Craig’s Eight Arguments for God, Part IX: “God can be personally known and experienced”
So let’s take a look at Craig’s final case and see if he can still score a point.
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, by personally experiencing him.
It is true that we can experience things directly and have direct awareness of things. For these things, we do not need to infer their existence since in fact we are aware of them directly, which means: we do not need to argue for the existence of things we directly perceive. For example, I can directly perceive my wife when she is in my presence, so naturally I do not have to infer her existence from some other set of facts of which I do have direct perceptual awareness; if I see her in the living room reading a book, I do not need to assemble an argument to prove that she’s in the living room reading a book. I can directly perceive my wallet when I go to reach for it before I leave the house for work in the morning; I do not have to infer its existence either. I can directly perceive my car when I walk out of my house as I’m heading off to work; I do not have to infer its existence either. Inference ultimately begins with things which we directly perceive. Thus to ask for a proof of something which we directly perceive ignores the rational nature of proof. The purpose of an argument is to secure the truth of propositions whose truth is not perceptually self-evident by logically relating them to that which is perceptually self-evident.
But this is not quite what Craig has in mind when he says that we “can know God exists wholly apart from arguments, by personally experiencing him.” Craig certainly does not have sense perception in mind here as the mode of awareness by which we can allegedly experience his god directly. And as we shall see, he does not come out and say this explicitly. In fact, he does not exactly come out and say that one can have direct awareness of his god. Craig prefers a broader – and thus less specific, and consequently more vague – term here, “experience.”
There is no disputing the fact that people have experiences. Christians have experiences, Muslims have experiences, atheists have experiences, Buddhists have experiences, animists have experiences, Scientologists have experiences, Mormons have experiences. Religious apologists like to say that different people “interpret” their experiences differently, but hasten to interject that their own interpretations are correct and everyone else’s mistaken. But this notion that we “interpret” our experiences is itself misleading in that it obscures more fundamental epistemological concerns.
As I pointed out in Part VI of this series, human experience always involves conscious interaction with some object(s) (where an object is anything perceived and/or considered). The experience may be watching a bird sitting on a fencepost, feeling raindrops on one’s brow, walking into a noisy classroom, standing in line at the supermarket, talking to someone on a mobile phone, driving down a street, etc. If a person was not present when something happened, he cannot be said to have experienced it. Similarly, if one is sedated while having a surgery, we probably wouldn’t say he experienced the surgery; he underwent surgery, but he did not consciously experience it.
Since experience involves conscious interaction with an object or set of objects, the fundamental issue to probe here is not how one “interprets” that experience, but whether or not he has correctly identified the object(s) involved in that experience. If one can “interpret” (or rather, understand the nature of) his experiences at all, he would first need correct information about the elements involved in it. Thus accurate identification of those elements is fundamental to understanding the nature of one’s experiences. An error in identifying the nature of some object involved in one’s experience, or even its causal role in one’s experience, will only result in more errors when one attempts to integrate it into the broader understanding of his experience. Consequently it is very important not to confuse what is real in our experience with what we imagine, what we wish, what we prefer, what is not real.
But Craig expresses no concern for any of this.
Philosophers call beliefs grasped in this way ‘properly basic beliefs’. They aren’t based on some other beliefs; rather they’re part of the foundation of a person’s system of beliefs.
I would go further to say that the notion of “properly basic beliefs” is itself philosophically suspicious. The term acknowledges the hierarchical nature of knowledge, but only in an effort to smuggle some illicit set of unstated premises into one’s foundation. Knowledge does in fact have a hierarchical nature, but this is not owing to “beliefs” per se, but to concepts. Concepts are more fundamental than beliefs; in fact, we could not have beliefs if we did not first form those concepts which serve to inform our beliefs. Conceptual identification must come before belief-formation. But Craig is not concerned with conceptual hierarchy. He’s concerned only with pushing his god-belief, and reason will only get in his way.
Notice also how Craig does not specify which philosophers he has in mind, nor does he quote any who say whatever it is he wants to say here (which is as vague as possible). No doubt he could cite some, but the whole topic of “properly basic beliefs,” as treated by thinkers like Alvin Plantinga, is itself so riddled with philosophical loopholes as to be intellectually useless. That is, of course, unless one wants to make room for things which are simply irrational and imaginary in nature as if they were factual. Why not begin with existence and recognize its independence from conscious activity? Craig will have none of that since it will not serve his theistic confession, even though if there were such a thing as “properly basic beliefs,” what could be more “properly basic” than the recognition that existence exists independent of conscious activity? Of course, Craig never comes near this topic. He wouldn’t with a ten-foot pole!
Craig gives example of what he considers to be beliefs that are “properly basic”:
Other properly basic beliefs would be the belief in the reality of the past or the existence of the external world. When you think about it, neither of these beliefs can be proved by argument.
The concept of the past is something we form later in our conceptual development. It is not a “properly basic belief,” but rather a broader integration of previously formulated recognitions, including not only objects which we perceive, but also their actions, the fact that actions have identity – i.e., causality, and the myriad distinctions which these imply over time – e.g., the ball rolls, then it comes to rest, which means: the ball was rolling, but now it is in a state of rest. Thus we implicitly grasp the distinction between present action and completed action, which subsequently implies the distinction between the present and the past. None of this would be possible if we did not perceive anything, if we had no awareness of distinctions, if we did not grasp the concept ‘action’ at least implicitly, if we did not know what a ball is, etc. So I don’t think Craig is correct at all in implying that “the belief in the reality of the past” is fundamental. Many distinctions need to be integrated to make this possible. But we do this at a very young age, well before adulthood, and when we do make these distinctions and integrate them into broader abstractions, we are not aware of the process by which we do this. So it all seems like a “belief” which can be harmlessly classed as “properly basic,” but in fact this obscures what is actually the case in such integrations.
How could you prove that the world was not created five minutes ago with built-in appearances of age like food in our stomachs from the breakfasts we never really ate and memory traces in our brains of events we never really experienced?
In answer to Craig’s purposes, however, what’s important to note at this point is that the “belief” that the world was not created five minutes ago could not in any way be considered fundamental. We do not begin by denying or negating. And notice how quickly this belief would have to be multiplied exponentially if one accepted it as a belief as such: one would have (i) the belief that the world was not created five minutes, (ii) the belief that the world was not created six minutes ago; (iii) the belief that the world was not created seven minutes ago, and so on. But even Craig could not extend this indefinitely, for he in fact claims that at some point in the past, the world was created. So on Craig’s view, there was a point in the past in which it would have been true to say that the world was created five minutes ago.
Moreover, no one has any obligation to prove that the world was not created five minutes ago. The purpose of proof is not to occupy our attention with imaginative scenarios which have no value, but to demonstrate how sophisticated integrations reduce to perceptual inputs.
Craig poses another nonsensical question:
How could you prove that you are not a brain in a vat of chemicals being stimulated with electrodes by some mad scientist to believe that you are reading this article?
The purpose of proof is not to combat the arbitrary and eliminate them from further consideration. Nor is proof’s primary purpose to demonstrate that something is not the case. And in case anyone is taken aback by such questions as the ones Craig recites here, consider what Leonard Peikoff has to say in response to just this kind of skeptical challenge:
As an example, I will quote from a recent skeptic, who asks: “How can I be sure that, every time I believe something, such as that there are rocks, I am not deceived into so believing by … a mad scientist who, by means of electrodes implanted in my brain, manipulates my beliefs?” According to this approach, we cannot be sure that there are rocks; such a belief is regarded as a complex matter open to doubt and discussion. But what we can properly take as our starting point in considering the matter and explaining our doubt is: there are scientists, there are electrodes, men have brains, scientists can go mad, electrodes can affect brain function. All of this, it seems, is self-evident information, which anyone can invoke whenever he feels like it. How is it possible to know such sophisticated facts, yet not know that there are rocks? The author, who is a professor of philosophy, feels no need to raise such a question. He feels free to begin philosophizing at random, treating advanced knowledge as a primary and using it to undercut the direct evidence of men’s eyes. (Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, p. 140)
For example, if I were to accept Craig’s own worldview of supernaturalism, how could I prove that some invisible magic demons are not manipulating my mind, deceiving me at every turn, a guiding me into spiritual hazards that I cannot perceive? If I believed that there were such things as invisible magic demons in the first place, I would be opening the door to innumerable questions of such arbitrary nature that I would have to accept as philosophically legitimate but for which no rational answers could be ascertained. Could one simply dismiss such “possibilities” (which Craig’s previous argument would have us take seriously) by claiming that such a state of affairs could not be the case as a matter of “properly basic” beliefs? The New Testament stories take the notions of demons and “unclean spirits” quite seriously, and yet Christian apologists seem all too happy to ignore the spiritual mischief that such notions imply when it comes to defending their worldview. Apparently they would have us believe that they are immune to demonic suggestion altogether in their pretense to infallibility.
Craig goes on:
We don’t base such beliefs on argument; rather they’re part of the foundations of our system of beliefs.
In rational philosophy, foundational tenets are not mere “beliefs,” but recognitions based directly on the input of the senses. The senses put us in direct contact with what exists, and they do this before we have any knowledge at all. Thus their input is the proper place to begin. The senses give us direct awareness of the metaphysically given: there is a world, there is a reality, and it exists independent of our conscious activity (which is why Craig’s seventh argument is a complete and utter failure). Put briefly, we do not begin by negating the arbitrary, but by recognizing fundamental facts.
But from what we can gather from Craig’s statements, he accordingly believes that the belief that the world was not created five minutes ago is a belief that is “properly basic.” So why can’t the belief that the world was not created 6,000 years ago also be “properly basic”? How about the belief that the world was not created at all? If I believe that the world was not created by an act of consciousness to begin with (which would clearly obviate theistic creationism), why would not this belief qualify as a “properly basic” belief? Why would the belief that the world was created by an act of consciousness qualify as “properly basic”? Who exactly gets to determine which particular beliefs can be qualified as “properly basic” in the first place? What is the procedure for vetting beliefs to determine whether or not they are “properly basic”? I do not see where Craig addresses these concerns. I thought Craig was interested in what constitutes “best explanations” here, and yet it seems impossible to quantify how much he does not explain.
But although these sorts of beliefs are basic for us, that doesn’t mean that they’re arbitrary. Rather they’re grounded in the sense that they’re formed in the context of certain experiences. In the experiential context of seeing and feeling and hearing things, I naturally form the belief that there are certain physical objects which I am sensing. Thus, my basic beliefs are not arbitrary, but appropriately grounded in experience. There may be no way to prove such beliefs, and yet it’s perfectly rational to hold them. Such beliefs are thus not merely basic, but properly basic.
But notice how Craig is trying to backpedal on the very tradition that gave rise to the kinds of arbitrary questions he raised earlier. As Peikoff suggests, that tradition sought to discredit the evidence of the senses as the source for knowledge, and here Craig is saying that what he calls “properly basic” beliefs are based on “the experiential context o seeing and feeling and hearing things.” He says that from this context he “naturally form[s] the belief that there are certain physical objects” which he directly perceives. But can he explain how he can “naturally form the belief” that a supernatural realm populated by a god, angels, demons, “unclean spirits,” and the like, from such “experiential context”? That is the question. But Craig does not address it. Rather, he wants to say that his belief that his god exists is on the same level as his belief that physical things exist. Observe what Craig states next:
In the same way, belief in God is for those who seek Him a properly basic belief grounded in their experience of God.
Now if this is so, then there’s a danger that philosophical arguments for God could actually distract your attention from God Himself. The Bible promises, “Draw near to God and he will draw near to you.” (James 4:8) We mustn’t so concentrate on the external arguments that we fail to hear the inner voice of God speaking to our hearts. For those who listen, God becomes a personal reality in their lives.
When Craig speaks of an “inner voice” allegedly belonging to the Christian god, how does one distinguish this from what he may merely be imagining? Craig does not have a literal voice in mind, coming from a physical mouth and traveling through sound waves to one’s ear. This is an “inner voice.” How does he determine that the impulses in his mind are or are not an “inner voice” belonging to some supernatural being? How does one determine that the “inner voice” he believes he “hears” belongs to the Christian god? How does one determine what this “inner voice” is really saying? Again, Craig has made numerous claims about his god being “the best explanation” for a wide variety of things, and yet he leaves so much unexplained!
What about the “inner voices” which have allegedly instructed people to murder? In my analysis of Craig’s sixth argument, we found that people harming others sometimes claim to be doing so in obedience to “God.” Indeed, we saw that Craig himself believes that this can be justified. Some legal defenses have sought to exonerate suspects on the basis that they were temporarily insane when they believed that they were hearing an “inner voice” urging them to commit murder. And yet here Craig is urging readers to pay closer attention to an “inner voice” than to arguments or anything else “external,” precisely because he fears these will stand in the way between believers and the Christian god. Apparently even arguments and facts are too big for the “Holy Spirit” to get around.
So we can safely conclude that Craig’s eighth argument fails to get off the ground. It is in its very essence just an appeal to imagination dressed up quite clumsily to seem philosophically legitimate. Craig wants to make his god-belief a “properly basic” belief, and yet when he gives examples of what are commonly taken to be “properly basic” beliefs, he drops crucial aspects of context and treats “belief” that physical things exist (which we perceive by means of sense perception – by looking outward) on the same par as “belief” in the existence of a god, which is only accessible by means of imagination – i.e., by looking inward and “hearing” an “inner voice” which one is apparently expected to know automatically as belonging to “God.” At no point does Craig justify any of his shifty maneuvers, nor does he even anticipate fundamental epistemological questions which his claims can only raise if one attempts to make sense of them.
What can we say, then? This was Craig’s last chance, and here as in his previous seven arguments he has failed to bring forth a solid case for his theism. Craig has had a fair hearing here: his arguments were considered and he had every chance to make good on his theistic claims. Unfortunately his arguments suffer from deep fatal flaws which cannot be bandaged over. The fundamental problem, however, is not simply that his arguments are defective. Rather, it is that what he is trying to vindicate with those arguments simply is not true. If it were true, he would not need eight arguments, nor would he need to say in his final case that arguments are in fact not necessary in the first place after presenting seven already. Craig’s worldview is a form of mysticism and therefore expressly as anti-rational as it is anti-reality and anti-man. That he continues to push such arguments in public performance debates only underscores that what likely motivates him is a form of euphoric thrill-seeking of the likes of a Hillary Clinton.
In conclusion: William Lane Craig is all washed up.
by Dawson Bethrick