Saturday, October 1, 2011

My (imaginary) Debate with Dr. William Lane Craig

Thank you for being here tonight, and thank you for allowing me to spend the next couple of hours with you. Let me especially extend my thanks to Dr. William Lane Craig, who, wholly unbeknownst to him, will serve as my imaginary opponent in this most improbable of imaginary debates.

The question before us here tonight is "Is there a God?" This question has been debated by such legends as Plato and Aristotle, St. Anselm and St. Thomas Aquinas, Immanuel Kant, Rene Descartes, Dr. William Lane Craig, and by such obscure laymen as yours truly.

Is there a God? The question itself evokes awe and wonder about the immensity of the universe - eternity and infinity, time, space, mass, energy and the way they appear and are arranged and behave. The question "Is there a God?" is almost invariably linked to, and preceded by life's most basic and deepest questions such as "Where did I come from?", "How did life arise?", "How did the universe come into existence?" and "Why is there something instead of nothing?".

Our intuitions - the almost-unconscious feelings and attitudes we have about things, tell us that there is something greater than we are. As an example, if we didn't know better, we might imagine that the cause of the rain was something not unlike ourselves - an animate force endowed with the ability to cause rain to fall. We know what and how we humans think and act (to an extent) so projecting characteristics that we ourselves have onto the invisible cause of the rain is as good a guess as any we can make in the absence of more information. We certainly do this as children, we certainly did this as a species early in our history, and we certainly do that even today.

Carrying the analogy a step further - when the rain floods the river until it overruns its banks and threatens our homes, we may seek to win favor from this animate rain-causing being by acting in a certain way that we think it might approve of, or offering it certain things that we think would please it, or bargaining with it. When the rain either falls - or subsides - in accordance with our wishes, we are filled with good feelings about the force behind the rain, and we sing its praises. When the rain - or lack or it - does not accord with our wishes and requirements, we may feel anger or fear, and seek to ameliorate these feelings with bargaining and offerings and sincere beseechments. So when these beseechments and offerings are coincident with a positive change in the weather, we say that the rain force has answered our prayers. When the weather fails to turn in our favor, we don't understand, but we can save face by saying that the rain force works in mysterious ways, and we re-double our prayers and offerings. Sooner or later, we either get rain, or we parch to death, after which our particular form of belief in the rain god passes away with us.

Taken to the extreme, this minor deity may accumulate other powers, merge with other minor deities and morph over time into God, almighty God, God the great and powerful. That's what Dr. Craig and I will argue tonight, he in the affirmative, I in the negative.

Defining God

Let me define God as I perceive it to be intended in this debate. When we say "God" tonight, I believe we are speaking of the monotheistic God "Yahweh" as described in the Hebrew Bible. This God is usually believed to have created Heaven and Earth, Adam and Eve, and is most commonly perceived to supervise and judge our lives and the world around us, and take action upon us and our surroundings both during our lives, and for eternity after we pass away. We can petition this God to receive benefits, and occasionally to smite our enemies. This conception of a deity is unimaginably powerful, this thing that can create an entire universe and interact with every thinking being on this tiny planet, then supervise us all for eternity after our physical lives are over. Unimaginably powerful indeed. And acts in mysterious ways.

Common arguments for God

Dr. Craig will argue that God exists. Dr. Craig will not present physical evidence of God, because, up until the very moment we walked into this building, there has never been any credible evidence that God exists. That we expect physical evidence which others can verify independently is a hallmark of an intelligent society that seeks to understand how the universe works. We want to know - to a reasonably high degree of certainty - that the things we can discern are explained as well as possible, while leaving it open to new and better explanations when new data, tools and techniques warrant. We even design experiments to falsify our hypotheses - to show that the data and models and methods that we propose as representing reality are instead false or unrepeatable - in order to prove to ourselves that our models reliably and repeatably explain things. So keep in mind that Dr. Craig will not present any of that.

Dr. Craig will argue some or all of the following: that God exists because 1) he is necessary for being; 2) the universe requires a cause, and that cause must be God; 3) the appearance of design in the universe indicates that there must be a designer, and that designer must be God; 4) the existence of human morals requires a higher authority to instill them in us, and that authority must be God. Dr. Craig's fifth common argument may be that the resurrection of Jesus as described in the New Testament is evidence of grace and power and love that are signs that God exists.

Finally, you may hear Dr. Craig tell us (and I will paraphrase here) "I believe in God because he personally revealed himself to me" - and that revelation is evidence that God exists. Although it is the least warranted, least supported by verifiable physical evidence and rational justification, it is the one argument that I am most sympathetic to. You see, I was once born-again. I once had what I would describe as a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and I once - or twice - had what I interpreted as personal revelations that convinced me that God exists, and that he was speaking to me directly, not through an intermediary. This is powerful, powerful stuff. I no longer believe it - not a bit of it - but I'm very, very sympathetic to personal revelation because I've experienced it. So I stipulate that I am sympathetic to some arguments for the existence of God - but let me make it clear that I, in no way, accept any of them as demonstrations of, or evidence for God. I reject this God hypothesis completely, and in the course of this debate, I will show that the arguments for God that I've listed just now, are devoid of evidence, faulty in structure, and in no way present the slightest indication that anything supernatural does or could exist, let alone that ultimate supernatural conjecture we call God. They are just arrangements of words.

Tricks and traps

In the course of tonight's debate - Dr. Craig arguing that God exists and I arguing that God does not exist - I want to warn you of some of the tactics that will be employed in arguing for the resolution that God does exist. First, you will hear some assertions that are not agreed to.

For instance, you may hear that eternity - literally a universe with an infinite past and an infinite future, is logically impossible. Well, this is irrelevant. It makes no difference whether there is an infinite past or not. We are talking about whether something - God - exists. We are not arranging three and four-syllable words in order to impress our friends and exercise our lips. The only thing this assertion is good for is to set the stage for the argument from first cause - that the universe requires a cause, thus the cause is God, thereby proving that God exists (which incidentally omits how God could exist in the first place to perform this function). When you hear an argument against the existence of an eternal universe, you're just being softened up to accept a finite beginning, to which a hypothetical being - God - can be prepended as the cause. This is the only way that an argument from first cause can ever be made. Don't be misled. Arguing the existence of God ... a conjecture that has never been proven anywhere, and certainly the point of contention in this debate ... based on a premise so conditional as whether or not the universe has a beginning, does not make a worthy argument. It still ignores how God is necessary to the process. You might as well say "if, hypothetically, the universe has a finite beginning, then if, hypothetically, anything with a beginning has to have a cause, then if, hypothetically, the supernatural exists, then if, hypothetically God could exist, then if, hypothetically, God did exist, then if, hypothetically God could cause the universe to exist, then actually God did cause the universe to exist, therefore God exists." Did you notice how many times we have to interject that this is hypothetical? This type of reasoning is not something you'd ever consider worthwhile if you were trying to determine if the 200 foot high bridge in front of you is safe to cross - there are too many conditions to be met, most of which are clearly not certain, and may in fact be wildly improbable. To top it off, it's just another fine example of a circular argument - if he could exist and if he did exist and if he could create the universe and if he did create the universe then he exists. Huh?

If something exists, it can be detected. Rearranging words like we just did, on the other hand, doesn't help us detect anything. When my opponent rearranges words without a valid logical structure, without providing warrants for the intermediate inferences, without supplying adequate evidential support, it may simply confuse you or dissuade you from consciously recognizing that the conjecture being proposed - God - has no base of evidence or reasoning from which its existence can be affirmed.

The fact is, considering concepts such as eternity and infinity don't help you except to give you a metaphorical place to stand here and now. If, from this vantage point here and now, the human race cannot detect anything supernatural in the universe, then the best argument for the existence of God is only its negation - that "you can't prove God doesn't exist". Because you can't prove the non-existence of something is not logically followed by the statement "thus that 'something' is proven". It only puts the subject being not disproved into limbo - a limbo that says "we can think and say the words that describe it, but we have never observed it in any fashion". This is not an argument for God.

Also in the course of this debate, I urge you to count how many times your hear my opponent appeal to your emotion, to your ego. You will hear "don't you think?" and "it just stands to reason..." and "it's just common sense" - and similar constructions - more than once tonight. If you're like me, (and I'm blatantly appealing to your emotions and your intellects here) you are flattered when folks appeal to your predispositions, your emotions, your egos. But look for evidence - cold, hard, verifiable, unequivocal evidence. There will be none. Invoking things like "common sense" means nothing if, at its core, the sense that we're claiming to be common has no basis in fact. It's just opinion. Questions of existence aren't decided by opinion polls, they're decided by observation and measurement.

Interlude - my potential for belief in God

Now ... what would it take for me to believe in God? I once jokingly told a fellow blogger that my standards were low - just have her meet me at a restaurant that I'm thinking about, and at a time and date that I'm thinking about, and buy me the meal that I'm thinking about. If all this comes to pass, I'll even pick up the tip. It's that simple. It will not happen of course, but I hope this makes my point. If a super powerful being that people could communicate with and influence via the power of prayer cared one bit about the people of the world, she'd start making appearances so that the locals would know that it's not just nature that brought us here, but a real, verifiable cosmic force that is capable of finding its way around Little Italy in San Diego and ordering a meal for two. Simple.

Introducing my arguments

Finally, before I get into the meat of my thesis, I want to stress again that you will not hear me attempt to prove, logically or by physical evidence, that God does *NOT* exist. That, I'm sure Dr. Craig will agree with me, is a fool's errand. Here's a trivial analogy: You may able to measure the water in a glass and come to a reasonable conclusion that all of the water in the glass is H2O and only H2O - that only real water exists in the glass - but if I assert that there is arsenic in that glass, the only way you can disprove it to an absolute certainty is to observe each molecule individually. Barring that, you can never be 100% sure. You may be 99.999999% sure, but getting that last millionth, or billionth, or gazillionth of a percent will take more time, effort and money than the question is worth.

The same difficulty prevails when considering a disproof of the existence of God. If I can't disprove the existence of a molecule of arsenic in a glass - I'm darned sure incapable of disproving God's existence. I just don't have the time or inclination to go through each atom and photon and neutrino in the universe, nor each and every one of them in combination as they move and rearrange throughout eternity. Getting to that last billionth or gazillionth of a percent certainty is astronomically more difficult than my simple glass of water. So I won't even start down that road - not during football season, anyway.

Why the expected Arguments for God don't work

Let's have a brief look at why the most common arguments for the existence of God don't work.

The ontological argument

Ontological arguments take many forms, but tend to be marked by a focus on categories of being - such that extending the idea of higher powers to its "ultimate" leads you to arrive at the concept of God.

Dr. Craig normally relies on a variation of the Ontological argument first proposed by St. Anselm, and refined by Alvin Plantinga. I understand this to be:
1. It is possible that a maximally great being exists.
2. If it is possible that a maximally great being exists, then a maximally great being exists in some possible world.
3. If a maximally great being exists in some possible world, then it exists in every possible world.
4. If a maximally great being exists in every possible world, then it exists in the actual world.
5. If a maximally great being exists in the actual world, then a maximally great being exists.
6. Therefore, a maximally great being exists.
First problem - none of that indicates there's a god required anywhere - but we are then told that the maximally great be is god. It's not necessary that a god is the maximally great being that the argument concludes - so we could stop there.

But we won't - second problem: If and when Dr. Craig argues that this proves god ... does it prove Yahweh as well? You won't hear him make the mental twists and turns to do this - case closed again.

Third problem - did anyone count the "ifs"? That's a whole lot of "ifs" there, isn't it? Four of them. We can summarize the problems with this argument in one sentence: literally "It is possible that a maximally great being exists - therefore, a maximally great being exists". We can see that this chain of conditional premises can be used to "prove" - in a scare-quotey kind of way - that anything that you wish to assert is the maximally great being proved - and thereby prove that anything you wish to assert is God. By this logic - I can argue that it's possible for the universe to consist entirely of white mocha frappacino with a dash of cinnamon. You get my point that this argument does nothing for the theist when we take it seriously.

The argument from first cause

The argument from first cause - the Cosmological Argument - states that something caused the Universe to exist, and this First Cause must be God.

There are some problems with that: 1) it assumes that the term "cause" can be meaningfully applied to the universe. We may assign cause to human beings and their actions and products because we really do cause trivial things to be built and destroyed, and we really do cause events to occur. But it is early, barely at the dawn of man's ability to make meaningful observations and interpretations of the universe. There might not be a "cause" of the universe... it may just exist. 2) If "cause" is relevant, then we presumably must assign it to something external to the thing being caused. That implies that the thing doing the causing has an existence of its own, which, following the same pattern of thought, requires a cause, and so on. That's called an infinite regress. You can never stop asking the question of what caused the next higher causative agent. As a wise lady once was reported to say "it's turtles all the way down".

The variant of this argument that Dr. Craig appears to prefer is called the Kalam Cosmological argument. It is more elaborate that the basic formulation we just described. It says:
  1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause.
  2. The universe began to exist.
  3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.
  4. If the universe has a cause, then an uncaused, personal Creator of the universe exists, who sans the universe is beginningless, changeless, immaterial, timeless, spaceless, and enormously powerful.
  5. Therefore, an uncaused, personal Creator of the universe exists, who sans the universe is beginningless, changeless, immaterial, timeless, spaceless, and enormously powerful.
Dr. Craig - when he chooses to make this argument - will throw lots of sciency sounding phrases around in an attempt to make it sound plausible, but here's all you need to know. Premise 4 - that "if the universe has a cause, then an uncaused, personal Creator of the universe exists, who sans the universe is beginningless, changeless, immaterial, timeless, spaceless, and enormously powerful" - is not concluded. There is, just as with the ontological argument before it, no evidence and no warrant that justifies making the leap from (it has a cause" to "the cause was some all-powerful magical being". It could be, as before, that white mocha frappacino is working its mysterious wonders again here, as well.

The argument from design

The argument from design - known as the teleological argument, mainly because philosophers love big words - asserts that the existence of order and direction in nature - its apparent design - is attributable to some kind of designer, thereby essentially proving the existence of God. You're guaranteed to hear proponents of this - Dr. Lane of course - use the words design and designer as if the apparently ordered arrangement that we observe is the product of a design, thus implying a designer. In fact, what we perceive as order is just our human propensity to mentally arrange things in meaningful and memorable patterns. The "design" as it were - is just the result of nature. There is no active moving around of parts in this universe that are not just action and reaction cascading down from what we perceive as the Big Bang. The stars are just accumulations of gas caused by gravity, and lit up by fusion when the gravitational forces sufficiently compress the hydrogen and helium in the star. Planets, asteroids and comets are all subsequent by-products of heavier elements blown off by early supernovae, and coalesced around stars, again via the force of gravity. Up until this very moment, there has never been any supernatural force or entity required for anything that we've ever observed.

The argument from morality

The argument from morality - that the existence of morals could only be instilled in humanity by a divine presence - is an attractive but flawed explanation for why we feel a sense of right and wrong. Man is a social animal. Social animals develop behaviors that nurture one's offspring, relatives, and social group, and protect against those not in those groups. Some of the things that humans and other higher primates do, are wholly expected - altruism for instance. The fact that we feel repugnance at senseless murder within the social group, but extol it as a warrior's bravery when committed against out-group members, is just a further indication of how such behaviors evolve to perpetuate the social group, possibly to the detriment of those outside.

The argument from miracles (Jesus' resurrection)

The Resurrection of Jesus is also used as evidence that God exists. It is the argument from miracles. The problem with miracles is that they can be claimed, but you never have direct evidence of them. Find a single example of an occurrence in human history that couldn't be explained by natural forces, and you'd have a shocking headline. The resurrection of Jesus is not one of those cases. It is not independently attested to beyond the Bible ... the authors of the New Testament themselves were unclear if Jesus was resurrected by God to fulfill a divine purpose, as later authors claimed, or simply was no longer in the tomb, as the author of Mark reports. Since Mark is the first Gospel to be written, and upon whom both Matthew and Luke base most of their material, it is more plausible to say that the resurrection story was added later. Let's be clear, if Jesus was truly dead, and was truly raised from the dead after three days, and we could not explain it in natural terms, then it would be a miracle. But we can't ever make that claim, because there's no way of verifying that. The author of Mark doesn't make that claim. We are left to conjure up scenarios of what might have happened: possibly he never truly died and he escaped before three days was up; possibly he died and his body was stolen, possibly he died but his body was hidden and the tomb was presented as misdirection; possibly people were just mistaken about what happened; or more simply the story was just added long after his passing to impress on the faithful the importance of Jesus' entire ministry. This probably sounds if I'm being dismissive or disrespectful of the New Testament or of the faithful, but simpler conjectures are more likely, given the absence of any physical evidence.

The meat of my thesis

Finally - we get to the meat of my argument that God does not exist. Remember that I am not attempting to prove his non-existence, because we've already shown that any endeavor to prove the non-existence of something becomes astronomically more difficult as the subject increases in complexity. If, by definition, God is perceived of as that maximally great being that we mentioned before, then examining every particle in every atom everywhere in the universe, and every bit of energy everywhere in the universe, is laughable. My argument against the existence of God is simple: First, where is she? Tens of billions of humans have walked the earth since man first arrived on the scene. We might make a broad assumption that they've each lived an average of ten thousand days or so - less than thirty years each up until recently. Not once in history has a single human made a single credible claim of a God sighting that could verify her existence. The staggering silence of this hypothetical being speaks more to her non-existence than all of the preaching from all of the pulpits and street corners in all of history. One hundred trillion person-days, and nary a peep. Second, when is attempting to explain a complicated and remote concept such as the creation of the universe or the emergence of life, ever ... EVER ... aided by presupposing something astronomically more complex as an essential predecessor, as God is presumed to be? It defies logic and physics to postulate this. It is unnecessary, and it leads to an infinite regress. This astronomically more complex being would then require an explanation as to what brought IT into existence. And what brought THAT into existence? And so on. We don't now what brought the universe into existence, but laid bare, we are either faced with an infinite regress that presupposes an infinite number of succeedingly greater worlds that require beings to cause them, or we just admit our ignorance and continue to look deeper into this mystery with the goal of broadening our understanding. It most certainly isn't turtles all the way down.


In summary:
  • imagining that a being as great as God is required to bring the universe into existence ignores that the arguments for it don't work;
  • we don't need external forces to explain what we take to be design;
  • the existence of what we consider morals are just good social sense that tend to help us propagate our kin;
  • the resurrection of Jesus, or any purported miracle, has yet to be independently reported on, not to mention verified;
  • and the idea that God revealed himself to you personally has no bearing on how the world is, it just tells you how you respond to internal sensations.
None of these things indicate in the least that the supernatural, or that ultimate supernatural concept - God - exists. The fact that tens of billions of people have never reported a God sighting that could be confirmed, much less repeated, speaks volumes. The fact that an entity that could cause the world needs a base from which to effect that causation just makes the thing being caused unnecessarily complex. If God exists, I invite her to appear immediately, otherwise, we will remain prudent in assuming that she does not exist. Thank you for inviting me here. I look forward to Dr. Craig's opening statement.
[The preceding was an imaginary opening statement for an even more imaginary debate that I hallucinated, starring William Lane Craig as my opponent - but it could have been any apologist capable of making the common arguments that I preempt here. See? Imaginary friends *CAN* be fun!] Because I was trying to fashion this as a transcript of an opening argument (imaginary though it was), I didn't provide hyperlinks in the text like you'd usually expect in a blog post. Here are some relevant links to make up for that: The Cosmological Argument The Teleological Argument The Existence of God (lists lots of arguments for and against) And ... the two debates starring Dr. Craig that I'm most familiar with: Dr. Craig and Christopher Hitchens Dr. Craig and Sam Harris
I modifed this in April and May to correct some errors that I made ... somehow in my prior version I interleaved info on the Kalam COsmological and the Ontological argument. How could I have been so careless?

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