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.

Dr. Craig’s first attempt to establish Premise #2 is a rather clumsy straw man.

Is [Premise #2] more plausibly true than false?

What’s really awkward for the atheist at this point is that premise 2 is logically equivalent to the typical atheist response to Leibniz’s argument…

A. If atheism is true, the universe has no explanation of its existence.

This is precisely what the atheist says in response to premise 1. The universe just exists inexplicably. But this is logically equivalent to saying:

B. If the universe has an explanation of its existence, then atheism is not true.

So you can’t affirm (A) and deny (B).

But (B) is virtually synonymous with premise 2! (Just compare them.)

If we look at statement (A) as given, it’s a bogus statement. There’s nothing about atheism that implies the absence of an explanation for the universe. Other factors may make it clear that you can’t have a cause for something that has always existed, but atheism, in and of itself, does not lead to that conclusion. No atheist I know of would argue that the non-existence of God necessarily means that, for example, string theory will never be able to come up with a cause for the Big Bang. Dr. Craig has gone completely off the tracks here.

How could he misunderstand the atheistic position so badly? Partly it’s because he’s trying to defend a logical fallacy, so it’s a good rhetorical strategy to try and shift the attack to the atheists personally, as a diversion. But mostly I think it’s because he’s fooled himself (again) by trying to turn the tables on atheism.

Recall back in last week’s discussion, Dr. Craig addressed the atheistic argument that the universe is necessarily inexplicable.

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…

Dr. Craig’s rebuttal is that this argument necessarily assumes that atheism is true, because by saying “Nothing exists” you’re implicitly saying “God does not exist.” That’s not entirely unreasonable thinking (even though it completely misses the point of why the universe is necessarily inexplicable), but where Dr. Craig gets himself into trouble is in trying to turn that around and make it a liability for the atheists. The original version of the argument (as presented by Dr. Craig, anyway) is that atheism is necessary for inexplicability to be true, but that’s not the same as atheism being sufficient to prove inexplicability. The most you can reasonably say, given the original argument, is (A) “if atheism is true, then inexplicability might be true.”

If that’s a bit hard to follow, let’s think of a more concrete example. Suppose we’re arguing with a birther over whether or not Barack Obama is the President of the United States. The Constitution specifies that the president must be a US citizen, so by saying that Obama is a legitimate president, we are implicitly assuming that he is a US citizen (just like the atheistic argument implicitly assumes the non-existence of God). The equivalent birther rebuttal would begin by paraphrasing our argument as “If someone is a US citizen, then they are President.” That’s incorrect, obviously: citizenship is necessary for the presidency, but it’s not sufficient. The most you could say is that if someone is a citizen, then they might be President.

Likewise, if Dr. Craig does find an atheist who says there was “nothing” before the universe, he may be implicitly assuming the non-existence of God, but that does not mean that the non-existence of God necessarily implies inexplicability. The correct phrasing of (A) is “If atheism is true, the universe might not have any explanation of its existence.” This leads to the correct form of (B), “If the universe has an explanation of its existence, then atheism might not be true. But then again, it might be.” Or better yet, “If the universe has an explanation of its existence, we cannot tell from that fact alone whether or not there is any such thing as God.”

That, of course, is nothing at all like Premise #2. Though Dr. Craig would like very much to blame atheists for it, you can’t really derive his premise from a careful and accurate analysis of what atheists are really saying. His point is just a fallacious straw man.

For his next attempt, Dr. Craig makes an appeal to primitive, superstitious animism.

[P]remise 2 is very plausible in its own right. For think of what the universe is: all of space-time reality, including all matter and energy. It follows that if the universe has a cause of its existence, that cause must be a nonphysical, immaterial being beyond space and time. Amazing!

Gosh! Zap! Wowee! That is amazing—except that it’s pure bullshit. Cause and effect is a phenomenon that happens within space-time reality, so it’s part of the universe that allegedly needs explaining. But we’ve beat that horse enough, so let’s move on and ask why, exactly, the cause must necessarily be a being, i.e. a projection of our own self-concept? Granted, one of our oldest and most primitive instincts is to approach the world socially. We get a lot of our understanding of things by projecting ourselves on the situation around us, and asking, “Now what would make me act like that? How would I feel if that happened to me? What would I really be thinking if I talked like that?” We’re a very social species, and this ability to reason in terms of self-projection is quite useful, even when directed anthropomorphically at non-persons. But that doesn’t mean that when the sky “looks angry,” there’s necessarily an actual “being” up there feeling angry.

What social thinking does is to codify certain patterns of events without requiring scientific analysis. We see someone scowling in a certain way, and we know that an angry outburst is about to happen; we see clouds gathering in a certain way, and we know that a violent cloudburst is about to happen. This kind of socially-based pattern recognition is a large part of primitive animism, and it works because predictable patterns show up in natural events just like they do in human behavior. So we imagine “beings” like ourselves driving natural phenomena. It’s instinctive, it’s normal, it’s even pragmatically effective, but it’s not a reliable mechanism for understanding what the true causes and explanations of things are.

Like all superstition, animism has the problem of being arbitrary. Dr. Craig takes a passing swipe at the Flying Spaghetti Monster by calling Him/Her/It an “ill-conceived entity,” but he can’t really provide any rational basis for assuming that the cause of the universe must be a non-physical Mind rather than a non-physical plate of pasta. He’s not dealing with actual, verifiable, real-world causes here, so there’s no objective basis for calling the Mind any more likely than the Meatball. He sees a real-world phenomenon, he arbitrarily picks some invisible, supernatural entity to take the credit, and he’s done all superstition can do. That’s no better nor worse than anyone else doing the same with any other arbitrarily-chosen “cause.” And of course, any resemblance to real-world truth would be purely coincidental, if it existed at all.

But in a sense, Dr. Craig is right that it sounds plausible (to the naive and gullible) to superstitiously attribute the universe to some kind of invisible Being. Granted, I’m sure any of us could sit down and list discovery after discovery where science has achieved true understanding by rejecting superstitious animism in favor of finding the actual, real-world processes. Understanding, however, is not the goal here. Dr. Craig’s argument merely exploits the weaknesses of his intended audience, without imparting any actual understanding of real-world cause and effect, in an attempt to score a cheap point or two.

And yet, while Dr. Craig is in really bad form as a philosopher today, he is in peak shape as a debater (which ought to tell you something about the intellectual merits of public debate). His whole argument is based on phrasing his conclusion in the form of a premise, he’s assuming causes where there is no time for causation, he’s mangling atheistic arguments and falling into various sorts of fallacy—and yet in a debate, he would win, because he’s appealing to superstition.

Sad but true. People actually like being superstitious. They like believing that the world around them reflects the attitudes and actions of personal beings similar to themselves. It’s the Emperor’s New Clothes all over again. “You’re not superstitious, you’re enlightened. Only the truly spiritual have the wisdom to perceive the invisible Being(s) all around us. You are among the elite, the favored few who can see the truth of what I am saying.” Etc., etc. People don’t go to debates to weigh the evidence and make up their minds. Their minds are already made up; they’re there to watch their star player sack the opposing quarterback, snatch the ball, and run it in for a touchdown. And the way you score touchdowns is by telling people what they want to hear: that their superstitious instincts have been right all along.

The technical term for this is “pandering.” It’s rather a shameful thing to do, and it’s even more shameful that it works so well, especially among believers. Not that skeptics are necessarily immune either—this would be a fine place for an apologist to point out instances of unbelievers falling for the same tactic. But regardless, pandering is generally acknowledged as a Bad Thing, and it’s something a serious truth-seeker ought to avoid. And yet, has anyone come up with a comprehensive Christian apologetic that eschews pandering? If so, I haven’t seen it. Dr. Craig is clearly not averse to it, and indeed seems rather to enjoy it. The worst form of pandering is pandering to yourself.

That’s as far as we need to go this week. Next week, we get to mingle philosophy and physics in a rather confusing mish-mosh intended to prove that the universe has to have a Creator. Stay tuned.

3 Responses to “XFiles Weekend: Straw men and animists”

  1. pboyfloyd Says:

    “A. If atheism is true, the universe has no explanation of its existence.”

    This is so obviously shenanegins.

    If atheism is true, then God is obviously not the explanation of the universe.

  2. Paul Says:

    Apologies as I haven’t read through the whole post but w/ regards to following –

    “If the universe has an explanation, that explanation is God. [ <== We are here]

    Therefore the explanation of the universe is God."

    Uh, maybe it is my lack of philosophical training but isn't this circular? WTF?

    — note, prior to clicking on "Post Comment" button I read through. Decided to post anyhow.

  3. Janney Says:

    It’s not even circular, if you ask me. It’s more like, “If I can find a plausible excuse to insert this word into the conversation, then the word applies to what we’re talking about (and means what I think it means).”


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