William Lane Craig is Research Professor of Philosophy at the Talbot School of Theology, California. He travels the world lecturing and debating to large audiences on the alleged revival of Christianity and the alleged demise of atheism. In the November 2013 (issue 99) of the popular bimonthly magazine Philosophy Now he had an article entitled “Does God Exist?” In that article, he claims there has been a “resurgence of interest in an old subject, natural theology”.
What is natural theology? It’s the attempt to prove God’s existence without appeal to any alleged revelation, but just relying on purely philosophical arguments, such as the cosmological – the origin of the universe; the design argument – the universe seems to be designed. Craig thinks there are now good arguments for these old issues and he’s also brought in some new arguments. He believes there has been a ‘renaissance’ of Christian philosophy, mainly in the USA. These new arguments have been ignored, Craig says, by the so-called ‘new atheists’ – Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Dan Dennett, who just attack the bad historical record of religions and its sociological causes. So I shall now deal with Craig’s eight reasons for the existence of God.
Reason no 1. God is the best explanation why anything at all exists
A question we can all ask is ‘Why does anything at all exist?’ Here, Craig asserts that the existence of the universe wasn’t necessary – it didn’t have to exist. So, he says, (i) it must have an explanation for its existence that (ii) itself needs no explanation. Are these true?
(i) Does every event have to have an explanation? Up to about the year 1900, in the era of what’s called ‘classical physics’, the world was thought to be governed by strict laws, for example Newton’s laws, which specified exactly how each atom would behave once the forces acting on it were known. Physics since the beginning of the 20th century, with the advent of the quantum, has had to accept that there are causeless events in nature. Nature is not completely deterministic. Atomic events, for example the moment when a radium atom emits an alpha particle – have no explanation assigned to them. All one can say about this event is that there is about a 50% chance that the alpha particle is emitted within 1600 years. An alpha particle might be emitted after one second, after ten million years, or never. This arbitrariness applies throughout the physical world at the atomic level.
As we cannot now say that it’s necessary that every event has an explanation, Craig is therefore wrong to think that current science is bound to the proposition that there are no spontaneous events. It may be that the universe itself as a whole does not have an explanation. To assert as Craig does that ‘every event has an explanation’ is a metaphysical assertion, going beyond science. Scientists and naturalists might have to remain content to accept that the universe may ultimately have no explanation. If this is so, there is no requirement for a ‘best’ explanation. So the premise of Craig’s argument fails, together with its conclusion that ‘God is the best explanation why anything at all exists’. (By the way, this does not imply we have to accept that an un-explained ‘Big Bang’ 13.8 billion years ago is the last word on cosmology. The universe might be infinitely old. This issue comes up in Craig’s 2nd argument.)
(ii) Craig joyfully races on to declare that the explanation of the universe is a ‘transcendent personal being’ which necessarily exists. (Whether pure logic can construct such beings is dealt with in Reason 7). Craig somehow knows that this being of his wanted to create the universe although it didn’t have to. To have ‘wants’ it had to be conscious. Craig can therefore say it’s a personal being. He’s clearly grooming it to possess all the attributes he wants his god to have.
The Fair Way to Start
Let’s start again to answer the question why anything at all exists. Craig doesn’t treat the question fairly because he starts by assuming that the universe exists and the problem is to find an explanation for it. This is a false start. Actually the right way to start to answer the question ‘Why does anything at all exist?’ is to assume that nothing whatsoever exists, neither universe nor ‘beings’ of any sort. Then we note the purely logical problem here which faces theists as well as atheists. This is that we all have to start our answer with some statement that itself will get no explanation, precisely because it is the starting point. Given that, there seem to be two starting points, (a) complex and (b) simple:
(a) Craig’s complex (although he’ll claim it’s simple!) starting point: the greatest possible mind, that can do anything it wants, like the joker in the pack, whose words can summon matter into existence, and then calculate every detail of the future state of the universe. Being also perfectly good, it did this just for us (and the Ebola virus?). Omnipotence, we are told, can of course create matter out of nothing — but as David Hume might have pointed out, the minds we know about, our minds, cannot create matter out of nothing. On the contrary, our experience is of minds emerging from and dependent on, matter — we have no experience of matter being called into existence by mind, so we have no reason to believe that that magical process is possible.
(b) The atheist’s simple starting point: A mind-less material universe having the potential for evolving life and mind in at least one planet (and millions of earth-like planets are now known to exist).
It’s ultimately up to you which you think is more reasonable. Given that either (a) or (b), God or the universe, is going to enter existence without a cause, I choose (b), the simpler solution. Given that something has to pop into existence without further explanation, I find it easier to imagine the simple popping into existence rather than the complex. Although at present the universe, with its galaxies of stars and planets such as the earth having life, is very complicated, we have discovered how all that complexity evolved from a very simple beginning. The laws of physics are ultimately resolvable into just one law, one system, which itself was not conscious and had no intention to evolve us. All the present complexity has come about entirely by the operation of the principles of physics. We can explain, in ever-increasing detail, how the complex arises from the simple, with animal minds and human consciousness a very late, and, from the viewpoint of eternity, a very ephemeral product. This is materialism: that mind emerges as a product of matter, simply in accordance with its laws.
Reason no 2. God is the best explanation of the origin of the universe
Craig seems anxious to prove that the universe began to exist and that time had a beginning, because he believes that everything that begins has a cause. Craig perhaps thinks that if the universe were eternal then, like his God, it would not need a prior cause – convenient for him! However, whether time itself is finite or infinite is up to physics to decide. Roger Penrose, in his 2012 Conway Memorial Lecture, put forward his theory called ‘conformal cyclic cosmology’, which the Conway Hall Ethical Society has published. This is reminiscent of Fred Hoyle’s 1956 Conway Memorial Lecture when he expounded his ‘steady state’ cosmology. Both theories implied that the universe was infinitely old and so had no beginning — they were eternal. In the Penrose cosmology, entropy (or ‘disorder’) is ‘reset’ to a low value at the end of every cycle and so avoids the usual criticism of the infinitely old universe – the inexorable growth of entropy. Penrose claims we now have astronomical evidence of events in the cycle or aeon previous to ‘our’ Big Bang.
Thus the latest physics raises doubts about the Big Bang being the origin of the universe. This question is by no means settled. Craig would nevertheless like to show that an infinitely old universe is logically impossible, so he often employs the antique ‘Kalam’ argument. This avers that there can only be a finite number of events before the present, otherwise we would never get here. Actually, there are an infinite number of instants (and hence events) in any finite amount of time – surprisingly – so the Kalam argument is false. Craig thus cannot rule out a universe without a beginning.
Reason no 3. God is the best explanation of the applicability of mathematics to the physical world
This pseudo-problem shows a complete misunderstanding of what mathematics is and how the most appropriate mathematics can be chosen to apply to the world. Craig (following Eugene Wigner) says the fact that the maths we invent can so successfully be applied to the world is unreasonable, and could not have happened by chance. He says that only God could have designed a world that would be susceptible to mathematical description.
What is the applicability of maths? One of the first attempts to apply maths to the world was Ptolemy’s. He had the common-sense view of the sun, moon, planets and stars circling around a motionless earth at the centre, a geocentric model. To explain the retrograde motion of Mars, he set Mars on its own extra little circle, called an epicycle, rolling around its main circle. This gave an acceptable account of the observed position of Mars for 1400 years. Then Copernicus got fed up with the discrepancies between Mars’ observed position and its epicycle. He decided that circles and epicycles did not apply to the planets. Did that mean that mathematics did not apply to the planets? No, of course not. Copernicus proposed the heliocentric or solar system, with the sun at the centre and all the planets circling around it. No epicycles: just a different mathematical system. But this scheme was not perfect either. The planets did not move in exact circles. Did astronomers then give up on mathematics? No, of course not. Kepler tried ellipses. Success! As long as the sun was put at the focus of an ellipse, each planet orbited the sun in its own ellipse.
Kant in the 18th century, along with almost everyone else, thought that the geometry of the universe was Euclidian, where a triangle has 180 degrees. In 1915, Einstein’s new theory of gravity implied that the universe may not be like this. The mathematicians had by then invented several non-Euclidian geometries. Einstein found one that exactly fitted his requirement that very large triangles (eg around the sun) could have more than 180 degrees – we now say space is curved.
There are many such examples where we invent, or construct, the appropriate mathematics to fit the data. Every possible physical world must have a principled structure and every structure has a mathematical representation. It would not be possible to have a world, as opposed to a chaos, that did not have a mathematical description. In fact, there is no limit to the number and type of mathematical structures. Whatever structure the physics of the world demanded, mathematicians could invent the appropriate mathematical system to describe it, drawing it down from an infinite Platonic realm containing all possible structures. The key to open this infinite realm is the imagination and creativity of the mathematicians. God does not hold this key, nor does he control the realm of mathematics. There cannot possibly be an argument for God here because there really is no mystery that needs explaining.
Reason no 4. God is the best explanation for the fine tuning of the universe for intelligent life
This recently very popular version of the design argument is a good example of how religious apologists have completely reversed their position. From ancient times till Darwin, the standard refrain used to be that life on earth was evidence of supernatural design. Evolution by natural selection scotched that argument. Theologians also used to say that inanimate matter was incapable of life and consciousness unless given dose of life force, a soupcon of elan vital. Humans had given to them before birth the additional feature of an immortal soul. Descartes stated the classic form of this dualism – a material body combined with a non-material, immortal mind.
These views began to crumble as science advanced. In 1834, the first organic compound was synthesised from the chemical elements. It could no longer be maintained that living matter was quite distinct from non-living matter — we are made of the same stuff as the rest of the physical world. However, until mid-20th century, sermons would routinely maintain that mere physics and chemistry could never explain heredity. This magic was evidence of God’s activity. Then in 1953 the structure of DNA was elucidated and the mechanism of heredity was revealed. We now believe that intelligence and consciousness are functions of brain activity.
The apologists have gone into reverse. They now say that far from the material world being inert, it was specially formulated to produce life. We are supposed to imagine that, ‘before’ (!) time began, God sat up on his mighty Wurlitzer, twiddling all the knobs controlling the so-called ‘constants’ of nature – factors which figure in the important equations of physics. There was a knob for fixing the speed of light, another for gravity which determined how strongly atoms attracted each other. There was a knob for the electric charge, which determined the strength of electric forces, and there was also a knob for Planck’s constant, which determined when the peculiar quantum rules became significant.
Craig assumes that these knobs could be twiddled independently of the rest of the laws of physics. He asks us to imagine God twiddling them, fine tuning them, calculating into the far future of each possible arrangement until he heard the sound he wanted. At that point God said ‘Let this universe be’ – and the Big Bang banged. However, according to the new multiverse theories, eg ‘string’ theories, there are billions of other ‘bubble’ universes parallel to this one, with different constants, in most of which life would not have evolved. We are in a universe that can evolve life, just as the earth is the only planet in the solar system where life could evolve. ‘Fine tuning’ was not needed. So God is not the best explanation for life as there never was any ‘fine tuning’.
An interesting consequence of the Big Bang creation as understood by Craig is that we are supposed to believe that the whole evolution of the universe, starting from an infinitely dense point at an infinite temperature, was predetermined by God to produce us after 13.8 billion years. This means that the detailed structure of the initial, primeval atom contained within it the infinite precision needed for this eventuality. That was the point of all the fine tuning. Around 1820, the mathematician Pierre Laplace gave a graphic illustration of determinism. He imagined a super-intelligent demon with infinite powers of calculation and observation. If it knew the position and velocity of every particle in the universe and the laws of physics, it could calculate the future exactly. God is supposed to be able to accomplish effortlessly what the demon does.
However, God’s job is even more difficult than that, because quantum physics is indeterministic – random events occur. This means that whatever the initial Big Bang conditions, no prediction would be possible, even for God. God could not afford to take the day off (Genesis 2.2) without losing control. He would have to override the randomness by guiding the evolution of every entity in the universe to be sure of producing us after 13.8 billion years. I shall discuss the dire consequence for theology of this de facto determinism after concluding Craig’s 8 reasons.
Reason no 5. God is the best explanation of intentional states of consciousness
Craig’s reasoning here is quite fanciful. His argument goes like this: Only a mind can think about things – OK. A mind-less piece of matter cannot think about, or be about another piece of matter, he says – OK. (mind you, I think the telephone directory is about peoples’ telephone numbers, although I accept that the directory itself doesn’t know it’s about them.) Craig then says: we can think about things because we have minds – which, he says, are more than matter, a special gift from God – no. I say our minds are just material, an inevitable product of natural selection…
We can see the beginnings of minds with intentional states in animal behaviour. A vervet monkey ‘seeing a leopard’ (itself an act of intentionality) will emit a special shriek. Those vervets in earshot which race to the treetops survive. Those dithering on the ground, wondering philosophically whether that shriek could possibly be about anything, get eaten, leaving no descendants. It’s natural selection that we can thank for our inherited capacity for intentionality. Intentionality began as soon as animal brains could form associations in their perceptions vital for their survival, even before consciousness developed in them. Having God-given minds is not the reason for intentional states of consciousness.
Reason no 6. God is the best explanation of objective moral values and duties
Although some secularists do maintain that moral values are objective, ie can be true or false, obviously without their bringing God into it, I believe that what is objective fact is that certain actions cause pain and other actions cause pleasure. In my, of course subjective, opinion, it is wrong to cause pain and usually right to cause pleasure. The results of actions are objective facts, but our opinion of them remains a valuation, not a matter of being true or false. There is a difference between facts and values. Facts can be true – eg the earth orbits the sun – or false – eg the sun orbits the earth. Facts are ‘objective’ in the sense that they are true even if no one believes them or knows about them. Values, on the other hand, cannot be true or false. I may find Verdi’s music tremendous but I don’t claim that as a fact. Values are ‘subjective’ but that does not mean the same values, eg that ‘killing is to be prevented’, cannot be held (and enforced) by society at large.
This is an issue where Craig and the theists believe they have a good case vis a vis the atheists. They like to ask humanists ‘Where do your morals come from? Aren’t your morals subjective, just your personal opinions?’ Craig claims that atheists cannot say that shooting school-children is really wrong, because it’s only their opinion, whereas he can rely on God’s commandment ‘Do not kill’; God’s forbidding killing is sufficient to make it ‘objectively’ wrong. But what is it about God’s view that makes it ‘objective’? That he is all-powerful so it’s only prudent to obey him? Hardly — that doesn’t sound very ethical.
Craig would no doubt say that God’s commands are ‘objective’ because God is necessarily good, so Craig can ‘ground his values in God’s commands’, ie whatever God commanded would be good. Here Socrates (in Plato’s Euthyphro) would cleverly ask, “Is killing then wrong just because God forbids it, or does God forbid it because he judges it wrong?” Craig cannot admit that in prohibiting killing, God (a being invented for this express purpose, atheists would say!) is simply endorsing a value held by most societies throughout history. Once that is admitted, God becomes redundant – he is not essential to make killing wrong. Craig cannot rely on God to provide the alleged ‘objective’ basis for morals. He is mistaken to claim that God is any explanation for objective moral values, if such exist.
Reason no 7. The very possibility of God’s existence implies that God exists
Craig, having decided that the universe does have a cause, then says ‘The cause of the universe has to be a logically necessary being, by which he means a being that had to exist, such that it involves a contradiction if it did not exist. But this means that to say ‘God does not exist’ involves a logical contradiction. But how can there be such a ‘necessary’ being? Who ordered that? (A question asked by a nuclear physicist upon the discovery of an unexpected new particle).
According to this most bizarre piece of theology, devised by Anselm in 1077, called the ‘ontological argument’, God is the greatest conceivable being, a maximally great being. Anselm claimed that it’s greater to exist than not to exist, so the greatest being must also have ‘existence’ as one of its properties, alongside being all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good. Craig wants this ‘greatest’ being to exist in every logically possible world and therefore in this one. Frankly, I don’t think it’s possible to conjure into existence God-like beings by this sort of verbal trickery. Does every superlative quality refer to one of these hypothetical beings? Why stop at ‘greatest’? Surely, by equal scholastic logic, there must be a wickedest one, and a wicked being that exists is certainly wickeder than one that does not exist. Thus we can also prove that the Devil exists. Kant rejected Anselm’s argument on the ground that you can’t just add ‘existence’ to one of the properties of your ‘possible’ being.
Besides, most of us, I imagine, would see internal problems in the attributes of God as defined by Anselm and Craig: (i) ‘All-knowing’ – even though there are an infinite number of things to know. (ii) ‘all-powerful’ – ability to create matter having any attributes? And (iii), why would a being of the highest goodness create creatures ‘red in tooth and claw’, create (ex nihilo) a universe having pain and, reputedly, Hell, a place of eternal torment? (God can apparently create Heaven, a place without pain.) If the God, as defined, contains these internal contradictions, it can’t even be a candidate for existence in any possible world. It would need to be transparently free of doubt, which it clearly is not. Thus there is no chance that God’s existence can be proved by pure logic.
Reason no 8. God can be personally known and experienced
Craig admits that this is not an argument. It’s certainly not part of natural theology and so should not have appeared in his article. Religious experience is found all over the world, related to the particular local religious culture. Personal, private experiences have psychological causes. We can’t therefore count this as evidence for any particular religion.
The Process of Decision-making
Notice that one very important issue did not figure in Craig’s eight reasons. This has to do with how we humans make our decisions. Most humanists and atheists would agree that we are formed by the constructive interaction of genes and environment. The environment of the genes starts nine months before birth. A mother on heroin or who smokes, or is a heavy drinker, will deprive her foetus of oxygen which will impair the growth of its brain. It may even be born an addict. The word ‘environment’ includes every signal that enters the growing embryo, and later the child. It doesn’t just mean the local geographical environment, although that of course is included. If you add together the effect of environment upon genes, you will explain the behaviour of the child. This continues as the child grows up, forming its character. The brain is plastic, that is, character can of course be modified by further experience and education.
One very important aspect of decision-making is feeling free to make the decision we want. Offered a choice of tea or coffee, I feel free to choose. I think this is what people mean by ‘acting on my own free will’ ie the ability to freely make a voluntary choice and then have the means to carry it out.
Notice though how my mental decision was able to get my choice of drink. I assumed that my nervous system would cause the language system in my brain to pass the appropriate electrical signals to my vocal chords so that I uttered the right words to order the drink. I haven’t the faintest idea of how that works in detail. I don’t know anything about the language system in my brain or how it connects to my vocal chords. I just hope it all works. I rely on the laws of physiology, based as they are on the laws of chemistry, based as they are on the laws of physics, to operate properly. In fact, to be technical, to operate entirely deterministically. I don’t want any randomness involved. If randomness intervened, I would be reduced to speaking gibberish and behave as if I had Parkinson’s disease.
Determinism Needed for Free Will
So I believe that to operate freely in the world, to be able to give effect to my decisions, requires the world to behave deterministically. My free will, as I am using the term, is not only quite compatible with determinism, it requires determinism. Now I referred when discussing Craig’s reason number 1 to the fact that according to 20th century physics, down at the level of atoms there does seem to be a certain randomness about their behaviour. It’s certainly unpredictable, but that’s also because we cannot get enough accurate information about what’s happening at that tiny scale. We do not have the final correct laws of physics so it’s too early to say whether when we do get them they will be deterministic or indeterministic. What we can say is that at the scale at which we operate, even for the neurons in our brains, any randomness averages out so we get approximately deterministic laws applying. There seem to be just two possibilities in logic for how the world might operate:
- Determinism. This means that events follow a unique trajectory, just like a video tape – you stop the tape, rewind it and replay it. It will always repeat itself exactly.
- Indeterminism. This means that events do not follow a unique trajectory. Each attempted replay would result in a totally different outcome.
Human brains and minds must therefore also operate in one of these two possible ways. I have already indicated that free action requires determinism. Knowledge of how nature operates is also necessary to carry out any project – whether building a house or going to the moon. That the world behaves as if it were deterministic is convenient for us.
The crisis for religion is to do with the fact that, apart possibly from Calvin’s notion of ‘predestination’, Christians (also Jews and Muslims) usually insist that the will is also free in a different sense. This is called ‘libertarian free will’. It asserts that at every moment, every person can decide what to do independently of their past history. This form of free will can clearly be seen to have advantages from the point of view of social control of the population. The true purpose of this doctrine of free will is to restrict actions. It’s an example of Orwellian double-think. That’s why it has always been vehemently supported by authorities, the churches, the lawyers and so on. It’s the basis for blaming criminals for their misdeeds and punishing them. It also gives God the justification for sending sinners to Hell. OK, let’s admit that society does need a justification for locking up violent people. Criminologists usually give four reasons for imprisoning someone:
- To stop them committing more offences;
- To deter them from repeating the offence once released;
- To deter other people from committing offences;
- To punish the offender because they deserved it, ie retribution.
I think 1, 2 and 3 are still justified even if we came fully to understand the reasons for the criminal’s actions. No. 4 is not justified whether or not determinism applies. If chance was involved in a person’s behaviour, he couldn’t be held responsible at all. We can still call some people ‘responsible’ and others not responsible if we use the term to mean ‘accountable’ for their actions.
It’s time for atheists, humanists etc to take the moral high ground from the religions. Christians hold up compassion as a supreme virtue, whereas, from the scientific, naturalistic point of view, the view available to atheists, it’s actually a logical necessity. I believe that society is gradually coming to appreciate this way of thinking. In this respect, it has moved on from religion. The whole theology of sin, the judgemental god, needing a saviour… I think all this is predicated on a false belief about how humans work. This is the crisis that I believe will loom ever larger for religions in the next decades.