Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Craig’s Eight Arguments for God, Part III: “God is the best explanation for the origin of the universe”

This is the third installment in a series of blog entries which I am posting in response to a set of theistic arguments published by Christian apologist William Lane Craig. The first two installments can be found here:
See the Introduction for links to Craig's article (which can now be accessed only by subscribers to Philosophy Now).

Craig’s second argument is intended to support his claim that “God is the best explanation for the origin of the universe.” Although they have similarities, this argument is distinct from his first argument in that, in the present case, Craig seeks to draw on research from a group of secular scientists in order to support his theistic position. Craig’s first argument has already been shown to be a complete failure. Let’s see if Craig’s second argument does any better.

Craig begins his defense of his second thesis as follows:
We have pretty strong evidence that the universe has not existed eternally into the past, but had a beginning a finite time ago.
When I see statements such as this, the first question that comes to my mind here is: What is meant by “the universe” as it is used here? In his previous argument, Craig specified that “universe” means “all of spacetime reality” (a notion which he does not explain) and referred to the universe as “a contingent thing.” Clearly Craig does not think that the universe is all that exists or that the universe is the sum total of what exists. And here he is citing the work of scientists, yet it is not clear that what Craig means by “universe” (whether it is “all of spacetime reality” or “a contingent thing”) is the same thing as the physicists he cites mean by “universe.” Nor does Craig show that what these scientists might entertain as the cause of the universe’s existence (supposing they think it was caused to begin with) is compatible with theism. Craig takes all this for granted.

I do not define ‘universe’ as “all of spacetime reality” or as “a contingent thing,” but rather as the sum total of everything that exists (cf. “everything that exists anywhere”). I have no idea whether or not the scientists whom Craig cites have this meaning of ‘universe’ in mind as well. Craig believes that a form of consciousness essentially wished the universe into existence. But do the scientists whose work Craig seeks to recruit on behalf of his theistic defenses believe this as well?

Craig writes:
In 2003, the mathematician Arvind Borde, and physicists Alan Guth and Alexander Vilenkin were able to prove that any universe which has, on average, been expanding throughout its history cannot be infinite in the past, but must have a past spacetime boundary (i.e., a beginning). What makes their proof so powerful is that it holds so long as time and causality hold, regardless of the physical description of the very early universe. Because we don’t yet have a quantum theory of gravity, we can’t yet provide a physical description of the first split-second of the universe; but the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin theorem is independent of one’s theory of gravitation.
Notice that Craig does not quote any portion of the paper he cites here. In fact, the paper in question can be found here: Inflationary spacetimes are not past-complete (PDF). In fact, not only does Craig fail to give the name of the paper he cites, he does not provide a link to it so that readers can check it out for themselves. A reader myself, I had to go hunting for the paper which Craig references here, and in doing so I found another article titled Borde, Guth, and Vilenkin’s Past-Finite Universe. (Incidentally, this article happens to have been posted on a blog titled Debunking William Lane Craig.) This article confirms some of my own suspicions about Craig’s use of Borde, Guth and Vilenkin’s work when, for example, it states:
The 2003 Borde-Guth-Vilenkin paper (pdf) shows that “almost all” inflationary models of the universe (as opposed to Dr. Craig’s “any universe”) will reach a boundary in the past – meaning our universe probably doesn’t exist infinitely into the past.  
Craig wants to interpret this information as “the universe definitely began to exist,” although this is rather presumptuous. For example, this theorem doesn’t rule out Stephen Hawking’s no-boundary proposal which states that time may be finite without any real boundary (just like a sphere is finite in surface area while it has no “beginning”).
Thus it appears that, in addition to failing to quote anything from the paper he cites (let alone providing a link to it or giving its title), Craig may in fact be bending its conclusions at least a tad here.

The article also quotes a brief passage from a book by Vilenkin titled Many Worlds in One: The Search for Other Universes, which states (p. 176):
Theologians have often welcomed any evidence for the beginning of the universe, regarding it as evidence for the existence of God … So what do we make of a proof that the beginning is unavoidable? Is it a proof of the existence of God? This view would be far too simplistic. Anyone who attempts to understand the origin of the universe should be prepared to address its logical paradoxes. In this regard, the theorem that I proved with my colleagues does not give much of an advantage to the theologian over the scientist.
So, to say the least, it appears that something fishy is going on here: Craig claims that certain scientists have proven a certain conclusion; he does not identify the paper by name in which this conclusion is allegedly established; he does provide a link or address to the paper so that readers can continue their research from Craig’s own paper; and he does not actually quote any statement in the paper. What’s more is that Craig is, to a degree sufficient for his expressly religious purposes, bending what the authors in the cited paper have claimed to establish in their work.

Notice how Craig deliberately interprets what the scientists’ research suggests without even quoting what they actually say. He writes:
For instance, their theorem implies that the quantum vacuum state which may have characterized the early universe cannot have existed eternally into the past, but must itself have had a beginning. Even if our universe is just a tiny part of a so-called ‘multiverse’, composed of many universes, their theorem requires that the multiverse itself must have had a beginning.
What specifically does these scientists’ theorem state which “implies” what Craig says here? It may be that the theorem does imply this, but from what Craig offers we have no way of determining whether he has accurately understood their theorem or has put words in their mouths.

Now, to be sure, it is one thing to say that a certain “state” had a beginning; it’s another thing entirely to say that all existence had a beginning. We can see that a “state” coming into being as such does not imply that all existence is non-eternal. For example, that the United States was in a state of depression throughout the 1930’s in no way implies that at one time in the distant past the universe did not exist. Of course, Craig will not go so far as to say that all existence had a “beginning.” This would include his god, and he won’t have that. He wants his god to be exceptional, having always existed for all eternity, without beginning or end. Rather, Craig wants to say that some subset of all existence (and he gets to say what that subset consists of) had a beginning, meaning that at some point in the distant past that subset (whatever it may include) did not exist at all and that some agent somehow brought it into existence by some volitional act of consciousness (and of course he wants us all to bow down and worship it).

For Craig, to say that the universe had a beginning, he is saying that at one time it did not exist at all; but he is not saying that at some point in the distant past nothing at all existed. And even though these distinctions are crucial to his position, he does not come out and identify them explicitly. Rather, again, he plays fast and loose with the terminology, affirming one thing while kinda-sorta appearing to say something a little different.

Clearly Craig is content to suppose that something has existed for all eternity, namely the god he has enshrined in his imagination. What Craig finds dissatisfying is the idea that the universe is eternal. But as we have seen for Craig, the universe is not all-inclusive; rather, he has defined it in such a way as to allow him to posit other existents outside it which he wants to exempt from whatever conclusions we draw about the existence of the universe. What objective basis does he have for doing this?

Supposing one means by ‘universe’ all the stars, planets, quasars, astral gases, interstellar dust, galaxies, asteroids and other matter that exists, we must ask: how would one go about proving that, at some time in the distant past, none of it existed? Seriously, how would one do this? And what I’m asking here is not that at one point the earth, the other planets, the sun, the stars, etc., did not exist in the form in which they exist today, but rather that none of the material elements which make it up existed. How does one prove that at some point in the past no matter at all existed? What facts do we assemble as evidence to support such a conclusion?

Inflationary models typically do not claim that we must start with non-existence and somehow existence came into being. Rather, such models usually allow that something existed before the current inflationary state and that it is the state of that something which changed in some fundamental way. In other words, it is the state of what exists that changed, not the fact that something exists. If the “Big Bang” was essentially an explosion, something did the exploding. A non-existent thing does not explode into billions of galaxies. So is it really the case that the Big Bang theory confirms the theistic view that the universe is not eternal and that it was created by an act of supernatural consciousness?

Theists commonly misunderstand what the Big Bang theory affirms. In Existence, Time, And The Big Bang, Eyal Mozes points out:
it is not true that Big Bang theory holds that existence started at some point in time, or that existence emerged out of non-existence. Rather, it holds that something very different from matter as it exists today, and perhaps operating by physical laws different from physical laws as they are today, existed before the Big Bang, and caused the Big Bang (this pre-Big-Bang existence is usually referred to as "the Primeval Atom"). While some have interpreted Big Bang theory as holding that existence emerged out of non-existence, or as confirmation of the religious idea of creation by God, these are fringe interpretations. Mainstream Big Bang theory, as widely accepted, does not in any way challenge Objectivist ideas.
What Mozes states here confirms what I have always understood the Big Bang theory essentially to mean, namely that some thing existed prior to the universe as we know it, this thing contained all the elements that currently make up the universe as we know it, and it “exploded” in all directions dispersing its elements which currently exist in the form of galaxies, stars, planets, moons, asteroids, space dust, and what have you. Though it’s possible that some scientist out there claims that prior to the Big Bang there was absolutely nothing in existence, I am not aware of any who have made such a claim, and I do not see how such a position would be rationally tenable. How would that person know?

Now I must point out that I do not deny Vilenkin’s position (filtered as it has been through Craig’s own characterization to the effect that the universe must have had a beginning) because I have some emotional confession to protect; readers should not confuse me with religionists (cf. their rejection of the theory of evolution). Rather, I don’t accept it because I am not aware of any objectively informed context which unambiguously supports it. In short, I'm not convinced. Of course, I am not a physicist and I do not claim to understand all the theoretical and mathematical formulations which Vilenkin et al. have enlisted to generate the view that the universe had a beginning. Indeed, how many people do have this recondite understanding? My point here should at least be taken as follows: if I do not understand the support alleged on behalf of a claim, I do not have the contextual basis to accept that claim as veritable knowledge. It may be the case that Vilenkin’s case is sound given the context which he has factored into it, but I don’t know that to be the case. And Craig’s readers likely do not either. Craig again comes off as though he were expecting his audience to accept a position on authority alone, not on the basis of firsthand understanding which he is prepared to help readers acquire.

A number of questions come to my mind as I contemplate these issues. For one, what does Vilenkin et al. mean by “beginning” when they are said to have come to the conclusion that the universe had or likely had a beginning? What exactly do they mean by this? What exactly had a beginning – the existence of all the matter which makes up the universe (such that none of the material which currently makes up the stars and planets and everything else did not exist in any form at all prior to the Big Bang), or the state in which that matter currently exists, or the activity which we commonly refer to as expansion or inflation? These are not all one and the same, and I would think it would be extremely important to use care in observing such distinctions.

Depending on how this is answered, other questions arise. For example, what actual evidence supports that the universe had a beginning (whatever that may be understood to mean)? Or more importantly, what actual evidence suggests that at some point in the past no material substances of any kind existed at all? What actual evidence indicates the view that at some point in the distant past nothing whatsoever existed? Even theists like William Lane Craig do not affirm such a view – after all, they want their god to have always existed. But in all seriousness, he is of no help in addressing these fundamental questions. He is far more concerned about instilling the impression that serious science somehow vindicates his theistic confession.

Here’s Alan Guth, one of the scientists whom Craig cites, whom I quote at length confirming what Eyal Mozes points out above (source: Cosmic Questions: Did the universe have a beginning?; emphasis added):
At the first level, I would argue that the answer to the question is yes, the universe had a beginning in the event that is usually referred to as the big bang…  
I think that at least 99.9 percent of the people working in scientific cosmology today believe that the universe evolved from a hot dense state…  
When cosmologists say that they are persuaded that the big bang theory is valid, they are using a rather precisely defined and restricted interpretation of the term "big bang.'' As it is used by scientists the term refers only to the expansion of the universe from an initially hot dense state. But it says nothing about whether the universe really began there, or whether there was something else that preceded what we call the big bang….  
…the theory of inflation does not give a clear answer to the question of whether the universe had a beginning, but it does provide at least a context for discussing this question…  
The standard big bang theory is, of course, a very significant scientific theory. It describes how the early universe expanded and cooled from an initially very hot dense state. It describes how the light chemical elements that we observe today were synthesized during the first 200 seconds or so of this expansion period. And finally, although work in this area is still in progress, it seems to describe very well how the matter in the universe eventually congealed to form the stars, galaxies, and clusters that we observe in the universe today.  
There is, however, a key issue that the standard big bang theory does not discuss at all: it does not tell us what banged, why it banged, or what happened before it banged. Despite its name, the big bang theory does not describe the bang at all. It is really only the theory of the aftermath of a bang….  
the standard big bang theory says nothing about where the matter in the universe came from. In the standard big bang theory all the matter that we see here, now, was already there, then. The matter was just very compressed, and in a form that is somewhat different from its present state. The theory describes how the matter evolved from one form to another as the universe evolved, but the theory does not address the question of how the matter originated.
These statements, again coming from one of the scientists whom Craig cites, puts an interpretation on the theorem in question that is entirely different from the how Craig characterizes its implications in his theistic defenses. Craig gives the impression that a “beginning” of the universe as these scientists conceive of it in their theorem means that prior to the Big Bang nothing existed at all or at least the material which makes up the universe as we currently understand it did not exist. But the Big Bang theory does not affirm this, and so far as I can tell by reading, they Borde-Guth-Vilenkin theorem doesn’t either. Thus, to the extent that Craig is intending to give this impression to his audiences, he is distorting the data.

And Craig should certainly know better! After all, he’s a “professional philosopher,” and he’s no doubt been schooled on these topics at least in some of the debates he has performed in. Here, for example, is a snippet from a transcript of Craig’s debate with Sean Carroll in which Carroll states:
Now there’s a theorem by Alan Guth, Arvind Borde, and Alex Vilenkin that says the universe had a beginning. I’ve explained to you why that’s not true but in case you do not trust me I happen to have Alan Guth right here. One of the authors of the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin Theorem, Alan what do you say? He says, “I don’t know whether the universe had a beginning. I suspect the universe didn’t have a beginning. It’s very likely eternal but nobody knows.” Now how in the world can the author of the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin theorem say the universe is probably eternal? For the reasons I’ve already told you. The theorem is only about classical descriptions of the universe not about the universe itself.
And as the article cited earlier states:
Nothing in the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin paper suggests a beginning from “absolute nothingness” (as Craig often claims).
Again and again, the evidence suggests that Craig is distorting scientific theses to bolster his religious faith.

Wrongly assuming that the “beginning” of the universe which the scientists he cites have in mind means “a beginning from ‘absolute nothingness’,” Craig offers the following questions:
Why did the universe come into being? What brought the universe into existence? There must have been a transcendent cause which brought the universe into being – a cause outside the universe itself.
Does positing “a transcendent cause which brought the universe into being” – a cause which elsewhere in his paper Craig characterizes as “an agent who can freely choose to create the contingent reality” – explain these and other questions that such a notion raises? By what means can we have awareness of such a thing? What evidence do we find to support the contention that such a thing exists? How do we confirm that Craig and others who posit such “a transcendent cause” have not made a mistake in drawing such a conclusion? How do we distinguish “a transcendent cause” from something that is merely imaginary? Indeed, why would “a transcendent cause” which could “freely choose to create the contingent reality” make the choice to create anything? What facts can be scientifically vetted to provide any answers to such a question? If we must rely on what Craig himself dismisses as “highly speculative scenarios” to address such questions, what value does Craig’s “explanation” have qua explanation? Blank out.

Craig summarizes his case with the following points:
1. The universe began to exist.
Craig states that certain scientists working in the field of cosmology have secured this very premise. But in fact, he distorts their findings and ignores several crucial distinctions. For example, when the scientists he cites say that the universe had “a beginning,” do they mean that the universe began from “absolute nothingness,” that matter came into being with the Big Bang, or that the Big Bang was merely an event in which “an initially hot dense state” of matter erupted into an inflationary state, meaning that the material make-up of the universe had existed all along? Craig does not actually give any direct quotes from the research he cites to support his theistic interpretation of their work, and at several points he is clearly putting a spin on that research to serve his religious faith.
2. If the universe began to exist, then the universe has a transcendent cause.
What exactly is “a transcendent cause”? Can Craig define this in positive terms? Or, can he only tell us what it is not? What argument does Craig offer for his claim that the cause must be “transcendent”? How compelling is that argument? What evidence from reality can he point to as support for such a notion? What explanation does Craig’s “best explanation” provide in response to these questions? Blank out.
3. Therefore, the universe has a transcendent cause.
At this point, all we really have is Craig’s bare say-so on this. But he does try to give some indication of his rationale for supposing that “a transcendent cause” – specifically a form of consciousness (which of course happens to correspond to the god he’s been worshiping for the past several decades) – is necessary for explaining something that doesn’t need explanation after all He writes:
By the very nature of the case, that cause of the physical universe must be an immaterial (i.e., non-physical) being. Now there are only two types of things that could possibly fit that description: either an abstract object like a number, or an unembodied mind/consciousness. But abstract objects don’t stand in causal relations to physical things. The number 7, for example, has no effect on anything. Therefore the cause of the universe is an unembodied mind. Thus again we are brought, not merely to a transcendent cause of the universe, but to its Personal Creator.
This is about as sophisticated as Craig’s “methodology” gets: because “the number 7… has no effect on anything,” the universe must have been created by “an unembodied mind/consciousness.” Or, since numbers cannot create matter, matter must have been wished into existence by a supernatural consciousness.

It’s certainly true that the number 7 does not cause things to happen; the number 7 does not manipulate the weather nor does it cause stars to explode. So Craig is right to eliminate the number 7 from further consideration here.

But why doesn’t Craig rule out consciousness for the same reason? After all, just as we do not find the number 7 creating matter, neither do we find any instance of consciousness creating matter. Can Craig produce any evidence demonstrating such a capacity to any form of consciousness? I would agree with Craig that we can imagine such a consciousness. But this does not address my question here. What evidence can Craig point to which shows that any conscious activity can produce physical substances? Every example of consciousness that we can find in reality (and, importantly, apart from what we imagine) belongs to a biological organism, such as beetles, frogs, goats, chimpanzees, and even human beings. Does any biological organism possess a type of consciousness which can bring matter into existence? If Craig can produce such an organism, I would love to see it. Perhaps it could create a pile of money for us all. But it will not do if all Craig can say here is that there must be such a consciousness in some realm beyond the reach of our rational faculties and that we must have “faith” that it is real. That is the realm of imagination, not facts.

Such “reasoning” is simply laughable. And yet, Craig has made a career of giving the absurdity of his religious beliefs the gloss of academic prestige. In the final analysis, however, he cannot outrun the fact that his religious beliefs are founded on fantasy.

When apologists cite scientists, such as Craig has done here, as leading authorities in the field of cosmological research suggesting that the universe had a beginning, and imply that their research confirms theological beliefs, two fundamental questions come to mind.

First, I would like to know whether or not these scientists are saying that existence as such had a beginning – that prior to the Big Bang or whatever explosive event is hypothesized to have occurred, nothing whatsoever existed. If not, then we certainly would not need to explain the fact that existence exists by reference to something allegedly existing outside existence (as if that would do any good in the first place). If they are claiming that existence did have a beginning (i.e., that before the Big Bang, nothing whatsoever existed), then clearly there would be nothing that existed prior to existence coming into existence that could be responsible for causing existence to exist, which would rule out the Christian god. Neither alternative holds any promise for theism.

As we saw above, Alan Guth himself does not hold that existence came into being with the Big Bang. Since existence is eternal (indeed, time presupposes existence), there’s nothing for Craig’s god to explain. An “explanation” which does no explaining cannot be accepted as “the best explanation” for anything.

Second, I would like to know whether or not the scientists whom Craig has cited here (or anywhere, for that matter) are claiming that the universe began to exist as a result of some form of conscious activity. If they had actually claimed this, I’m confident that Craig would emphatically broadcast this conclusion by repeating it over and over in his papers and debates and consequently abandon the ploy of pitting consciousness against the number 7. But I do not see that he does this, nor do I find any suggestion in the research he cites to the effect that the beginning of the universe (to the extent that these scientists are even claiming this) came about as a result of conscious activity. And of course, if the scientists whom Craig cites have not proposed this suggestion, I do not expect that Craig would draw attention to this inconvenient fact either. Indeed, I find no suggestion in the cited research suggesting that the cause of the universe (really, its present inflationary state) was (in theistic terms) “personal” rather than “impersonal.”

Do these scientists also claim to have discovered that there is a heaven, a hell, angels and demons, etc., at the same time? I trow not.

In conclusion, Craig’s second case fails to produce a good explanation for the origin of the universe for a variety of reasons. First, the validity of Craig’s case depends on what is meant by “universe.” If by ‘universe’ one means some category of the sum totality of existence which is not all-inclusive, then at best we have one set of existing things being explained by reference to another set of existing things, which is not in itself as interesting as Craig apparently wants us to believe. On the other hand, if ‘universe’ means the sum totality of all that exists, then Craig fails to make a case for all of existence having some origin. Positing a cause to the sum total of existence is nonsensical: a cause would have to exist in order to do any causing, which means it would have to be part of the sum total of all that exists.

Second, Craig cites the work of certain scientists while appearing not to have characterized their research accurately. Craig’s case is heavily dependent on this research, and yet he nowhere quotes anything these scientists actually say, and he seems to read into certain statements more than what they have actually said. When it turns out that at least one of the scientists whom Craig has cited has unequivocally affirmed that he has not argued that existence came into being on the occasion of the Big Bang, it appears that Craig is simply misappropriating their research for ulterior aims.

Third, Craig does not cite any scientific evidence for the supposition that conscious activity can bring any physical thing into existence, let alone the universe as a whole (however one might define this), even though this is what he would need to do in order to conclude that his god is the origin of the universe. Craig’s attempt to reason that the cause of the universe must be a form of consciousness or “unembodied mind” because “the number 7… has no effect on anything” is a disgrace. In fact, after drawing on the work of Borde, Guth and Vilenkin, Craig’s argument trades on an argument from ignorance, a sort of “Duh, I donno! Must be God did it!” approach to the matter at hand.

Fourth, Craig’s “explanation” simply raises more questions than it attempts to solve, and Craig does not attempt to answer any of those questions. In fact, he carries on as if no lingering questions arise as a result of his “explanation,” which is fantastically disingenuous.

So we can safely say that Craig’s claim that “God is the best explanation for the origin of the universe” is utterly untenable.

But there’s still more. This is only the second of Craig’s eight arguments for the existence of his god. So sit tight and we’ll proceed to the next one in due course.

by Dawson Bethrick


Justin Hall said...

Dawson I am enjoying this series and I think I will chim in when you are done. Also I would like to meet you too when you return to the US if that is possible. I am still living in Portland Oregon.

Also I have a presupper that I have written about before, John. Recently he emailed me and I posted by reaction on my blog. If you have the time and are curious check it out http://court-of-reality.blogspot.com/2015/03/the-most-strongest-most-gooder-most-non.html

Ydemoc said...


Another good one! Meanwhile, about a month or so ago, I saw the following news item. I just wonder if WLC has seen it:

No Big Bang? Quantum equation predicts universe has no beginning
Feb 09, 2015

(Phys.org) —The universe may have existed forever, according to a new model that applies quantum correction terms to complement Einstein's theory of general relativity.

Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2015-02-big-quantum-equation-universe.html#jCp


Bahnsen Burner said...

Hello Ydemoc,

Thanks for the link. I'll try to take a look at it later.

As for the Big Bang theory, I've always been quite skeptical of it myself. In an interview with Jan Irvin over on Gnostic Media, David Harriman confirms my suspicions with what he has to say about the Big Bang theory. He calls it essentially "a creation theory" and says that it really doesn't have the support of observational evidence. He also thinks that, as a cosmological paradigm, the Big Bang theory could die away in the not too distant future.

Check out the interview at this link:

David Harriman interview, pt. 2 – “The Philosophic Corruption of Physics and The Logical Leap” – #112

The entire interview (including the first part, here) is very interesting, but the question about the Big Bang comes up just before the 59:00 minute marker in the second installment (#112), and Harriman discusses it for several minutes.


Ydemoc said...


Thanks for the links to the Harriman interview. I haven't listened the interview yet, but I plan to.