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‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

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how to debate William Lane Craig, or not – part two, in which LFS begins to warm to the topic

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the most convenient term in the language

the most convenient term in the language

So here we have, in toto, Luigi Funesti-Sordido’s response to the challenge thrown down by William Lane Craig. It will be rather lengthy, so I’ve broken it up into parts in the hope of making the whole more easily digestible. I’m hoping too, to present the video of LFS’s response in the near future, but at the moment it’s tied up in a beautiful red ribbon of legal and contractual wrangling and other such wishful thinking. We shall see.

Luigi Funesti-Sordido: Well g’day ladies and gents and others, believers and unbelievers, agnostics and sceptics, the notionally curious and the curiously indifferent. Dr Craig has urged upon me a particular and onerous task, to refute his eight arguments for the existence of his pet monotheistic being, within the next twenty minutes. That’s about one refutation every two minutes or so, which considering that he didn’t click me an email about what exactly he was going to say, seems a bit rich. But, as the bishop said to the actress, I’m sure I can rise to the occasion. However, I’ve got some news for you. Forget the time limit, I’ll take as much time as I damn-well please, and you will all sit down and shut up, and take your medicine. The point being that putting forward a few points for the existence of Dr Craig’s weird little being doesn’t take long, while pointing out all the weaknesses or unlikelihoods of the arguments can take quite a while – even just to untangle what it is that Dr Craig’s on about. That’s not to say that it’ll take hours to demolish each of Dr Craig’s points, because some can be dealt with much more quickly than others, but I certainly don’t intend to make this a rushed job, for the simple reason that I want it to be comprehensive and as final as it can be. You will note, by the way, that the doors to this auditorium are locked from the outside, and there is no escape. You will note also that if you try to rise from your chairs, you will receive an electric shock, mild at first but gaining in strength as you seek to widen the distance between your buttocks or other body parts and the comfortable upholstery provided for your viewing and listening pleasure. I wish no-one any harm so if you have any heart problems I’d strongly advise you to keep still and keep comfortable, and above all, don’t panic.

So, to the issues. I want first to make some general comments. Of Dr Craig’s eight arguments, five of them involve what appears to be up to date knowledge about the world, in terms of physics, cosmology, mathematics and the field of consciousness. This suggests that Dr Craig is a thoroughly modern and with-it, forward thinking philosopher. However, nothing could be further from the case. Anybody who has observed Dr Craig’s activities over the past several years, would, I think, be right to form the judgement that this is a man obsessed. In fact, I would go further and say, fanatically obsessed. It seems to me that Dr Craig’s sole purpose, his life’s work, his raison d’etre, is to pedal and promote his particular, peculiar and parochial brand of monotheism. Everything else he talks about, whether it be mathematics or morality, cosmology or consciousness, everything has to be bent and shaped and shoe-horned to fit with this peculiar, fanatical obsession. It follows from this, that nothing Dr Craig has to say about these various fields of activity and inquiry can be trusted. If you ask any expert in any of these fields how best to make a contribution, one thing you’re always likely to be told is to rid yourself, as far as you can, of preconceived notions. Keep an open mind. The two principals that drive science, to my mind, are curiosity and scepticism. Is that really the case? And what is the case? Does that argument really stack up? Can we find a better argument to fit the facts? Wow, here’s some new data, we’re going to have to rethink our basic assumptions, isn’t that exciting.

But these principles do not drive Dr Craig. He already knows the answers, all that remains for him is to convince the rest of the world. Students out there, be very wary of such individuals. Dr Craig doesn’t have the intellectual ingredients to make a good scientist. For a start, he doesn’t have a sceptical bone in his body. Imagine if Dr Craig’s dream came true, imagine if every debater capitulated before his watertight arguments, and not only that, after every debate, the whole audience ‘saw the light’ and converted in their thousands, and eventually millions, to his peculiar deity, with its father-part and its son-part and god knows what else? Where would science go then? What would happen to open and relentless questioning? I ask you to ponder that.

Dr Craig does seem to do well in these debates, and a lot of people try to put their finger on the reasons. They say he’s an ‘expert debater’ and that’s partly true, but I think the principal reason is his lack of scepticism, his absolute certainty about his position. This gives his talks something of a steamroller effect, a relentlessness which sceptics, accustomed to dealing with other sceptics, find difficult to handle. There’s also the fact of Dr Craig’s single-minded obsessionalism. This is his one and only topic, whereas his opponents – writers, academic philosophers and scientists in the main, have a much greater variety of interests and don’t, in general, spend a great deal of time thinking about their atheism.

The situation in this respect reminds me of that in Christine Garwood’s fascinating book ‘Flat Earth’. At the height of the Flat Earth belief in the nineteenth century, lecture halls in the US were regularly filled with people from all levels of society who had come to be discombobulated and entertained by the likes of flat-earth proponent ‘Prof’ Joe Holden, holding forth on the imbecilities of ‘global earth theory’, and using the language and theorems of mathematics, physics and astronomy to prove his point. In Britain at the same time, the notorious Parallax, another flat-earther, was challenging prominent scientists, including the Astronomer Royal, to debates on the matter. Another flat-earther of the time challenged no less a scientist than Alfred Russell Wallace to a test of the flat earth view against the global earth view, and according to a great many observers, actually won the contest. Of course, this is a footnote to history now, and I think the real test of Dr Craig’s position will also be how he is seen by posterity. For the fact is that Christianity is in retreat, in some places more rapidly than in others, but certainly in every western country on the planet. And this can hardly be attributed to ignorance.

Now to the first argument, and fortunately I have the gift of perfect recall, so I remember every detail of it. The best explanation of why something exists, rather than nothing, is a supernatural being. But what is a supernatural being? Not being bound by any rules of evidence, it could of course be anything you like. However, a lot of work done by anthropologists and psychologists into the supernatural beings worshipped and loved and feared and placated throughout the many cultures in the world and throughout history, and there have been many thousands of these beings, has found a number of traits in common. In particular, supernatural beings tend to be rather obsessed with us. In fact it almost seems to be that their very purpose is to protect us or punish us. This is clearly the case with Dr Craig’s god, and that should be seen as a big red flag.

To return to Dr Craig’s argument, he asks ‘What is the explanation of the universe?’ Take note of that question. It’s not ‘What is the cause of the universe?’ There’s quite a sizeable difference between those two questions, and I’ll come back to that. If you asked a bunch  of cosmologists ‘What caused the universe?’ they might say- and I can only speculate of course – ‘you mean what caused the big bang’ and then they might, perhaps, find some consensus in saying, ‘well nothing caused the big bang, because causes always exist in time before their effects and time actually began with the big bang, so it makes no sense to speak of an antecedent cause, and if you think that’s a satisfying answer to us, you’re wrong, but that’s the best we can do, for now.’ Probably though, I’m underestimating these cosmologists, who would likely come out with something much more sophisticated-sounding. What none of them would say, I’m quite sure, is that the cause must be ‘a transcendent reality, beyond the material universe, whose existence is metaphysically necessary,’ which is what Dr Craig says. This reminds me of what Daniel Dennett says about Dr Craig, that he is able, with absolute equanimity, to pass from the most mundane to the most preposterous assertions in a heartbeat. So what is a transcendent reality, and why should it be metaphysically necessary? I think it’s an artifact of Dr Craig’s imagination, and it’s metaphysically necessary because that’s what Dr Craig desperately wants it to be.

Now let me return to the difference between ’cause’ and ‘explanation’, a word Dr Craig is fond of using. He says at the outset that his ‘god’, a metaphysically necessary transcendent being, is the best explanation of the universe’s existence, and he uses the analogy of the explanation for a ball found by the roadside. Now, the difference between an explanation and a cause seems to me to be that an explanation already assumes the existence of an agent, an ‘explainer’. Somebody, in this case maybe the owner of the ball, who can tell the story of how the ball came to be there. So, Dr Craig, argues, because the whole universe is just as much of a contingent object as a ball, it, too, must have a cosmic owner who can explain its being there. (This is of course why Dr Craig chose as his example a ball, and not, say, a large rock). Only, according to Dr Craig,  whereas the ball’s owner/explainer is a contingent entity, like the ball itself, the universe’s owner/explainer must be a ‘transcendent, metaphysically necessary entity.’ To which one might be inclined to say ‘What the…? Where did that idea come from?’ Were I one of those blunt Aussie types, I might be tempted to reply ‘from out of the good doctor’s capacious arsehole’, but being much more civilized I should say that it reminds me of the old cartoon with the equations on the blackboard and the line ‘here a miracle happens’. I think Dr Craig needs to be a great deal more specific in that area.

In short, using the word ‘explanation’ to conjure up a transcendent, necessary explainer is nothing more than a semantic cheat. But I’m not finished with argument one yet. Let’s look more carefully at the argument form he presents:

1. Every contingent thing has an explanation of its existence.

2. If the universe has an explanation of its existence, that explanation is a transcendent, personal being.

3. The universe is a contingent thing.

4 Therefore the universe has an explanation of its existence (from 1,3).

5. Therefore the explanation of the universe is a transcendent, personal being (from 2,4).

Now, this is a version of the age-old cosmological argument, which goes back at least as far as Aristotle, and which can be described in the briefest and most mocking terms as, something can’t come from nothing, therefore god. Arguments on both sides have been heaped up over the centuries, by Aquinas, by Leibniz, by Hume, by Kant, and by innumerable modern  philosophers, and it’s unlikely any headway will ever be made, because it’s entirely speculative, or theological, and non-evidence based. The version of it presented here seems particularly weak and tenuous, because there just seems to be an almighty leap from the need for an explanation, supposing such a need is real, and the claim about a transcendent, personal being. In other words, the major problem lies in the conditional claim (2). I don’t find it at all reasonable, or even comprehensible to me, that the universe can be explained by a ‘transcendent’, that’s to say, non-material, personal being. Does this mean personal to me? That seems self-serving and egotistical. What else can be meant by personal? Personal to herself? (Let’s call her she – I’m really sick of male gods, please, please no more of them, please). That makes little sense. It seems to me that Dr Craig has thrown in the ‘personal’ term precisely to make the god our own little personal father-figure and protector. And let’s face it, Dr Craig’s god is very male. My response to that is in line with what Albert Einstein said many times. In his view, and in mine, belief in a personal god is simply a form of childishness.

I could say more, but it’s time to move on to argument two.

Written by stewart henderson

March 15, 2013 at 8:40 am