We just had our second straight snow day around here (in a winter that has already had a lot of snow days). That did provide me with some unexpected free time, which I used to watch the big debate between Sean Carroll and William Lane Craig. All two and a quarter hours of it! Click here for the video.
If you’re unfamiliar with the players here, Sean Carroll is a physicist at CalTech, specializing in cosmology. He is the author of a terrific book called From Eternity to Here: The Search for the Ultimate Theory of Time. More recently he is the author of The Particle at the End of The Universe: How the Hunt for the Higgs Boson Leads Us To The Edge Of A New World, but I have not yet read that one.
William Lane Craig is the author of several books about Christian theology and apologetics. He is mostly famous as a debater, however. I do not think much of his arguments, even relative to those of other Christian apologists, but no one denies that he is a formidable opponent. He handily defeated Christopher Hitchens, for example, and Hitchens knew a few things about debate.
So how did it go? Carroll won. Easily. To be blunt, this is the first time I’ve ever seen Craig look bad. He’s a very polished speaker and he’s never at a loss for words, but there were two simple facts he was not able to overcome. The first was that this was specifically a debate about cosmology, and Carroll just knows that material much better than Craig does. The second is that Carroll had the facts on his side. The latest work in cosmology does not support the conclusions Craig is trying to draw.
If you don’t want to watch the whole thing, just watch Craig’s twenty minute opening presentation and Carroll’s reply. That will give you a good idea of how the whole thing went. Craig used a lot of jargon–de Sitter space, unitarity, Boltzmann brians–that I’m not sure he really understood. He certainly made no attempt to explain things clearly to the audience. When it was Carroll’s turn he was able to say repeatedly that Craig was making statements about the physics that were just flatly false. Craig had little to offer in reply, but instead mostly just kept repeating his same arguments over and over again.
A large portion of Craig’s presentation was devoted to the idea that the universe must have had a beginning, the implication being that the universe must therefore have had a transcendent cause. He made free use of the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin theorem in making this argument, which has recently become a commonplace of apologetic arguments. He even, rather cheekily I thought, went after the Carroll-Chen model of the multiverse, in which the universe exists eternally. Yes, that Carroll. The one who was on stage with him to explain how badly he was misunderstanding the physics.
Carroll was eloquent in pointing out that this was all just nonsense. The Borde-Guth-Vilenkin theorem does not have the awesome consequences Craig wants to draw from it (what abstract theorem could?). With regard to his own model he retorted, “I’m the first one to say that it has problems. None of the problems that it has are the one’s that Dr. Craig raised.” Zing!
But there was one big issue that came up where, to my mind, Carroll has it exactly right and the folks on the other side are just confused. Since I cannot improve on Carroll’s eloquent statement, let me transcribe (verbatim):
[T]he universe is different from our everyday experience. That doesn’t sound like a surprising statement, but we really need to take it to heart. To look at a modern cosmological model and say, “Yes, but what was the cause?” is like looking at someone taking pictures with an iPhone, and saying, “Where does the film go?” It’s not that the answer is difficult or inscrutable, it’s completely the wrong question to be asking. …Why should we expect that there are causes, or explanations, or reasons why in the universe in which we live? It’s because the physical world in which we are imbedded has two important features: There are unbreakable patterns, laws of physics, things don’t just happen, they obey the laws. And there is an arrow of time, stretching from the past to the future. The entropy was lower in the past, increases toward the future. Therefore, when you find some event or state of affairs B today, we can very often trace it back in time, to just one or a couple of possible predecessor events, that we therefore say is the cause of that, which leads to B according to the laws of physics. But crucially, both of these features of the universe that allow us to speak the language of causes and effects are completely absent when we talk about the universe as a whole. We don’t think that our universe is part of a bigger ensemble that obeys laws. Even if it’s part of a multiverse we don’t think the multiverse is part of a bigger ensemble that obeys laws. Therefore, nothing gives us the right to expect some kind of external cause. The idea that our intuitions about cause and effect that we get from our everyday experience of the world should somehow be extended without modification to the fundamental nature of reality is fairly absurd.
Craig was uncomprehending of this point, but Carroll has it exactly right. The issue Carroll raises here is one reason I tend to be suspicious of a lot of metaphysical analysis. Almost inevitably we try to take concepts that are useful in daily life, and try to extend them into realms where they don’t clearly apply. This is a fundamental problem with arguments along the lines of Aquinas’ five ways, for example. (More precisely, the first three ways).
There are a great many concepts that we use–like cause and effect, matter and energy, actuality and potentiality, form and essence–to help order our experiences of the physical world. They are useful concepts in many contexts. But there is simply no justification for extending them to the universe as a whole. These concepts are so natural and even unavoidable in our daily life, that it is hard to imagine a realm in which they do not make sense. But Carroll has it exactly right. Talk of cause and effect seems natural only because of certain peculiarities of our physical world. They are concepts we impose on nature, and not fundamental aspects of reality.
Craig simply could not comprehend this. When the issue arose in the Q and A, Craig said, “It seems to me it is fantastic to say that the universe could just come into being from non-being. That it just pops into existence.” He even went on to ask, rather bizarrely, why, if universes can just come into being, then bicycles cannot do likewise. During the debate, Carroll provided some of the reasons that’s silly.
I would make a different point. I also find it fantastic that the universe could just come into existence. But what is your non-fantastic alternative? That there’s a disembodied intelligence able to conceptualize a functional universe, and then somehow, by an application of His will, cause matter to appear where no matter was before? That’s not fantastic? (I discussed this in more detail in this post.)
Whatever it was that brought our universe into being was nothing like the sorts of things with which we have everyday experience. It’s nothing that’s going to seem ho-hum and reasonable to us. Theists have to face that fact no less than atheists.
But let me end by calling attention to one thing Craig said that I agree with. During the Q & A, a person asked Craig what he thought of Aquinas’ five ways. The context was that Craig had been arguing from modern science, whereas Aquinas was attempting to make demonstrations of a more metaphysical character. I was pleasantly surprised when Craig began his answer by saying bluntly, “I would say that Thomas Aquinas’ own metaphysical principles are highly dubious and in doubt, and that therefore I have little confidence that his arguments are, as he claimed, demonstrations.”
Indeed. They are dubious. I just wish that Craig were as critical of his own strange ideas.