My brief call to the Catholic Answers radio show
This past Monday night, the Catholic Answers Live radio show on EWTN hosted an episode in which they asked, “Why are you an Atheist?” They restricted callers to atheists or agnostics, and asked those respondents to tell the hosts, Patrick Coffin and Trent Horn, why they are either atheist or agnostic. Anyone who made it on the air would be sent a free copy of Trent Horn’s book, Answering Atheism. Curious to see how the apologists would respond to my position– and also, to be sure, looking to get a free book– I called in to the show to offer my position. The audio recording of Monday night’s discussion is available here, but for those of you who do not want to take the time to listen to the whole show, I’ve transcribed my discussion in this article.
I would like to say that it was an absolute pleasure to talk to Trent about this subject, and I found him to be utterly sincere, entirely respectful, and genuinely interested in having a dialogue. I can honestly say that, brief as it was, this was one of the most enjoyable conversations I’ve ever had with an apologist. I am very much looking forward to receiving Trent’s book, now, and I promise that I will review it here on Boxing Pythagoras.
Also, I would be remiss if I didn’t give a huge thank you to Elaine, the call screener for the show. She seemed an absolutely lovely woman, extremely kind and respectful. After my call dropped due entirely to problems on my end, she very graciously moved me back to the head of the line when I called back in.
The transcript follows, edited only slightly at the very beginning, due to my phone troubles.
PATRICK: Alright, let’s go to Joe in Howell, NJ, on WFJS Radio. Hello, Joe! …Now, you’re an atheist, Joe?
BP: Yes, I am.
PATRICK: Okay. How come?
BP: I have never been offered a convincing reason to believe that deity exists.
TRENT: So, then, the question of deity or whether God exists, uh, I see as, Joe, there are three ways you could answer that: “Yes, He exists,” “No, He doesn’t,” or “I don’t know if he exists.” So, how would you answer the question?
BP: I would say, “I don’t know.” Uh, I self-describe as an atheist because I don’t believe that He exists, uh, or that gods exist.
TRENT: Mm-hmm. Okay, so it’s just– for you it’s just that it’s describing what your belief is. You lack a belief in God, because you’ve never been offered a convincing reason. Alrighty. Fair enough. Uh, let me ask you a question, then: what is the most convincing reason, or the reason that could be at the top of the pile as being most convincing, and why hasn’t it convinced you?
BP: Ummm– I mean, well, the one that is most often presented would be the Cosmological family of arguments.
BP: Ummm– But, I– I just– I’ve never found them very convincing because, for some of them, I don’t agree with the premises and others, I don’t think that it’s– I don’t know, I just don’t think that I’ve…
TRENT: You don’t what?
BP: [Response cut off]
TRENT: Oh– Okay. Well, why don’t we talk about them, because whether or not an argument is convincing or not– I mean, there’s even times where an argument’s premises can be true, there don’t appear to be any errors in the reasoning, and it doesn’t convince us, because we’re humans. We’re not computers. Uhh, but what we can do, at least, in a little bit, is show which of these arguments have the best shot and how have you understood them. Uhh, you said– you’re correct that there’s a family of these arguments that basically show that the universe is evidence that God exists. And that’s been– that’s a very compelling reason for me, because when I think about what would I need to prove that God exists, I need something that not an alien or a mere force could do, but reality– all of space, time, matter, and energy– if that requires an explanation outside of itself, I don’t see any other option to explain that except for what we would call “God,” or an infinite act of necessary being. Umm, is there any particular cosmological argument amongst them that you find the most convincing, or whose premises– it’s just the premises you have a problem with?
BP: [Response cut off]
PATRICK: Yeah, Joe, we’re– you’re signal’s really bad, sir.
TRENT: Are you there?
BP: I’m sorry– [Cut off]
PATRICK: What’s the problem, Joe? Is it signal? Are you in motion? Plastic phone? What?
PATRICK: Uh, yeah. We’re gonna have to move on. But, Trent, uh, for people that never heard the phrase “Cosmological arguments.” Sure, it exists in several forms and degrees of complexity.
TRENT: Yeah, a Cosmological argument comes from the Greek word “cosmos” [ed. note, κοσμος] which means “universe” or “whole,” and they’re a family of arguments, as Joe said. There’s not just one Cosmological argument. Uh, there’ve been different ones offered by different philosophers, but they boil down to the same conclusion: the universe doesn’t have to exist, therefore God exists. “The universe” being all of space, time, matter, and energy.
TRENT: There’s different ways you could cache this out. What Thomas argues, in the Summa Theologica, he says, “Let’s suppose the universe were eternal– it’s always existed.” Uh, there’s still things in the universe that need explanation. For example, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” Uh, why is there a universe of motion when, even if the universe is eternal, it could just be a static block. There’s a bunch of motion, like there’s a chain of motion, like a chain of boxcars. But the chain can’t be an infinite series of things that need motion from others. There has to be an unmoved mover. Just as a train needs a locomotive, the universe of motion and change requires an unmoved mover– an act of being, or God. So that’s a contingency or Thomistic argument. Another argument says, “Well, another reason the universe doesn’t have to exist is that, at one time, there was nothing. Nada. There was no thing, at all, and then suddenly the universe came into existence. And you can’t get something from nothing. That’s called the Kalam Cosmological Argument, and the idea is that if something brought all of space, time, matter, and energy into being, it can’t be bound by space, time, matter, or energy.
PATRICK: Yeah, it’d have to be transcendent of it.
TRENT: That’s right. And only God would satisfy that criteria of transcending those things and having causal abilities. Uh, and there’s premises and there’s objections to these arguments, and hopefully if we get Joe back, maybe he could tell us what premises he doesn’t like, or another caller, uh, who’s not convinced by these– because all atheists are not con– well, most– nearly all atheists are not convinced by the Cosmological argument. But their reasons for “why” do differ.
[Our conversation resumed after another couple of callers]
PATRICK: Let’s go to, uh, Joe, shall we?
TRENT: Yes, let’s– let’s bring Joe back from the land of radio oblivion.
PATRICK: Joe, you have been snatched from the abyss of non-being, back into the time-space continuum. Welcome.
BP: Thank you, guys. I– hopefully, my phone does better this time.
PATRICK: Alright, go ahead.
TRENT: Well, we were talking about Cosmological arguments for God, and I explained that earlier in the show. You’re not convinced by them. Is there a particular kind of argument you’d like to talk about, and you could tell us what’s wrong with the premises and why people shouldn’t accept that, for God?
BP: Well, I– I just, uhh– I think, probably the best Cosmological argument that I’ve heard is the Leibnizian Cosmological Argument. Um, but the thing for me is, I just– uh, I don’t, uh, see it demonstrated that the, uh, the physical cosmos, uh, could not exist. That’s the premise that I don’t understand.
TRENT: Let’s break this down, then, for, uh, our listeners, then. This argument, Patrick, says that, basically, whatever exists has an explanation for its existence, in itself or in something else. So, if something exists, you wonder, “Why does it exist?” Even if it were eternal, like, “I have an eternal fork.” You’d want to know, “Where did the fork come from? Why is it a fork and not a spoon?” Uh, so we have a universe, and it needs an explanation. And so that explanation would be found, then, in– not in an infinite regress, but in something that has to exist. If God is existence, itself, then God is necessary. He has to exist. Umm, therefore, it follows that we have a source to explain why a universe that doesn’t have to exist, does exist. Joe’s objection, however, is that perhaps the universe is necessary, like God is. The universe– there’s never– there could have never been a state of affairs where the universe did not exist. Uh, maybe it’s just the case, there always has to be a universe. Is that basically your query, Joe?
BP: Yes, it is.
TRENT: Okay, good. Now we’re on the same page. Here are some reasons that I would give to think that the universe– why think the universe is contingent, as opposed to necessary. Well, one reason that I would give would be a conceptual one, and that would be the fact that while one can imagine, uh, the universe not existing, uh, that’s not really the case with necessary objects. For example, a triangle with three sides– you can’t imagine any other kind of triangle. You know, it’s three sides are necessary. Uh, but I could imagine a triangle that’s blue or red or purple or all kinds of colors. That shows whatever color a triangle might be is contingent. It could be– I could imagine it being different. And the same would go for anything else, but the sides– I can’t imagine it any other way. So that’s kind of a clue that that’s a necessary part of triangularity. Now, when we go to the universe, I think it’s fairly common– it’s easy to imagine a universe not existing. In fact, modern science has given us good reason to think that 14-billion years ago, it didn’t exist. Now, there is, this objection can go back to God but before we get there, what do you think of that? That being able to conceive that something doesn’t exist is evidence for its contingency?
BP: I wouldn’t really agree with that, because I– I mean, you– I would argue that I can, uh, I can imagine a world in which God does not exist–
TRENT: Right, Joe, I know the objection can go there, that you could imagine God doesn’t exist, and I have a rejoinder to that, but before that, I’m just talking– I’m not even talking about God right now, I’m just talking about whether the universe is necessary or contingent. And the fact that I can imagine it not existing makes it more like a contingent thing, like the color of a triangle, rather than a necessary thing like its number of sides, that I can’t reimagine. What do you think of that argument?
BP: Uh, I’m with you so far. That much I understand.
TRENT: Okay. Does it have any kind of force to you to maybe rethink the necessity of the universe?
BP: Umm– not so much, inasmuch as that, because I– I don’t see how it’s, uh, defined into the properties of the universe, the possibility of non-existence. Whereas, a triangle, by definition, is an object with three sides.
TRENT: Well, I’m not saying that the universe’s contingency is necessary, or that it– I mean– I guess there’s a way God could make the universe have to exist, somehow. Uh, I’m just saying there’s no reason to think the universe is necessary, and there are reasons to think it’s contingent, or it could fail to exist. Uh, and this conceptual argument is, to me, a very powerful one. For example, let me try something else to you. Do you think that the existence of the planet Mars is contingent?
BP: That, I would agree, is contingent.
TRENT: Why is it contingent? How do you know that?
BP: Uh, because, by everything we know about science, there was a point in which Mars did not exist.
TRENT: Okay, so that– that’s one way to go about it. If something didn’t exist, it’s not necessary. And we could talk later, if we had more time, that I think that the universe– there was a time it didn’t exist. That would show that it’s not necessary. But let’s say you didn’t know about any of that. Wouldn’t it follow that you can imagine a world without Mars or without your living room couch, or you could imagine certain things not existing, so it follows they are contingent?
BP: I’d agree that it’s– it’s entirely possible that it’s contingent. I just don’t think that it’s been demonstrated that it is.
TRENT: Well, do you have any reasons to think that the universe is necessary, or that it has to exist?
BP: Umm, for me–
TRENT: So far, it’s just a bare possibility you’re offering.
BP: Right, I just– I don’t see how it– Assuming that Time is a part of the universe, which is, I think the classical theological position–
BP: I don’t see how it could be cogent for the universe to not exist, in that case, because literally for all moments of time, the universe exists.
TRENT: Right, but– but you can have non-existence without Time. In fact, I would say that, uh, a state of affairs where there is nothing but Time doesn’t make sense. It’s not possible, because all Time is is a measure of change, and if nothing exists to change, you actually can’t have time at all. We’re getting into some more heavy concepts here, but in my book– I believe it’s Chapter 8 (unfortunately, it’s been shrink-wrapped for its own protection, here, from me)– uhh, within the book, when I talk about “Why is there something rather than nothing?” I give a few other reasons to think that the universe is contingent. And I think it’s interesting, here, in this conversation, we didn’t see any reasons to think it’s necessary, or it has to exist. Uh, but I think there’s good reasons to think– because, remember, it’s a big claim to say that the universe is necessary, not just a bare possibility. But it just seems– I think it’s intuitive. We look around, we ask the question, “Well, why is there something rather than nothing?” The mere asking of that question shows, I think, the universe doesn’t have to be here. You know, we don’t ask, “Why does the square have four sides? Why is the circle round?” That’s just the way it is. But if the universe had to exist, we wouldn’t ask a question like, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” And I think it’s a meaningful question philosophers and scientists have looked at for centuries, and I’ve hardly seen anyone settle on the answer, “It has to exist.” They may settle on the reason, “There’s no explanation.” But not that it has to exist.
PATRICK: Is this, uh, something similar to what William Lane Craig calls the, uh, the Cab– or the um, what’s the name that he gives it? The, uh, the Carriage Driver fallacy? In other words, scientists would not ever say that that being, that object X, has to be– of course not. You look for a reason for its existence. And they say that, invariably, about things, but not the universe, itself.
TRENT: Not the universe as a whole, yeah. Craig is quoting, I believe, the philosopher Arthur– I think it’s Arthur– he’s quoting Schopenhauer, who talks about how philosophers may allow explanations for things in the universe, but then, when it comes to explaining the universe itself, dismiss–
PATRICK: “Ah-ha! That has to be!”
TRENT: Right, it just has to be, or there’s no explanation, or they dismiss the necessity of finding a plausible explanation, in the same way that someone dismisses a cab that they have to pay for for this journey. Uhm, so yeah, the Cab Driver– Carriage fallacy, Craig is referencing Schopenhauer. Uh, yeah, no, I think, unless someone can say, “Well, here’s the reason why you should think the universe is necessary,” I think there are good reasons to think, everything around us: it didn’t have to be here. There didn’t have to be Mars. There didn’t have to be a Milky Way. Eventually, when you say, there didn’t have to be all the stuff in the universe, there didn’t have to be a universe, at all. I mean, some people say, “Well, maybe the basic units of the universe, like quarks, they have to exist.” Maybe not. What if they were strings instead of quarks or some other– the fact that things could be different requires an explanation for why it’s not different. Now, God is a necessary and infinite being Who can’t be different, Who just is, and He serves, as I think, the best explanation for why there is a universe rather than that there isn’t one.
PATRICK: My career can conclude now, because someone used the word, “Leibnizian,” in their question.
TRENT: Yes, from the philosopher Göttfried Leibniz.
PATRICK: Das ist gut.