Theistic Critiques of Atheism, Part 11January 22, 2009 — Deacon Duncan
(Theistic Critiques of Atheism, by William Lane Craig, continued.)
We’re up to the second major node of Dr. Craig’s argument: the claim that there are valid arguments for theism. Here, for your edification, is the first of these arguments. (My response is below the fold.)
Contingency Argument. A simple statement of the argument might run:
1. Anything that exists has an explanation of its existence (either in the necessity of its own nature or in an external cause).
2. If the universe has an explanation of its existence, that explanation is God.
3. The universe exists.
4. Therefore the explanation of the existence of the universe is God.
Premiss (1) is a modest version of the Principle of Sufficient Reason. It circumvents the typical atheist objections to strong versions of that principle. For (1) merely requires any existing thing to have an explanation of its existence. This premise is compatible with there being brute facts about the world. What it precludes is that there could exist things which just exist inexplicably. This principle seems quite plausible, at least more so than its contradictory. One thinks of Richard Taylor’s illustration of finding a translucent ball while walking in the woods. One would find the claim quite bizarre that the ball just exists inexplicably; and increasing the size of the ball, even until it becomes co-extensive with the cosmos, would do nothing to obviate the need for an explanation of its existence.
Premiss (2) is, in effect, the contrapositive of the typical atheist retort that on the atheistic worldview the universe simply exists as a brute contingent thing. Moreover, (2) seems quite plausible in its own right. For if the universe, by definition, includes all of physical reality, then the cause of the universe must (at least causally prior to the universe’s existence) transcend space and time and therefore cannot be temporal or material. But there are only two kinds of things that could fall under such a description: either an abstract object or else a mind. But abstract objects do not stand in causal relations. Therefore it follows that the explanation of the existence of the universe is an external, transcendent, personal cause—which is one meaning of “God.”
Finally, (3) states the obvious, that there is a universe. It follows that God exists.
Let’s start with premise (or premiss) number 1, “Anything that exists has an explanation for its existence.” What, first of all, do you suppose Dr. Craig means by “explanation”? Is he making a First Cause argument? If so, then he’s got a problem, because causes and effects have a chronological relationship, at least as far as we have been able to observe in the material universe. Since the topic under discussion is the material universe, it is both valid and necessary to consider the cause of the universe in terms of what we can observe regarding cause and effect. And what we observe is that causes require a temporal context.
The reason this is a problem for Dr. Craig is because time is an attribute or property of material reality. That is, in order for causes to exist in chronological precedence to the effects they produce, the material universe must already exist in order to provide the chronological context. What’s more, since Time Zero coincides with the Big Bang, it is quite literally true that there has never been a time when the universe did not exist. Yet in order for the universe to have a cause, there must have been a time when it did not exist, so that the cause would have time to produce the effect of bringing the universe into existence (i.e. effecting a change in state from non-existence at time X to existence at time X+1. Since there is no time before the first moment of time, the universe can have no cause.
Dr. Craig’s illustration of imagining a translucent ball fails to parallel the argument he is making precisely because there has already been a time in which we have observed that no such cosmic ball exists, and therefore we would find it remarkable if it suddenly began to exist. Yet there are some things that are neither mind nor abstract concept, that cannot have a beginning. Imagine, for example, what it would mean if Reality did not exist. Could God create Reality if it did not exist? No, for God must be part of Reality in order to exist Himself, and if Reality does not exist, then neither does God, and a fiction cannot create Reality. Yet Reality is not a mind (though it contains all minds that are part of Reality), nor is it an abstract concept, since all that is real is part of Reality, by definition.
Thus, the material universe cannot have a cause because the existence of causes is contingent on the existence of a temporal context, and time is itself a property of the material universe. We might, by diligent effort, speculate about the possibility of other modes of causality, but we have not observed such, nor do we need to appeal to such in order to explain how the universe began to exist. There has never been a time when it did not exist, therefore there is no beginning that requires explanation.
It’s possible, however, that Dr. Craig might mean something a bit more subtle than just a First Cause argument. But it’s problematic to come up with a coherent definition for “explanation” in that case, because his two alternatives are either an “external cause” (which thus explicitly appeals to the faulty notion of a caused universe) or “the necessity of its own nature,” which really amounts to saying, “we can’t really explain why, that’s just the way it is”—the non-explanatory “explanation.” Since the material universe has existed for all of time, and since no cause is possible (as we observe causes in the material universe), it stands to reason that the universe has an explanation which is neither external nor God (unless by “God” we mean Alethea, of course).
Dr. Craig’s argument essentially falls apart on this point, being built on the false premise that there was some point in time when the material universe did not exist, followed by a subsequent time when it did. But let’s be thorough and have a look at the flaws in his Premiss 2 as well.
If the universe, by definition, includes all of physical reality, then the cause of the universe must (at least causally prior to the universe’s existence) transcend space and time and therefore cannot be temporal or material. But there are only two kinds of things that could fall under such a description: either an abstract object or else a mind. But abstract objects do not stand in causal relations. Therefore it follows that the explanation of the existence of the universe is an external, transcendent, personal cause—which is one meaning of “God.”
Notice he’s quite clear here that he is (naively) thinking in temporal terms about a “cause” existing some time prior to (earlier than) the earliest possible time. There is no such thing as “prior to the beginning of time.” Trying to move back earlier than the “beginning” of time is like trying to come to an absolute stop, and then slow down. You can put the words together as though you were saying something meaningful, but the words are nonsense.
What’s more, he’s injecting pure dogma into his argument when he proposes that the only two things which could transcend space and time are abstract objects and minds. There is no evidence of minds transcending either space or time, and all the minds we are able to observe are quite contingent on their material contexts (blood flow to the brain, good health, adequate nutrition, presence or absence of drugs and/or injury, etc). Nor do we currently have much knowledge about what might exist in material dimensions beyond the 3+1 spatial/temporal ones we’re familiar with. It could turn out to be perfectly plausible that the 3+1 dimensional material universe we experience is but an intrusion of some larger, n-dimensional structure that is neither mind nor abstract object.
We cannot know (yet) whether this is true, but Dr. Craig is claiming to know that whatever explains the universe must be God. His premiss 2, therefore, is the worst kind of Argument from Ignorance: he’s not just claiming that it must be true because we do not know it’s false, he’s claiming that we know it’s true because our ignorance must mean that God did it. Ignorance is not knowledge. The most you can know based on ignorance is the fact that you are ignorant, and knowledge of ignorance is not knowledge of God (no matter how similar the two may appear at times).
Dr. Craig closes with an appeal to naive subjectivism.
We have, one can safely say, a strong intuition of the universe’s contingency. A possible world in which no concrete objects exist certainly seems conceivable. We generally trust our modal intuitions on other familiar matters; if we are to do otherwise with respect to the universe’s contingency, then the atheist needs to provide some reason for such scepticism other than his desire to avoid theism.
With due respect to Dr. Craig, let me suggest that the physics of the Big Bang is not a “familiar matter” on which we can reasonably be said to have reliable “modal intuitions.” The implications of what we can observe in the real world are quite clear about the temporal, and thus contingent, nature of causes: they require the temporal context of the material universe, and thus cannot serve as an explanation for their own prerequisites. By process of elimination, the universe must be its own explanation, by the necessity of its own observed and verifiable nature, and God (unless defined as Alethea) must therefore be an unnecessary hypothesis.