Boxing Pythagoras

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WLC’s Time, Part 2: Einstein the Verificationist

Originally, I had intended my first article on William Lane Craig’s Theory of Time to be a one-time affair. I stated the basics of my position, laid out my conclusions, and was ready to move on. My final thought, in the article, was that WLC’s Theory of Time is circular: he adheres to the Tensed Theory of Time due to his acceptance of Lorentzian Relativity, and he accepts Lorentzian Relativity due to his adherence to the Tensed Theory of Time. However, on his podcast released this week, Dr. Craig addresses a similarly founded accusation of circular argumentation which was given by a blogger who calls himself, “A Counter Apologist.” While the claim from A Counter Apologist deals specifically with the Kalam Cosmological Argument, he does so by addressing WLC’s Theory of Time as it conflicts with Relativity, in much the same way as my article approached the subject. In his response, Dr. Craig claims that his support of the Tensed Theory of Time is supported by more than just his preference for it, and that he has laid out his arguments for this in his published works. It occurred, to me, that perhaps I was being unfair. My first article was based on a seminar which I had seen Dr. Craig give, rather than on his books. Perhaps, in his written work, I would find that WLC provides greater support for the Tensed Theory.

I’m starting with the arguments presented in Dr. Craig’s book for the popular audience, Time and Eternity: Exploring God’s Relationship to Time (Crossway, 2001).  If I don’t find this work convincing or satisfactory, I’ll try to continue into his more scholarly works on the subject, The Tensed Theory of Time: A Critical Examination (Springer, 2000) and The Tenseless Theory of Time: A Critical Examination (Springer, 2000).

At first glance, the organization of Time and Eternity might seem odd to a skeptic, since he begins by examining what the Bible says on the subject. However, as this is a popular publication intended explicitly towards a Christian audience, this is completely reasonable. I’m actually going to skip through much of the beginning of the book, which deals mostly with the concept of eternity, rather than specifically with the topics which I have addressed. If my readers will allow, I’m going to move straight into a critique of Dr. Craig’s discussion on Einstein and the Special Theory of Relativity.

Firstly, let me say that Dr. Craig does an excellent job of communicating the history of the development of Relativity from Galileo through Einstein. He is very clear in his presentation, and does an incredibly good job of describing the disparate concepts involved, despite their inherent difficulty. I can honestly say that this is one of the best descriptions of the evolving scientific understanding of time which I have ever read.

Of course, that does not mean that I agree with Dr. Craig in everything he states, here. Particularly, Dr. Craig attempts to attack the Special Theory of Relativity on the basis of Einstein’s verificationist philosophy. I’m of the opinion that this entire line of argument is fallacious.

Verificationism, as Dr. Craig defines it in the book, asserts that “statements which cannot be in principle empirically verified are meaningless.” Dr. Craig implies that Einstein’s verificationist philosophy poisons his entire concept of Special Relativity, and provides us with a good reason to doubt its veracity. This is a prime example of a genetic fallacy— an argument that bases its conclusion around an object’s origins, rather than its context. For the sake of argument, I will grant Dr. Craig that Einstein’s verificationism played a big role in his development of Special Relativity. I will also grant that verificationism has been attacked and refuted by many modern philosophers. However, it does not therefore follow that Special Relativity is also refuted.

As Dr. Craig continues in his discussion, the manner in which he phrases his description of Special Relativity becomes increasingly misleading. He talks about how Einstein is supposed to have “eliminated” absolute space and time; how Einstein proposed a “redefinition” of simultaneity; and that the reason absolute space and time are removed from Special Relativity is because they are “empirically undetectable.” The way Dr. Craig frames his argument, it seems like there was some firmly established reason for believing that absolute time and space are real, but that Einstein merely attempted to define them out of existence. This, of course, is not the case. While the idea of absolute time and space was widely held for centuries, the concept was formulated in the absence of a great deal of data, and with no solid physical basis for the claim.

As an analogy, look to the geocentric model of the cosmos. For millennia, astronomers believed that the Earth was the immobile center of the universe, about which all else revolved. However, they did so only because they had no means of gathering the data necessary to show that the Earth was actually in motion around the Sun. It seemed obvious– seeing the Sun, Moon, and Stars rotate about us each day– that we were the center, and that the cosmos was in motion. Similarly, Newton had no way of knowing the data and physics of electromagnetism which underlie Special Relativity, when he formulated his ideas about absolute time and space. He simply thought it obvious that there must be some uniform flow of time through which everything passed.

When discussing Einstein’s landmark paper on Special Relativity, Dr. Craig notes that Einstein begins by attempting to define the terms “simultaneity” and “time.” He discusses a thought experiment, in which Einstein proposes the synchronization of two clocks by means of a signal of light, which Einstein simply defines as taking the same time to travel from point A to B as it takes to go from B to A. Based upon this, Dr. Craig asserts that Einstein is actively presupposing the non-existence of absolute space and time. However, I would argue that this does not seem to be the case. Einstein is simply defining what he means by use of the word “time.” His presuppositions say nothing, at all, about whether or not there exists some “absolute” time which supercedes “subjective” time in import or value. If there exists some concept called “absolute time,” then surely this is a more specific subset of the more general concept known as “time.” Therefore, it is entirely impossible to define the general “time” in terms of the more specific “absolute time,” and Dr. Craig’s complaint about Einstein’s presuppositions seems ill-formed.

Furthermore, Dr. Craig is misleading when he says that Special Relativity disregards the concept of absolute time and space because they are “undetectable.” The problem is not that absolute time and space are undetectable amongst inertial reference frames. The problem is that they are indistinguishable from any individual inertial frame. Even if we knew with complete certainty that a particular inertial frame was the correct one– that is to say, that it represented “absolute time,” as opposed to the subjective time of observers in other reference frames– there is nothing at all about the correct frame which makes it distinct from the incorrect frames except for the fact that it has been labelled “correct.”

Here’s an analogy. Let’s pretend everyone on Earth has in their possession a little, red plastic ball. Let’s further pretend that every single one of these is completely identical, physically, to the others. They are all the exact same size, bear the exact same shape, are constructed with the exact same material, and are colored the exact same shade of red. Absolutely nothing distinguishes one ball from another, in its intrinsic physical properties. Which of these balls is the correct one? What does it even mean to be the correct ball?

Einstein didn’t consider the idea of absolute space and time to be meaningless because these things can’t be detected. He considered them meaningless because there is no difference at all between absolute time and subjective time, other than an arbitrary distinction. What does it even mean to be absolute time? William Lane Craig would argue that the time measured by God is absolute time, and that it is therefore distinct. But, in truth, this would be no different than if, in our previous analogy, someone claimed that the little, red ball that happened to be in the possession of the Queen of England was the correct ball. Hers is still completely physically identical to every one of the other little, red balls, but it must be the correct ball by virtue of being hers. This is, of course, a completely arbitrary and subjective distinction. Similarly, if the reference frame by which God measures time is declared to be the correct one, it does not change the fact that God’s reference frame is totally physically identical to all other reference frames. Therefore, it is completely arbitrary and subjective to distinguish God’s time from anyone else’s time– even if God, himself, were to make that distinction! If it is arbitrary and subjective, it cannot be claimed to be “absolute,” in any meaningful way.

The fact that Albert Einstein harbored a verificationist philosophy when he developed his Special Theory of Relativity is absolutely irrelevant to the implications of that theory. Unless he can show some way in which the inertial reference frame of absolute time is meaningfully distinct from any other, the focus that William Lane Craig places on the subject of Einstein’s verificationism in Time and Eternity is fallacious and misleading to his audience. But, I am only about fifty pages into the book, at this point– perhaps WLC can accomplish this goal in the remainder of the work.

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2 thoughts on “WLC’s Time, Part 2: Einstein the Verificationist

  1. ” Dr. Craig implies that Einstein’s verificationist philosophy poisons his entire concept of Special Relativity, and provides us with a good reason to doubt its veracity. This is a prime example of a genetic fallacy– an argument that bases its conclusion around an object’s origins, rather than its context.”

    I’m just trying to help here, but this is not, strictly speaking, correct. Craig nowhere says anything that logically entails that because verificationism is false, Einstein’s interpretation or concept of SR is false. He argues that Einstein assumes verificationism, verificationism drives SR, and verificationism is false. Now, from this, we haven’t discussed whether or not its necessary to SR; I feel I can say it isn’t. But all Craig does is say that the major push for Einsteinian SR was verificationism; what follows is that therefore SR is virtually unargued for. That’s not fallacious: that’s just how it works.

    Suppose I argued for young earth creationism on the basis that the Christian God exists. Suppose I even showed (somehow) that the Christian God’s existence necessitates young earth creationism. Suppose then you gave a defeater for the Christian God’s existence, and I had no rebuttal (or even no initial argument!). While it is true that YEC could still be true, it would not be fallacious for you to point out that no reason remains to accept YEC at the present time. That’s all that’s being said. I would recommend Craig’s scholarly work “Time and the Metaphysics of Relativity” on this subject. Thanks for your time.

    • I actually agree with you, here. My intention was not to say that Dr. Craig was claiming SR is false due solely to Einstein’s verificationism. The phrase “good reason to doubt” was not meant to be equivalent to “disconfirmation.”

      I am simply saying that Einstein’s verificationism is not a good reason for doubting the Special Theory of Relativity, and it is certainly not a good reason for attempting to supplant SR with an unfalsifiable and unscientific alternative.

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