mind.

Ricky Carvel said...

So if I told you "I love my wife", it would not tell you anything about me?

If I told you I was republican or a substance dualist, it would not tell you anything about me?


All these facts about you tell me about things you have thought about, made decisions on, or experienced in the past.

The fact that you are a republican means that at some point in your past you thought (an action) about the issues, chose (an action) to accept certain propositions and reject (another action) some other ones. It probably also implies things about the way you will act (an action) when presented with the choice to vote, to engage in discussion, to lobby for a cause, etc. If you actually do none of these things (i.e. do not act) I would say that you would not really be a republican.

Similarly with your wife. The fact that you love her comes after a chain of meetings and events, without which the statement that you love her is meaningless.

Which actually leads me to think of a problem with the concept of the trinity that I hadn't thought of before - apologists and others often make the claim that there is evil/suffering because we have free will, because without free will we would be unable to choose to love God, and forced love is not real love. From that perspective, the eternal love among the trinity cannot be in any way equivalent to human love, because it was not chosen, or entered into, it just is - from eternity. That's so far from human love that we probably need a different word to describe it... But anyway, I digress....

Tim said...

From that perspective, the eternal love among the trinity cannot be in any way equivalent to human love, because it was not chosen, or entered into, it just is - from eternity.

Absolutely. The notion that a trinitarian godhead is in an absolute state of perfect loving relationship is the most inane kind of theology. It's patently obvious that all such conceptions are reverse-engineered (badly) from our own human experiences in time.