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Unreasonable Faith

November 9, 2011

William Lane Craig is a Christian philosopher. Richard Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist who has said some unkind things about God. The former, on a speaking tour of England challenged the latter to a debate on the subject of his book “The God Delusion”. The latter, observing that the former had previously made statements apparently endorsing genocide as long as God said it was OK, decided not to take up the offer. The former, presumably having expected this rebuff, went ahead anyway, promoting the event via advertisements on the side of Oxford buses beginning “There’s probably no Dawkins…” in the style of the atheist “no God” campaign. So, despite the fact that the event at the Sheldonian Theatre was a whole £10, I went along.

The Sheldonian was pretty full (I estimated around 800 people). As promised, there was an ostentatiously empty chair at the front ready for Dawkins, if he suddenly decided to change his mind. To prevent the event turning into a one-sided harangue, a panel of 3 Oxford academics had been rounded up to provide commentary and questions on Craig’s talk.

The title of the talk was “Is God a Delusion?” and was ostensibly a critique of Dawkins’ book, though it seemed to me that it mostly involved rattling through some of the standard arguments for God and explaining, in each case, why Dawkins was wrong. I attempted to take notes throughout the talk but this was tricky given the speed and the fact that an iPhone keypad is not massively well suited to the task. Therefore it’s possible that I may have some of this wrong.

First up: the cosmological argument. This suggests that everything that begins has a cause, the universe had a beginning (and, it was claimed, no theory of the universe escapes the problem that it must have a start), therefore the universe has a cause. Hence God. But surely God must have a cause? No, silly, the cause must trancend time and space, being outside of both. This is, of course, special pleading that God is somehow different. In any case, all we can establish by this argument, if you want to take it seriously, is that something caused the universe to begin, we’re pretty ignorant about what that thing actually is, but we can give it the label God. We could just as easily call it the Flying Spaghetti Monster or the Great Green Arkleseizure.

Next, Craig touched on the moral argument for God. In so far as I can make it out, it went something like this: without God there is no objective morality, we have objective morality, therefore God. Craig described this as a strong argument – I may have snorted with derision at this point. Dawkins has pretty strong moral beliefs. Where did they come from, eh? EH?

Thirdly, the teleological argument – that the fundamental constants of the universe are exceptionally find tuned for our existence. Craig suggests that there are three possible explanations for this; physical necessity, chance, or design. Physical necessity he rules out on grounds of implausibility. He spent quite a while attacking chance as an explanation, claiming that theories which allow for a plethora of universes (e.g. oscillating universe, baby universes in black holes) are all flawed. He invoked quantum theory in his defence. It’s not clear to me to what extent that Craig has actually studied physics – my usual instinct when a non-scientist mentions quantum theory is usually that they really don’t know what they’re talking about, but I could be wrong. Which leaves us with design. Dawkins doesn’t like design because it implies a designer, but to Craig it was the simplest of the possible explanations. What about asking who designed the designer? To Craig, such a question is unsporting – “a basic principle of philosophy is that to recognise an explanation is the best, we don’t need an explanation of the explanation”. Suppose we required an explanation of every explanation in science? We’d get nowhere (this is to ignore the fact that all such scientific recursion would eventually bottom out with observations about the real world that one would have to be particularly perverse to reject). So we should just accept the design explanation and leave it at that. This seemed like pretty brazen special pleading to me…

Also, on the teleological argument front, Craig criticised the criticism that the designer was necessarily as complex as the thing being designed. He felt this criticism was “plainly false”. If the creator is a “pure mind” or “consciousness without a body”, asserted Craig, it is clearly very simple as it has no physical parts. Notwithstanding the obvious criticism that it’s not obvious in what kind of substrate this “pure mind” could exist, or how it could effect real physical change, it’s simply not the case that such a mind would be simple. If this thing is omniscient, it seems to me that in order not to be completely tautological (God is the universe itself), the divine mind needs to represent within it the knowledge of every single entity in the universe of which it’s possible to have knowledge – essentially the wavefunction of every particle whether real or virtual, each one (in principle) a continuous function over all space. That would require a pretty big memory – indeed, it’s hard to see how the memory can be smaller than the universe.

Finally, the ontological argument. A cartoon version of it is this: imagine the most amazing thing possible (hint – God), conclude that this amazing thing must have the property of existence (otherwise it’s not the most amazing thing possible), conclude therefore that it exists, therefore God. Again, this doesn’t seem to me like an argument, more like an exercise in sophistry.

After Craig, the three academics had a go. Firstly, Daniel Kane (I may have the name wrong) took issue with Craig’s version of the cosmological argument – he felt that there was no problem with the concept of oscillating universes (i.e. universe ends with a big crunch, a new universe is then born in a new big bang, an idea dismissed by Craig). He also pointed out that, with respect to the teleological argument, postulating a huge number of universes in a multiverse didn’t run foul of Occam’s razor as we were still dealing with entities of one kind, whereas if God is intruduced, we’re multiplying the kinds of entities. He didn’t have a problem with the “infinite series of past events” difficulty, pointing out that we have actual infinities to deal with in space (i.e. number of points on a line) which don’t cause us problems in practice.

Secondly, Stephen Priest, a philosopher. He seemed to feel that the universe couldn’t be understood without theology. He claimed that very few people understood philosophical questions and that there were two huge things which needed to be understood – quantum physics and Heidegger’s thinking. He ended by citing three big philosophical questions: “Why is it now now”, “What is it to be?” and “Why is something you”. I recall him being entertaining but I couldn’t quite see the point of it all. Maybe I’m stupid.

Finally, John Parrington (a scientist). He took issue with the problem of finely tuned constants, pointing out that there could be other combinations of the constants which would sustain life, just not necessarily life as we know it. He felt that it was a mistake to choose God over the multiverse theory, it could just be that we don’t understand physics sufficiently. He said that as a biologist, he never saw the hand of God, just the appearance of design which is explained by evolutionary theory along with plenty of bad design, junk DNA etc.

Craig responded to the universe point with more sciency words – quantum fluctuations, entropy and all that. Apparently a contracting universe is highly unstable. Not sure what Craig’s physics credentials are to enable him to make these claims, though I’m sure that mine aren’t sufficient to address them. On spacial / temporal continuity, he claimed that there was no reason for believing space to be continuous therefore there are no real spacial infinities, but the problem of temporal infinities remains. I would have though that if we have no grounds for believing space to be continuous, then we have no grounds for believing time to be continuous either.

At this point there was a pause for people to submit questions. I remained unimpressed by him arguments for God, though prepared to give him respect for being several steps above the Christian apologists that one finds in America.

After the break came the questions. These elicited a number of claims from Craig, such as the idea that the principle that things have causes isn’t a physical principle, it’s metaphysical and the idea of being arising from non-being is simply magic, therefore the universe has a cause. Obvious retort – what is God here, if not just another name for “the magic thing that we’re invoking to explain the universe arising apparently from nothing”? He also observed that science hasn’t proved the soul doesn’t live on after death – well, no, neither has it disproven the existence of a small teapot orbiting the sun but that doesn’t mean we have good grounds for accepting it.

The most interesting moment, for me, came right at the end when the issue of God creating evil and the accusation from Dawkins that Craig is willing to be an apologist for the stories of genocide against the people of Canaan carried out in God’s name. My notes (slightly edited for spellings etc. of his answer are as follows:)

“Will answer from Christian perspective – God didn’t invent evil, he created moral beings. Evil = not being oriented towards God – is misuse of free will. Denies saying God commanded genocide. Was dealing with narratives in Hebrew Bible talking of God’s command for Israelites to go into Canaan and slaughter Canaanites. If you take Bible to be historical, how could God issue such commands and why? Is there inconsistency? Argued that in context of narrative, God kept people in Egypt for 400 years because Canaanites hadn’t reached sufficient iniquity and then used Israel to bring his judgements as he would later use other nations to bring God’s judgement to Israel. Canaanites were very evil – bestiality, human sacrifice etc. story comes after judgement on Sodom and Gomorrah – Abraham’s argument with God [“would you spare Sodom for 50 good men – how about 40 etc.”], bargaining like a “middle eastern merchant”. So God is reasonable, and won’t judge unless people are utterly completely deserving. And judgement was not to commit genocide – command was to dive them out of the land. God was destroying these nation states by dispossession them of their land and giving the land over to Israel as the promised land. If Canaanites had simply fled, unpleasantness would have been avoided. Nothing in narrative to suggest women or children were killed. Was dispossessing of land. So how could just and holy God order such a thing? Well, our moral duty is [defined as] doing God’s command [reminded me of Nixon]. How could a God command children to be killed? Children die all the time. God under no obligation to prolong life – God has right to give and take life at any time. Children recipients of a greater good – life carries on beyond the grave. Doing children a favour. God had morally sufficient reasons for this. These people were due for judgement. Emphasised for Israel that they were to be a holy people. And he’d later bring the Christ into the world through Israel. So it’s all all right.”

I don’t know to what extent Craig actually believes the Bible to be historical in the sense of “an accurate representation of what happened, Gods and all”. I don’t believe he’s a creationist (though he has Intelligent Design sympathies), and it’s hard to see how you could accept the absolute historicity of the Pentateuch and yet not be a creationist (where would you draw the line between the made-up stuff and reality?). So I assume he doesn’t take this literally. However, then I don’t see why he needs to justify this at all – there would appear to be a huge chasm between God as a “spaceless, timeless, disembodied consciousness” responsible for creating the universe and the Hebrew God with his petty jealousy, vanity and genocidal instincts. Does Craig believe they’re the same, and if not, why defend the latter?

At the end, there was a show of hands. The vast majority of the audience believed in a creator God, with about 10 atheists and 10 “don’t know”. Rather depressing, though I think the event had been organised by some kind of Christian union at Oxford which might explain it. I wonder how many of these people were studying science?

For more on William Lane Craig, here’s PZ Myers discussing Craig’s claims that animals don’t feel pain.

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