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I have been thinking a lot about the cosmological argument lately, in part because I am currently teaching it in my Introduction to Philosophy class and also because of some recent discussions at the Secular Outpost. My general view on cosmological arguments is that whatever the validity and/or soundness of the arguments (whether the Kalam, or arguments from contingency or any other version), the proper conclusion of such arguments can never be that God exists. That is, no cosmological argument implies that theism is true. I’m not prepared to fully develop and defend this view now, but a few brief remarks are in order:

This point is easiest to see with respect to the Kalam:

(1) Everything that begins to exist has a cause.

(2) The universe began to exist.

(C) The universe has a cause.

Nothing about the premises guarantees that the cause of the universe is God. Even if we follow William Lane Craig and believe that other considerations show that the cause must be personal, nothing implies that this person is God. God is an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent creator. The person who created the universe, if indeed there is one, need have none of these features, which are essential characteristics of God.

In general, even if we are convinced that there must exist an uncaused cause or a necessary being, nothing forces us to believe that such being is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent. So, the proper conclusion of a cosmological argument (CA) will always be something less than ‘God exists.’ And I take this to be a significant point.

In his, “The Cosmological Argument and the Epistemic Status of Belief in God” (reprinted in Philosophy of Religion: A Reader and Guide, W. L. Craig, ed.), Stephen T. Davis presents a version of the CA with precisely the conclusion that I said a CA could never have. Here is Davis’ argument, which he calls the “generic cosmological argument” GCA:

(1) If the universe can be explained, then God exists.

(2) Everything can be explained.

(3) The universe is a thing.

(4) Therefore, the universe can be explained.

(5) Therefore, God exists.

I think that premise (1) is fairly obviously ridiculous and that, if we are being careful, we should not formulate a premise like it. Why? Because, as I said, God is an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, creator. But nothing about the fact that the universe can be explained implies that the explanation of the universe involves an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent person. Indeed, nothing about the fact (assuming it is one) that the universe can be explained implies that this explanation involves a person. In other words, it is possible that the universe can be explained completely in terms of a non-personal force or forces. Furthermore, even if we had some reason to think that the explanation must appeal to the activity of a person, nothing forces us to believe that this person is omnipotent, omniscient, or omnibenevolent. The explanation of the universe could be that it was created by a supernatural omnipotent evil idiot.

But Davis thinks that Premise (1) is perfectly fine and he is a more successful philosopher than I am, so I had better give him the benefit of the doubt and carefully consider what he says in its defense. First, he admits that even if GCA is successful, it does not necessarily prove the existence of the God of theism. He does, however, think that, if successful, it does prove the existence of some kind of divine reality. In addition, he says,

Premise (1) simply claims that if there is any explanation of the existence of the universe, then God must exist and provide that explanation. This premise seems perfectly sensible because if God exists then the explanation for the existence of the universe is just this: “God created it.” And this seems about the only sort of explanation that could be given. If no God or Godlike creator of the universe exists, it seems that the universe will have no explanation whatsoever for its existence. Its existence will be what we might call a brute fact. It is just there, and that is all that can be said. (p. 83 of Craig)

This is really not very good. First, the fact, and I grant that it is one, that if God exists then the explanation for the existence of the universe is that God did it is really quite irrelevant for the truth of (1).  All that it means is that God is a possible explanation for the universe, not that, if there is an explanation, God is it. There are other potential explanations. I mentioned a couple above: a non-personal force of some unknown kind, the activity of a supernatural being who is neither God nor divine. Suppose I asserted (1′) If the universe can be explained, then the Gnostic Demiurge exists, and then defended this with the following assertion: (D) if the Demiurge exists, then the explanation for the existence of the universe is just this: “the Demiurge did it.” Obviously (D) is not a reason to think that (1′) is true.

Now, as I said, above Davis recognizes the problem that his argument cannot prove that God (the god of theism) exists (or at least he recognizes part of the problem), hence his use of “God or Godlike creator.” But this is very slippery. If he is going to be completely clear, he needs to change premise (1) to read “If the universe can be explained, then God or a Godlike creator exists.” And the proper conclusion would be, “God or a Godlike being exists.” But now this is not an argument for theism, it is an argument for theism or some theism-like view. Even so, we still have a few problems. First, how much like God does this Godlike being have to be. Suppose, as I suggested earlier, that the explanation of the universe is that it was created by the Demiurge or by an evil omnipotent idiot (a being I’ll call Fod). Is Fod really Godlike? The demiurge of gnosticism pretty clearly is  not. Would we say that Fod worshipers, if any existed, hold a view that is very much like theism? I doubt it. So, I don’t think that even “God or a Godlike being exists” is the proper conclusion of this argument. Rather, at best it is “A creator exists.” That is interesting, but much weaker than Davis’ original conclusion.

However, we still haven’t dealt with the possibility of a non-personal force. Without some argument that the explanation for the universe must involve the activity of a person, we had better weaken Davis’ Premise (1) and conclusion even further:

(1) If the universe can be explained, then either God exists or some other creator exists or some non-personal universe-generating force exists.

(5) Therefore, either God exists or some other creator exists or some non-personal universe-generating force exists.

This is pretty weak tea. And it is consistent with my view that no cosmological argument has, as its proper conclusion, the claim that God exists.

The primary reason that I wanted to write this post has to do with something that Davis says toward the end of the article. He considers the following objection to the GCA: “If GCA is a successful argument, the “god” or necessary being that it proves exists is not the God of theism or even any lesser god-like sentient being, but rather the universe, or physical matter itself” (88).  In reply Davis says that it does not seem sensible to think that the universe is a necessary being but admits that he cannot prove it. He points to an argument from Richard Taylor that something can be both everlasting and contingent. (This, by the way is a very interesting claim, which warrants more consideration that I can give it here.) But his considered view on this issue is given in the following:

And a truly telling point against the objection to the GCA that we are considering is this:even if the universe were everlasting, it would still make sense to ask: Why should it exist at all? That is, why is there a reality at all? Why is there anything rather than nothing? There is no absurdity at all in the idea of there being nothing at all, no universe. . . . It follows that there is nothing about the universe that implies or even suggests that it is a necessary being. (89)

I am particularly interested in Davis’ claim that “there is no absurdity at all in the idea of there being nothing at all, no universe.” Now, this claim is ambiguous (an issue I will deal with below) but at first blush, Davis is admitting something that is devastating to his argument.

Davis is here indicating that there is nothing absurd in the idea that nothing exists. He is also inferring that since there is nothing absurd about the idea that nothing exists, there is nothing absurd about the idea that the universe does not exist. He is also relying on a general principle something like this: (A) If there is nothing absurd about the idea that something, s, does not exist, then there is nothing about s that implies or suggests that s is a necessary being. The problem is that all of this applies to God just as much as it does to the universe.

Davis is claiming that we can consistently suppose that nothing exists. Well, this supposition entails that God does not exist. In other words, when we suppose that nothing exists, we are supposing that God does not exist.  So, if there is nothing absurd about the idea that nothing exists, there must be nothing absurd about the idea that God does not exist. Thus, by principle (A), there is nothing about God that implies or suggests that God is a necessary being.

So long as we allow that there is nothing absurd in the idea that nothing exists, I don’t see how we can escape this conclusion. Now, perhaps when Davis says, “there is no absurdity at all in the idea of there being nothing at all, no universe” he does not mean that there is no absurdity in the idea of there being nothing at all, full stop. After all, there is that comma and “no universe.” As I indicated above, I think that this statement is ambiguous. I have been reading Davis as claiming that the idea that nothing at all exists is not absurd. But perhaps all he means is that the idea that the universe does not exist is not absurd. If so, he faces a different problem.

Either he claims that there is some absurdity in the idea that nothing at all exists or he claims that there is no absurdity in the idea that nothing at all exists. If the latter, then he must admit that there is no absurdity in the idea that God does not exist and my conclusions above stand. If the former, he needs to explain what is is absurd about the idea that nothing at all exists. He might say that this is absurd because it implies that God does not exist. But then he needs to show why the idea that God does not exist is absurd. Presumably he will say that it is absurd because God is a necessary being. But this is a petitio principii if there ever was one.  If we grant that God’s existence is necessary, then there is something absurd about the idea that God does not exist. But the same can be said about the universe. So, how do we know that God’s non-existence is absurd but the non-existence of the universe is not absurd?

The reason Davis gave us for thinking that the universe is not a necessary being, on this reading, is the fact that there is nothing absurd about the idea that the universe does not exist. If that is the only reason, then to suggest that there is something absurd about the idea that God does not exist because God is a necessary being is to beg the question. I have to assume that God is a necessary being in order to see the absurdity of the suggestion that God does not exist. Davis either needs some other reason for supposing that the idea that God does not exist is absurd, or else he needs some other reason for thinking that God is a necessary being.

I’ve been reading a new collection called Is Goodness without God Good Enough? (edited  by Robert K. Garcia and Nathan L. King).  The collection begins with a debate between Paul Kurtz and William Lane Craig (which bears the same title as the book) and includes several essays inspired by the debate topic as well as closing comments by Kurtz and Craig.  It is a nice collection with some good articles (especially one by Mark C. Murphy called “Theism, Atheism, and the Explanation of Moral Value”).

As expected, Craig defends the theses that  (I) if theism is true, then we have a sound foundation for morality and (II) if theism is false, then we do not have a sound foundation for morality.  While reading through Craig’s arguments I was struck by something that often occurs to me when I read modern apologists.  There is a certain form of argument that is incredibly problematic and yet is often appealed to by apologists (most notably those of the presuppositionalist school).  This kind of argument begins by pointing out some allegedly difficult-to-account-for phenomenon(morality, say, or meaning, or even consciousness, or the very existence of the universe itself).  The apologetic move is to then assert that this phenomenon, whatever it is, cannot be explained under the assumption of a naturalistic universe.  If all that exists is matter and the void, they claim, then it is not possible for there to be genuine morality (or ultimate meaning in life, or veridical beliefs, etc).  However, if God exists, then we can account for this stuff (we can have real meaning, objective moral values, etc.), or so the argument goes.

The problem is that there is a great big gaping hole here: we have no explanation for how God is able to produce (or realize, or bring into existence, or sustain, pick you favorite expression) the thing the existence of which, we supposedly agreed, was difficult to explain.  We just have this bare assertion that with God we can have what it is impossible to have without God.  But how does God do it?  How does God’s existence help us account for it?

Craig and others apparently find the ethical dimension of reality to be rather difficult to account for.  So difficult that it requires intervention from a non-natural order.  But what is wanting, on Craig’s account, is an explanation for how the non-natural realm can accomplish what the natural realm, left to its own devices, cannot.  What is it about God and God’s nature that enables Him to ground ethical principles?  What does God have that the universe does not?  Unless we know this, then how can we be in a position to claim that if God does not exist, then there is no sound foundation for morality?

One would hope that Craig would see this hole and offer some kind of argument for the conclusion that if God exists, then objective moral values exist.  But in fact he offers nothing of the kind.  Indeed, he seems to think that this conclusion is so obvious that there is no need to argue for it.  He says, “The first contention, that if theism is true, we have a sound foundation for morality, should not really be a point of controversy.  Even nihilists will generally concede this conditional claim.” (p. 168)

At another point he says a bit more: “On the theistic view, objective moral values are rooted in God.  He is the locus and source of moral value. God’s own holy and loving nature supplies the absolute standard against which all actions are measured.” (p. 30)

The vacuousness of this is hard to overstate.  True, if God exists then He has a nature (and maybe its all-loving and all that), but I also exist and I also have a nature that is very loving (if I do say so myself) [and I have the added virtue that you don't need to have faith that I exist].  How is it that God’s nature supplies the absolute standard against which actions are judged while my nature (or the nature of any other person) cannot supply this standard?  Again, what is so special about God?  How does His nature do it?

To really see just how vacuous Craig’s theistic account of morality is, imagine an atheist said the following: “On the atheistic view, objective moral values are rooted in the universe.  It is the locus and source of moral value.  The loving nature of the loving sentient beings in the universe provides the absolute standard against which all actions are judged.”

This is completely empty as an account of moral value.  It gives us no idea, really, where morality comes from; it offers no compelling metaphysic grounding of objective moral values.  But what goes for the atheistic version must also go for Craig’s theistic account.

Jason Thibodeau

thibodeau.jason@gmail.com
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