Saturday, December 28, 2013

Notes on Craig's Cosmological Argument

While discussing William Lane Craig’s five arguments to believe in God (here and here ... originally at Faux News ), I said: can’t conclude that god is the best explanation for any of the proposed “mysteries” that Craig lists, because God does not exist independently of his arguments.

I’ve always felt that the argument from first cause was the single most interesting approach for a believer to claim the existence of God, simply because the questions of existence - Why? For what purpose? How? - are unsettling in their enormity and implication. Not knowing is scary. It is a great human endeavor - individually and as a species - to overcome that fear, and replace ignorance with knowledge. Where we can’t obtain knowledge, we can at least try to identify what qualifies as “not knowledge” so that we don’t clutter up our heads unnecessarily. Thus this post.

My personal summary of the argument from first cause is that it can conclude that there was a cause to the universe, but that’s all. The argument **as stated** does not even attempt to support the claim that God exists or of how God might create a universe. It doesn’t add to our knowledge, thus we can’t make judgements about what the possible cause could be. We don’t have the tools and techniques to address it yet. It could be that it’s the wrong question, we just don’t know.

Assuming it is the right question, then the argument is laid out in either of the following forms:
  • Every finite and contingent being has a cause.
  • A causal loop cannot exist.
  • A causal chain cannot be of infinite length.
  • Therefore, a First Cause (or something that is not an effect) must exist.

According to the argument, the existence of the Universe requires an explanation, and the creation of the Universe by a First Cause, generally assumed to be God, is that explanation.

In light of the Big Bang theory, a stylized version of argument has emerged (sometimes called the Kalam cosmological argument, the following form of which was created by Al-Ghazali and then strongly supported by William Lane Craig):

  • Whatever begins to exist has a cause.
  • The Universe began to exist.
  • Therefore, the Universe had a cause.

There is, of course, lots of discussion to be had about both forms of this argument, some of it to the effect that
  1. our concept of causation is incomplete or incorrect;
  2. the idea that the universe is “contingent” may be wrong - it may be impossible for the universe to not exist;
  3. what we call “the universe” may just be part of a larger (or even infinite) ensemble;
  4. the claims about causal loops and actual infinities might be wrong;
  5. it could be chance - the ways that things could exist are nearly infinitely more numerous that the way that things wouldn’t exist;
There are probably other lines of discussion to follow, as well. Regardless, let’s compare what Craig said in his article to the second form of the argument listed at Wikipedia (and also often attributed to Craig).

Craig most recently said (I paraphrase for clarity):
  1. The universe cannot be uncaused.
  2. The cause must come from a transcendent reality
  3. There is an entity (assumed to exist in that transcendent reality) that is enormously powerful (assumed that it can create universes)
  4. The entity is an unembodied mind
  5. (assumed) this entity is God
  6. (assumed) this God is the Christian God.
If we grant premise 1, what reason do we have to believe that premises 2 through 6 are true?


He gives no reason to accept any of what he says.

As many folks have pointed out over the years, Craig is not attempting to persuade non-believers, he’s really just giving a pep talk to believers.

Just for the fun of it, though, we can annotate Craig’s argument a bit, for future reference.
  1. The universe cannot be uncaused.
    • as I stated in an earlier paragraph, our concept of causation could be incomplete or incorrect ...or...
    • the idea that the universe is “contingent” may be wrong - it may be impossible for the universe to not exist;
    • what we call “the universe” may just be part of a larger (or even infinite) ensemble;
    • the claims about causal loops and actual infinities might be wrong;
    • it could be chance - the ways that things could exist are nearly infinitely more numerous that the way that things wouldn’t exist;
  2. The cause must come from a transcendent reality.
    • this is a bare assertion. There is no reason to believe such a claim.
    • If we assent to this claim, then we must ask “how can this reality exist prior to our reality?”
    • And “doesn’t this insert an infinite regression into the argument?”
    • And “if this transcendent reality can exist without being created, then what’s to say this reality couldn’t exist without being created?” (a.k.a. “Special Pleading”)
  3. There is an entity (assumed to exist in that transcendent reality) that is enormously powerful (assumed that it can create universes)
    • Who created this entity?
  4. The entity is an unembodied mind
    • This is another bare assertion. What warrant are we given to believe such a claim?
  5. (assumed) this entity is God
    • This is yet another bare assertion. What warrant are we given to believe such a claim?
  6. (assumed) this God is the Christian God.
    • This is still another bare assertion. What warrant are we given to believe such a claim?
If you have any doubt as to how Craig’s argument fails, you might bookmark this.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Fine-tuned putdown

I enjoy a good put down as much as anyone. Pharyngula commenter drl2 made me smile with a goodie this morning as I continued to read through the comments on PZ’s takedown of WLC Craig’s tired old list of arguments for the existence of God at Faux News.

In an exchange on why the fine-tuning argument is a sham, he summarizes with this zinger:

So while it’s true that there are probably an infinite number of universes in which we couldn’t exist, there’s a good chance there’s also an infinity of possible worlds where WLC could still be a slick-talking moron.


Saturday, December 21, 2013

What's Wrong With Arguments for God?

Those non-believers that came to their non-belief by observing what’s wrong with the world - as compared against the conjecture that it was created by God - or analyzed the arguments for God and found them fallacious, absurd, or otherwise double-plus-ungood, can probably guess what’s wrong with all of Dr. William Lane Craig's reasons to believe in God, but it doesn’t hurt to re-state it occasionally.

In a nutshell, you can’t conclude that god is the best explanation for any of the proposed “mysteries” that Craig lists, because God does not exist independently of his arguments. He can't be found by looking for him directly. He can only be imagined. If he can only be imagined, what good is he as an explanation?

Say, for instance, if Galileo had peered into the heavens and seen God staring back, you might consider that evidence that god exists. If every astronomer since Galileo peers into the heavens and sees God staring back, you might say that God most probably exists.

If Darwin had set sail on the Beagle and found that every species of plant and animal sprang into existence within the last few thousand years, you might infer that they where created simultaneously. If every biologist and botanist since Darwin found only evidence of recent creation, this might lend further credence to that inference. When the DNA of all animals is eventually found to be perfect, containing no junk and no mutations, you might further infer creation by something perfect that knew what it was doing. It could be the same entity that Galileo observed. It might be God, and that might bolster the argument further.

I could go on, but I don’t really need to - the examples become repetitive very quickly. Everything that every branch of science observes leads us to believe that our patch of existence expanded into its present form about 13.7 billion years ago. No where has a God hypothesis - any God - risen to become even a remote contender as an explanation. The imperfect - and predictable - way that the universe evolves and that life evolves indicates wholly natural origins.

God may be used as an explanation for mysteries when people like Dr. Craig speak, but he never appears independently from Craig's (or anyone else's) arguments. It’s as if apologists can’t think of plausible explanations to life's complicated questions, but the most fantastical explanation imaginable is perfectly acceptable.

It’s a mystery that believers don’t see this

An Early Christmas Present from William Lane Craig

It really is a Christmas present, this re-cycling of the same 5 arguments for the existence of God that Dr. William Lane Craig trots out for anyone who will pay him - this time at the Fox News website . What makes it a great present? Well, many of my favorite bloggers took it down, each of them in their own unique style:They all - and their commenters - seem to recognize that Craig continues to preach to the choir, and continues to make a darned good living at it.

In my now-dusty “Another Imaginary Debate”, I used one of Dr. Craig’s debates from 1998 as the foil for my contrived rebuttal. His schtick has not changed one bit in the 15 years since. If you’re sporting an even average bullshit detection kit, you can see right though this stuff. That doesn’t seem to stop him. As Hank Fox sez - it’s ”slippery arguments, subtle misdirection, and blatant lies.”

So bring a hot drink, a blankie, your favorite web-browsing device, and settle down for a warm read on a cold winter night.

Happy Yule y’all!

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

An Interview with God

In my teens, I began a sincere effort to find out whether god is real. After decades of searching, I was able to finally track down the elusive deity, and spend a few minutes asking him as much as I could about what makes him tick. What follows is an edited transcript of our auspicious and improbable encounter.

Skepticali: God! Thanks so much for taking time out of your busy day to talk with me.

God Almighty: No problem, glad to do it.

Skepticali: As you can imagine, I have a ton of questions for you, so let me cut to the chase. First, what religion describes you best? Which religion is correct?God

God Almighty: Boy, you don’t beat around the bush! Well, I’d have say Christianity does ... You’re Christian, right?

Skepticali: No ...

God Almighty: Okay, then Judaism is the religion to follow ... You’re Jewish, right? You do look Jewish.

Skepticali: No ... I’m ...

God Almighty: Okay, you don’t look Hindu, give me a hint.

Skepticali: Actually, I’m an atheist.

God Almighty: Atheist? ATHEIST??? You’re talking to me - God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, visible and invisible, personal friend of William Lane Craig - are you nuts?

Skepticali: No, actually ...

God Almighty: What’s it take for you atheists? I just don’t get it.

Skepticali: Actually, the fact that I think that I’m talking to you doesn’t prove you exist. It only proves that I think that I’m talking to you. I don’t think anybody else can see or hear this.

God Almighty: ...but what about the people that will read this interview? Won’t that be sufficient evidence for everyone else?

Skepticali: I think that’s the problem, sir, word of mouth is not really evidence.

God Almighty: Technically you’re right, but this word-of-mouth thing has worked for thousands of years ... Has something changed?

Skepticali: No sir, nothing’s changed. It’s just that, over the millennia, things that people used to attribute to you have been discovered to have natural causes - so when someone claims that a timeless, spaceless entity of unimaginable knowledge, power and compassion is the cause of the universe and is personally flipping switches and spinning dials in favor of believers - well, fewer and fewer people think that’s rational.

God Almighty: Rational ... Ptooey! I hate that word. What’s with you guys? Why can’t you just believe what people tell you? And why do you keep calling me “sir”?

Skepticali: sorry sir ... Madam? How should I address you?

God Almighty: Madam doesn’t work, either. What makes you think I have a specific gender?

Skepticali: Well, we humans tend to anthropomorphize you, so we attribute gender to you. Somehow, someone figured you were male. I’m guessing it was a male, your godliness.

God Almighty: Anthropomorphize? That’s a great word! Say THAT five times while you’re drunk! Anthropomorphize ... Another misconception. Why the heck do you think I have a human form? Isn’t that a little conceited? I mean, the universe is unimaginably large, do you think that I’d make a motley crew like you in my image? The Jaggorabex Energy Entities - now that’s probably closer to what I’d morphize - if a non-morphic being could chuck wood.

Skepticali: Excuse me?

God Almighty: Never mind - I'm big on woodchuck humor. Where were we?

Skepticali: Gender - or, how do I address you?

God Almighty: Bob - call me Bob.

Skepticali: Huh?

God Almighty: Yep! I always liked the name “Bob”. Short, sweet, symmetrical - Occam’s razor and all that. Now - what’s your next question?

Skepticali: Okay Bob. Well ... Since you brought up Occam’s Razor, let’s go there. Occam’s Razor posits that “among competing hypotheses, the hypothesis with the fewest assumptions should be selected.“ Given that, how do you explain your existence?

God Almighty: Well ... It’s a dirty job, but somebody has to do it.

Skepticali: That doesn’t answer the question, Bob. How does your existence, and the possibility that you’re omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, omnibenevolent, and supposedly created the universe, and will judge believers and non-believers upon their death, and assign them to heaven or hell for all eternity depending on some criteria that no one is really clear on, how does all that pass the smell test with people that have even the faintest familiarity with Occam’s Razor?

God Almighty: It usually doesn’t.

Skepticali: Huh? I expected a more robust defense,

God Almighty: Not from me. Say, can I have one of those Twinkies there? That would taste really good right now.God - reimagined

Skepticali: Sure, Bob, help yourself.

God Almighty: Mmmm ... That is one tasty Twinkie. I do love the taste of a good Twinkie. You mind if I have some of your tasty beverage to wash this down?

Skepticali: Go right ahead.

God Almighty: Ah, hit the spot.

Skepticali: Say, I feel like I’m in Pulp Fiction or something. Could you please answer the question about Occam’s Razor?

God Almighty: Say 'what' again. Say 'what' again, I dare you, I double dare you motherfucker, say what one more Goddamn time!

Skepticali: Good grief!

God Almighty: Sorry - sometimes I fall into that “Tarantino is God” trap myself. be continued...

Munchhausen Trilemma

The Munchhausen Trilemma serves as a criticism of justifying knowledge that goes like this:

If we ask of any knowledge: "How do I know that it's true?", we may provide proof; yet that same question can be asked of the proof, and any subsequent proof. The M√ľnchhausen trilemma is that we have only three options when providing proof in this situation:

  1. The circular argument, in which theory and proof support each other (i.e. we repeat ourselves at some point)
  2. The regressive argument, in which each proof requires a further proof, ad infinitum (i.e. we just keep giving proofs, presumably forever)
  3. The axiomatic argument, which rests on accepted precepts (i.e. we reach some bedrock assumption or certainty)
As a layman, the Trilemma is helpful in summarizing the ways we can justify knowledge, but does what it says represent a declaration that knowledge is ultimately impossible? For me, the answer is no.

First, i’ll acknowledge the ways the term “knowledge” can be used:
  1. ”knowledge that” - comprehension of concrete facts or abstract concepts that can be demonstrated in the real world.
  2. ”knowledge how” - comprehension of approaches or techniques in accomplishing simple tasks or complex endeavors.
  3. ”knowledge of” - acquaintance with people
I also have to declare my belief that absolute knowledge of anything is unattainable. When I say this, I mean that with regard to any of the three ways the term “knowledge” can be used, I can never be genuinely 100% certain that I know something is true. I may be certain to a reasonable doubt, or certain beyond conceivable doubt, even certain that my belief will never be falsified in human history - but I have to acknowledge that there could be a 1-in-a-centillion chance that I could be wrong about it.

Given my skepticism about absolute knowledge, the Trilemma sorts itself for me in the following way:
  1. circularity is unacceptable - I won’t knowingly go there.
  2. Infinite regression will get me closer to the truth, but never fully reach absolute truth. There’s a point of diminishing returns in this approach.
  3. Axioms are useful when regression has proceeded to an absurdly detailed level. This serves as a practical substitute for 2).
This becomes part of my toolbox for thinking.

My work here is done.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Objective Moral Values - a conclusion

This summer, I started a personal evaluation of whether objective morals existed (here and at the links contained therein), by focusing first on what objectivity meant. In my sloth, I left that endeavor incomplete, and the world was left poorer for it. :-)

Let me tie up the loose ends. I started to realize that the word “objectivity” can be defined differently depending on what we are claiming to be objective about.

Who? What? Where? When? Why? How?

It might be helpful to ask questions like a reporter would. Who? What? Where? When? Why? How?. Since the point of this disquisition is to sort out my thoughts on “objective moral values”, I’ll append a “what ought to be done?” to the list during the essay. How are these questions used, and when can we be objective about the answers we obtain?

When considering physical things - space-time, matter, energy and their behaviors and relationships - human beings can usually agree on what objects look like, sound like, behave like, consist of, etc. Given the right tools and techniques, we can observe and measure to a very high degree of accuracy. It may be that some approaches - powerful telescopes, particle colliders, radiometric dating - are available only to qualified experts, but those experts will usually agree on the results of the observations when the observations repeat to a very high degree. We can refer to these as being objective physical facts, because they will be the same for all observers, given a specified accuracy and the required tools and techniques. We can be objective about questions we’re interested in once we’ve reached a level of repeatability that is recognized as significant. (For LHC/Higgs fans, that figure was 5 Sigma, or a one in 3.5 million chance that the measurements obtained were erroneous).

When considering qualitative things - for example, what the meaning is of a particular set of observations - we run into divergence on interpretations. We then find objectivity - the ability to obtain the same interpretation by all observers - more difficult - even in the scientific arena. This leads to more hypotheses, more tests, and hopefully more knowledge.

Segue into the area of human affairs, and the need to do more interpretation and less physical measurement dictates that we get less consensus on what happened and why. We can be objective about many of the facts of what human beings have done, but not always. We begin to ask more qualitative questions - why and how - and we eventually get into the area of ethics and morals - what ought to be done. It is here that objectivity is often hardest to come by.


In the case of human affairs, the word “objective” starts to look like more of a consensus that groups of people hold about a topic. For example, I might think that I’m emotionally detached and non-judgemental about what should have been done in a situation, and can claim - without warrant, so far - to be objective. If I present that claim to a few people for scrutiny - the neighborhood, for instance - I might discover that my opinions coincide with theirs, thus the neighborhood might claim objectivity about that situation. If I subject my claim to a larger group, then that larger group can potentially achieve broader consensus, and thereby stake a larger claim to objectivity. There is no guarantee, however, that my neighborhood and a neighborhood half-way around the world will agree on that situation, therefore we can’t say that there is global objectivity about it.

The point above is that there will be differences among individuals and groups as to the affairs of humans. And what has been done, and what ought to be done, are subject to debate, consensus or disagreement, and any consensus will shift over time and context. That leads me to conclude that the term “objective” is a fluid concept when used about human affairs. Thus “objective morals” - although not completely absent in the world - are a very small subset of the morals that might exist across all people and all contexts. In the absence of any natural or supernatural agents actually specifying and enforcing morals that must be adhered to, I have to conclude that moral values are largely relative. I can see attempting to identify commonalities across legal, social and religious contexts, but I’d expect that very few ethical questions are unconditionally resolved in the same way in all contexts.

Objective moral values that all humans can agree to, then, seem limited to a very few topics. My interest in whether the existence of objective moral values is evidence that God exists is attenuated further by the fact that, until you and your interlocutor agree specifically on examples, you probably don’t know whether you’re talking about the same thing. Until these terms are stipulated, any argument that uses “objective moral values” in a premise is pretty useless.

BlogPress doesn't suck

I've complained at least twice that blogging from iPad sucked.

No more!

I tried BlogPress on my iPad, and it actually works! It's not perfect, but it allows me to write my own html, which I want very much to do.

My main gripe? After posting to Blogger, I have to close the app altogether and re-start it in order to navigate to the Manage screen to edit existing drafts or posts. I'm willing to live with that.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Murky no more

I had a follow-up to my prior post all ready to publish, then decided it might be worth changing tack to focus less on Alethian Worldview commenter “murk” personally, and more on the presuppositional argument he and others use. Mind you, murk still gets held up as an exemplar of “not very good apologetics”, but I’ve realized he’s not that much at fault, given what little that presuppositionalism supplies in the way of material.

I skimmed over the Bahnsen Procedure earlier this year - here, here and here - and concluded that it still suffers the same flaws that all apologetic efforts do:
  1. it asserts the existence of God without evidence or justification
  2. it claims that God is the reason that (insert your mysterious phenomenon here) exists without warrant as to how God could be that reason
  3. it doesn’t account for how the apologist can know these things
It is really no better than any other flavor of apologetics. The main twist is a crafty maneuver called the “Transcendental Argument” that hopes to inoculate against the first flaw by concluding God’s existence is a necessary precondition for some phenomenon. This is a classic bare assertion fallacy, thus invalid reasoning. Only apologists take this seriously.

From Wikipedia, here’s how it attempts to succeed:

(transcendental arguments) are also distinct from standard deductive and inductive forms of reasoning. Where a standard deductive argument looks for what we can deduce from the fact of X, and a standard inductive argument looks for what we can infer from experience of X, a transcendental argument looks for the necessary prior conditions to both the fact and experience of X.

You can guess that the “looks for the necessary prior conditions to both the fact and experience of X“ activity is less than intellectually rigorous (see my “three flaws” above). Murk doesn’t patch this up to make it effective, and experienced apologists don’t patch this up to make it effective. You see he and they claim that God is necessary, but never demonstrate why this might be true.

That’s it, in a nutshell.

Apologists like murk, whether they’re novices or masters at debate, are using a defective strategy. The novice probably doesn’t even know these flaws exist, thus they repeat them - over, and over, and over. That might explain why presuppositional arguments seem like filibusters.

You might think that apologists would see these flaws and either correct them, or abandon this approach because the flaws cannot be corrected, but they don’t. It keeps coming up, and it keeps getting knocked down because no one should get the mistaken impression that it presents even a minimally compelling argument. It just doesn’t.