Norman Bacrac (1) has been a member of the Council of Atheism UK since 2011 and is a former editor of the Ethical Record (2).
This edited article, first published in the Ethical Record (3), refutes the first of William Lane Craig’s eight reasons for God. In further articles, published at Atheism UK during 2017, Bacrac will refute Craig’s seven other reasons for God.
In the Philosophy Now magazine, William Lane Craig (4) wrote in The God Issue, “Does God Exist?” (5). In this article, Craig argues there has been a “resurgence of interest in natural theology”.
What is natural theology? It’s the attempt to prove God’s existence without appeal to any alleged revelation, but just relying on purely philosophical arguments, such as the cosmological – the alleged divine origin of the universe and its seeming design.
Craig thinks there are now good arguments for these old issues. He believes there has been a “renaissance of Christian philosophy”, mainly in the USA. These new arguments have been ignored, Craig says, by the so-called ‘new atheists’, such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, who just attack the bad historical record of religion and its sociological causes.
W.L. Craig’s Eight Reasons for God: Reason number 1 – God is the best explanation why anything at all exists
“Suppose you were hiking through the forest and came upon a ball lying on the ground. You would naturally wonder how it came to be there. If your hiking buddy said to you, “Forget about it! It just exists!” you would think he was either joking or just wanted you to keep moving. No one would take seriously the idea that the ball just exists without any explanation. Now notice than merely increasing the size of the ball until it becomes coextensive with the universe does nothing to either provide, or remove the need for, an explanation of its existence.” (5)
“So what is the explanation of the existence of the universe (by ‘the universe’ I mean all of spacetime reality)? The explanation of the universe can lie only in a transcendent reality beyond it – beyond space and time – the existence of which transcendent reality is metaphysically necessary (otherwise its existence would also need explaining). Now there is only one way I can think of to get a contingent entity like the universe from a necessarily existing cause, and that is if the cause is an agent who can freely choose to create the contingent reality. It therefore follows that the best explanation of the existence of the contingent universe is a transcendent personal being – which is what everybody means by ‘God’.” (5)
Craig summarises his first reason for God:
“We can summarize this reasoning as follows:
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.
5. Therefore, the explanation of the universe is a transcendent, personal being – which is what everybody means by ‘God’.” (5)
Does every event have to have an explanation?
A question we can all ask is ‘Why does anything at all exist?’ Here Craig asserts that the universe did not have to exist; it might not have existed. So, he says, it must have an explanation for its existence. But is this true? Does every event have to have an explanation?
Causeless events in nature
Up to about the year 1900, in the era of ‘classical’ physics, the world was thought to be governed by strict laws, for example, Newton’s laws, which specified exactly how each atom would behave once the forces acting on it were known.
Physics since the beginning of the 20th century, with the advent of the quantum, has had to accept that there are causeless events in nature. Nature is not completely deterministic. Atomic events, for example, the moment when a radium atom emits an alpha particle – have no explanation assigned to them. All one can say about this event is that there is a 50% chance that the alpha particle is emitted within 1600 years. The alpha particle might be emitted after one second, or after ten million years. This arbitrariness applies throughout the physical world.
The universe itself does not necessarily have an explanation
Craig is, therefore, wrong to think that science is bound to hold the proposition that every event has an explanation. We cannot now say that it’s necessary that every event has an explanation. Most atomic-scale events seem not to have one, other than a probability of occurrence – they can be said to be random. Therefore, it may be that even the universe itself does not necessarily have an explanation. To assert, as Craig does, that every event has an explanation, is not supported by current science. It is a metaphysical assertion, going beyond science. Scientists and naturalists might have to remain content to accept that the universe may ultimately have no explanation. If this is so, there is no requirement for a ‘best’ explanation. So the premise of Craig’s argument fails, together with its conclusion that ‘God is the best explanation why anything at all exists’. (By the way, this does not imply we all have to accept that an unexplained ‘big bang’ 13.8 billion years ago is the last word on cosmology. The universe might be infinitely old. This issue comes up in Craig’s 2nd argument.)
A ‘transcendent being’ created the universe?
Undaunted, Craig joyfully races on to declare that the explanation of the universe is a ‘transcendent being’, ‘an agent who has freely chosen to create the universe which is therefore merely ‘contingent’ and not necessary’. Nevertheless, Craig somehow knows that this being of his wanted to create the universe although it didn’t have to. To have ‘wants’ it had to be conscious. Craig can, therefore, say it’s a personal being. He’s clearly grooming it to possess all the attributes he wants his god to have.
Why does anything at all exist?
Let’s start again to answer the question why anything at all exists. Craig doesn’t treat the question fairly because he starts by assuming that the universe exists and the problem is to find an explanation for it. This is a false start. Actually, the right way to start to answer the question ‘Why does anything at all exist?’ is, to be fair, assume that nothing whatsoever exists, neither universe nor ‘beings’ of any sort. Then we note the purely logical problem here which faces theists as well as atheists. This is that we both have to start our answer with some statement that itself will get no explanation, precisely because it is the starting point. Given that, there seem to be two starting points. They are:
(a) Craig’s complex starting point: An infinitely great mind, which has to exist (this will supposedly be justified in Reason no. 7), with infinitely fast computing powers, whose words could summon matter into existence, who created the universe just for us, or
(b) The atheist’s simple starting point: A mindless material universe having the potential for evolving life and mind in at least one planet (and millions of earth-like planets are now known to exist).
A Universe without a Cause
It’s ultimately up to you which you think is more reasonable. Given that either (a) or (b), god or the universe, is going to enter existence without a cause, I choose (b), the less complex solution. Given that something has to pop into existence without further explanation, I find it easier to imagine the simple popping into existence rather than the complex. Although at present the universe, with its galaxies, planets, the earth etc is very complicated, we have discovered how all that complexity evolved from a very simple beginning. The laws of physics are ultimately resolvable into just one law, one system, which itself was not conscious and had no intention to evolve us. Yet we humans have discovered how all the present complexity has come about entirely by the operation of the principles of physics. We can explain, in ever-increasing detail, how the complex arises from the simple, with minds and consciousness a very late, and, from the viewpoint of eternity, a very ephemeral product. This is materialism: that mind emerges as a product of matter, simply in accordance with its laws.
However, Craig (and all theists) start with (a) the complex, the joker in the pack. Mind you, he claims this infinite mind is simple, not complex! The world for Craig starts off with a being that can do anything. His God is a conscious being, all powerful, all knowing, all good (whatever that could mean in the absence of anyone else) with infinite calculating powers. Presumably, being all-powerful means it can create matter out of nothing. But as David Hume might have pointed out, the minds we know about, our minds, cannot create matter out of nothing. On the contrary, our experience is of minds emerging from and dependent on, matter – we have no experience of matter being called into existence by mind, so we have no reason to believe that that magical process is possible.
Notes & References
(1) Norman Bacrac is a former physics teacher. He is particularly interested in the hard problem of how the physics of the brain generates conscious experiences, the role it might play in determining the choices we make – and the implications of all this for humanist philosophy. For many years Norman was editor of the Conway Hall Ethical Society monthly journal, Ethical Record.
(2) The Ethical Record is the monthly journal of Conway Hall Ethical Society. The journal began in 1895 and is produced on a monthly basis. Primarily it has provided abstracts and edited essays of the Society’s Sunday Lectures. It has developed into a showcase journal of the Society’s activities and events at Conway Hall. Available at https://conwayhall.org.uk/ethical-record/about-the-ethical-record/
(3) Bacrac, Norman (2015) ‘William Lane Craig’s Eight Reasons for God – Refuted’, Ethical Record, vol. 120, no. 5, pp. 10-18 [Online]. Available at https://conwayhall.org.uk/issue/vol-120-no-5/ (accessed 5th March 2017)
(4) William Lane Craig is Research Professor of Philosophy at the Talbot School of Theology, California. He travels the world lecturing and debating to large audiences on the alleged revival of Christianity and the alleged demise of atheism.
(5) Craig, William Lane (2013) ‘Does God Exist?’, Philosophy Now, vol. 99, November / December [Online]. Available at https://philosophynow.org/issues/99/Does_God_Exist (accessed 5th March 2017)
1770 words, edited by Chris Street (5th March 2017)