Bad Reasons for thinking belief in God is Reasonable
Last summer, William Lane Craig spoke at the Apologetics Canada Conference 2013. The topic of Dr. Craig’s speech was the question, “Is belief in God reasonable?” As with many of WLC’s lectures, speeches, and debates, the entire thing is available to watch for free on YouTube, as I found out recently from a friend’s Facebook post. During his speech, Dr. Craig machine-guns his way through eight separate arguments for which he asserts that God is the best explanation. Discussing each of these arguments, briefly, he ultimately combines them into a sort of super-argument to answer his nominal topic. According to Dr. Craig: yes, belief in God is reasonable.
Unfortunately, Dr. Craig’s super-argument for reasonability is built upon a series of badly reasoned arguments.
Dr. Craig’s first argument purports to explain the question of why anything at all exists. Except that it actually doesn’t. In fact, it does not even attempt to explain why anything, at all, exists. It would be accurate to say that this argument attempts to explain the existence of a single and particular contingent thing (the universe; though, even this is not well argued). However, it does not attempt to explain the existence of other contingent things– it simply asserts that they must have some explanation; and it doesn’t say anything at all about explanations for why non-contingent things exist, especially this transcendent, personal being which the argument purports is the explanation for the universe. Amusingly, Dr. Craig doesn’t seem to realize that his own example of finding a ball in the woods (starting at 7:32 in the video) applies just as aptly to the idea of a transcendent, personal being as it does to the physical cosmos.
In presenting this argument, Craig commits to a couple of fairly blatant logical fallacies, even besides the problem listed above. When discussing his reasoning behind Premise 2 (around 8:50), Dr. Craig says, “Now, there is only one way that I can think of to get a contingent entity, like the universe, from a necessarily existing cause; and that is, if the cause is a personal agent who can freely choose to create a contingent reality.” This is the only support that Craig offers for his premise: a fairly textbook Argument from Ignorance fallacy. The fact that Dr. Craig cannot think of another explanation for a contingent entity’s existence is not reasonable evidence that his explanation is plausible. He has shown neither that other explanations are impossible, nor that his own explanation is possible. He simply asserts that this premise is true on the basis of his admitted ignorance of other possibilities.
The second fallacy is an implicit bit of Special Pleading in the argument. Notice that, in Premise 1, Dr. Craig does not say that “everything” has an explanation for its existence. He says that “every contingent thing” has such an explanation. He phrases the premise in this manner because he knows, full-well, that he would otherwise be leaving open a fairly obvious counter-argument: if everything has an explanation for its existence, then what is the explanation for God’s existence? So, Craig couches Premise 1 with the adjective “contingent,” implying that his transcendent, personal being (aka, God) is not contingent, and therefore needs no explanation. However, he never addresses how he can differentiate a contingent thing from one which is not contingent, nor does he offer any reason for the argument’s assumption that God is not contingent.
Therefore, Dr. Craig has not shown that God is the best explanation for Why Anything At All Exists.
Dr. Craig next discusses a truncated version of his favorite argument for the existence of God, the Kalam Cosmological Argument. The one he gives, here, is even worse than his usual presentation– probably due to time constraints, since he’s trying to squeeze eight arguments into a 45 minute talk. Still, it doesn’t take a professional philosopher to find the faults in the syllogism, as presented. Premise 2 simply assumes the conclusion, given Premise 1. So, what support does Dr. Craig offer for these premises?
As he quite often does when discussing the cosmological argument, Dr. Craig cites the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin Theorem, a discussion of the physics of early universe cosmology. Unfortunately, every time he cites this Theorem, he completely misrepresents it. Craig likes to claim that BGV proves that any universe which is, on average, in a state of expansion absolutely must have had a beginning in the finite past. Of course, what Dr. Craig likes to claim and what BGV actually states are completely different things. BGV does not state that all models of the universe must have a beginning in the finite past. It does, however, state that “inflationary models require physics other than inflation to describe the past boundary of the inflating region of spacetime.” In layman’s terms, this means that inflationary models of the universe do have a finite beginning to their inflation. This says nothing, at all, about whether or when the universe “began to exist,” as Dr. Craig asserts in Premise 1. Furthermore, the direct implication of BGV is that inflationary models are incomplete, but that additional physics might better describe the universe where these break down; the BGV does not, in any way, say that it is impossible for the universe to have existed prior to inflation.
Even if the universe did have a past boundary at the point of inflation, however, Dr. Craig’s argument would still fail. He simply asserts that, if it began to exist, the universe must have a cause, without any reason or argument. To be fair, Dr. Craig has argued his reasons for this Premise elsewhere in his work, but it largely boils down to a fallacy of composition. Craig claims that everything within the universe seems to have a cause, and implies that therefore the universe, itself, must have a cause. However, the fact that the elements which compose a thing have certain properties does not imply that the thing, as a whole, has those properties. All of the points which make up a circle are dimensionless, but a circle is still a two-dimensional object.
Dr. Craig has not shown that God is the best explanation of the origin of the universe.
I have actually already spent some time addressing this argument in my post, Mathematics: Natural or Supernatural? If you would like to see the specifics, I recommend reading that post. For the purposes of this article, I will summarize my points, however. I happily agree with Dr. Craig that the applicability of mathematics is not a happy coincidence. Of course, that means I must necessarily disagree with Premise 1, since if 1 and 2 are given, then the Conclusion in 3 naturally follows. There is a very simple, naturalistic explanation for the applicability of mathematics which does not require the existence of God– an explanation which just so happens to be the correct one.
The simple fact of the matter is that Mathematics is extremely applicable to the physical world precisely because humanity has explicitly designed it for that application. Whenever we’ve come up against a place in Mathematics which does not seem to apply correctly to the physical world, we have altered Mathematics in order to make it more applicable. There is no mystery in the fact that something explicitly designed to be applicable is actually applicable.
Dr. Craig has not shown that God is the best explanation of the applicability of mathematics to the physical world.
The fine-tuning argument is the most recent in a line referred to as Teleological Arguments, or “arguments from design.” The common theme of these arguments is to look for something in nature which is complex, assert that its complexity can only be due to a designer, and therefore conclude that God exists. In particular, the fine-tuning argument addresses some of the values of physical constants observed in nature. Analyzing these constants, it seems that they could, in theory, support a large range of values which would still be consistent with the rest of our physical model of the universe. Often, the majority of these potential values would so drastically alter the manner in which the universe acts that life, as we know it, would not be possible. The question then becomes why do these constants have the values which they have, rather than other values?
That is actually a very good question, but notice that it is also very different than the position laid out by Dr. Craig. The famed apologist states that alterations of these constants could have implications for the formation of life, and therefore concludes that the universe is finely-tuned specifically for intelligent life. Of course, this is absolutely preposterous. I could take Dr. Craig’s entire reasoning, here, and substitute “Great Red Spot on Jupiter” for “intelligent life,” and my argument would be just as sound, and exactly as well supported by the scientific literature. However, Dr. Craig would not be all too likely to agree with me if I therefore concluded that God specifically designed the entire universe expressly for the purpose of playing host to a giant, 400-year old hurricane on Jupiter.
Furthermore, even if it was accurate to claim that the universe is finely-tuned for life, Dr. Craig has a far more pressing problem on his hands. He dismisses the idea that this apparent fine-tuning could have arisen due to chance solely on the basis that it is improbable. Not that it is impossible, mind you, but rather because the odds are stacked against it. If something is possible but improbable, the only good reason to dismiss it in the manner which Dr. Craig does is if one can propose an alternate explanation which is both possible and more probable. However, Dr. Craig does not even attempt to show that his transcendent designer is even possible, let alone more probable than random chance. It is readily apparent how the apparent fine-tuning could result from either physical necessity or chance, but Dr. Craig offers no mechanism by which the fine-tuning could result from design. He simply asserts this as a third possibility to Premise 1 without any good reason for doing so.
Dr. Craig has not shown that God is the best explanation of the fine-tuning of the universe for intelligent life, nor even that the universe actually is finely-tuned for intelligent life.
I’m going to be honest. I am not very familiar with the state of philosophy on the topic of intentional states of consciousness. However, even in that admitted ignorance, I can absolutely state that Dr. Craig’s argument, here, is the worst, most intellectually dishonest one he has yet presented in this video. Craig fully admits that there are other philosophers, like Alex Rosenberg, who do not think that intentional states of consciousness truly exist. So, how does Dr. Craig address Dr. Rosenberg’s claims? Does Craig take Rosenberg’s argument, point by point, and dismantle it? Does Craig even acknowledge the definitions under which Rosenberg’s position operates? Not at all. Craig’s incredibly glib, and frankly disrespectful, refutation of Rosenberg’s position is to simply assert that Rosenberg is “obviously” wrong. Of course, if this conclusion was quite as obvious as Dr. Craig implies, one wonders why Dr. Rosenberg would ever have formulated his position, in the first place.
Furthermore, Dr. Craig completely ignores the fact that there are other philosophers whose atheism does not, in the least, prevent them from asserting that intentional states of consciousness do, actually, exist. Bertrand Russell was one of the most eminent philosophers of the 20th Century and an outspoken atheist, yet he was able to publish very influential work on the nature of intentional states of consciousness. It is fairly clear that Dr. Craig’s first premise, in this argument, proposes a false dichotomy, after which the whole syllogism fails.
Dr. Craig has not shown that God is the best explanation of intentional states of consciousness.
Once again, Dr. Craig asserts a premise upon entirely faulty reasoning. Here, Dr. Craig states that everyone has objective morality imposed upon them by the moral lawgiver that is God. As an example, he states that everyone knows it is wrong to go into a school with firearms and to start shooting little children. Of course, Dr. Craig doesn’t seem to realize that his example is quite simply and demonstrably false. There have been numerous people, through history, who have taken firearms into schools and shot little children, all while thinking that their actions were completely morally correct. Now, it’s certainly true that the vast majority of people would agree that this action is morally wrong, but it remains false to claim that “everyone knows” this moral valuation.
Just as with Intentional States of Consciousness, Dr. Craig then chooses to highlight Alex Rosenberg’s work, as if Rosenberg is some universally agreed-upon standard of atheist philosophy, in order to establish a false dichotomy wherein Objective Morality can only exist in theistic philosophies. He completely ignores the fact that there are a great many other ethicists who do believe that objective moral standards exist, despite the fact that these philosophers are also atheists. Craig does not even acknowledge this position to be possible.
Dr. Craig has not shown that God is the best explanation of objective moral values, nor even that objective moral values actually exist.
I’ve dealt with this, before, in my post On the Resurrection. The fact of the matter is, despite Dr. Craig’s protestations otherwise, the idea that a deity raised Jesus from the dead is not a better explanation of the facts he presents than all possible naturalistic explanations. Dr. Craig commits a lie of omission, at 33:17, when he states that attempts to explain his three facts from a naturalistic perspective have been “universally rejected” by scholarship. He fails to note that there are several historical explanations of his three facts which are both naturalistic and which have not been “universally rejected” by scholars. Most recently, Dr. Bart Ehrman published a book entitled How Jesus Became God which explains all three of these facts without needing to appeal to a supernatural entity of any sort. Far from being “universally rejected,” the positions which Dr. Ehrman describes throughout the book are completely mainstream scholarship– much of which is accepted even by the majority of Evangelical scholars.
The idea that God raised Jesus from the dead is only the most reasonable explanation of the mentioned facts if one first presupposes both that God exists and that he had some good reason to raise Jesus from the dead. However, since Dr. Craig is trying to use the Resurrection as evidence that it is reasonable to believe in God, that would preclude us from presupposing God’s existence– after all, presupposing one’s intended conclusion is a fairly blatant fallacy of logic.
Dr. Craig has not shown that God is the best explanation of the historical facts about Jesus of Nazareth.
Dr. Craig fully admits that this eighth point isn’t really an argument– which is the reason the slide has absolutely no premises attached to it. And yet, elsewhere in his ministry, Dr. Craig has repeatedly stated that this is the first and foremost of his reasons for belief in God. As such, argument or no, this final point of Dr. Craig’s must be one which is fairly powerful. Even Dr. Craig would absolutely tell you that this single point brought him to belief in God before he was ever familiar with any of the seven previous arguments which he has enumerated in this talk.
William Lane Craig asserts that belief in God is a properly basic belief for those who seek God. That is to say, if you desire to study this entity, of course you must first believe the entity exists– similar to the way a physicist must first believe that external reality exists before any of his physics can be done. However, I could very easily paraphrase Dr. Craig’s exact position, here, in a manner to which I am sure he would object, despite the fact that it follows his own logic precisely. For example, a practitioner of Asatru might claim that she believes in the gods first and foremost due to the witness of the Aesir. Belief in Odin, Thor, Balder, Frigga, Freyja, and their kin, by Craig’s logic, is a properly basic belief for those who seek the gods. Would Dr. Craig be willing to grant a Norse Heathen the same generosity of argument he asks of non-Christians, on this point? Would he grant this point to Buddhists who cite their experience with the oneness of the universe? Or to a Scientologist who cites his experience of Body Thetans? What belief cannot be said to be properly basic to its adherents, by this logic?
Annoyingly, Dr. Craig broke his own pattern with this eighth talking point; as he has not framed this in the usual “God is the best explanation for…” manner, Dr. Craig robbed me of a symmetrical capstone to my article.
When William Lane Craig comes to his conclusion, he summarizes all of his points with the above slide, which I have modified in order to eliminate those points which are poorly reasoned. If you’ll forgive the pun, it would seem that God is the best explanation of… nothing.
However, this is where the talk takes an interesting twist. After thirty-seven minutes and forty-five seconds of disagreement, Dr. Craig does manage to make an argument with which I wholeheartedly agree. Ironically, the argument is not made against atheist detractors, but rather against other Christians who might not see the value in attempting to form rational explanations for belief in God. Dr. Craig is absolutely correct when he says that Christians spend too much of their time trying to deal with postmodernism. There are far more Christians preaching against pluralism or moral relativism than there are non-Christians purporting such claims. Indeed, atheists tend to be just as opposed to pluralism as Christians are. If Christians are truly convinced that their beliefs are rational, they should absolutely attempt to formalize that rationality in the attempt to convince others. My goal in philosophy is to eliminate as many of my own false beliefs as possible, and to adopt as many true beliefs as I can. If someone could demonstrate to me that Christianity represents true beliefs, I would begin to believe it. Of course, I could say the same about an apologist defending the truth of Asatru or Buddhism or Scientology or any other arbitrary system of beliefs. If it can be shown to be true, I will adopt that belief. Otherwise, I will continue in my disbelief.
So, while Dr. Craig has not shown that belief in God is reasonable, he has shown that it is good for Christians to explore the reasonability of their faith. I completely agree, here. After all, it was just such an exploration, while I was still a Christian, which led me to my current skepticism.