Royally Bad Philosophy (A Reply to Craig and Colbert)

Hey Ricky Gervais. This one is for you!

Posted Feb 07, 2017

Among the many things I discuss in my courses for The Teaching Company’s The Great Courses (The Big Questions of Philosophy and Exploring Metaphysics), I explain the reasons that philosophers generally agree that the arguments for God’s existence don’t work. My primary goal in doing so is not to “convince the listener that God cannot exist” (as one email-er recently put it), but to simply point out that religious belief (and specifically belief in God) is simply a matter of faith. It’s not something you prove with evidence or argument; it’s something you choose to believe (or continue to believe) by faith. This is something that really shouldn’t be all that controversial; after all, the vast majority of my theist friends and colleagues in both philosophy and theology are perfectly fine admitting and even embracing this fact. Faith, after all, is supposed to be a virtue.

Faith is not good enough for some, however. Some foolishly think that they can deductively prove the existence of the (particular version of) God they believe in, and even go so far as to think they can demonstrate that their particular brand of religion is undeniably true. (Particularly egregious examples of the latter include supposed proofs that “Jesus rose from the dead.”) These people are called “apologists,” a name that comes from the geek word “ἀπολογία” (“apologia”) which translates as “a speech in defense.” They are not “apologizing” for their belief in the conventional sense; in other words, they are not saying “I’m sorry.” They are defending their belief.

Now, I should note, apologists are not philosophers (even if they happen to have a degree in philosophy). Why? Well…First, philosophy is the love of wisdom, and as Socrates and Plato taught us, the prime defining characteristic of someone who is wise is intellectual humility—one must not claim to know that which they do not, and also gladly admit when they have been proven wrong. But not only do apologists often claim to know religious claims that are obviously not knowable (e.g., Jesus rose from the dead), but since their entire approach is self-admittedly defined according to a different mantra (“I will defend what I already believe, no matter what), I have never once seen an apologist admit they were wrong about anything. Which brings me to the second reason apologists are not philosophers.

In philosophy, everything is open for debate; no question is taboo, no topic off limits. More specifically, when philosophers first see a new argument, no matter how controversial the subject matter, they approach it with an open mind. They let the argument stand or fall on its own merit. If it’s sound, then it’s sound, and the conclusion must be accepted—even if that requires one to change previously held beliefs. If it’s not, then it’s not and one must admit as much—even if the argument’s conclusion agrees with what one believes. The apologist, however, takes the exact opposite approach. They look at an argument’s conclusion first. If it agrees with what they believe, they will champion it; they might make it stronger if possible, but would never reject it because of its flaws. If its conclusion contradicts their belief, they go on a mad hunt to find and proclaim any error any way they can (often misinterpreting or ungenerously reinterpreting the argument to make it easier to attack).

In short, philosophers decide after they have evaluated an argument whether it calls for a revision of belief. Apologists, since they are committed to defending their beliefs (not revising them), decide beforehand whether an argument is good or bad. This, by definition, is not philosophy.

Why am I bringing this up? Because, last week, two famous apologists (one professional the other not) called me out for things I said in my “Big Questions of Philosophy” course. (One did so directly, the other very, very indirectly.) One is the professional apologist William Lane Craig. The other is the Catholic host of The Late Show, Stephen Colbert. Let’s deal with the latter first.

Colbert vs. Gervais on the Existence of God

Ok, so maybe it’s a bit of an overstatement to call Colbert an apologist—although he does defend his Catholic faith quite often on his shows. (The desire to defend Catholic dogma was one thing both Colbert and his character Stephen Colbert had in common on The Colbert Report.) It’s also a bit of a stretch to say that he “called me out.” Colbert doesn’t know me from Adam (unless he happens to be reading this.) But in a discussion with atheist Ricky Gervais he did present, as an argument for God’s existence, one of the big questions I talk about in The Big Questions of Philosophy. “Why is there something rather than nothing?”

Now Gervais gave some fine responses, pointing out (among other things) that…

  • …the burden of proof lies on the believer. (“You say, ‘There’s a God.’ I say, ‘Can you prove that?’ You say ‘No.’ I say, ‘I don’t believe you then’.”)
  • …atheism is not “a belief system” but simply a lack of belief. (“There are about 3,000 [gods] to choose from…you [just] deny one less God than I do. You don’t believe in 2,999 gods. And I don’t believe in just one more.”
  • …science is not a matter of faith. (“Science is constantly proved all the time…If we take something like any fiction, any holy book, and destroyed it, in a thousand years’ time that wouldn’t come back just as it was. Whereas if we took every science book and every fact and destroyed them all, in a thousand years they’d all be back, because all the same tests would [produce] the same result.”)

But he never adequately addressed Colbert’s original question: why is there something rather than nothing? (He did switch it to a question of “how” instead of “why”—but I’m not really sure what that accomplishes.) So, as a friendly service to a fellow atheist, from someone who studies such questions for a living, I wanted to offer Gervais my response to such questions. I know there usually isn’t ample time for nuanced debate on talk shows, but I think something along this line could fit into the time allotted.

Why is there something rather than nothing? What explains the existence of the universe? I don’t know for sure, but neither do you—so asking that question doesn’t establish anything. What I do know is saying “God did it” is equivalent to saying “an inexplicable being did it using inexplicable forces” and that is no explanation at all. In fact, that’s worse than having no explanation. If I was trying to explain something—like, say, why a bridge collapsed—and I said “an invisible being no one understands did it with methods beyond our comprehension” I’d be laughed out of the room. Not only is it silly, but notice such an explanation wouldn’t help us build a better bridge next time; indeed, if I really believed that, it would prevent us from doing so. Appealing to the inexplicable does not further our understanding—it prevents further understanding. If you don’t know what caused something, I just admit it—don’t pretend to know when you don’t. At least that way you can hold out for finding the actual answer.

Now you may not be comfortable with such uncertainty; that’s why, to explain the universe, you want to appeal to a “prime mover” or an “uncaused causer.” But if I ask you “why is there an uncaused causer” you will have to say “he just is.” But if you can say that about God, why can’t I just say that about the universe itself? Why couldn’t the universe itself be the “prime mover” or “uncaused causer”? If our attempts at explanation are going to have to bottom out somewhere, why not have them bottom out in the universe—something that we know exists—rather than invent an extra unknown unknowable completely mysterious being and then say our explanation bottoms out there? Isn’t saying “the universe just is” the simpler explanation?

I’m a big fan of Colbert, and he’s generally a smart guy, but I think that would have left him speechless. But, indeed, there is a response to this argument—and that brings me to tonight’s WORD…I mean, that brings me to our next apologist: William Lane Craig.[i] 

William Lane Craig: The Reason I’m An Atheist

Ok, so that’s an overstatement too. I became an atheist because (after growing up in an evangelical home, receiving an evangelical education, and getting a Ph.D. in Philosophy of Religion) that is where an extensive and honest examination of the arguments and evidence led me. As a philosopher, I am open to admitting I’m wrong about anything—and I had to admit that I had been wrong in thinking God exists. But for a while I wasn’t ready to openly admit my atheism publicly. But then I read the book God: A Debate Between an Christian and an Atheist—a book in which Craig and atheist Walter Sinnott-Armstrong give and reply to each others arguments regarding the existence for God. Given that Craig is likely the most renowned Christian apologist, I went in hoping for a fruitful exchange; however Craig’s arguments were so clumsy and riddled with fallacies and misunderstandings (while Armstrong’s were so careful, clear and persuasive) I said to myself, out loud, “I can’t let anyone even think I’m a theist anymore. I can’t be associated with arguments like Craig’s anymore. It’s embarrassing.” (The part that literally made me throw my book across the room in disgust was Craig’s response to Armstrong’s “Argument from Ignorance.” See pp. 101-110 & 129-134.)

So you can imagine my glee when I found out that a Great Course's customer had sent a question to Craig about one of my lectures, and the question and his response had made it onto Craig’s Reasonable Faith blog. And this brings us back to the “why is there something rather than nothing?” debate.

Recall, above, I suggested that, if the theist could say he “just is” when asked why God exists, the atheist could simply say the same when asked why the universe exists. Indeed, this what a sect of medieval Muslim theologians called ʿIlm al-Kalām said was wrong with the arguments of another (Greek inspired) Muslim sect called the falāsifa [fall-A-see-fa]. In order to argue for God, the latter had argued that all material things depend on the existence of “a necessary entity”—an entity that must exist. The Kalam theologians however—like Al-Ghazālī in the 11th century —rightly pointed out that that the falāsifa argument failed to establish God’s existence because, even if there must be a necessary entity, the falāsifa’s arguments gave no reason for why that entity couldn’t simply be the universe itself. So Al-Ghazālī developed another argument (now known as the Kalam cosmological argument) for why God could be the necessary entity, but the universe could not.

Now, in lecture 12 of “The Big Questions,” I lay out the Kalam argument and give a few of the common objections that most philosophers find persuasive.  And it was about these objections that Craig received an email, and to which he attempted to respond in his blog. I first intended to respond directly to his arguments, but after reading his response it became clear that, not only did Craig fail to adequately respond to these criticism—he seemed to not even comprehend them. Since a response is warranted, I shall now endeavor to clear things up.

Criticism 1: The Kalam Cosmological Argument Equivocates

Now, in my lecture I gave what I take to be the strongest version of the Kalam argument. But in his blog, Craig claims (a) my argument conflates the Kalam argument with Leibniz's and (b) his argument is stronger (he clearly thinks it’s the best). Now, I would dispute both of these points.[ii] But since Craig’s argument is just as susceptible to them, let’s use Craig’s argument to make the objections I articulated clear. 

In a nutshell, Craig’s argument is this. Why does the universe need a cause, but God doesn’t? Because the universe began to exist, but God (if he exists) did not. Formally Craig puts the argument like this:

  1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause.
  2. The universe began to exist.
  3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.

This argument, Craig says, is “crisp and logically airtight.” And indeed it appears valid. But appearances can be deceiving; arguments can appear valid without being valid. Take for example the following argument:

  1. Bologna is better than nothing.
  2. Nothing is better than prime rib.
  3. Therefore Bologna is better than prime rib.

Again, it appears valid. If A is better than B, and B is better than C, then A is better than C. But it can’t be valid; both those premises are true while the conclusion is false. What’s the mistake? It equivocates—it changes the meaning of its terms midstream. Essentially, the word “nothing” means something different in premise 1 than it does in premise 2. When we clarify the meaning of each premise, the argument’s invalidity becomes clear.

  1. Having bologna to eat is better than not having anything to eat at all.
  2. There is no food better than prime rib.
  3. Thus, bologna is better than prime rib.

Clearly (3) does not follow from (1) and (2).

Craig’s Kalam argument makes the same mistake. To see why, we first must realize that his first premise is ambiguous. His first premise insists “Whatever begins to exist has a cause,” but there are two ways to understand what it means for an object to begin to exist.

The first is by the rearrangement of already existing matter. Say I buy a kit for a Lego Death Star. The Lego Death Star I put together does not exist until I put all of the pieces together. When I do, it begins to exist—and in this way, the beginning of its existence has a cause. But this cause is simply an explanation for how the matter that makes it up came to be arranged to form the object in question. The matter that makes it up already existed.

The other way an object can begin to exist is by the very matter that makes it up coming into existence. Suppose, for example, I find a pure vacuum—a designated area which contains absolutely and literally no matter. And then, spontaneously and suddenly, an electron, positron and photon all come into existence within that vacuum. Those three objects just began to exist, but in a very different way than the Lego Death Star. The matter that made them up did not exist before; now it does. To say that their beginning needs a cause is to demand an entirely different kind of causal explanation.

So what does “begins to exist” mean in Craig’s first premise? He makes its meaning clear by providing evidence for the claim. He says we can know that this premise is true by simply looking at all the ordinary objects around us—the tree, the rock (as Yoda might say)—they are all objects that began to exist that also have a cause for their existence. But all such objects came into existence when matter that already existed became arranged in a certain way (just like my Lego Death Star). So clearly Craig has the first sense of “begins to exist” in mind. He’s talking about how matter comes to be arranged to create new objects.

But Craig’s second premise (and conclusion) is clearly talking about the second sense in which objects come into existence; the universe began to exist when the big bang occurred—when the matter that makes up the universe came into existence. So the first and second premises are talking about two totally different things: the first is talking about matter arrangement, the second about matter’s existence. When we clarify the ambiguity in the argument’s premises (and conclusion) with this in mind, the invalidity of the argument becomes clear.

  1. There is a causal explanation for how any object’s matter came to be arranged as it is.
  2. The matter that makes up the universe came into existence.
  3. Therefore there is a causal explanation for how the matter that makes up the universe came into existence.

Although it initially appeared valid, the argument is as invalid as the bologna/prime rib argument above (and for the same reason: it equivocates).[iii]

Criticism 2: Responding to Criticism 1 Generates Circularity

Now, there is a fix for this. We could change the first premise so that it is about the existence of the matter that makes up objects (instead of its arrangement)—that way the first and second premise are about the same thing. Then the argument wouldn’t equivocate. It would look like this:

  1. There is a causal explanation for how the matter that makes up objects comes into existence.
  2. The universe’s matter came into existence.
  3. Thus, there is a causal explanation for how the matter that makes up the universe came into existence.

Now this argument is valid; it’s not possible for the premises to be true while the conclusion is false. But it now falls prey to another problem; it begs the question—it argues in a circle, it assumes the truth of what it’s trying to prove. Why? Because “the matter that makes up objects” referred to in premise 1 is the very same thing as “the matter that makes up the universe” referred to in the conclusion.

The everyday objects (trees, rocks, etc.) to which Craig refers (to bolster the first premise) are made up of the matter that came into existence when the universe did. All ordinary objects are just arrangements of the universe’s matter. So the only way one can think that there is a causal explanation for that matter that makes up ordinary objects is if one already thinks there is a causal explanation for the matter that makes up the universe. The first premise and conclusion are, in every sense, saying the exact same thing. Once we realize they are referring to the same thing, we realize that the argument just amounts to this: “The matter that makes up the universe needs a causal explanation because the matter that makes up the universe needs a causal explanation.” That’s the very definition of a circular argument. You can’t demand that X must be caused because Y is caused when X and Y are the same thing.

In his response, Craig said he doesn’t’ “see the circle.” Since Craig is an apologist (not a philosopher), the fact that he can’t see it didn’t surprise me. Confirmation bias is the Achilles heel of apologists. Now to be fair, this may not have been entirely his fault. He was relying on the e-mailer’s summary of my argument, and the e-mailer didn’t always do that great of a job. (Although, for a non-philosopher I thought he did great. All the basics were there). Indeed, the e-mailer often quoted the coursebook summary—and (although he couldn't have known this) that’s not actually written by me. (It’s a summary, based on my written lectures, penned by writers at the Great Courses. It’s usually very accurate, but can occasionally get fine points wrong.) Of course, it would be nice if Craig had sought out my original work before criticizing it. But can I really expect him to buy my course to reply to my argument? (In case he, or anyone else wants them, I’ve posted both my lectures on this topic, and made them available for free, here (Big Questions: Lecture 12) and here (Exploring Metaphysics, Lecture 16.)

Is There a Way to Avoid the Circularity?

Now to avoid the circularity, one might ask: “What if Craig avoids reference to or appealing to ordinary objects in the first premise? That way he avoids appealing to or referencing the matter of the universe in the first premise and thus makes that first premise different than the conclusion. To do so, couldn’t Craig just appeal to ‘anytime matter comes into existence, it must do so with a cause’ as an intuitive principle? Doesn’t using that as the first premise avoid the circularity?”

Sure he can appeal to that as an intuitive principle (and thus avoid the circularity), but if the big bang is the only time that matter came into existence, that’s all it can be, an intuition—something that feels true—an intuition that I or anyone else can deny because we feel different, or because we think doing so is simpler. He’d need evidence for the principle to make it more than a mere intuition—an example of matter coming into existence with a cause—but if the big bang is the only example of matter coming into existence, he can’t provide evidence for that claim without again engaging in circular reasoning. In short, since the only evidence Craig can cite for that intuition would make the argument circular, it must remain merely an intuition—an assumption that Craig makes because it gets him the conclusion he wants but that anyone else can deny for any reason at all.

Craig says that it is “worse than magic” to think that matter can come into existence uncaused, but it only seems that way to him because he has conflated ordinary objects coming into existence (via the arrangement of pre-existing matter) with the creation of matter itself. (The same is true for non-philosophers who think this principle is intuitive. This is why Craig constantly cites “everyday experience” with ordinary objects as evidence of this principle. It encourages this mistake in reasoning.) But what’s actually worse than magic, as I pointed out above, is to appeal to the inexplicable to explain the unexplained—which is all a “God did it” explanation can ever be. Such explanations, by their very nature, lack scope and simplicity.

Indeed, since the singularity that produced the big bang is about as simple as anything can get—it was an infinitely small point that existed for no time (thus it did not begin to exist) and was governed by no known laws—anything one introduced to try to explain it would demand an explanation even more than the singularity itself (especially if that explanation has infinite properties, as Craig suggests God does). Indeed, if anything is a candidate for an uncaused event, it would seem to be the singularity; since it marks the beginning of time, and causes must precede their effects, it seems logically impossible for the singularity to have a cause. (This is one reason why Kalam arguments put in terms of explanations, instead of causes, are stronger.)

One Last Desperate Effort

Now one might argue for the above intuitive principle another way. “In our everyday life, we don’t constantly see matter randomly coming into existence uncaused. Isn’t that a reason to think the above ‘intuitive principle’ is true—to think that matter never comes into existence uncaused?” But this argument doesn’t work for two reasons.

First, this is simply an appeal to ignorance. “You can’t prove that matter does come into existence uncaused (by finding an example of it doing so), so it doesn’t.” A lack of proof for something being true isn’t a reason to think it is false. (And before you accuse me of the same mistake, notice that I have not argued that "matter does come into existence uncaused because you can’t prove it didn’t." I’ve merely pointed out that (a) Craig’s argument that the universe has a cause is either invalid or circular (b) the intuition that matter can come into existence uncaused is (at worst) just as plausible (has just as much evidence) as the intuition that it can’t and (c) its simplicity and scope likely makes “the universe is uncaused” the better hypothesis.  

Second, the primary assumption of the above argument is false. While we don’t see it occur in our everyday life, matter actually is constantly coming into existence, all around us, uncaused, on a daily basis. That scenario I mentioned earlier about particles coming into to existence out of a vacuum? Yeah, that happens all the time, and we know that these events happen without a cause or explanation. They are a result of random uncaused fluctuations in the quantum foam. And this is not a matter of hypothetical or philosophical debate. Not only are such events consistent with and predicted by quantum mechanics, such events have been measured and confirmed. So the principle that Craig must appeal to (that “anytime matter comes into existence, it must do so with a cause”) is patently and empirically, false. Therefore his argument is unsound.

Now, in the aforementioned God: A Debate book (p. 56-7), Craig argues that quantum mechanics doesn’t necessarily entail that matter comes into existence uncaused. He doesn’t deny that particles can arise out of a vacuum, but claims that whether such an event is uncaused depends on what interpretation of quantum mechanics you accept.[iv] But this is patently false. Einstein thought that, although it appeared that there were no causes for quantum events, there had to be. He called them hidden variables. But since then (with things like the EPR experiment, which I explain towards the end of my Exploring Metaphysics course), it has been confirmed that he was wrong: there are no hidden variables. And let me be entirely clear. We didn’t conclude that there were no hidden variables because we couldn’t find them. We proved that they don’t exist; they can’t exist. Hypothesizing the existence of hidden variables generates predictions inconsistent with the observable outcome of experiments. We know that quantum events, including the appearance of particles due to vacuum fluctuations, have no cause; any interpretation of quantum mechanics must account for this fact.[v]

Even worse, it seems possible for vacuum fluctuations to create large collections of matter—as large as our universe. And the properties our universe has are consistent with it being just such a fluctuation.[vi] Indeed, some scientists argue that all matter in the universe is simply the result of vacuum fluctuations. Of course, this doesn’t prove that the universe is uncaused—the early history of the early universe is still debated, and there is much that we still do not know—but it does mean that supposed simple deductive proofs that “the universe must have a cause because it began to exist,” the likes of which Craig proposes, are monumentally naive. They are examples of royally bad philosophy.  

Copyright David Kyle Johnson 2017

End notes:

[i] For more on why “God did it” can never be a satisfactory explanation, see Schick, Theodore. “Can God Explain Anything?” Think. Volume 2, Issue 4. Summer 2003.

[ii] My 16th lecture in “Exploring Metaphysics” makes clear why I chose this version of the argument.

[iii] Here’s another way to put it. Craig repeatedly tries to establish his first premise by saying that “ordinary objects don’t spring out of nowhere.” To which I say, “Right, they are created by the rearrangement of pre-existing matter. But since that is not how the universe came into existence, that doesn’t tell us anything about whether the universe has a cause.”

[iv] Craig also claims that, since the quantum vacuum out of which such particles arise isn’t technically “nothing” (it’s a probability field), this also doesn’t negate the principle that “something can’t arise from nothing.” But since the issue here is whether or not matter can come into existence uncaused, this point is irrelevant. If matter arises from the quantum vacuum uncaused, the principle needed by Craig’s argument is still false.  

[v] The only interpretation of quantum mechanics that hypothesizes some hidden variables that is also consistent with the experimental data is Bohm’s pilot wave theory. This still does not vindicate Craig’s argument, however. (a) As far as I understand it, it only hypothesizes causal explanations for the behavior of particles (not the occurrence of vacuum fluctuations) (b) It’s only one interpretation and it must be the right one in order for Craig’s first premise to not be refuted and since (c) Bohm’ pilot wave theory violates physical laws (it requires information to travel faster than light), that doesn’t leave Craig’s argument on very solid ground.

It’s perhaps also worth noting that I've seen some claim that quantum mechanics only entails that events are uncaused, not objects. So the event that leads to the creation of particles in a vacuum is uncaused, but the particles themselves have a cause (the uncaused event). This seems like a meaningless distinction, but in any event it does not help the Kalam argument . One can simply maintain that the big bang is the uncaused event that lead to creation of matter.

[vi] See Tryon, Edward P. "Is the Universe a Vacuum Fluctuation?", in Nature, 246(1973), pp. 396–397. Smith, Quentin. "Can Everything Come to Be Without a Cause?" Dialogue 33 (1994): 313-23. - Smith argues for the possibility of a causeless universe. Smith, Quentin. "The Uncaused Beginning of the Universe." Philosophy of Science 55 (1988): 39-57.