Posts Tagged ‘William Lane Craig’

Five Christmas gifts for doubters.


From Why Evolution is True, I’ve learned of a curious Christmas gift that William Lane Craig is offering to atheists: Five reasons why God exists.

There are several responses already – my favorite for its philosophical rigour is Richard Carrier’s.

My take tonight is somewhat different. Rather than a rebuttal of Craig’s points – something I couldn’t do as well as Carrier anyway – I’d like to offer a Friendly Humanist’s gift to William Lane Craig, and to any people out there who are honestly doubting the existence of God.

So here are my Five reasons it is safe to question your beliefs. (Mainly aimed at religious believers, but the premise should work for any belief.)

1. Morality

It seems that many people fear or distrust nonbelief because it lacks the anchor of religious morality. I’m not going to get into how rusty and unreliable that anchor is – this is an uplifting Christmas gift, not a rant.

So just consider this: if, in fact, there is no god, then every good deed people have done, every uplifting principle, every act of compassion and moral progress, has come from people. So, if there is no god, then we have within ourselves the resources to be good, to improve our lot, that of our fellow humans, and of other creatures. Follow your reason. If it leads you away from belief in God it will not lead you away from morality. (Nor, if it leads you back into belief, will it lead you away from morality.) Millions of people are good without belief in God. Millions are good with belief in God. It is safe to doubt. It is okay to doubt.

2. Meaning

Similarly, many rely on belief in God for a sense of meaning.

They may fear that, by letting go of the belief in God, they will lose any sense of meaning in their lives. Fear not. Because if there is no god, then all the meaning and inspiration you have ever felt came from you, yourself. Whatever you believe, you cannot destroy the source of meaning. If the source is God, he’ll still be there if you doubt him. If the source is you, you will still be there regardless of your belief or disbelief in God. You may doubt God, but you can still believe in yourself. Millions find meaning in their lives without leaning on belief in supernatural creators. It is okay. It is safe.

3. Love

If you are starting to sense a pattern here, that’s fine. Patterns are everywhere in the universe.

Anyway, what about love? Many people say “God is love” – I’m not always sure, but I think some mean it metaphorically and others literally. Whatever the case, if God-the-person does not exist, that doesn’t change the fact that most people through the ages of human existence have experienced love in some form or other. If you come to believe that God does not exist, that love will not magically vanish. It remains. It is a fact; God is only a theory. (On the other hand, if God does exist, the love remains too.)

Millions of atheists live full lives, with love and all the other emotions and complexities of human living. It is okay: life without god belief is not life without love.

4. Mystery

One of the most puzzling attitudes I sometimes hear from believers is this: that rejection of belief in God is somehow a rejection of the sense of mystery.

This is insane. (Especially under the common belief that God helps explain things.) Its insanity is only exceeded in the claim that science destroys mystery. (These are connected, since atheists and humanists tend to look to science to explain things that religions have historically covered.)

Science is about answering questions, it’s true. But it answers questions from our perspective. Early scientists explained things that we saw all around us: gravity, disease, light, life. The more we learn, the further out the bubble of mystery gets. We’re now learning about minute diseases (viruses and prions), about incredibly distant objects (quasars), and about objects so tiny that they can’t even be called objects any more (quarks, strings, and I don’t know what). No matter how far science pushes back our ignorance, there’s always another “why” or “how” question sitting on the other side. Imagine our knowledge as a bubble. The bubble gets bigger and bigger, but there’s always a vastness of ignorance outside it. And the larger the bubble gets, the more questions we have at our fingertips to poke to the other side.

Anyway, I don’t know if that analogy makes sense. It’s late Christmas Eve, and I’m feeling more than thinking my way through this. I can testify, as a working scientist, that every experiment I run brings up a handful of new questions. (Whether or not that experiment answers the original question I was working on.)

Ask any scientist, and you’re likely to get an answer on the same line.

So, if your belief in God goes away, you will never lack for mysteries to quench your soul with.

5. Community

Okay, the answer here is largely predictable, but it’s worth saying anyway. All the companionship and community you have ever experienced – that was provided by people. If God exists and happened to inspire it, that’s swell. (And I’d venture that any god worth calling “good” wouldn’t take that gift away if you ceased believing in him for good reasons.) If he doesn’t exist, then that support and companionship still happened. It came from the people themselves.

There’s more, though. There are places in the world where, although there is community and love, it is conditional. You need to be part of the tribe. A fellow believer. So yes, some human communities are so broken that they cannot give true, unconditional shelter to those in need. But there are many people, many communities, that do give real support, unconditional acceptance. These include religious people, non-religious people, and folks who don’t worry about the God question one way or the other.

Thanks in large part to the loud, annoying, irrepressible “New Atheists”, there is a growing community, worldwide and locally, online and (in more and more places) offline, of people you can safely share your doubts with, or your newfound disbelief.

I don’t know who is better at it. My experience is that religious and nonreligious people alike are largely accepting of folks, and don’t meter out their friendship based on how alike you are in beliefs.

The point is not who is better at it. The point is that, if you grow away from your belief in God, wherever you end up, there is a place for you to feel safe and wanted in this world. There are thousands of places.


Now, in case I didn’t make it clear enough in all of that, this is not a post about why you should become an atheist, or a humanist. It is not a prod to push you away from a belief that you hold dear, or a belief that you are comfortable in.

This is a good-news post. It is for anyone who is doubting but afraid of where doubt might lead them. It is for anyone who is afraid for a friend who is doubting. The message is this: doubt away. Test your beliefs. Try on new ones, keep the old ones – follow your heart and your reason. Do not shy away from what seems true because it seems wicked, or meaningless, or inhospitable. Because it’s not. What is true is true, whether we believe in it or not. Love, meaning, goodness, mystery – these are facts of life, there for anyone to grasp.

So, to all of you out there, believers in gods of all kinds, nonbelievers, doubters and questioners, closeted or jubilantly out, may you have a great solstice season, a merry Christmas, and many more exciting trips around the sun.


Contending with the multiverse


This is a review of the second essay in the book Contending with Christianity’s Critics.

At home in the multiverse? by James Daniel Sinclair

Sinclair sets his sights on the multiverse, one of the leading contenders for a sound naturalistic explanation of apparent fine-tuning. I will pick out some highlights.

First, let me say that the fine-tuning argument – the latest and least ambitious incarnation of the ancient argument from design – has always seemed to me to be the strongest argument for the existence of a god. But, having read accounts of it from both sides, I’ve come to feel that its strength lies mainly in our anthropocentric biases rather than any logical superiority it possesses. (See Luke Muehlhauser’s discussion of Fine Tuning at Common Sense Atheism.)

Sinclair also commits some curious blunders. For example, he says that science flatly rejects gods as impossible. Certainly, few modern scientists consider gods as possible explanations. But that is largely because they’ve learned the lessons of history. Early scientists (such as the ancient Greeks, Newton, and Darwin in his youth) did believe – at least in some deistic lawgiver, if not a full-on personal god. But those beliefs got them nowhere in terms of explanation, so modern science tends to skepticism about the usefulness of gods as explanations. Also, look at Dawkins. Sure, he rejects the god hypothesis, but he does so only after evaluating it within a scientific framework. There are scientists, even atheistic ones, who assert that god is outside their purview, but that is not a universal belief among scientists.

As another example, I will share an interesting passage that presents a multiverse version of the ontological argument.

Jay Richards asks us to consider another refutation of an atheist Many Worlds: Christian Alvin Plantinga’s modal version of the ontological argument. In the strong version of the SAP, all possible worlds are considered actual. But if this is so, then if it is even remotely possible that God (the necessary being) has reality (i.e., He is in one possible world), then this necessity implies He must be present in all possible worlds. In essence, an atheistic attempt to produce a necessary universe produces God-as-computer-virus which propagates to “infect” every world! As Richards states, “Such can be the penalty for toying with notions such as possibility, necessity, and infinite sets.” (pages 22-23)*

This argument suffers not only from the linguistic defect of Anselm’s original ontological argument; it also commits a fatal equivocation. Anselm’s key error was to treat “existence” as the same sort of property as “redness”. That error is repeated here. The equivocation in the multiverse version above has to do with whether the god exists separately for separate universes, or exists transcendently, a single presence spanning them all. On the one hand, if the god’s existence in universe A is a different question from the god’s existence in universe B, then it is true that the probability of the god existing in some universe increases as the number of universes increases. On the other hand, if the god is equally present across all the universes by definition, then the probability of its existing is unaffected by contingent details like the number of universes. The above argument switches definitions at a crucial point. In a more valid form, the argument can give you either a probably-existing contingent god in a small subset of universes, or a very unlikely god that is present across all universes.

In truth, I don’t know if a multiverse approach is worth pursuing. I don’t know if it solves the apparent problem of fine-tuning. But then, after reading Luke Muehlhauser’s thoughts on the issue, I’m not convinced that fine tuning is a legitimate “problem” for naturalism that requires a solution.

At any rate, I don’t see that this essay gives any reason to shift my beliefs.


* Sinclair references this online paper by Richards as the source of this argument.

Contending with Dawkins (1)


This is a review of the first essay in the book Contending with Christianity’s Critics.

Dawkins’s Delusion by William Lane Craig.

In the first essay, William Lane Craig outlines what appears to be Dawkins’ main argument against belief in god from The God Delusion. Here is the structure, as Craig presents it:

  1. There is an appearance of design in the universe.
  2. A designer is one way to try to explain the appearance of design.
  3. Positing a designer raises the question of who designed the designer.
  4. The best explanation we have for the emergence of complex things is evolution by natural selection.
  5. We have no equivalent explanation for physics.
  6. We should maintain hope that such an explanation may turn up.
  7. Therefore, God almost certainly does not exist.

Craig correctly points out that this is a crashingly bad argument. The conclusion does not follow from the premises, and point 3 in particular seems to raise the spectre of an infinite regress of explanations. But is this a fair assessment of Dawkins’ argument?

No. It ignores the very important aspect of explanations that they be simplifying. That is, you have a simpler account of things after adopting the explanation than you had before. Dawkins harps on about this rather a lot in his book. Craig may not agree that simplicity is a key virtue of a successful explanation, or that a creator god fails the simplicity test; but he really should acknowledge that this is part of Dawkins’ argument. This answers, I think, the problem of the infinite regress of explanations. What I read Dawkins as meaning is that, if your explanation fails to simplify things, then the only reason we would have to adopt your explanation if, behind it, there isanother explanation that does simplify things.

Now, I realize that this may be me projecting rather than successfully reading Dawkins’ original intent. But that doesn’t really matter. The point here is not an atheist apologetic (“What is the true meaning of the text?”) but an attempt to get the best understanding of reality. So here is my reformulation of Craig’s version of the argument.

  1. The universe exhibits the appearance of design.
  2. A designer is one purported explanation of the appearance of design.
  3. Generally speaking, appeals to a designer fail as explanations because:
    1. they fail to systematically predict actual observed phenomena and rule out phenomena we do not observe, and
    2. they fail the test of simplicity, relative to naturalistic alternative explanations.
  4. In the past, comparable design arguments have been countered by the very powerful and well-evidenced theory of evolution by natural selection.
  5. Although not yet as evidentially-supported as evolution, naturalistic explanations of the appearance of fine-tuning – such as the multiverse – are available and being explored.
  6. We therefore have good grounds for optimism that naturalistic explanations will prove more empirically successful than theistic explanations for the appearance of fine-tuning.
  7. Therefore, we should prefer the more parsimonious no-god hypothesis until substantial contrary evidence arises.

I know, it is not watertight. Nor is it a deductive argument. Like any scientific argument, it is inductive – seeking the most likely explanation of the observations available.

And despite my disclaimer, I do think that it is closer than Craig’s version to the actual arguments presented by Dawkins. (But again, I don’t want to pretend that my goal is to faithfully parrot Dawkins; please don’t attribute any of my errors to Dawkins. If you want to know what Dawkins says, read Dawkins.)

So much for the first essay in the series.

A new challenge


Luke Muehlhauser, over at Common Sense Atheism, set a challenge early last year: The Ultimate Truth-Seeker Challenge. He challenges his readers to read several books discussing two worldviews: Christian theism, and atheism. About ten thousand pages of (primarily) philosophical arguments, divided roughly equally between those defending Christianity and those defending atheism. These are the best presentations, in Luke’s opinion, of the two sides.

It is an admirable undertaking, but far beyond my ambitions as a casual philosopher, both in the level of some of the books, and the sheer volume.

Never fear! A couple of months later, Luke came out with an abridged version of the challenge.

The basic idea (in either version of the challenge) is to encourage people to challenge themselves to read the best arguments for an opposing worldview to the one they currently hold.

This sort of activity appeals to Deena and me. Similar reasons have, in the past, led us to check out Christianity Explored at a local church in Edinburgh, to attend a philosophy book group organized under the Humanist Society of Scotland, to become involved through the student humanist group with the Chaplaincy Centre at the university there, and to invite Mormon missionaries into our home for a series of discussions.

So, starting late last spring, we began working our way slowly through the more manageable list of eight books – four apologetic, four atheistic.

We’re going slowly. At times I’ve been tempted to give up, for various reasons. I may tell you more about that in a later post.

For now, I just want to lay out the situation.

As I write this, we are working our way through the fourth book, a collection of apologetic essays. Going in to this exercise, I would say that I held three main positions that are relevant to the question being debated in these books:

  1. I was a negative atheist. By this I mean that I was unconvinced by existing arguments purporting to demonstrate or support the existence of any god. I was not particularly convinced by (or committed to) definite claims about the non-existence of a god.
  2. I was an enchanted naturalist. A naturalist in that I thought that everything that exists (ie, interacts causally with the world I experience) is natural (as opposed to supernatural). This is also known as physicalism. Enchanted because I think the universe presented to human experience through the naturalist lens is beautiful and exciting.
  3. I took all religious beliefs, systems, dogmas, etc. to be products of human minds – through wishful thinking, hyperactive agency detection, pareidolia, misunderstanding of probability, political and social pressures to conform, a desire to externally codify innate moral sense, etc.

I don’t want my use of the past tense in that list to suggest that I no longer hold those positions. I just mean that, at that time, those were my positions, as closely as I can remember. When we’re done the challenge, I’ll check my state of beliefs and see if any of these points has shifted appreciably.

So, next up, I will start posting my reviews of the books we have read. I won’t necessarily do a point-by-point philosophical analysis, but I do want to share my overall impressions, as well as any belief-shift that each book occasions. Of course, there will be individual points that I’ll want to discuss in more detail.

Here are the eight books, as Luke presents them:

And here it is, my Ultimate Truth-Seeker Challenge (Easy Version):

  1. Bart Ehrman – Jesus, Interrupted (304 pages). A leading Biblical scholar explains the basic facts of Biblical scholarship, and why they undermine conservative Christian views.
  2. C. Stephan Layman – Letters to Doubting Thomas (240 pages). Presented as a series of letters between a Christian and an atheist, this book presents a case for God not based on the usual arguments but on why God is the ‘best explanation’ for the way things are. A careful and respectable case for God’s existence.
  3. Guy P. Harrison – 50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God (354 pages). Each brief chapter explains one of the 50 most common reasons people give for believing in a god, and summarizes why skeptics are not persuaded by that reason.
  4. Paul Copan & others – Contending with Christianity’s Critics (304 pages). Eighteen major apologists respond to the New Atheists and other contemporary critics of Christianity.
  5. John Loftus & others – The Christian Delusion (385 pages). Michael Martin writes: “Using sociological, biblical, scientific, historical, philosophical, theological and ethical criticisms, this book completely destroys Christianity.”
  6. William Lane Craig – Reasonable Faith (416 pages). A leading Christian philosopher’s defense of theism and Christian doctrine, with all the standard philosophical and historical arguments.
  7. Richard Swinburne – Is There a God? (144 pages). Many philosophers think Richard Swinburne has given the best evidential case for God ever conceived. This slim and attractive book is Swinburne’s own attempt to make his arguments accessible to the layman.
  8. Richard Carrier – Sense and Goodness Without God (444 pages). A comprehensive case not just for atheism but for a full, enriching, purposeful, and moral naturalistic worldview.

I will begin soon with a discussion of Bart Ehrman’s book Jesus, Interrupted, which is in the “atheist” category. In the meantime, I’m curious what people think of Luke’s list. If you’re interested, don’t forget to head over to his blog to see the discussion of the books there.

As I post my reviews, I will link to them from here:

[Added 2013 April 24:]

For those who are still following along, you may have noticed one or two sidetracks – not exactly reviews of the texts above, but lines of thought clearly connected with them. I’ll keep a list here for anyone interested:
  • Evolving Free Will – Inspired by an assertion in one of the essays in Contending with Christianity’s Critics. This post looks at how we might expect evolution to interact with libertarian free will, if such a thing were possible.
  • The precariousness of libertarian free will – I reflect on the main reasons why I take a compatibilist approach to free will. (Sort of connected with the previous item.)
  • Duty and futility – In which I ponder the value of carrying on once it has become clear that the Christian apologists in the series are largely leaning on the same tired old arguments.

And, just for completeness, here are some books I have picked up as a result of issues raised in the Challenge:

  • Misquoting Jesus by Bart Ehrman. I picked this book up so I could more fully evaluate the claims made by Daniel Wallace in his essay from the fourth book in the series. (Wallace’s essay is about this book, not Ehrman’s other book, Jesus, Interrupted, which began this Challenge.)
  • Proving History by Richard Carrier. This book I wanted to read because it addresses historical claims from a Bayesian perspective. (Ultimately, in a follow-up volume, it aims to address questions of this historicity of Jesus.) Bayesian reasoning is a mathematically rigorous way of determining the probabilities of claims (how credible we should think they are) based on evidence available to us.