Writing in the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas famously presented his “five ways” to prove that God exists. He relied largely on extrapolations from observable phenomena in our daily experience to grand claims about the origins of it all. Thus, he argued from the presence of motion in the natural world to an unmoved mover behind it all, or from the contingency of existence in the natural world to the presence of a necessary existent, and so on.
These arguments have received detailed philosophical development over the years, from Aquinas and from many others, but they have not fared well. Few philosophers nowadays defend them, and for good reason. All of them rest on dubious premises, and their conclusions are generally underwhelming. (For example, there might be a necessary existent, but why should we equate a necessary existent with God?)
Now we have philosopher William Lane Craig to pick up the mantle. In this short essay posted over at the Fox News website, he serves up five arguments of his own for why we should believe in God. You are probably familiar with Craig; he’s a prominent debater and Christian apologist. One of his favorite rhetorical tricks is to bombard his opponent with rapid-fire arguments for God’s existence. He then tells the audience that if his opponent fails to refute each and every one of them, in the short period of time he is allotted, then the audience should declare him the victor. You can consider this essay the written version of this tactic.
I’ve seen him use as many as eight different arguments for that purpose, so I’d say we’re getting off easy here with just five. P.Z. Myers and Jerry Coyne (here and here respectively) have already addressed Craig’s arguments, but why should they have all the fun?
So let’s have a look. After a few paragraphs of chest-thumping, Craig gets down to business. He even helpfully numbers his arguments:
1. God provides the best explanation of the origin of the universe. Given the scientific evidence we have about our universe and its origins, and bolstered by arguments presented by philosophers for centuries, it is highly probable that the universe had an absolute beginning. Since the universe, like everything else, could not have merely popped into being without a cause, there must exist a transcendent reality beyond time and space that brought the universe into existence. This entity must therefore be enormously powerful. Only a transcendent, unembodied mind suitably fits that description.
This is all very muddled. Here are some words and phrases in that argument that need some serious clarification before we can make sense of what Craig is even claiming: “our universe”, “absolute beginning”, “cause”, “transcendent reality” and “beyond time and space.”
Science tells us that our universe came into being with a massive explosion called the Big Bang. It tells us almost nothing about what might have caused the Big Bang to occur. For that matter, since our notions of time and space also came into existence with the Big Bang, it is not so clear what it even means to talk about a cause for the universe. In our normal understanding of the terms, causes must come before effects. For that to be meaningful, you must have a notion of time with which to work.
It is one thing to say that our little corner of the universe had a beginning with the Big Bang, but we have little basis at all even for speculating about what might have come before. In some of his public presentations, Craig abuses a theorem due to Borde, Guth and Vilenkin regarding the origins of the universe to add a scientific gloss to his assertions, but he is simply wrong to do so.
There is no shortage of viable explanations for the origins of the cosmos that do not involve inventing an all-powerful deity to start it all off. There is no reason at all why there could not be an infinite regress of causes, nor is there any reason to think the universe could not have appeared uncaused. We have little basis even for speculating about what is plausible and what is not in pondering these scenarios. Whatever it was that brought our world into being is something that is not at all like anything with which we have actual experience. How can we judge the relative likelihoods of such naturalistic scenarios, as compared to the likelihood that there is a necessarily existent superbeing who can effortlessly bring universes into being with acts of his will?
In short, Craig is just making things up when he says that God is the most likely explanation for the existence of the universe. He has no solid basis at all for making such a claim.
2. God provides the best explanation for the fine-tuning of the universe. Contemporary physics has established that the universe is fine-tuned for the existence of intelligent, interactive life. That is to say, in order for intelligent, interactive life to exist, the fundamental constants and quantities of nature must fall into an incomprehensibly narrow life-permitting range. There are three competing explanations of this remarkable fine-tuning: physical necessity, chance, or design. The first two are highly implausible, given the independence of the fundamental constants and quantities from nature’s laws and the desperate maneuvers needed to save the hypothesis of chance. That leaves design as the best explanation.
This is just more groundless assertion. Let us leave aside the question of just how-fine-tuned the universe really is. The fact remains that this is even more of an argument from ignorance than the first. To say the life-permitting range is “incomprehensibly narrow” implies both that we know precisely what the life-permitting range is and that we know the range of possible values of which that is a subset. Moreover, chance is an entirely plausible explanation for fine-tuning if our universe is just one part of a vast multiverse. That’s probably what Craig has in mind in referring to “desperate maneuvers,” but in doing so he is just replacing argument with rhetoric.
The multiverse idea is speculative, but it receives considerable support from several lines of thought in modern astronomy and is a perfectly mainstream idea among physicists and cosmologists. In this it differs considerably from the invented-from-whole-cloth notion of a God to turn the dials. On what possible basis does Craig decide that the former idea is a desperate maneuver, while the latter is a plausible explanation?
Craig’s first two arguments are of a sort that can only be compelling to simple-minded people. They are not arguments so much as they are dogmatic assertions resting on nothing but the misplaced confidence of the people making the argument.
And Craig is just getting started! We have three more claims to go, but this post has already gotten a bit long. So we shall save his others for another day.