(Book: On Guard, by William Lane Craig. Chapter 3: “Why does anything at all exist?”)
I will say this for Dr. Craig: his book is well-organized. Chapter 3 is laid out around a five step syllogism.
- Whatever exists has an explanation.
- If the universe has an explanation, that explanation is God.
- The universe exists.
- Therefore the universe has an explanation.
- Therefore the explanation of the universe is God.
Mind you, there are significant problems with each of those steps except the third—but it’s well-organized! He has laid out his five main points, and now he’s going through each one, answering objections and offering supporting arguments. It’s a fisker’s paradise, not the least because Dr. Craig is such a good debater. If anybody can make a good case for Christianity, it’s Dr. C. As we look at his last 3 points for Premise #1, though, it’s clear that the material he has to work with isn’t enough to prove what he wants to prove.
We’ll begin with Dr. Craig’s “Size Doesn’t Matter” defense of Premise #1.
Imagine that you’re hiking through the woods and you come across a translucent ball lying on the forest floor. You would naturally wonder how it came to be there. If one of your hiking partners said to you, “Hey, it just exists inexplicably. Don’t worry about it!” you’d either think that he was crazy or figure that he just wanted you to keep moving. No one would take seriously the suggestion that the ball existed there with literally no explanation.
Now suppose you increase the size of the ball in this story so that it’s the size of a car. That wouldn’t do anything to satisfy or remove the demand for an explanation. Suppose it were the size of a house. Same problem. Suppose it were the size of a continent or a planet. Same problem. Suppose it were the size of the entire universe. Same problem. Merely increasing the size of the ball does nothing to affect the need of an explanation.
That’s the kind of writing that made C. S. Lewis famous. Simple, clear, direct, easy to visualize and understand. It’s such an attractive logical progression that you don’t even notice it’s a fallacy. What does a translucent ball in a forest have to do with an entire universe in a—well, there’s nothing outside of the universe for the universe to be in, so we can’t even express a direct comparison. But they’re fundamentally different categories of things. The ball exists in a context; the universe is the context.
I suspect that what Dr. Craig is doing here is not quite as naive as thinking that the universe is like a translucent ball, only bigger. He knows that there is a lot more to the universe than there is to the translucent ball—significant, qualitative differences that potentially invalidate his analogy. But I suspect that he’s assuming (and might even admit that he’s assuming) that the ball and the universe have one characteristic in common, and that is the need for an explanation of their existence. If the universe is like the ball in that both require an explanation, then his analogy works to show that the universe needs an explanation just like the ball does. Unfortunately, this boils down to saying that if the universe needs an explanation, then the universe needs an explanation, which is mere tautology.
Notice, too, that Dr. Craig does not have the skeptical hiker propose that the ball’s existence might be explained “by necessity of its own nature” or any such nonsense. That was last week, and it’s to be used only to get the believer out of the dilemma of reconciling God’s existence with Premise #1. As explanations go, it would work just as well to account for the translucent ball as for anything else, but that’s because it’s a completely vacuous “explanation.” It contributes nothing to our knowledge about the cause of a thing, it merely says, “It does exist, therefore it obviously must exist.” Very wise of Dr. Craig not to bring that up here; thinking that one through could only end in tears (for the believer at least).
The best that can be said for this argument is that he’s correct about size not being the reason why the universe requires no explanation. The real reason is because genuine explanations describe a cause-and-effect relationship, and cause-and-effect relationships depend on the existence of time, and time is a property of the material universe, just like space is. Since there has never been a time when the material universe did not exist, then there could never be a time when any cause could operate in order to cause the universe. Not only does the universe not require an explanation, it does not allow one.
Next, Dr. Craig moves on to “The Taxicab Fallacy.”
Sometimes atheists will say that premise 1 is true of everything in the universe but is not true of the universe itself. Everything in the universe has an explanation , but the universe itself has no explanation.
But this response commits what has been aptly called the “taxicab fallacy.” For as the nineteenth-century atheist philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer quipped, premise 1 can’t be dismissed like a hack once you’ve arrived at your desired destination! You can’t say that everything has an explanation of its existence and then suddenly exempt the universe.
What Dr. Craig is forgetting is that the response he describes above is an objection to the premise that everything has an explanation of its existence. That is, it’s not the atheists who are saying that literally everything has an explanation of its existence. As he himself explains, the atheistic alternative is to say that explanations exist only for things contained within the universe. Because explanations require cause-and-effect relationships, it makes sense that they would be limited to the material domain, because time is a property of the material universe, and the existence of time makes cause-and-effect possible. Since cause-and-effect depends on the existence of the material universe, the existence of the universe cannot depend on cause and effect. So the atheistic response is perfectly consistent both with itself and with observable reality. The only real conflict is with the believer’s premise that everything that exists has an explanation—but that’s the believer’s problem, not the atheist’s.
Notice, again, that Dr. Craig does not invoke “the necessity of its nature” as a possible solution for the existence of the universe. It would work for the universe as well as it does for God (and much better, in fact, since we can see that the universe does exist, whereas God is not so fortunate). But “it exists because it exists” is hardly a meaningful explanation. Dr. Craig can see the problem when the subject being “explained” is real. Sadly, though, he doesn’t notice the deficiency when he’s using it to “explain” God.
Speaking of taxicabs, though, let’s see how Dr. Craig treats science.
Notice, too, how unscientific this atheist response is. For modern cosmology (the study of the universe) is devoted to the search for an explanation of the universe’s existence. The atheist attitude would cripple science.
Zing, take that atheists! Ok, science, I’ve arrived at my desired destination, so you’re dismissed. My preferred “explanation” is that God magically poofed the universe into existence using supernatural powers beyond science’s ability to understand—but the atheist attitude would cripple science. (Apparently Dr. Craig doesn’t want science to be limited to the reasonable conclusions you can draw by looking at the real world and understanding the relationship between time and the law of cause and effect. You have to be willing to be superstitious and gullible too.)
Meanwhile, back in the real world, science isn’t nearly as crippled by atheistic attitudes as Dr. Craig would like to think. As “skydivephil” points out in an excellent video on YouTube, secular scientists are open to the idea that material reality may encompass something larger than just the visible cosmos we see around us today. As we will see, Dr. Craig loves to take science “taxicab” in order to arrive at his desired destination, the idea that this universe has a cause. Then he quickly dismisses the cab before it can carry him farther than he wants to go, because if science does find a larger material context for the cosmos, and if the (time-based) law of cause and effect does apply there, in a way that would allow it to create this universe, then we still have a material reality sufficient to create everything we need to account for. What’s more, not only does this larger material context have no need for a divine Creator, it ultimately leaves no room for one. Time may go back a little farther than we can see, due to the big bang, but since time is a property of material reality, then even this bigger reality must be uncreated, since there will never have been a time when it did not exist.
Dr. Craig wraps up his defense of Premise #1 by considering one last objection.
[Some atheists] say that it’s impossible for the universe to have an explanation of its existence. Why? Because the explanation of the universe would have to be some prior state of affairs in which the universe didn’t yet exist. But that would be nothingness, and nothingness can’t be the explanation of anything. So the universe must just exist inexplicably.
This line of reasoning is obviously fallacious. For it assumes that the universe is all there is, so that if there were no universe there would be nothing. In other words, the objection assumes that atheism is true!…
Leibniz would agree that the explanation of the universe must be a prior state of affairs in which the universe did not exist. But that state of affairs is God and His Will, not nothingness.
Call this the “one good fallacy deserves another” defense: since atheists are assuming (fallaciously) that nothing other than the universe exists, counter their objection by assuming (fallaciously) that God exists. If I might play the tie-breaker, however, I’d like to point out that the universe has existed for as long as time has (even if it’s the bigger “metaverse” or “multiverse” currently under scientific study), and therefore the phrase “prior to the beginning of time” is a meaningless word salad. “Prior to” is a time-based relationship; one thing can’t be “prior to” another unless it occurs at an earlier point in time, but time has to exist before it can contain any points. Any point in time is not going to be a point prior to the beginning of time, since time will necessarily have already begun by that point.
Thus, it’s not that the universe began to exist at some point, and that prior to that point there was either a vacuum with no God or a vacuum with God. It’s not that there was some kind of “nothingness” before the beginning of time, or that there wasn’t. There is no time period before the beginning of time, and thus no possibility of any cause (divine or otherwise) occurring during that time. Explanation stops where cause-and-effect stops, and cause-and-effect stop where time stops. We can use science to observe and study and understand the universe (or multiverse or whatever), and follow the chains of cause and effect back through time, but we can’t go back before the beginning of time to see if there are any causes there, because there’s no such thing as “before the beginning of time.”
And that does it for the sub-points. Three swings, and three misses; Premise #1 is a strikeout. It’s simply not true that there’s an explanation for everything that exists, which is why Leibniz had to resort to “explanations” that don’t actually explain anything in order to fool himself into thinking his God was explainable. Dr. Craig is a smart guy, and I’m sure that he could see the problems in his reasoning, if only his faith didn’t keep getting in the way. But that’s what a faith-based worldview does to you: if it didn’t turn the facts into something else, it wouldn’t be based on faith.
As bad as he’s doing so far, though, Dr. Craig’s reasoning gets even more tortured when he comes to Premise #2. Stay tuned.