Wednesday, January 29, 2014

A Christmas Gift from William Lane Craig: 5 Lumps of Coal

William Lane Craig has written a short piece, A Christmas Gift for Atheists -- Five Reasons Why God Exists, for Fox News in which he suggests that atheists wish nothing more than to believe in his morally stunted magical sky-man. So he offers a Christmas Miracle, evidence that the magical sky-man exists.

For atheists, Christmas is a religious sham. For if God does not exist, then obviously Jesus’ birth cannot represent the incarnation of God in human history, which Christians celebrate at this time of year.

If there is one thing that distinguishes Craig from other Christian apologists, it is his intellectual fraudulence. OK, so that doesn’t really distinguish him from lots of others, but he is a fraud. He’s smart enough to know exactly why what he’s saying is dishonest, but he says it anyway. First, Craig knows that most atheists don’t think of Christmas as having any religious significance whatsoever and, a fortiori, do not see it as a religious sham. In this atheists are like 100% of the people I saw at the Wal-Mart Tuesday night, Christmas Eve, stripping the shelves to keep their toy-hungry kids satiated for a few weeks. Wal-Mart shoppers are fairly religious as Americans go; they just don’t see any connection between the secular celebration of Christmas and the supposed birth of the incarnation of their magical sky-man. Second, Craig knows that there is no evidence that Jesus was born in late December. He knows that Christmas is just a pagan holiday, Saturnalia, adapted by the Christians so that Romans would feel comfortable joining their religion. And if the story of divine incarnation in the gospels is inaccurate, then we have no reason to trust that there even was a divine incarnation at all (especially given the more extreme nature of the claim). The only religious sham here, then, is that perpetrated by religious cognoscenti who know better but let those Christians innocently believe that their savior was actually born on December 25th. Instead he pretends that the Christians are just reasonably choosing this arbitrary time to celebrate the purported event. Of course, there is no legitimate historical evidence for the birth of their savior at all, at any time, but that won’t stop Craig. In short, atheists do not see Christmas as a religious event, sham or not, but Craig is perfectly willing to let Christians have false, or unjustified, beliefs about Christmas if it keeps them safely in the Christian fold.

However, most atheists, in my experience, have no good reasons for their disbelief. Rather they’ve learned to simply repeat the slogan, “There’s no good evidence for God’s existence!”

“Most atheists.” I see. Does Craig have statistics on atheists’ lack of reasons? Obviously not. But even if they have reasons, no doubt Craig would not count these as good reasons. Still, Craig only makes the claim about most atheists in Craig’s experience. Who could doubt what his experiences have been? Maybe the only atheists he meets are squirrels in the park and voices in his head, and they certainly have no good reasons for their beliefs. If you qualify something in just the right way, it’s almost as though you haven’t said anything at all.

In any event, Craig pretends that atheists need to have just as good reason to disbelieve in God as Christians need to believe in God. Presumably Craig remains doubtful about the existence of Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, and a teacup floating in space around the sun on an orbit directly opposite the earth. No one can have reasons to think that these things don’t exist either, so it only makes sense to place the burden of proof equally on those making the claim that something does not exist and on those making the claim that something does exist. Craig is subtly, but illegitimately, trying to shift the burden of proof onto the atheist.

In the case of a Christian who has no good reasons for what he believes, this slogan serves as an effective conversation-stopper. But if we have good reasons for our beliefs, then this slogan serves rather as a conversation-starter.
The good thing is that atheists tend to be very passionate people and want to believe in something.
The atheist who merely repeats this slogan after having been presented with arguments for God’s existence makes an empty assertion.

Not necessarily. The atheist might fairly think the reasons are not good ones. Still, if Craig purports to have evidence for the existence of God, we should examine it. What, pray tell, are these reasons that should satisfy the world’s atheists? Please explain them in 100 words or so each so as not to test the intellects of Fox’s audience of mouth-breathing morons.

So what reasons might be given in defense of Christian theism? In my publications and oral debates with some of the world’s most notable atheists, I’ve defended the following five reasons why God exists:

Look! Pointless chest-thumping! He has publications! And has debated some of the world’s most notable atheists! Perhaps he mentions this because Richard Dawkins refuses to debate him given his rather morally monstrous defense of God’s commands in the Old Testament. Dawkins’s refusal to debate Craig shows why my assertion that Craig believes in a magical sky-man is accurate. He really believes the crazy stuff described in a millennia-old book of myth and fantasy. No ‘metaphysical ground of being’ for Craig; there literally is a person who commands people to kill innocent children, and that’s not only okay with Craig but something any atheist should want to believe as well.

1. God provides the best explanation of the origin of the universe. Given the scientific evidence we have about our universe and its origins, and bolstered by arguments presented by philosophers for centuries, it is highly probable that the universe had an absolute beginning. Since the universe, like everything else, could not have merely popped into being without a cause, there must exist a transcendent reality beyond time and space that brought the universe into existence. This entity must therefore be enormously powerful. Only a transcendent, unembodied mind suitably fits that description.

Theists tend to avoid, not embrace, this way of presenting the cosmological argument because to evaluate an inference to the best explanation, we have to consider simplicity, proportionality, and even the possibility of causal mechanisms. He wants us to believe in a supreme, infinitely good, wise, powerful, and intelligent being who exists outside time and space but created the universe. Since Craig’s hypothesis does not assert merely a cause but an intelligent being with several other qualities unrelated to the causation of the universe, the hypothesis is clearly not the simplest possible. Since nothing about our finite universe requires an explanation in terms of an infinite cause, his hypothesis is infinitely out of proportion to the evidence. Since we literally can have no conception of what it would mean for a mind, or anything else, to exist outside space, and especially time, Craig’s explanatory hypothesis is not even conceivable, let alone the strongest one possible. The God hypothesis is extravagant and apparently inconceivable. Finally, we have no idea how a being outside time and space could create a universe. Thus, the divine explanation is anything but the best possible one.

What other explanation could compete with the divine creation hypothesis? One possibility is that the universe (or the multiverse) has simply always existed and thus does not need an explanation. Craig claims the scientific and philosophical reasons show that the universe had a beginning. The evidence that our universe had a beginning in a singularity in space-time that expanded as a Big Bang is strong, but that does not mean that there is no alternative dimensional multi-verse in which our universe is only one part. Another possibility is that space-time itself began to exist with the singularity itself and so it makes no sense to ask for a cause (causation being a spatio-temporal notion) for the universe. Another view is that we should reserve judgment on the best explanation for the existence of the space-time singularity. Perhaps some string theory or theory of everything will ultimately provide an explanation superior to the magical sky-man hypothesis. Certainly any of these is more plausible--more conceivable and less extravagant--than the God hypothesis. Even the most extravagant physical theories, the multi-dimensional string theories, do not have the unnecessary additional properties such as being outside space and time, being personal, and having the properties of infinite intelligence, wisdom, and beneficence.

2. God provides the best explanation for the fine-tuning of the universe. Contemporary physics has established that the universe is fine-tuned for the existence of intelligent, interactive life. That is to say, in order for intelligent, interactive life to exist, the fundamental constants and quantities of nature must fall into an incomprehensibly narrow life-permitting range. There are three competing explanations of this remarkable fine-tuning: physical necessity, chance, or design. The first two are highly implausible, given the independence of the fundamental constants and quantities from nature's laws and the desperate maneuvers needed to save the hypothesis of chance. That leaves design as the best explanation.

This hoary old argument, in a fancy new lab coat, is easily dismissed. No one has established that the mere logical possibility of different values for these fundamental constants and laws implies anything about their actual probability. Is it a miracle that I have not turned into a chicken in the last second? Clearly my turning into a chicken is logically possible, but highly improbable. Until the Fine-Tuning aficionados can offer a probability estimate (based on anything other than logical possibility) for the range of these values, they are offering a mathematical argument with undefined variables. The argument only works if we think that the values our universe has are unlikely compared to other possible values but all the argument establishes is that different values are logically possible. The probability of a conjunction of variables is multiplicative, so the more such conjuncts you add, the less probable the conjunction is. However, to get the probability of the conjunction, you have to have defined values for the probability of each conjunct. Without that probability, there can be no resultant probability for the conjunction. You cannot multiply an undefined value by an undefined value and get a defined value. It’s a little like arguing that there must be a designer that caused you to have brown hair and blue eyes (given the nearly infinite shades of different colors they could be) without providing any probability estimate for your hair being brown or your eyes being blue. If it turns out the probability of each of these is high, then the probability of the conjunction would also be high. But, most importantly, the probability of the conjunction (for example, having brown hair and blue eyes) is undefined if the probabilities of the conjuncts (the individual facts, for example, having brown hair) are also undefined. The Fine-Tuning aficionados have left out the probability values necessary for their argument to work; instead, they substitute mere logical possibility. The unknown probability of variable one being as it is times the unknown probability of variable two. . . does not result in an infinitesimal probability but an unknown probability.

In any case, whatever happened to the all-powerful creator? The divine Fine-Tuner cannot create a perfect universe full of life from near its moment of creation but has to monkey around with the parameters of the laws in order to produce a universe with only one (or a relative few) tiny, temporary islands of life? As David Hume noted, the hypothesis that the designer is perfect, or close to it, is unjustified. The designer could be a child with an extra-dimensional universe-making kit, a first-time designer of universes, a senile or even long dead designer, one in a line of rather uninspired designers, each borrowing from the ideas of others. Is our universe the best the Supreme Being can do? Conscious, intelligent, moral beings seem to have existed only on this tiny blue marble in an enormous expanse of space and time, for only 1/50,000 of its existence. Most of that universe is not even visible to us. About 68% of the mass/energy of the universe is dark energy and another 27% is dark matter. This matter/energy does not appear to interact with the rest of the universe except gravitationally, so the kinds of interactions necessary for life (especially of the conscious, rational kind) are apparently not even possible. At best 5% of the matter in the universe is even the right kind of stuff to have life occur in it. [These theories could be wrong, of course, but that doesn’t make the rest of the situation any better.] Worse, the only intelligent, conscious life with the possibility of divine reward has existed in the last 2,000 years (since Jesus) of life here on earth. So, God created a universe with the purpose of creating the last 2,000 years of human history (or 2/5,000,000,000 of earth’s history) in the hundreds of billions of stars in hundreds of billions of galaxies for nearly 14 billion years. If I were infinitely powerful, wise, good, and intelligent, I think I could make intelligent, conscious life a little more common, or at least make it appear a little more quickly, provided I wanted it in the first place. [And don’t tell me that God wouldn’t perform this sort of miracle since the argument at hand is that the creation of the universe is itself essentially a miracle.] On the other hand, perhaps conscious, intelligent life is spread throughout the universe despite the appearance of vast expanses of uninhabitable planets, stars, and vacuum? Perhaps that life is hidden away from our eyes in the 95% of the universe that is dark matter/energy? Presumably each such planet, and all the dark matter and energy, gets its own incarnation of God in order to provide them an opportunity for heaven. I suppose, however, that all the dark matter beings would be out of luck since, I have it on good authority, Jesus is white. I suppose the non-Earth cultures are no worse off than all those humans from non- and pre-Christian cultures who have never had a chance to learn of their sole chance at salvation. That is to say, God might just have doomed them to an eternity of suffering for no reason other than an accident of birth. That’s about right for Craig’s God. In short, the magical sky-man hypothesis does not seem the best explanation for our rather life-deficient universe.

3. God provides the best explanation of objective moral values and duties. Even atheists recognize that some things, for example, the Holocaust, are objectively evil. But if atheism is true, what basis is there for the objectivity of the moral values we affirm? Evolution? Social conditioning? These factors may at best produce in us the subjective feeling that there are objective moral values and duties, but they do nothing to provide a basis for them. If human evolution had taken a different path, a very different set of moral feelings might have evolved. By contrast, God Himself serves as the paradigm of goodness, and His commandments constitute our moral duties. Thus, theism provides a better explanation of objective moral values and duties.

Craig endorses, apparently, the divine command theory of morality, a theory rejected by philosophers and theologians since Socrates and the Euthyphro. Christian philosopher Gottfried Leibniz says it is a theory that makes God a bully or a tyrant. Here’s a nice article by Louise Antony on it. [Link to Antony article] Perhaps the simplest way to refute Craig is to ask how the existence of a divine lawgiver explains objective morality. Are there objective moral rules because God threatens us with eternal punishment for violating them and promises us eternal reward for adhering to them? If that is the sole basis for morality, then God is nothing but a tyrant as Leibniz noted. More reasonably, God has a reason (at least according to theism) to give the commands he did rather than others. These reasons are the basis of objective morality. So theist and atheist alike suppose there are objective moral values that exist independently of God. Craig’s questions about how, on the atheist’s view, we come to have these moral feelings are completely beside the point.

“God Himself serves as the paradigm of goodness” Craig writes, and I am at a loss to know what this means. This statement is trivial if God defines morality in the way Craig appears to be suggesting. It would only be meaningful to say that God is a paradigm of goodness if goodness were logically independent of God. I assume that Craig thinks God is like the meter-rod in Paris; we measure whether and to what degree something is good or bad by comparing it to God just as we measure something’s length by comparing it to the meter rod. It’s obvious that God is not a standard we can carry about with us, unless we rely on some farcical ancient book. (Is that a God in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?) Then I can follow Jesus' moral example, as Daniel Tosh jokes, by setting people on fire and sending them to hell. Moreover, the meter rod analogy is weak since the meter at least measures something that exists independently of the rod. Perhaps the best analogy would be the rules of a game such as chess. There are rules governing how one must play chess, and they are objective, but the only force they have is over people who choose to play chess. You can break the rules of chess and then, by definition, you are no longer playing chess. The rules of chess could have been completely different and there could not be a reason to prefer one set of rules to another. The rules would not pick out the game of chess as we know it, but there would be no objective reason to prefer one game to another. However, it is not true that we can select any system of morality at all with equal justification. Morality is not arbitrary in the way the rules of chess are; morality has an objective reality that gives force to the commands independently of any divine threat or promise. God could only meaningfully be a paradigm of morality if morality exists independently of God.

4. God provides the best explanation of the historical facts concerning Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Historians have reached something of consensus that the historical Jesus thought that in himself God’s Kingdom had broken into human history, and he carried out a ministry of miracle-working and exorcisms as evidence of that fact. Moreover, most historical scholars agree that after his crucifixion Jesus’ tomb was discovered empty by a group of female disciples, that various individuals and groups saw appearances of Jesus alive after his death, and that the original disciples suddenly and sincerely came to believe in Jesus’ resurrection despite their every predisposition to the contrary. I can think of no better explanation of these facts than the one the original disciples gave: God raised Jesus from the dead.

Naturally, historians believe none of this. But why should the opinions of historians even matter to claims of the supernatural? If historians agreed that someone presented himself as a prophet or otherwise divinely connected, we would not think that person or even his or her following required special explanation. No one asks for a divine explanation for the historical facts concerning Apollonius of Tyana, or other wandering miracle-workers who were common at that time, despite the stories about him closely paralleling those of Jesus. The best explanation of these Jesus stories is that people at the time were simply credulous. One wonders if Craig thinks the best explanation for alien abduction stories is that aliens are actually abducting drunken rednecks in remote locations before returning them to earth smelling of booze.

Please note the way Craig produces a subtle, and fallacious, appeal to the authority of the original disciples. Do we know that the original disciples believed that Jesus returned from the dead? No, we do not. We know that there must have been followers of this new religion, but we have no idea what those people believed. We do have gospels written by people within a couple of centuries of the purported events, but no serious religious scholar believes that the names on the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) actually wrote them. I know that Craig believes that these disciples wrote the gospels because he made the claim in one of those awful Lee Strobel books (The Case for Christ, I think it was). When I ask people in departments of religion whether Craig’s claim is true, they mostly just laugh. Historians think there is no testimony from eyewitnesses that Jesus did any of the things he is purported in the gospels to have done and that there is no need of divine explanations for these mundane facts.

5. God can be personally known and experienced. The proof of the pudding is in the tasting. Down through history Christians have found through Jesus a personal acquaintance with God that has transformed their lives.

What does God taste like anyway? (Mmmm . . . minty!) Personal experiences,of course, imply nothing about the existence of God. Scientologists often have life-changing subjective experiences. Does that imply that thetans and Xenu exists? The fact that people have certain subjective experiences is no evidence that something real corresponds to them. Didn’t Craig just mention this above in the context of dismissing the connection between atheists' subjective states of mind and objective morality? Apparently, Christian experiences are valid, but the experiences of every other religious or non-religious person are to be rejected.

The good thing is that atheists tend to be very passionate people and want to believe in something. If they would only put aside the slogans for a moment and reexamine their worldview in light of the best philosophical, scientific, and historical evidence we have today, then they, too, would find Christmas worth celebrating!

Craig continues his insinuation that atheists are emotional but not rational people. Sadly, No’s slogan: “It’s always projection!” seems to apply here. After examining Craig’s reasons, we can see which side is using slogans and which is examining the evidence clearly. Atheists are perfectly happy celebrating holidays based on our love for other humans and our belief in the worth of this life. We don’t celebrate because we fear that a tyrannical sky-man will burn us for eternity in hell if we don’t sing loudly enough. A celebration based on mutual love and respect is worth more than one based on worship for Craig’s magical sky-man. And most Christians know that too.