William Lane Craig and God, now on Metafilter

God, yesterdayMetafilter wonders whether God exists, or more specially, whether that William Lane Craig chap has good arguments for the proposition1. I missed it all kicking off, so only contributed at the end.

By the point I noticed it, the thread had got into people talking bollocks about induction (mainly the sort of nonsense I examine below, but also including atheists who just don’t get what the problems are). I think the tactic Stephen Law calls going nuclear must be in some apologetics manual somewhere, because you certainly see a lot of it about. So, this is how I’d respond to that:

All this induction stuff is very interesting, but let’s go back to shivohum’s original comment.

This uses a standard Christian apologetical strategy (one that Craig has used himself) in response an atheist’s to use of a naive evidentialism to discount religious claims. If an atheist says “All reasonable beliefs require evidence, there is no evidence for God, therefore belief in God is unreasonable”, the clever apologist will ask “All reasonable beliefs? Really? What evidence could there be for your belief that all beliefs require evidence?” They will then go on to point out that it seems we all have to accept some unevidenced beliefs (induction is a good example for the apologist because it’s pretty hard to see how we would get evidence for belief in it without making a circular argument, as Hume knew, but Cartesian doubts about the external world are also popular). “Aha!” says the apologist, “you see, we all rely on faith, and my belief in God, angels, demons and whatnot is just an article of faith, like your belief in this induction thing you’re so fond of. We’re not so different, you and I.”

The atheist’s evidentialism is pretty naive and they probably deserve that sort of response, but still, there seems to be something wrong with equating the rejection of fairly radical sceptical positions with belief in God. I think Chris Hallquist has it right: “belief in the Christian God isn’t very much at all like most of the common-sense beliefs commonly cited as threated by Descartes & Hume-style skepticism (like belief in the reliability of our senses), but is an awful lot like beliefs most Christians wouldn’t accept without evidence–namely, the beliefs of other religions. That kind of response is very hard to reject without special pleading on behalf of Christianity, and doesn’t involve commitment to any potentially troublesome epistemic principles.”

That is, religious beliefs do seem to be the sorts of things that require evidence, as even Christians agree if you ask them what it’d take to convince them of the truth of some other religion. If a Christian were to say, “no, but, you see, it’s only Christian beliefs which are like rejection of Cartesian doubt”, we’d just say “riiiiight“. OTOH, if it’s not just Christian beliefs which are now OK because we all have to rely on faith sometimes, why not be a pagan, Muslim or Pastafarian instead?

I followed up with another comment explaining why Craig gets (admittedly grudging) respect from atheists2. I also talked about what I think is the shakiest point of the Kalam argument: where Craig needs to show that the transcendental “cause” must be something like a person: he says mathematical concepts don’t have causal powers (a recent Mefi may disagree) but then wants to argue for that the best explanation is a person who lacks several of properties of all persons we encounter (not material, not existing in time) and has properties unlike that of any persons we encounter. If we’re allowed to do that sort of thing, why not just say that there’s at least one mathematical concept with causal potency? Or even that there’s maybe more than 2 kinds of transcendental thing, for all we know? Someone must have written a paper about this, right?

  1. In reality, we all know God exists, otherwise who’s writing that Facebook page, eh? Checkmate, atheists. 

  2. You’ll see atheists explaining that Dawkins was right not to have a debate with Craig because Craig supports genocide (by which they mean the Biblical massacres like the one recorded in Numbers 31). This is silly: Dawkins will not debate with Craig because Dawkins would lose, horribly (note that one can concede this and still remain an atheist). Dawkins’s refusal to dance with Craig is prudent, but let’s not see it as some great moral stand. 

11 Comments on "William Lane Craig and God, now on Metafilter"

  1. “why Craig gets (admittedly grudging) respect from atheists2.”

    I think I loved Craig a little bit when he briefly held out hope that maybe pure reason could tell us the universe loved us after all. And hated him when he snatched that away again and every argument advanced was bullshit.

    “the shakiest point of the Kalam argument”

    I’m reluctant to give that accolade to a specific point, they’re all somewhat shaky. But even if you quibble about causes, it seems like a plausible guess there is _something_ in which the universe is embedded. But I don’t see any reason it should be a personality.

    I’m also annoyed that he makes a big deal about his understanding of relativity w.r.t. the big bang, but the more he talks, the more it seems he’s just dragging out sentences that have the right words in, but don’t bear any coherent relationship to each other…

    (I suppose it’s possible he has non-bullshit arguments that make people respect him, but they never make it into his most famous essays. But I’ve not found any yet.)


    1. I’m also suspicious of his attitude that “What I say about infinity sounds like metaphysical woo off StarTrek, but it’s actually a BETTER understanding than mathematicians have! But I can’t dumb it down to the point where mathematicians understand it, I’m just That Much Better. Therefore God.”


      1. I have to admit that I fall asleep during the discussions of the impossibility of an actual infinite, but my impression is that real mathematicians aren’t very impressed by Craig, yes.

        I’m too much of an empiricist to think that premise 2 can be settled a priori anyway: it seems very ambitious to sit in your chair and determine what must be the case about the multiverse.


    2. I’m reluctant to give that accolade to a specific point, they’re all somewhat shaky.

      Sure, but the numbered premises are kind of appealing (Craig argues that they’re more plausible than their denials), right? Most people think premise 1 (“everything that begins to exist has a cause”) is common sense, and there’s some evidence that the universe began to exist. You can say that our common sense of premise 1 arises from our experience and we don’t experience universes beginning to exist so the analogy from every day objects to universes must be tenuous (sort of aping Philo’s response to Cleanthes about design) but I think Craig likes to respond that you’re then throwing doubt on the whole enterprise of scientific cosmology, which relies on extending inferences back to the start of the universe. I think Craig’s not quite right, but you need some thought to work out what the difference is between what Craig’s doing and what scientists are doing.

      Whereas the “well, it must be a person, obviously” stuff is an easy target, I think, which is why it’s odd that nobody has picked him up on it. Perhaps they have and I missed it, I certainly don’t listen to all his debates.


      1. Thinking about it, I think the *arguments* for all of the points are wrong, but I agree with you that for most of the other points, the conclusion is probably true, at least a reasonable guess, and that assuming personhood of the first cause is the one where I disagree with the conclusion.

        I may be disproportionately rationalistic in criticising an argument for being wrong when I don’t actually disagree with the conclusion…


  2. I am a somewhat real mathematician and I am *extremely* unimpressed by what WLC says about the impossibility of an actual infinite.


    1. It might also be worth observing that WLC probably believes (like most Christians) in a god whose knowledge and power and so forth are actually infinite, which is hard to reconcile with there being some mathematically-watertight impossibility about actually infinite things.


  3. What bugs me about a so-called “actual infinity” is that people find it REALLY REALLY EASY to imagine time projecting infinitely into the future — even if the universe reduces to a uniform mush of photons, I think most people find it difficult to imagine anything ELSE. But people find it really, really hard to imagine an infinite PAST.

    However, those are EXACTLY THE SAME from a physics perspective, so anyone who says “it’s impossible” and talks about the past but not the future needs to explain why they’re different in order to be taken seriously. And Craig never does.

    Of course, it’s somewhat irrelevant, as I agree the evidence does point to a “big bang”, although I think the notion of “cause” is a bit problematic. Things in the universe, caused by other things in the universe, are caused by things “in the past”. But God DOESN’T exist in the past of a big bang (according to the best understanding we have) but Craig takes advantage of (and likely believes) language that implies They did.


    1. A big bang, as such, isn’t enough for Craig’s argument. E.g., that’s logically compatible with a “cyclic” scenario of expansions and contractions-to-something-like-zero, or with universes budding off from black holes, or with an “ekpyrotic” scenario where universes are formed by collisions of higher-dimensional things, or any number of other such things; and in those scenarios the (proximate) “cause” of the universe’s beginning is some other physical thing that isn’t at all mind-like or all-powerful or otherwise godlike.

      Whereas the last bit of Craig’s argument — the bit he generally avoids making too explicit, because it’s obviously not very good — goes something like this: “In order to be the cause of *all physical reality*, a thing would need to be mind-like and all-powerful and ineffable and all the rest of it, quod dicimus Deum, QED”.

      So he needs “the universe has a beginning” to be true not merely of *the bit of physical reality we see around us now* but of *the whole shebang, whatever it is*.

      Which is one reason why he supplements his (logically more or less irrelevant) appeals to the big bang with his (relevant but absolutely hopeless) “mathematical” arguments that there couldn’t possibly be an infinite past.


  4. In any religion except Christianity, you actually get a lot more mileage by dropping the “person-like” tenet.

    Assuming you don’t allow science to be denied, natural selection depends on all mutations being non-deterministic. This would mean that God could not have had any foreknowledge of what the structure of any life-form would be. This means that God has no such structures, since It predates the events that decided them. So God cannot be person-like. And as a bonus, God cannot be intelligent either.

    Taking this further, God is not capable of love. Neither, however, is It cruel, because as an unstructured non-living being, such a category doesn’t apply to It. So the fact that evil exists and is not prevented can be rendered as a mere descriptive claim, without emotional significance. This neatly avoids the entire field of theodicy.


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