William Lane Craig has a surprise for us. In the newest (Nov/Dec 2013) issue of Philosophy Now, he announces that, not only is philosophical theism not dead, but it is actually the most vibrant part of modern American philosophy, beating archaically positivist atheists back in chaotic retreat whenever it unfurls its revolutionary new arguments for God’s existence.
And what’s more, Craig confidently claims, in the space of four pages he is going to present us seven of the freshest, most undeniable arguments that point towards the existence of God yet produced from this flourishing legion of great minds. I admit to being rather excited to read something new at long last, something that would really shake the foundations of my weaker assumptions and force me to grapple again with my philosophical principles. Sitting up with anticipation, I proceeded to the first of these brand new, entirely irrefutable arguments….
And it was the First Cause Argument, stated substantially the same way it was when its inner contradictions were revealed as such a century and a half ago. Gaze at these two initial steps, if you would:
1. Every contingent thing has an explanation of its existence.
2.If the universe has an explanation of its existence, that explanation is a transcendent, personal being.
Imagine my disappointment that, not only isn’t this version an update or improvement on what has gone before, but it slips into the non-qualitative equivalence trap that the better versions of this argument have at least attempted to address for a while now (namely, that the first step sets up an analogy, but the second introduces (or, “slips in” if you’re feeling uncharitable) a qualitatively different event that breaks the chain of analogical reasoning).
Fine, then, the first argument doesn’t precisely break revolutionary ground. Perhaps the second will:
2. God is the best explanation of the origin of the universe.
Or, he could just restate the structure of the first argument with a little bit different evidence. Which is what he, in fact, does. The new evidence is the Vilenkin Theorem that the universe must have a definite beginning. Again, it’s a modified Aristotilean argument by analogy, and again the same problem of hidden qualitative distinctions rears its head. We can give him that it’s possible the universe had a definite beginning and that cyclical or chaotic models might ultimately prove untrue. But that doesn’t give quite the stretch-room he needs here. He needs creation from nothing to be qualitatively similar to the re-configuration of existing matter that usually brings “new” objects into existence, otherwise the analogy doesn’t work, and unfortunately those two acts are about as dissimilar as can be, and to argue from the prerequisites of the latter backwards to the implied prerequisites of the former is just irresponsible. And that’s been common knowledge for a while now.
Moving along, the third and fourth arguments, because they both come from the same place and suffer from the same problems:
3. God is the best explanation of the applicability of mathematics to the physical world.
4. God is the best explanation of the fine-tuning of the universe for intelligent life.
Argument three evinces a distinct disregard for the work in the philosophy of mathematics done over the past century. It over-emphasizes math as a static body of knowledge and fails to mention anything about mathematics as a method, its assumptions and techniques, and how those might or might not be effective at engaging with the universe. Only by confronting the research done in that field can you even start making statements about how “coincidental” the correspondence of certain parts of mathematics as they are currently understood with the physical universe as it is currently understood might be, and how much of a miraculous intercession is necessary to cover that supposed coincidence. To make these statements without mentioning the work of Pickering or Plotnitsky is to hold up an easy and uncomplicated ideal in place of messy reality, which is lazy at best and consciously deceptive at worst.
As to four, it’s the Sweet Spot argument writ universal, and, of course, the problem with it is that it is devastatingly myopic. He says that the constants of the universe are so arrayed within the thinnest sliver of possible values to make life as we know it possible, and therefore the life-sustaining nature of the universe is a sign that it has been designed for life, by somebody. God. Ignoring all the more obvious problems of circularity that the argument has dragged with it for the better part of a century, what I always find a curious oversight is the fact that, just as surely as human life exists in this universe during this slice of time, so will it surely not exist in another slice of time, not too far removed from our own. The sun will explode, and even if we escape that, there is an expiration date on matter’s cohesion in an expanding universe that is running a race with entropy to wipe us out no matter where we go. The universe is a short-term life sustainer, but a long-term life destroyer. To favor the former aspect over the latter is understandable if you think that Jesus is going to show up and whisk everybody away before all of the bad stuff happens, but if you’re starting from a blank slate of belief, the construction of the universe seems so overwhelmingly against the long-term existence of humanity that only a God with the sadistic instincts of a house cat would have so designed it.
5. God is the best explanation of intentional states of consciousness.
This argument supposes that mere materialism cannot account for the Aboutness of human thought. It absolutely can, and a fair number of the neurochemical pathways that allow us to access and coordinate memories in conjunction with received stimuli have been mapped in loving detail by an army of quietly diligent heroes whose names we’ll never bother to know. Yes, thoughts seem like they are very subjective and outside of your mere physical matter. But they’re not. They’re a chain of chemical reactions pushed by other chemical reactions, and our experience of believing ourselves to be having a thought is itself, you guessed it, a recursively sustained chemical reaction, a war of inhibitors and neurotransmitters all galloping along with our primate DNA to sift through the world’s offerings for the most important bits of data. But, hey, at least this argument is merely five decades old. So, progress.
6. God is the best explanation of objective moral values and duties.
This was CS Lewis’s big starting argument in Mere Christianity, back in 1943, and of course goes back before then. It was a somewhat forgivable argument for the forties, but is utterly indefensible in the face of what we have learned since about the origins of empathy from primatology, and of the nature of our decision pathways from neurobiology. We have discovered more and more instances of supposedly Human Exclusive moral behavior in our research of animals, pushing the uniqueness of our ethical behavior into a narrow scope so obviously linked to what came before that to suggest the need for a divine source is to be astonishingly unwilling to engage with the past half century of research on the subject.
Thence to the big finale…
7. The very possibility of God’s existence implies that God exists.
Yep, the ontological argument, that revolutionary new idea from the eleventh century. A part of me was hoping that Craig would save his most daring and interesting argument for last, and the groan of disappointment I uttered upon reading that line resonated through the house. Craig adds nothing we haven’t seen before, and this argument has been dealt with too many times to even bother with a recapitulation of its manifold flaws.
What started off with bold and heady claims for originality, for a new wave of Christian theology which would blow the lid off everything we thought we knew, turned out, then, to be little more than a limping through common ground that, at its freshest, grazed the 1960s, but mostly kept itself safely with centuries-old wisdom firmly restated with all the long-observed warts still manifestly in place. A decided letdown.