27 October 2011

Reasonable Faith: A Dialogue of the Deaf, Part 1

Cajoled along by a good friend, I spent yesterday evening at the 'Reasonable Faith' debate in Manchester between William Lane Craig and Peter Atkins. The debate was on the straightforward subject 'Does God Exist?'.

I still can't quite decide whether we'd have been better off just going to the pub instead of sitting through the debate.

I had misgivings about the debate from the start; the whole thing looked like an exercise in cheerleading. It didn't look as though it was ever going to be constructive, or as though it would ever change anyone's mind. To be frank, I'm not remotely convinced that the public debate format is a particularly useful way of evaluating arguments. Constraints of time and format make it almost impossible to deal with subtle arguments and serious evidence in a precise, subtle, or even interesting way. Such debates aren't about truth: they're about winning.

Still, I'd not seen my friend in a long time, and I'd not seen her friends in even longer, so we met up and went along, disparate band that we were, filing into a bustling and rapidly filling lecture theatre: a mainstream but fairly non-denominational Protestant, a largely lapsed Catholic, a Methodist, an Atheist who's struggling through the Bible out of curiosity and a sincere desire to engage with his religious girlfriend and friends, and a Catholic revert from atheism.

Craig's Initial Argument
Introduction followed introduction, and then Craig took the stage, smiling and wearing one of those head-mounted microphones that made people look like motivational speakers. He kept smiling through the whole debate; I still can't figure out whether this made him look cheerful or smug. Either way, it was more compelling that Atkins' sometimes justified scowl. 'Does God Exist?' Craig asked, and holding that he did, he outlined three basic arguments for God's existence, these being a cosmological argument, a moral argument, and a historical argument based on Christ.

The Kalām Cosmological Argument
He was strongest by far on the cosmological argument, which was superficially Aristotelian: everything that comes into existence has a cause, and the Universe came into existence, therefore the Universe has a cause, which we call God. This streamlined variant on the cosmological argument is known as the kalām cosmological argument; it was popular among Muslim scholars in the middle ages, and is pretty much Craig's argument of choice. Central to how his argument worked was his belief that an infinite chain of causality is impossible. He exppounded on this at I think unnecessary length, and in connection with it he bypassed Lemaître's 'Big Bang' Theory* and talked of Arvind Borde, Alan Guth, and Alexander Vilenkin's 2003 paper 'Inflationary spacetimes are not past-complete' in order to argue that any universe, however we conceive of it, must have a past space-time boundary.

Now, granted, Craig didn't attempt to engage with Stephen Hawking's hypothesis that time may be finite without a real boundary -- like the interior of a sphere -- and I don't think he grappled in a serious way with what Vilenkin and the lads actually argued, but it probably should be admitted that time was pressing. In any case, it's worth noting that this was, as far as I can remember, the only point in the debate when modern scientific developments were ever cited by either speaker.

That said, I wasn't wholly convinced by Craig's  philosophical arguments that there can be no true infinity, and it's worth bearing in mind that back in the thirteenth century Aquinas argued that it was not possible to prove philosophically that the universe must have had a beginning in time. As ever with Aquinas, he needs to be read slowly and comprehensively, but still, here's part of his answer:
'By faith alone do we hold, and by no demonstration can it be proved, that the world did not always exist, as was said above of the mystery of the Trinity (q. 32, a. 1). The reason of this is that the newness of the world cannot be demonstrated on the part of the world itself. For the principle of demonstration is the essence of a thing. Now everything according to its species is abstracted from "here" and "now"; whence it is said that universals are everywhere and always. Hence it cannot be demonstrated that man, or heaven, or a stone were not always. Likewise neither can it be demonstrated on the part of the efficient cause, which acts by will. For the will of God cannot be investigated by reason, except as regards those things which God must will of necessity; and what He wills about creatures is not among these, as was said above (q. 19, a. 3). But the divine will can be manifested by revelation, on which faith rests. Hence that the world began to exist is an object of faith, but not of demonstration or science. And it is useful to consider this, lest anyone, presuming to demonstrate what is of faith, should bring forward reasons that are not cogent, so as to give occasion to unbelievers to laugh, thinking that on such grounds we believe things that are of faith.'
Aquinas did believe the Universe had a beginning, of course, but he believed that as a matter of Faith, and this belief played no part in his cosmological argument. Indeed, like Aristotle and Leibniz, Aquinas argued that the Universe must have an uncaused cause even if the Universe has always existed.

Anyway, with the cosmological argument outlined, he moved on.

The Moral Argument
The moral argument for the existence of God is closely related to Aquinas' fourth way, and is an argument that I like, albeit with serious reservations. Simply and syllogistically put, Craig argued that if objective moral values exist, then God must exist, and since they do, then so too must God. I'm deeply uneasy about the argument as outlined in this sense, because while I think the first half of the argument is completely sound, I'm not sure about the second half.

Moral values must be either objective or subjective: either they exist independently of us, such that some things are intrinsically good or evil, or else they are things we create, which ultimately means that they have no inherent value; they are merely agreed norms, and agreement on these norms is simply a matter of culture or fashion. If they exist independently of us, we need to ask why or how can this be, and thus begins a chain of argument that leads us to the idea of a universal external standard of goodness, which we call God.

Fine. I'm grand with that. I'm also quite content that if we identify goodness in its ultimate sense with God, as Christians do, then both horns of the Euthyphro Dilemma are rendered completely blunt. The problem is that we can't philosophically prove that objective morality exists. Yes, I realise that everyone -- psychopaths excluded -- acts as though there's such a thing, which is why they get irate at things they perceive as being unfair or wrong, but that doesn't mean that everyone would accept Craig's premise. There are no shortage of people who'd argue that morality's entirely relative, and who would say, with Hamlet, that 'there's nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so'.

Neither Craig's cosmological or moral arguments show that God exists; what they do is show that belief in God is reasonable, and more prudently expressed that point would have been clear. He'd said good stuff, but he'd over-reached. Still, onward he went then to the part of his argument I thought he put across most feebly.

The Historical Argument
Craig sped through this one, but the essence of his argument was as follows.
  1. 'There are three established facts concerning the fate of Jesus of Nazareth: the discovery of his empty tomb, his post-mortem appearances, and the origin of his disciples' belief in his resurrection.
  2. The hypothesis "God raised Jesus from the dead" is the best explanation of these facts.
  3. The hypothesis "God raised Jesus from the dead" entails that the God revealed by Jesus of Nazareth exists.
  4. Therefore the God revealed by Jesus of Nazareth exists.'
Now, there's a huge amount to be said for this argument, but it doesn't work in this simplistic form, even as barely elaborated by Craig in his speech, and again he overplayed his hand.

He quoted N.T. Wright, for instance, as saying that the Resurrection was a historical event as credibly attested as the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD; this is nonsense, I'm afraid: I think it is credibly attested, but given that the destruction of Jerusalem is attested in contemporary writings and iconography, and is confirmed by archaeological evidence, I can't think for a moment what Wright -- who's normally brilliant -- was doing saying such a thing.** As for the three facts that Craig discussed, I think he's right on all of them, but I'm not convinced he's right for the reason he says he is. The earliest resurrection account, for instance, doesn't mention the empty tomb, and mentions important details the later accounts omit. What Craig danced around is the fact that the Church preceded the Bible, and it's the existence of the Church -- and the behaviour and beliefs of that Church in the first three decades of Christianity -- that's crucial to this argument.

Is the hypothesis that God raised Jesus from the dead the best explanation of these facts? Judged on its own merits, I'm not sure. It's certainly a better explanation than any of the purely naturalistic ones I've ever heard, all of which seem to defy both human nature and what we can confidently say about ancient history, but I'm not sure that it excludes any other supernatural explanations, if we're willing to accept the concept of the supernatural.

Dubious though I was about that stage of the argument, I don't think that the next stages worked at all. Even if we accept that God raised Jesus from the dead, it doesn't automatically follow that 'God' is one and the same with 'God as revealed by Jesus', and that Jesus' God therefore existed. Obviously, I believe God exists, and that God reveals himself in Christ -- I'm not disputing that -- but I was far from convinced by Craig's argument, which seemed to be missing some important stages. All else aside, it's not merely Christians who believe God raised Jesus from the dead. Muslims believe it too, and just as Christians believe Muslims have got God wrong, so do Muslims believe Christians have got God wrong, holding that he's not Triune. For what it's worth, Bahá'ís believe Jesus was a manifestation of God -- as they understand him -- and that his resurrection was not a physical thing.

The depressing thing about this was that Craig was putting forward good, meaningful, thoughtful arguments, but he wasn't expressing them in a good, meaningful, thoughtful way. Rather, he set them up like rehearsed chess moves, creating a situation where Peter Atkins was faced, strategically speaking, with a forked attack that he wasn't remotely capable of addressing.

This was good debating, designed to trap an opponent and to set up a rhetorical victory. It had very little to do with truth. I believe Craig was absolutely right, but that he wasn't right for quite the reasons he gave.

More tomorrow. No, really.

* Yes, I know Lemaître didn't call it that, but we all do.
** Though if you're curious, you'll find it on page 710 of his monumental The Resurrection of the Son of God, the third volume of his phenomenally thorough Christian Origins and the Question of God.


Pablo the Mexican said...

Proofs of the Existence of God:


For your consideration, this is the Catholic perspective.


Lazarus said...

I think there are two separate issues here: 1) the convincingness of specific arguments in natural theology; and 2) the particular way of stating them in a public debate.

I'm never sure about 1)! I'm quite happy to accept the general dogma that reasoning can prove the existence of God without being quite convinced that any particular argument actually clinches it. On the public debate format, isn't it just one element in a mix? (It's hard to think of any one way of presenting the arguments in a short space of time -lecture, tutorial, book chapter- which is perfectly adequate.)At least a debate should establish that Christians are not all morons and that there is a rich tradition of philosophical and theological thinking to be explored.

Heresiarch said...

Of course, the empty tomb isn't an "established fact" at all. It is a fact that at least three of the four gospels mention it, and an empty tomb is an explanation for the existence of these recorded traditions, but it isn't the only possible explanation and isn't in itself an established fact.

The early Christians' belief in the resurrection is an established fact. The experience of post-crucifixion apparitions is more-or-less established fact (Paul records them, after all); but the nature of these apparitions is a matter of interpretation. But the empty tomb, not so much.

This is WLC behaving like an evangelist rather than a philosopher, I'm afraid. He does that a lot, swapping his hats when it suits his argument.

The resurrection argument is circular, because it will only convince someone already believing in, or sympathetic to, the concept of an intervening Deity. As WLC presumably is well aware.

John Ashley said...

You and your readers might be interested in Robert J. Spitzer's "New Proofs for the Existence of God: Contributions of Contemporary Physics and Philosophy". In his first chapter to refers to Borde, Valenkin and Guth, among others and does discuss the results of their work.

The book was published last year by Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

John Ashley
Dartmouth, Nova Scotia