Sunday, October 14, 2012

Another imaginary debate

I'm doing this again.

A year ago, I fabricated an imaginary opening statement for an imaginary debate against Dr. Wm. Lane Craig on the topic "Does God Exist?"

As before, the debate that I chose as a template was the 1995 contest between Dr. Craig and Massimo Pigliucci, held at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. It will probably be useful to read Dr. Craig's opening statement there in order to understand the context in which my statement is made.

The differences between my efforts then and now are 1) I've spent more time studying the debate transcript; 2) I've (hopefully) become more proficient at organizing and articulating my arguments; and 3) I "present" my opening statement second, after Dr. Craig has (hypothetically) already spoken first.

Finally, I've timed it, and the whole thing can be spoken within 20 minutes, just like the debates you see Dr. Craig most commonly participating in.

Here it is:


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, once again, serves as my imaginary opponent in this imaginary debate.

The question before us here tonight is "Does God Exist?"

Dr. Craig has just given his five arguments that there is a God. I will now show how Dr. Craig's arguments fail, and that belief in the proposition that there is a God is not justified.

First, I'd like to make a few general comments about what we're doing.

The Purpose of Debate and the Burden of Proof

Debates like this one are the presentation of arguments. They're more public, more organized arguments than you have around the kitchen table, but they are arguments, none the less. The purpose of our debate here tonight is primarily trying to persuade you - the audience - that one of us has presented the more compelling case in support of their position. Debates do not, however, result in the establishment of fact, and we will not do so tonight, unless Dr. Craig produces the subject in contention - God - before we leave the auditorium.

With that in mind, let me point out one notably relevant error - among the many that I'll be addressing later - that Dr. Craig made in his opening statement. He says that "atheists have tried to disprove the existence of God for years without success". That may be his interpretation of discourse between believers and non-believers, but reasonable people do not go around trying to disprove every unsupported assertion that is thrown into the air. We'd never have time to live our lives, if that were the case. Tonight, Dr. Craig must make a persuasive case that God exists. I must make a persuasive case that Dr. Craig's arguments fail.

That's all we have to do.

There's no value in attempting to disprove God, because he, she or it is so far ahead of us in that endeavor - having done such a superb job through its own inaction and absence.

That's a long way around saying "You can ignore Dr. Craigs admonishment that 'atheists have tried to disprove the existence of God for years without success' ". That claim is just a straw man being used to falsely give the impression that the failure to disprove God's existence makes God's existence somehow more probable.

Definition of God

In this debate, I am assuming that the God we are talking about is the creator of the universe, in the manner that Dr. Craig implied when he stated that the cause of the universe "must be an uncaused, changeless, timeless, and immaterial being of unimaginable power [...and...] it must also be personal." It is, at the end of the day, the Christian God that Dr. Craig is arguing for. I assume that his arguments are for a real-world instance of this God, that can physically interact with the world in unlimited ways.


Belief and Knowledge

I'd like to comment on belief, knowledge and certainty as well.

It is important to distinguish between what we believe and what we know, so when I say I believe something tonight, I mean that I accept with some degree of certainty that the proposition that I claim to believe is true, but without having any evidence or rational justification. For instance, I believe this audience is of good character without having an ounce of evidence. Please don't let me down!

When I say I know something, in contrast, I am expressing an attitude about a topic, in a way similar to belief, but "knowing" implies that I have evidence and/or sound rational justification for that attitude, and that I am extremely certain of the topic's truth.


Now, since absolute knowledge is probably unobtainable, I will adopt that term - certainty - in a way that I hope will be useful in indicating to you my confidence that whatever I am discussing at that moment is true. Rather than saying "I know", I am better served in using a scale to define how certain I am of the topic's truth. For example, I could adopt some rules of thumb such as: saying that I'm "somewhat certain" means that I'm 60% confident that a proposition is true; "extremely certain" means 99% confidence, and "virtually certain" means 99.9999% confidence. That's useful because it stresses that I don't ever know things with absolute certainty, but that I can indicate my relative degree of certainty. If I say "I know" something, forgive me, I really mean I'm "virtually certain".

Why General Arguments for the Existence of God fail

Lack of evidence

Let me say a few words about the general arguments for God. The most glaring omission in ANY case for God is the absence of evidence. An appearance by God to the people of the world in this day and age would settle the matter for all of human history. The God being claimed should certainly be powerful enough to give us an unambiguous sign, but she never does. Is this God not capable, does she not care, or is she too busy? Are there other distractions or constraints that prevent her from this admittedly simple task? If she does exist, we don't know. That's why we're left to debate her.

God is unnecessary

Another general error is the thought that God is necessary in explaining the world. Ancient gods were originally fabricated to explain why there is thunder. But we know where thunder comes from now. Over and over those phenomena that required God as an explanation have been subsequently explained by science. Not once has a scientific explanation for a phenomenon been subsequently replaced by an explanation from God. Not once.

God is incoherent

There are other troubling problems raised when you invoke God as an explanation for something that you can't presently explain. These include the questions "who designed the designer" and "who created the creator?" That way lies an infinite regress - the question repeats itself forever. If the explanation is that "God is eternal" - implying that he didn't require creation - then why is he exempt from being created, and the universe is not? That way lies special pleading, and we are owed an explanation of why one thing can be eternal and another can't

Why Dr. Craig's arguments fail

The Cosmological Argument

Dr. Craig's usual debate arguments are equally unhelpful in establishing the existence of God.

His Cosmological argument is a more elaborate and more fragile version of the argument from first cause. He states that "Anything that exists has an explanation of its existence, either in the necessity of its own nature or in an external cause". He's simply saying because we can imagine the universe being another way - that it's not necessary that the universe exist or be the way it is - we must then conclude that the cause is external. But he doesn't explain why one must arrive at this conclusion, how the external cause can itself exist, or how it can bring this universe into existence while remaining external, yet retaining its ability to interact with the allegedly separate universe it created.

Another notable gap - a figurative canyon - in his reasoning about this hypothetical "first cause" is how the supernatural thing that he describes refers to the Christian God depicted in the Old and New Testaments. The entity he argues for could be applicable to ANY supernatural scheme that you can devise, not just Christianity.

The Fine-Tuning Argument

Dr. Craig's second argument - that the "chances that the universe should be life-permitting are so infinitesimal as to be incomprehensible and incalculable", thus leading us to conclude that God is responsible, is also false.

The fact that it is not impossible the we are here is the first clue we have that the probability claimed by Dr. Craig is not relevant. If it were impossible that life exist, and yet we do exist, then THAT would be evidence of something extraordinary. But it IS possible for the universe to have the physical constants that it does, the universe DOES have those physical constants, and we ARE here. This is wonderful, awesome, majestic - every superlative imaginable! But it isn't evidence of God.

Stated a different way, if God existed, then there is no need for the at least 410 million trillion trillion cubic light years of space, at least one hundred billion trillion stars, at least 13.7 billion years of time in order to produce what, by every measure, appears purely natural. If God existed, only one patch of space and time is required to contain his creation. No stars or planets are needed because the God we're talking about is so powerful that it can create beings that don't need warmth, air or nourishment. Only a single lifetime is needed to allow judgement and consignment of the created beings to reward or punishment at his whim. The universe can be discarded after one lifetime is over. The excess space, time, matter and energy are not needed.

What we have instead is a universe that looks as you would expect if there were no God. It was once densely packed, high-temperature matter and energy. Hydrogen, helium and a trace of few other elements soon appeared. Stars formed, then galaxies and planets, and soon Snooki was having a baby.

It may be a blow to our egos that we are the result of natural processes and not God's carefully crafted creation, but it is the only conclusion we can make. That doesn't preclude the awe and wonder we have about the universe, and it similarly does not diminish the profound sense of love, purpose and duty that we can feel about each other and our fellow creatures.

That we feel overwhelmed at the grandeur of the universe and immensely grateful for our existence is still not a reason to conclude that there is a God. We are misdirecting our emotions if we do that.

Again, just to be consistent, Dr. Craig fails here to link this hypothetical supernatural fine-tuner to the Christian God depicted in the Old and New Testaments.

Objective morals

Dr. Craig observes that "If God does not exist, then objective moral values do not exist. Many theists and atheists alike concur on this point".

I couldn't agree more.

What we have - and you may have detected this in my counter-arguments up to this point - is a universe that evolves from simpler to more complex. The same holds true for life itself: polymers form amino acids, which form proteins, all in natural processes. Similarly, the behaviors that animals exhibit range from simple - in simpler, less social animals - to complex in the more social species.

That brings me to morals and ethics. Living things cooperate. Species tend to adopt behaviors that help propagate them. They tend to pass on those behaviors that were beneficial to their descendants. The behaviors that result in failure to compete against other lifeforms don't get passed on, because those individuals, on average, die before they produce as many offspring as those practicing the more beneficial behaviors.

When a species is sufficiently advanced to recognize individuals and to form social groups, they develop shared behaviors that strengthen the family and group, and defend against outsiders. Inter-group cooperation is another, higher and more difficult behavior, but is is performed daily. We know how to do that due to hundreds of millennia of practice.

So when Dr. Craig says "objective values do exist, and deep down we all know it" and "Actions like rape, cruelty, and child abuse aren't just socially unacceptable behavior--they're moral abominations", he's just confirming those millennia of beneficial personal and in-group behavior.

Dr. Craig goes on to claim that without a supernatural basis "any deeper meaning is illusory". He's trying to convince you that deeper meaning and purpose in your life are not possible without God. Nothing could be further from the truth. If you take responsibility for your own life, as most adults do, and assert authority over your own thoughts and actions, then you know how your words and actions in the world can have a positive effect on your family, your friends, your neighbors, your co-workers, your community, your society, and the world as a whole. Your loyalty, respect, compassion and love for your wife or husband, and for your children, is of utmost importance. You have fulfilled the greatest purpose the majority of us will ever have. You intuitively recognize this framework of purpose in other humans, and you treat them largely in the same ways that you treat your kin and kith. It is this way, regardless of what real or imagined concepts you hold internally. If your concept of the world includes God and you remain a good person, then there is no conflict - but belief in God and the actual existence of God are not related. Belief is not dependent on the existence of thing being believed.

The Resurrection of Jesus

Dr. Craig's fourth argument claims that the resurrection of Jesus is powerful evidence that God exists.

Unfortunately for people that make this claim, the only place that the resurrection story is told is in the New Testament. Nowhere else.

The Gospels claim that he was put in a tomb that was sealed with a stone, and that the tomb was then found empty. But no moment of resurrection is recorded - so the only link between the existence of an actual resurrection and what the gospels record is that Jesus predicted that he would be crucified and resurrected, and that subsequent to his burial, others claimed they had seen and interacted with him, and then claimed the miracle of his resurrection.

There are no reports outside the bible that any of this happened.

More disturbing to the believer is that Jesus appears in no contemporaneous reports. The Romans apparently didn't take notice, the people of Jerusalem apparently didn't take notice. The people supposedly touched by his ministry apparently didn't take notice. No one cared enough to write down their observations of what, according to the New Testament, was probably the most important occurrence in the history of the world.

There are vague references decades after the fact, but these come at a time - after the first Epistles and some of the Gospels had already been written - when belief in Jesus was already growing into the pervasive religion it is today, and believers started to become notable to historians. But it was apparently unknown prior to then - unknown to the civil authorities and historians that lived at the same time Jesus did.

The argument that the resurrection of Jesus is powerful evidence that God exists is based on hearsay, and would never be admissible in a court of law. It should not be admissible as an argument here.

The immediate experience of God

Dr. Craig's fifth argument - citing "The immediate experience of God" - is promptly abandoned by the Doctor himself when he says "This isn't really an argument for God's existence; rather it's the claim that you can know God exists wholly apart from arguments simply by immediately experiencing Him."

As I pointed out initially, we can never know anything with absolute certainty, but having evidence or sound rational arguments help you to be confident that your belief is justified. Here Dr. Craig dispenses with that and claims that your internal sensations are good enough.

I agree with Dr. Craig that this isn't really an argument, but I'll add one comment to drive the point home. People claimed that unicorns exist, but never produced any evidence, thus we conclude that unicorns are a myth. The same with giants, dragons and leviathan - all similarly appearing in the Bible, all now considered myths. As cold as it sounds, you can believe what you want to believe, but if you can't find an instance of it in the real world, that belief is simply not justified. How you feel tells you only about your mental and physical state, and how whatever you're contemplating affects you. The universe, on the other hand, is the way that it is, whether or not you believe it.

My case for naturalism

The alternative viewpoint to the idea that God is turning the dials and pulling the levers behind the curtain is that there are naturalistic explanations for the same features and phenomena that used to be explained by the existence of God. A cleaner way to demarcate the two world views is that there is, on the one hand, the belief that God exists, and that his existence can be invoked to explain anything the individual finds inexplicable; and on the other hand, the belief that there are no supernatural agents at work in the world, and the lack of explanations for phenomena that we don't understand is a temporary condition, but not a reason to panic.

The positive case I make tonight as an alternative to the supernaturalistic worldview is this second, naturalistic world view.

I've already given you a sneak preview earlier in this statement, but I'll tie it all up with a bow right here.

Naturalism explains things. Those things that are presently unexplained are just harder questions than the easier ones that have been answered over time. We know where thunder comes from. No need to invoke a storm god. We know why eclipses happen. No need to invoke a sun-devouring dragon. We know where earthquakes come from. No need to claim that Atlas shrugged. We know how stars form, how planets form, how the elements and molecules that are needed to create simple life formed.

Every time naturalistic methods are applied to understanding an unknown feature or phenomenon in the universe, the mystery is eventually solved. Never has a supernatural explanation done that and survived a thorough examination. Never has a supernatural explanation replaced a natural explanation.

That leaves us with lots to yet discover about our universe, but we have centuries of evidence that convince us that the naturalistic approach to understanding the world will be eventually successful wherever it is applied. Conversely, we have millennia of evidence that a supernaturalistic approach to understanding the world does not result in explanations that are either worthwhile or accurate.

The remaining big questions appear to be within our reach, although we must always admit that some things are not physically testable - the creation of the observable universe, for instance - unless we discover the mechanisms and means to create our own universes. The same holds true for the creation of life, and of consciousness. They are difficult, but not impossible.

Invoking the supernatural is just broadcasting to the world that we don't know something, we feel compelled to provide an explanation, we don't want to try to figure it out, and we don't care who knows.

As we know more and more, we need to invoke the supernatural less and less, so that the gaps between the way the world is, and the way we understand it, grow smaller every day.

That is the most powerful indication that the supernatural - and a claim for the existence of God - are ideas that are consistently ineffective in discovering the way reality works. The idea that God exists is not supported by any evidence that you can find on your own, has no supporting evidence found by the greatest minds this world has produced, and has no arguments that support its existence - here tonight - or anywhere, at any time.

Thank you!

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