Everyone knows of Aquinas’ five ways to prove the existence of God, but I think people are less familiar with William Lane Craig’s five arguments for the existence of God… Actually, most people probably have about as superficial an understanding of Aquinas’ arguments as they do of W.L. Craig’s arguments, but I digress. In what follows I will try to speak to objections typically brought up in response to Craig’s arguments.
William Lane Craig is renowned for his careful debating style, and is often recognized as one of the foremost champions of Christian apologetics today. Typically in a debate he will begin by sketching out 5 arguments in twenty minutes which he thinks constitute good reasons to believe that God exists. After having listened to countless debates in which he participated, and as I’ve followed his podcasts “Reasonable faith” and “Defenders“, I have come to have such an appreciation of his work that I am convinced that, while I do not agree with Craig about everything (philosophers seldom do, even if they are related as teacher and student), I do think that the five reasons he typically provides are, in fact, good arguments to think that God exists. Critics, of course, have responded to his arguments and interacted with them, but often they have done so so superficially that I am tempted to roll my eyes every time I hear the very same objections to the premises of his arguments (or else worse, the objections to what people mistakenly think his arguments claim) which have been resolutely answered by Craig, being brought up time and again. Recently I invited a few people to take a closer look at Craig’s debate with the late great Christopher Hitchens and to tell me what they think of Craig’s arguments. Richard Tulloch has responded with many of the objections which are often raised by those who, through no fault of their own, are simply not familiar with the answers which are constantly provided by W.L. Craig on his website, through his books and newsletters, and above all in his podcast “Reasonable Faith“. Therefore, here, I will attempt to deal with these objections and answer precisely why the typical objections either reflect philosophically shallow comprehension of the nuance and force of his arguments or else why they fail to comprehend the arguments altogether. It is worth noting at this point that obviously Craig does not rely on only five arguments, but rather often employs different arguments in various debates – usually sticking to five at a time (thus in one debate he may use the Ontological argument, whereas in another he would use in its place a Leibnizian Cosmological argument, etc). However, the five arguments which are most commonly used by Craig, and which Richard Tulloch has objected to, are the same which I have in mind to address in what follows. In what follows all the quotations with which I interact are provided by Tulloch, but I am not intending to answer to him alone, but I intend to answer to a broader audience; namely, all the people who would have objected in similar fashion.
First, the Kalam Cosmological argument is one of Craig’s seminal arguments as much of his professional work has been on this particular kind of cosmological argument. It generally runs as follows:
- Everything which begins to exist has a cause, and
- The Universe began to exist, and
- Therefore the Universe has a cause.
- If the universe has a cause then that cause must be other than the universe (thus, not physical or spatio-temporal).
- The only two things which are spaceless and timeless in the sense required are personal minds or platonic forms.
- Platonic forms are causally effete, and therefore cannot cause anything.
- Therefore a personal mind which is spaceless and timeless is the only possible cause of the universe to begin to exist.
- A personal mind possibly can cause the universe to begin to exist, and
- Therefore, a personal mind did cause the universe to begin to exist
Premise 1 is uncontroversial unless one rejects Leibniz’ Principle of Sufficient Reason, which is becoming a more popular move only because it is now widely recognized by philosophers that if one accepts the Principle of Sufficient Reason it entails logically and inescapably that God exists. Premise 2 is usually defended in two ways: first by an appeal to the logical incoherence of an infinite past, and second by an appeal to the best and most current scientific and cosmological theory which exists. Now, while I have come to think that Craig’s argument for the impossibility of an infinite past is overstated (though I still tend to agree that it is a good argument, it isn’t quite as strong as he seems to think) I do adamantly think that the weaker argument from science is, for what it is worth, very good. Generally philosophers like to avoid scientific theories because they change so easily and so often, but all things considered I think that Craig has managed to appeal to a cosmological model of the universe which has continued to the present day to be supported by all the scientific ‘tests’ one can plausibly imagine. Here is Tulloch actually challenges both the first premises at the same time:
I’m not a physicist, but I understand from Lawrence Krauss, Niels Brene and others that it’s not so well established that nothing can come into being without a cause. On the contrary, at a sub-atomic level, it seems to happen with regularity, and there’s a lot we don’t yet understand about how dark matter works.
Here, there are two common mistakes which Tulloch is, and many others along with him are, making. The first is the equivocation of the term nothing. Sometimes scientists will talk about ‘nothing’ in terms as though it were something precisely because what they are referring to (for example a vacuum flux of energy) is something. This is the problem – according to Big Bang Cosmology the universe did not arise from a vacuum in the same way that a particle is observed to arise out of a vacuum without any apparent cause, because a vacuum would not exist prior to the big bang. In the strictest metaphysical sense, ‘nothing’ which is in any way a feature of the universe, such as dark matter, existed prior to the universe beginning to exist. When philosophers say ‘nothing’ they don’t mean ‘something which we call nothing’ but rather they mean strictly ‘not anything’. This mistake is very often made by those who are scientifically literate to some degree, but are philosophically illiterate and cannot distinguish between ‘something’, like a vacuum in which there appears to be nothing and some-things (particles) arise and disappear again, and literally not anything. It doesn’t matter what we know about how dark matter works, its irrelevant because ‘dark matter’ didn’t exist prior to the big bang.
The second mistake is to think that quantum theory can really license the claim that the Principle of Sufficient Reason is falsified. This is perhaps more excusable since it isn’t very easy to negotiate one’s way through this issue, which takes a particularly good literacy in both philosophy and science. However, if the Principle of Sufficient Reason is accepted as a constraint on all science (let alone all human reasoning) then it seems that a scientific theory which violates it is not really intelligible. Moreover, for science to say that there is no cause cannot be interpreted to mean that there is no cause philosophically (that is to say, ‘actually’), but that there is no cause scientifically (which is to say, observably).
It’s possible that we will some time discover that there is a good, natural, physical reason why there must be ‘something rather than nothing’.
The only physical/natural reason which is possible is that the universe must necessarily exist, such that it cannot not exist. However, it can not exist, therefore it is not the case that the universe must necessarily exist. Moreover, the Universe obviously cannot cause itself to exist, since it would have to exist in order to be able to cause anything. Finally, all the scientific evidence at this point demands that a scientifically inclined individual accept that the universe began to exist, and thus does not exist necessarily.
If in the meantime we accept that something did cause the Universe to pop into existence, I’d have little problem in calling that something ‘God’ if it suits. We don’t have another word for it and all of us feel a sense of wonder when we contemplate its mystery and vast power. It still begs the old chestnut, ‘Where did God come from? If he’s created himself or always existed, why not cut out the middle man and just say the universe created itself or always existed?’
First, to ask where God came from is an old question only in the sense that it has been asked by people for a long time, but not in the sense that it hasn’t been answered by philosophers definitively for just as long. To conceive of God as “That than which nothing greater can be conceived” is to conceive of a God whose existence is logically necessary. In other words, if God exists, then God exists in all logically possible worlds, such that there is no logically possible world in which God does not exist, which means that there is no coherent picture of the world which includes ‘a God which does not exist’. Finally, pay careful attention to the premises of the argument from 4-9; Craig gives a very good argument for supposing that this thing is approximately what we mean by ‘God’. Granted, it doesn’t quite prove ‘the Trinity’ or anything, but it does establish a spaceless timeless personal mind which created the world out of nothing and so on – that establishes quite a lot.
Despite some effort, I can’t quite get my head around this, but I understand that by definition a singularity is an event which cuts us off from what’s on the other side of it. We can’t influence it and we have no evidence to examine about it. I think you’re quite right that absence of evidence is not always evidence of absence, so why can’t we just say, ‘There’s an absence of evidence of what preceded the observable universe so we just don’t know’ ?
To say that there isn’t anything conclusive and then to be content with agnosticism with respect to a question is not typically scientific or empirical. The argument, of course, is organized in such a way that it is intended to appeal to a scientific and empirical audience. If somebody is content with saying that science never proves anything (which is technically true) and therefore we simply don’t know, then the argument isn’t for them. Rather, the argument is for somebody who is willing to follow the best scientific evidence where it leads, no matter where it leads. Finally, the Singularity can be hard to understand, but I think a good way to begin is by comprehending that there was nothing ‘prior’ to the big bang in any temporal sense, since space and time came into existence at that singularity. In the strictest terms possible, the Universe did not have a material cause. The only kind of cause it could have had in principle is an efficient cause – which can only be ‘God’.
It’s a big jump from accepting that the universe had a beginning and a physical cause to ascribing a human-like personality to that God creator, and to believing that it takes a human-like interest in our existence, let alone in our dress-codes, sexual behaviour and how we spend Sundays.
Notice that the argument does no such thing. The argument doesn’t establish that any religious conception of God is accurate insofar as it implies something other than that which the argument minimally aims to establish: the existence of a timeless spaceless personal mind of unfathomable power which created the universe from nothing (not anything). Let us not blur the lines between philosophy and religion just because the word ‘God’ evokes a lot of emotions positive or negative. Let us just stick with the arguments and see where they lead.
It seems far more probable to me that any gods who are concerned with human behaviour have been invented by human cultures, for the useful purposes of explaining the natural world, giving hope to those who are having a bad time, binding the tribe together and keeping deviant and youthful members in line. (With the invention of the surveillance camera this last purpose became less essential.)
I don’t think this is quite as obvious as you seem to think it is – probably because I can imagine more worlds on which God does not exist (I’m speaking broadly and provisionally, even if I don’t think such worlds are coherent I can pretend for the sake of argument that they would be) and no such concept arises in the human mind, than I can imagine worlds where God does exist and the concept does not arise in the human mind. However, putting aside arguments between Deism and religious forms of Theism, this point may beg the question altogether. I could demonstrate that, as I have tried to do in conversation with bookclubbabe in my comments on the post I composed in memory of Hitchens, but this is now way far afield from addressing the argument Craig presented at all.
The second argument is the Teleological argument which Craig presents. This argument runs with the following premises:
- The Universe itself has physical constants and quantities which are fine tuned to allow for the evolution of intelligent life.
- This fine tuning must be due to either chance, necessity, or else design.
- This fine tuning cannot be due to necessity, since there is no physical/scientific or philosophical reason why the constants and quantities are as they are, and it is easy to imagine other universes with different constants and quantities without contradiction.
- This fine tuning cannot be due to chance, since the odds against the universe having the precise constants and quantities which it has is so unfathomably unlikely that this unlikelihood cannot be reasonably faced.
- Therefore, the universe was designed for the evolution of intelligent life
- If the universe was designed then it must have had a designer (since this is what we entail when we use the word ‘design’)
- Therefore, the designer of the Universe – call it ‘God’ – exists.
Most often there are two responses to this argument. The first makes the mistake of confusing complexity with specified complexity – for instance, if I am playing cards and I am dealt a hand of 3 of hearts, 4 of hearts and 8 of spades, I have been dealt an extremely unlikely hand. However, there can be no design-inference here, since that kind of complexity does not qualify as ‘specified complexity’. However, in the case where I am dealt an equally unlikely winning hand a few deals in a row, it wouldn’t take much intelligence for people playing the game with me to recognize that the game is rigged. Imagine that I were to win the card game this way approximately 10 billion times. You are now starting to get an idea of what kind of specified complexity qualifies the universe as ‘finely tuned’ for the result of ‘the evolution of intelligent life’. Another response is to say that since we are already here, we already knew before setting out our inquiry altogether that the universe was able to support our kind of existence, and thus it shouldn’t be surprising for us if we found that our universe does support our kind of existence. This and other ways of expressing the anthropic principle simply fail at this point to be a good response. We should not be surprised to find that our universe is a universe which can plausibly allow for the evolution of intelligent life, but we SHOULD be surprised that it is such a universe given the incomprehensible unfathomable unlikelihood of it being such a universe.
Hitchens pointed out the wastefulness of the exercise; the common destruction of galaxies and the extinction of species, not to mention the understanding that the entire Universe is en route to eventual annihilation.
Craig obviously answered to each of these points. I agree with Craig that efficiency is only possibly valued by a being with limited time or limited resources. Also, the fact that this universe is coming to its eventual end isn’t the end of the story on religious Theism – God did not intend the universe to last forever, and it isn’t important whether it does (in fact, he plausibly designed it with the purpose that it wouldn’t – at least that is often implies in Theistic religions). Moreover, it completely fails to address the argument about design, since human beings design things all the time which are intended to serve only some given purpose and then be discarded. Even if Hitchens were right that the creator of a universe which doesn’t support sentient life forever (and it is hard for me to see that he even ‘Could’ be right about this, but for the sake of argument) should be indicted, so be it – even if the Designer is evil, it would still be the case that the argument establishes that the Designer exists.
Other responses are often just as weak, such as the appeal to a multi-verse hypothesis. Since there is no scientific or empirical reason for supposing that a multi-verse exists, it cannot be scientifically or empirically defended (see here). Moreover, those who appeal to it are attempting to appeal to something which violates Occam’s Razor in order to avoid the simpler solution that one single uncaused cause of the universe exists as the universe’s designer.
How can we possibly be sure that we are not merely the by-products of some other heavenly purpose, if indeed there is any purpose at all? Why can every other galaxy, solar system and species be wantonly wasted for no discernable reason, while we alone merit special consideration? We’re going to be destroyed ourselves eventually, so perhaps the true favoured planet is somewhere else, or yet to be born.
If the real truth were that the Universe had actually been created and fine-tuned by God for the benefit of the super-intelligent helium-breathing Zoggians on planet Qxytt in Galaxy R566U, we incidentally developed homo sapiens on Planet Earth could still feel it was all about us.
Yes, but notice that the Teleological argument doesn’t tell us what God’s purpose was beyond the universe allowing for the evolution of intelligent life (perhaps he designed to cause untold pain and suffering and that, he thought, was the best way to do it). It doesn’t matter, the argument would still prove what it was intended to prove.
The third argument was the argument from the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.
The argument here is often terribly misunderstood and clumsily dealt with because of its nuance, and perhaps because it is a two-tiered argument which people aren’t often able to recognize. The basic argument for the resurrection is predicated on the following facts:
- Jesus of Nazareth was put to death
- Jesus’ tomb was found empty
- The disciples and enemies of Jesus had experiences in which Jesus of Nazareth appeared to them.
- The Disciples began to believe that God had raised Jesus from the dead despite having every possible predisposition to the contrary
The argument then is simply this: the best explanation of these facts is that God raised Jesus from the dead. That is to say, each of these facts is so well established that hardly anybody engaged in the world of biblical criticism denies any one of these facts, and these facts are best explained by God raising Jesus from the dead. There is absolutely no naturalistic explanation for these facts which exist such that it is superior to the explanation that God raised Jesus from the dead in terms of explanatory scope, explanatory power, plausibility, degree of ad-hoc, etc. Therefore there is no ‘plausible’ naturalistic alternative. Therefore, plausibly, God raised Jesus from the dead; the best explanation of the facts surrounding Jesus of Nazareth imply that he was supernaturally raised from the dead by God.
The second argument then takes over:
- Jesus of Nazareth was raised from the dead by God
- But, that entails that God exists
- Therefore God exists.
How good is this argument? Well, on the one hand, this argument is only as plausible as its premises. However, it is a deductive argument, which means that if one accepts these premises, the conclusion necessarily follows. There are three ways to disagree with this argument: First, one can provide a plausible naturalistic explanation for the facts which scholarship recognizes to be beyond reasonable contest. Second, one could reject one or more of the facts which nearly every authority recognizes (Seriously, there is less controversy around these facts in the field of Biblical criticism and historiography than there is in science about evolutionary biology – and that’s saying something). Or else finally, one can say that there is no other plausible naturalistic explanation for the facts which they know of, but they can submit that it is still more likely that one exists which they do not know of than that the supernatural explanation is true. All three avenues have serious problems. First, there just IS no plausible naturalistic explanation which anybody has ever been able to provide – and this is often even admitted in debates. Second, the facts are very well established. Finally, the third alternative reflects a sort of philosophical or epistemological bias and naivety.
Finally, Tulloch, you say:
The evidence for the physical, literal resurrection is sketchy and contradictory (I like Bishop John Shelby Spong’s writing on this) but that was not the point of this debate, so I’ll leave it aside, as Hitchens did.
I highly recommend, if you’re going to disagree with the argument for the resurrection, that you at least find better reasons than the ones Spong has courted. For instance, Richard Carrier has better reasons. In either case, however, I take it that these haven’t stood up to scrutiny. See, for example, Craig’s debate about the resurrection with Spong here, and Craig’s debate with Carrier here.
Since this argument is usually not addressed, often because it is misunderstood, I will leave it to the reader to find out more about the argument, since each of the premises are very firmly established. However, very quickly, I will say that the old Humean position that miracles are always extremely unlikely is itself regarded by most philosophers today as an “abject failure” insofar as good arguments in epistemology go. I have already done a whole post on miracles and epistemology, so I will not rehearse everything which is provided in that post here.
Moving to the fourth argument: The Moral argument.
THIS argument is so terribly misunderstood that it frustrates me (I must admit) every single time I hear objections to it which reflect a failure to have come to terms with it at all. The argument is rather simple, and nuanced. Here it is:
- In the absence of God, Objective moral values and duties cannot exist.
- Objective moral values and duties do exist
- Therefore God exists.
Notice the argument isn’t about religion at all, and it isn’t about epistemology either. It doesn’t claim that one must believe in God to be moral, it doesn’t claim that without a belief in God a culture will be morally depraved, – it doesn’t claim any of these things! I wonder sometimes how carefully people are even listening to the argument when it is given.
It claims that objective moral values and duties which are binding and real independent of whether ANYBODY believes them or not cannot exist without some ontological grounding – however, there is no logically possible grounding for morality except in God. Most intelligent Atheists will at this point object one of two ways. They will either be happy to say that objective moral values and duties do not exist, or else they will try to suggest the Euthyphro dilemma. However, the Euthyphro dilemma is not a real dilemma and can be dissolved with an appeal to the normative theistic view that God’s nature isn’t just good, but rather that goodness is just God’s nature. One can see Craig’s podcast here for more.
Talk of how atheists can be good moral persons, and love and care for people, be kind to others, and so forth is just completely and utterly irrelevant. It is almost amusing to see that the first thing Hitchens tries to do is defend himself against the charge that he is immoral, or that atheists cannot be just as moral as religious people. Who cares? Craig and other defenders of this argument would readily and happily admit that atheists are moral persons and that they can be more moral than religious persons – that’s got nothing whatever to do with the argument! The argument is about Metaphysics, not about Epistemology.
Finally, for those who say that objective moral values and duties do not exist, Craig has argued that for any argument against the reality of moral values and duties which are objective and which we seem to encounter in our ‘moral experience’, he can create a parody of that argument which would establish that the physical world encountered in our ‘physical experience’ does not exist. I think that’s a point which is worthy of note.
The fifth argument is from belief in God being properly basic.
The fifth argument is, in one sense, supposed to be a ‘good reason to think God exists’ but is not supposed to be a persuasive argument in the usual sense, which is why Craig says it isn’t “really an argument for the existence of God”. That said, it is an argument from epistemology.
If one is acquainted with the debate in modern epistemology then they will know that almost all models of epistemology have failed save for something like Naturalized Epistemology or classical Foundationalism. Foundationalism begins with beliefs which are self-evident or self-justifying and attempts to move from these justified beliefs to other beliefs which are inferential and justified. If one is a foundationalist, then one has basic beliefs, and some of those beliefs are properly basic. A properly basic belief is a belief which one is justified in maintaining quite apart from any good arguments. For example, there are no good arguments against the following:
We can’t prove that the Universe was not created ten minutes ago, and that we have been implanted in it complete with a set of false memories of what we had for breakfast. It seems unlikely, but then it would seem unlikely, wouldn’t it?
However, we are justified in believing that the universe is as old as our experience of it indicates. Similarly it is hard to see any good arguments to think that other minds exist other than ‘my own’. However, we believe it based on experience. In the absence of a defeater (that is, some good reason to think that we are wrong) we are justified in maintaining such properly basic beliefs as ‘the external world exists’ and ‘other minds like me exist’ and so forth. The argument then turns to its religious applications: the argument says that for a person who has a distinct and clear experience of God and thus naturally comes to believe in God based on their experience is as justified in maintaining that belief in the absence of a defeater as anyone normally is for any other properly basic belief.
I think there are problems with Craig’s argument here, since I think to take this religious epistemology to do all the work he says it can do in his book technically inclines one to a more protestant anthropology as opposed to a Catholic one – but I digress. I take it that his point insofar as the existence of God is concerned is a good one (I don’t accept the extension to religious dogmas being knows as properly basic).
I do suspect that, although it’s totally unconvincing to non-believers, this Holy Spirit within is the most fundamental reason behind Craig’s personal world view. Although he can try to make all sorts of rational, logical arguments to support the existence of God, the real reason he believes is that he ‘feels in his heart that it’s true’.
I think that may be right, just as you (presumably) believe that other minds exist, and will continue to believe that no matter what good reasons I could give for believing in solipsism. However, to be fair to Craig, he was not raised Christian, he is a convert, he has been deeply influenced by good arguments, and he would likely want people to judge his arguments rather than him. He was once asked during a debate with Victor Stenger at the university of Hawaii how he could know he wasn’t being unbiased; he candidly responded saying [paraphrase] “well, I can’t! One of the few insights of postmodernism (and it doesn’t have many) is that none of us are unbiased… But all we can do is do our best – I’m doing the best I can to be honest and to present good arguments, etc.”
He is quite right.
The attachment to the belief is emotional, rather than rational. I believe, TJ, that you are a convert to Christianity and I would be interested to know whether your conversion was a result of hearing reasoned arguments or of feeling something inside and enjoying the experience and the fellowship of other Christians.
First, there is a false dichotomy between a belief being retained for emotional or rational reasons. I have tried when I was younger and more naive to free myself of all emotional attachment and just assess arguments. Ultimately this process was in one sense a failure, and in one sense a success. The process was a failure because it cannot be done, as I discovered to my chagrin. It was a success because through it I learnt a lot, and I also became a Catholic (a convert). I maintain that my reasons for believing what I do are rational in a strong sense (in the philosophical sense where ‘rational’ is the opposite of ’empirical’). As much as I would like to say, however, that it was merely the arguments which swayed me, that simply isn’t true – I really did feel a strong inner conviction that Christianity was true, and that Catholicism in particular was the fullness of that truth. I am not ashamed of that admission though, since I think there is no good reason why one cannot allow emotions to play a role alongside rational argument in bolstering strong and justified convictions.
To Mr Hitchens, and to me, and to others who have somehow missed out on the emotional connection to the belief, this Holy Spirit business is just so much ‘white noise’.
Yes, that’s completely to be expected. The argument in one sense was only there to provide people who do have what they take to be an experience of God with an additional good reason to believe in God which comes before any of the arguments. In a sense, even if a theist had no good arguments to believe that God exists, a theist would still be well within her epistemic rights to believe that God exists given this experience of God. The argument was only intended, beyond that, to set in perspective how sincerely and strongly the theist is convicted that God exists, and also as an invitation to people to consider searching their hearts to see what they might find if they bothered to explore this dimension of the human experience which has, as of yet, remained uncharted territory for them.
I think I’ve said just about everything I wanted to cover. At this point I want to greatly and sincerely thank Richard Tulloch for giving me the opportunity to speak to many of the most common criticisms of Craig’s arguments all at once. I expect that further comments may appear, and I would welcome them from anybody. I also want to make clear that my annoyance or frustrations, and sometimes perhaps my tone, were not a reaction to Richard’s interaction with the arguments, which I invited him to share out of curiosity. Rather, I thank Richard for allowing me to have an excuse to speak to objections which I feel have continued to circulate far beyond their expiration date.
As a final note, I want to post some links for everybody’s convenience which pertain to these arguments.
First, Craig’s podcasts on the Kalam argument:
On the Teleological argument:
On the Moral argument:
Some resources and debates on the Resurrection of Jesus: