A response to William Lane Craig’s philosophical arguments for God’s existence

odin

A few days ago, my attention was drawn to a Youtube video of the late, great, Christopher Hitchens debating William Lane Craig, apparently a research proffessor at the Talbot school of theology and one of the leading Christian apologists of the current era. You can view the debate here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4KBx4vvlbZ8

I was impressed with Craig – he’s a canny debater and obviously well versed in his subject. There’s little doubt in my mind that he won the debate (it’s quite clear that Hitch is not a philosopher, and that he fails to address almost all of Craig’s arguments).

However, I don’t feel Craig offers any decent evidence for the existence of the Christian God, and I’ll explain why below.

The Odin Experiment

At the bottom of my garden there’s a beardy fellow who absolutely assures me that he created the universe. He calls himself Odin, and says that he once existed outside of space and time, but upon creating it entered into it. Of course, no one else can see him – he’s assured me that he’s invisible and inaudible to everyone except me, but reserves the right to reveal himself to anyone he considers worthy in the future. Odin has other features. He’s a great magician, so great that he’s pretty much able to do anything he wants. He’s also absolutely good – when he does or says anything I find morally questionable, the fault is not with him, rather it’s with my limited human understanding of the world.

So you can imagine my surprise when I heard that William Lane Craig fellow claiming some other bloke created the universe! Let’s examine some of the arguments Craig puts forth for his god:

The Kalam Cosmological Argument

Traditionally, the Kalam Cosmological argument has 2 premises and a conclusion:

1 – Everything that has a beginning has a cause.
2 – The universe has a beginning.

Therefore:

3 – The universe has a cause (and that cause is God).

Craig has added additional premises to the argument in order to render it convincing to a contemporary audience: Craig argues that an actual infinite cannot exist. he says that an infinite temporal regress is an actual infinite, and therefore can also not exist. Hence, the universe has a definite beginning. He also argues that an actual infinite cannot be formed by the addition of events (an infinite sequence has to extend infinitely into both the past and the future) and that a temporal series of past events is formed by successive addition; proving, once more, that the universe has a definite start point (which, incidentally, he claims is the big bang).

The Teleological Argument

The Teleological argument is another well known argument for God’s existence. It’s most famous historical proponent, William Pailey, summed it up broadly as follows: if one found a pocket watch when walking, one would assume it had been designed by an intelligence. It seems ridiculous that natural events simply conspired to create a pocket watch. The universe, like a pocket watch, is incredibly complex and well ordered. And therefore, it also bears the hallmark of an intelligent designer.

Craig has, again, updated this argument for contemporary thinkers. Here, Craig makes use of the anthropic principle, which is the philosophical consideration that observations of the physical universe must be compatible with the consciousness that observes it. At it’s strongest, this suggests to some thinkers (Craig being one of them) that the universe is compelled to include life. For Craig then, the simply staggering improbability that the universe should have evolved to be compatible with human life (it’s worth noting that the conditions which render this so improbable are not a natural extension of fundamental physical laws) is a point of consideration.

He claims that there are only 3 ways in which this extremely improbable occurrence could come to pass:

1 – physical necessity (which he rejects because, as stated above, the factors that render this happening so improbable are not an extension of physical laws).

2 – by chance (which he also rejects, as he claims that the likelihood of random chance producing life sustaining conditions is so remote as to be incomprehensible to reason).

or…

3 – the universe has been designed for life (which, of course, is his conclusion to the argument).

The Moral Argument

Craig is a moral absolutist (meaning that he believes certain things are inherently right or wrong regardless of the situation. I think in the video linked at the beginning of this post he cites murder and rape as two examples of things that are absolutely morally wrong regardless of circumstance). Craig also suggests that absolute morality is meaningless without God, and that therefore, God exists. So:

1 – if God does not exist, then objective moral values do not exist.

2 – objective moral values do exist.

3 – therefore, God exists.

Back to Odin

So, there we have it. 3 good arguments for the existence of God. I have points about their argumentation to make, but first, I would like to re-introduce Odin into the situation. In my opinion, any argument offered forth for the Christian God needs to argue specifically for the Christian God. Given that I fervently believe in the truth of Odin as creator of the universe, why could Odin not be the first cause, intelligent designer, and objective moral standard that Craig posits? Let me re-write, very quickly and basically, Craig’s arguments in relation to Odin:

The Kalam Cosmological Argument for the Existence of Odin

1 – everything that has a beginning has a cause.

2 – the universe has a beginning.

3 – therefore, the universe has a cause (and that cause is Odin).

The Teleological Argument for the Existence of Odin

1 – complexity, order and improbability are the hallmarks of intelligent design.

2 – the universe is complex, well ordered, and improbable.

3 – therefore the universe has been designed by an intelligent creator ( Odin).

The Moral Argument for the Existence of Odin

1 – if Odin does not exist, then objective moral values do not exist.

2 – objective moral values do exist.

3 – therefore, Odin exists.

The thrust of the Odin experiment is this: no matter how flawless one’s arguments for the existence of a creator, first cause, or objective moral authority, one has to equally prove the identity of those things if they are to be used in a manner that suggests the existence of a specific deity or deities.

Why can’t we just put Odin in there? Or Allah? Or B’aal? Perhaps Christianity is wrong, and Hinduism is right. Perhaps the world was created by an enormous supercomputer named Bob that is the first cause for existence, it’s designer, and the programmer of objective moral values?

Craig’s attempt at proving that God is a Christian God

Craig does attempt to prove the identity of God as a Christian god, but (in my opinion) he fails to do so conclusively. He begins by claiming that the vast majority of historians and biblical scholars believe in the reality of the historical Jesus (this is true, but Dr Stephen Law makes an interesting case for not accepting it on face value. Originally published in Faith and Philosophy you can read his paper on his blog: http://stephenlaw.blogspot.com/2012/04/published-in-faith-and-philosophy-2011.html).

Craig goes on to assert that there are four ‘historical facts’ that must be explained about the life of Jesus:

1 – Jesus’ burial.

2 – Jesus’ empty tomb.

3 – Jesus’ appearance after his crucifixion.

4 – Jesus’ disciples belief in his resurrection.

I don’t want to dwell on this argument, because I don’t consider it compelling, so I’ll summarise Craig here. He believes that the above is factual because it has been attested in multiple historical sources, and that we therefore need a historically viable hypothesis to explain these facts. (If you want to read Craig’s full account, you can do so here: http://www.reasonablefaith.org/rediscovering-the-historical-jesus-the-evidence-for-jesus)

The thrust of his argument is that Jesus’ existence as the son of God and Christianity’s account of his life and death (and, therefore, Christianity in general) is by far the most plausible explanation of these facts.

I consider this conclusion to be fallacious for the following reasons:

1 – we know how easily myth and falsehood spread. We have no way to verify the accounts of the independent sources Craig mentions. Even though historians tend to accept honest accounts as historically viable proof, I would contest that when we are discussing something as fundamentally different to other historical questions (namely – the question of Jesus’ divinity) we need to prove the facts concerning such in an equally different manner to our normal historical methods.

2 – we are well acquainted with hoaxes in the modern world, and in fairly recent history we have ample example of seemingly miraculous occurrences that have been exposed as hoaxes. Of course, we have rights and freedoms of information that were unheard of in pre-history (including the time and place of Jesus’ life). What, one wonders would the people surrounding Jesus have made of Derren Brown should he have lived amongst them and chosen to portray himself as a miracle worker? Lest one imagine Brown is an ill-fitting example of a miracle worker of the times, I would mention that the Sophists were in possession of similarly thought changing techniques. And one needn’t postulate a performer of Brown’s skill or a population less sophisticated than our own – ‘psychics’ like John Edward and Derek Acora continue to con the modern public with crude and obvious cold-reading techniques.

3 – the story of Jesus’ life and death is unremarkable in regards to other religious stories. What about the Hadith of Mohammed received in the cave from the angel Gabriel? Or the historical Budda, prince Gautama Siddhartha receiving enlightenment through meditation? The reality of these historical figures is as well accepted as that of Jesus, so using Craig’s argument, can we prove the reality of Islamic and Buddhist doctrine also?

It’s fair to say that Craig has written at length about the historical Jesus, and that I haven’t addressed all his points here. My reason for this is that, while those points may be compelling to Christian apologists and other theistic thinkers, I consider this whole argument Prima Facie ridiculous; Craig is suggesting that we can use the historical accounts of a couple of unknown people, unverifiable and written 2,000 years ago, to prove the existence and identity of God.

Some Other Flaws in Craig’s Arguments

I’ll wrap this up quickly, as I already consider Craig’s ability to prove God’s existence (and identity) refuted by the Odin Experiment and by my rejection of his historical argument based on the life of Jesus. Nonetheless, for the sake of completeness, I’ll demonstrate a few of the other flaws in his original three arguments (the Kalam Cosmological, Teleological, and Moral arguments).

The Kalam Cosmological Argument

The major problem with this argument is that Craig’s additional premises concerning the possibility of an actual infinite are heavily contested. From Wikipedia (not usually a safe source, but reliable on this point and fine in a blog post):

“Stenger has proven that quantum mechanics refutes the first premise of the argument (that ‘everything that begins to exist has a cause’). He points out that such naturally occurring quantum events violate this premise, such as the Casimir effect and radioactive decay.”

The Teleological Argument

Assuming that Hume’s critique of Teleology does not hold with the adoption of the anthropic principle, we have a further criticism. Namely, that design is a significantly more probable explanation for so hugely improbable a universe as random chance. I’ll admit to agnosticism on this point: I believe that both possibilities (random chance and an intelligent designer) are so mind-bogglingly out of our experience that one cannot sensibly distinguish between them. Dawkins supports random chance in ‘The God Delusion’ (although I don’t agree with him) but I feel no need to attack the argument on those grounds, as the problem of God’s identity (as shown by the Odin Experiment) is a far greater worry.

The Moral Argument

I demonstrated above that, even if we accept the moral argument, Craig has a problem tying the identity of the Christian god to that arguments’ conclusion. However, there is a further criticism that may invalidate the argument entirely.

Craig is a moral absolutist, but if we reject the premise that absolute morals exist (that is, if we choose moral relativism instead) we no longer need any objective moral source or authority. To do this, we need to imagine possibilities in which certain moral laws are better violated than obeyed. Some examples off the top of my head that might fulfil this criteria could be:

1 – forcibly raping somebody in the eventuality that you were the last two people on earth and she was unresponsive to your romantic advances. Here, the admonishment not to rape is secondary to the continuation of the species.

2 – murdering someone who you know is planning a school massacre (we assume, for the purposes of argument, that the options are murder or do not interfere).

3 – ending the life of a child if in possession of almost certain knowledge that it’s future would be unpleasant (this is a common argument in favour of abortion, where the child will be born into a home that does not want it, or be born with severe and uncorrectable defects).

Whether or not we accept these hastily constructed examples of moral relativity, there is a good case to be made that there are no absolute moral laws.

One objection to this might be that, even in the cases given above, although specific moral laws are violated, we are nonetheless following a moral principle. Namely, that there is such a thing as good, and that this ‘good’ is in every incident what we are trying to follow. So, while we accept that injunctions to not murder or rape are relative, the moral principle of ‘goodness’ must exist in order for these specific injunctions to have greater or lesser relevance in certain situations. However, this ‘good’ needs no objectification – it can exist as a social principle, or a selected trait.

Conclusion

There are logical problems with Craig’s argument’s that largely stem from our lack of knowledge. We don’t yet know if infinity is a plausible concept, we will likely never know whether a designer or random chance is a more rationally acceptable explanation for a remarkable universe, and we don’t have to accept moral absolutism.

However, even if we choose not to refute these arguments in these ways, Craig still has the problem of tying his conclusions to the identity of the god he is trying to prove the existence of. Any argument for the existence of a specific god must pass the Odin Experiment successfully or admit defeat. Craig’s argument concerning the historical personage of Jesus is successful only to the extent that one is already convinced of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

In closing, I’ll readily admit that a full refutation of Craig’s philosophy would require much more space and academic rigour than I’ve dedicated to it here. This is, after all, a blog, not an academic journal. However, I’m confident that even these few thousand words serves to demonstrate that Craig’s philosophy is nowhere near as tightly knit as it might seem when one watches him debate with non-philosophers.

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3 responses to “A response to William Lane Craig’s philosophical arguments for God’s existence

  1. Craig is one of the most irritating speakers to get national lime light! He spouts the same arguments repeatedly without ever addressing the obvious and well known problems with his arguments. Your post here explains some of the quite well – and he’ll never address them. He is a fraud.

  2. I don’t know if I’d call him a fraud – I think he believes in what he says and his qualifications are real enough. But I certainly take your point about the disingenuous nature of his arguments. They work brilliantly, provided you already subscribe to the existence of a Christian God. Very circular reasoning. What I find a little dis-heartening is that more prominent atheists with real philosophical backgrounds – people like Daniel Dennett, for example – haven’t publicly engaged him and taken his arguments apart on the biggest stage possible. Understandably, they probably feel (like Dawkins) that he doesn’t merit their attention. But a cursory google search reveals that he is a very popular Christian thinker. If he is giving these arguments under the auspice of philosophy, I feel that they should be examined with real philosophic rigour. And, as I think we both agree, they don’t stand up to it. Thanks for the comment, BTW.

  3. Pingback: Hades 1 Solution·

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