XFiles: To infinity (and be wrong!)

(Book: On Guard, by William Lane Craig. Chapter 4: “Why did the universe begin?”)

We’re on a trip back to 12th-century Persia. Dr. Craig needs someone to rescue the Christian God from the perils of scientific advancement, and he thinks he has found a champion in a Muslim philosopher named Ghazali. (It’s amazing that Dr. Craig is able to successfully sell Muslim philosophy to conservative post-9/11 American Christians, don’t you think?) According to Ghazali, whatever begins to exist has a cause (premise 1), the universe began to exist (premise 2) and therefore the universe has a cause (conclusion).

Being a medieval Muslim philosopher, Ghazali did not have access to discoveries about particle physics and so on, so to prove premise number 2, he (and Dr. Craig) rely on philosophy. The argument is a bit flawed, however, in that it relies on a fundamental misunderstanding of what an infinity is. Curiously enough, it also contradicts the Christian doctrine of eternal life.

Ghazali argued that if the universe never began to exist, then there have been an infinite number of past events prior to today. But, he argued, an infinite number of things cannot exist… Ghazali recognized that a potentially infinite number of things could exist, but he denied that an actually infinite number of things could exist….When we say that something is potentially infinite, infinity serves merely as an ideal limit that is never reached. For example, you could divide distance in half, then into fourths, then into eights… The number of divisions is potentially infinite, in the sense that you could go on dividing endlessly. But you’d never arrive at an “infinitieth” division. You’d never have an actually infinite number of parts or divisions.

If there cannot be an actually infinite number of events in the past, then there also cannot be an infinite number of events in the future. Believers can get around this by saying that most of those events are only potential events because we haven’t experienced them yet. According to Christian cosmology, however, God exists outside of space and time, and is therefore not subject to the “haven’t experienced it yet.” All times are supposed to be immediately real to God, and thus if there cannot be an infinite number of them, then sooner or later there must come a day that will be the last day in the life of “immortal” believers and even God Himself. This means that, according to Dr. Craig’s arguments in Chapter 2, Christian life is devoid of all true meaning, value and purpose.

Sorry, Christians.

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XFiles Weekend: Back to square one.

(Book: On Guard, by William Lane Craig. Chapter 4: “Why did the universe begin?”)

Between Chapters 3 and 4, Dr. Craig shares a “personal interlude” in which he tells his readers all about how, at Wheaton College, he was skeptical when his conservative Christian theology professor told him that there were “no good arguments for God’s existence”. Such a view would have been perfectly consistent with the New Testament’s declaration that believers “walk by faith, not by sight,” but that prospect apparently wasn’t satisfying for the intelligent young man. As we saw before, he converted for social reasons, without ever finding (or seeking) solid, intellectually robust evidence for God, and now that he’d bought into Christianity, he seems to have been uncomfortable with his lack of a good justification for what he’d committed himself to.

Fortunately for his faith, he happened to pick up a book entitled The Resurrection of Theism by Stuart Hackett, in which Hackett laid out a number of arguments, the “centerpiece” of which became the core of Dr. Craig’s famous kalam argument. With his wife’s encouragement, he applied and was accepted as a doctoral student at the University of Birmingham (UK) under Dr. John Hicks. Lacking sufficient funds to pay for it, however, they began to pray, and eventually, through his wife’s family connections, they got a grant from a non-Christian businessman, which Dr. Craig attributes entirely to the Lord. (Apparently, God does not have any compunctions about tampering with people’s free will to get money out of them, as long as it doesn’t save their souls from eternal torment.)

During his doctoral studies, Dr. Craig unearthed the writings of a medieval Islamic philosopher named Abu Hamid Muhammad ibn Muhammad Al Ghazali. A twelfth-century Persian, Al Ghazali disputed the claims of some philosophers who said that “the universe flows necessarily out of God and therefore is beginningless.” Some of this may sound vaguely familiar after Leibniz, but not to worry, there’s a lot that’s new and different here.

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XFiles Weekend: Dr. Craig Against Himself

(Book: On Guard, by William Lane Craig. Chapter 3: “Why does anything at all exist?”)

Last week, Dr. Craig wrapped up his First Cause argument for God by making an embarrassingly naked appeal to primitive and superstitious animism. What that argument lacks in validity, though, it makes up for in popularity, and at this point he’s sure he’s got the atheists on the run, scurrying to find some desperate last stand to rally around before their final and unavoidable defeat.

What can the atheist do at this point? He has a more radical alternative open to him. He can retrace his steps, withdraw his objection to premise 1, and say instead that, yes, the universe does have an explanation of its existence. But that explanation is: The universe exists by a necessity of its own nature. For the atheist, the universe could serve as a sort of God-substitute that exists necessarily.

Now this would be a very radical step for the atheist to take, and I can’t think of any contemporary atheist who has in fact adopted this line.

And that’s the best part about making a straw man, isn’t it? No real opponent to point out the flaws in your reasoning.

The reason no contemporary atheist tries to make the “necessity of its own nature” argument is because, as we’ve already discussed, it’s a vacuous argument: it takes an observation that something exists, and then adds nothing to it that was not already in the observation. And in the case of God, we don’t even have the observation! To call this an “explanation” is to seriously abuse the meaning of the verb “explain.”

But there’s a lot more that could be said about the flaws in Leibniz’s “necessity of its nature” flummery, and now that we’re talking about something that actually does exist, Dr. Craig has an ironclad proof that it’s bogus.

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XFiles Weekend: Straw men and animists

(Book: On Guard, by William Lane Craig. Chapter 3: “Why does anything at all exist?”)

Here’s a map of where we are in Dr. Craig’s rendition of Leibniz’s philosophical argument for God:

  1. Whatever exists has an explanation.
  2. If the universe has an explanation, that explanation is God. [ <== We are here]
  3. The universe exists.
  4. Therefore the universe has an explanation.
  5. Therefore the explanation of the universe is God.

As we’ve seen, Premise #1 fails because a genuine explanation needs to be more than just a vacuous paraphrase of the observation we’re trying to explain—it must, in addition, specify a cause that would reasonably produce the given results. Since cause and effect require the existence of time, and since the material universe has existed for literally all of time, there has never been a time when the material universe could have been caused. It is meaningless to speak of “explaining” it, and thus right off the bat, Dr. Craig (and Leibniz) are barking up the wrong tree.

[EDIT: tweaked from here through the break—wasn’t quite happy with the original analysis]

Premise #2, remarkably, leads Dr. Craig even further astray. “If the universe has an explanation, that explanation is God.” OK, sure, provided we assume the following:

  • God exists.
  • God is capable of creating the universe.
  • God is willing to create the universe.
  • God had the opportunity to create the universe.
  • Nothing else is capable of creating the universe.
  • God actually did create the universe.

Take away any of those first four assumptions, and Premise #2 fails. If God does not exist, He obviously cannot create any universes. If He exists, but is incapable, then He still is not the explanation. If He can, but is not willing, likewise. If He is willing and able, but has no opportunity (e.g. if there has never been a time when the universe did not already exist), same thing. And even if He existed, and were willing and able, and had the opportunity, He still might not be the cause if there were something else that could have created it first. If, for example, some n-dimensional metaverse were about to bubble up a Big Bang just like what He wanted, He might just wait wait and let it happen instead of intervening personally. Or perhaps some other gods/fairies/unicorns/pasta dishes might beat Him to it. But the point is, He’s still not the explanation for the universe unless He actually created it.

Premise #2, in short, is simply Leibniz’s conclusion, phrased in the form of a premise. I find it simply astonishing that Dr. Craig’s religious beliefs have so fogged his philosophical perceptions that he would fail to recognize such a blatant tautology. He is clearly an accomplished scholar, but his faith is just as clearly an impediment to his reason. And it shows in his attempts to defend this conclusion-disguised-as-a-premise.

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Branching out

Well, the secret’s out: I’ve joined Freethought Blogs with a new blog called Alethian Worldview. It’s going to have a slightly different focus: generally shorter and more topical posts than ER. I’ll still keep ER going for the weekly XFiles feature though. And perhaps one or two more in-depth articles as well. But Alethian Worldview is going to be my main blog from here on out. Hope to see you there!