William Lane Craig — Professor of Philosophy at the Talbot School of Theology — has set out in the latest edition of Philosophy Now his eight “best” arguments for the existence of God (non-paywall access here). For an atheist these are worth reviewing if only to marvel at how bad such arguments — touted as the best of a “renaissance of Christian philosophy” — actually are. All show the pattern of deciding ones conclusions on wishful-thinking grounds and then using any amount of special pleading and spurious argument to defend them.
They are the sort of arguments (following in a long tradition including C. S. Lewis, Lee Strobel, Josh McDowell and many others) that only convince those who already believe. Their general tenor is actually to make things worse, trying to “explain” something by pointing to something that is even harder to explain. Only, the believer doesn’t ask that question because at that point they’ve already got to their god, and so stops.
(I) God is the best explanation why anything at all exists
Right, so in order to “explain why anything at all exists” you start off with something unexplained, namely God. Anyone can “explain” why something exists if you’re allowed to start off with something!
Admittedly, even Craig can see that flaw, so he uses special pleading. While claiming that everything needs an explanation, he then exempts his god, which of course doesn’t need explaining. He does this by claiming a distinction between “contingent” things (which need explanation) and a “transcendent personal being” (which doesn’t). Thus his argument becomes:
1. Everything needs an explanation of its existence.
2. Except God, of course, which doesn’t.
3. Therefore God created everything else.
A 14-yr-old could see the flaw: “So, what caused God, then? And if we’re allowed to say that God doesn’t need an explanation then why not just say that the universe doesn’t require an explanation?”.
(II) God is the best explanation of the origin of the universe
Craig makes a big deal out of a mathematical theorem that traces back the current space-time of our universe and shows that it had to have a finite past, and thus a beginning. The trouble is that all physicists expect quantum-gravity effects to dominate in the extreme early universe (around the Planck time), and this theorem doesn’t take into account quantum-gravity effects. It can’t, since we don’t have a working theory of quantum gravity to apply at the Planck scale. Craig claims that the “theorem is independent of one’s theory of gravitation”, but on that he is simply wrong. His claim to know that the theorem survives quantum gravity, even though we don’t have a theory of quantum gravity, can only be wishful thinking.
But, even if time itself had a beginning (rather than our universe budding out of a pre-existing multiverse), so what? Why does that imply a god? Craig declares it so by fiat:
“If the universe began to exist, then the universe has a transcendent [= divine] cause.”
Here again, Craig is special pleading — demanding explanations and causes for things, while exempting his god from any need for explanations and causes.
Is it really true that everything needs a cause? What is the proof of that claim? As far as we know an instance of radioactive decay is not “caused”, and pair-production can bring particles into existence without (as far as we know) anything “causing” them.
(III) God is the best explanation of the applicability of mathematics to the physical world.
No it isn’t. A far better explanation is that we derive mathematics from our observations of how things are in the universe. Craig asserts that: “The naturalist has no explanation for the uncanny applicability of mathematics to the physical world”. Yes he does, I’ve just given it! If mathematics is derived from our world, why is it “uncanny” that it can then be applied to that world?
(IV) God is the best explanation of the fine-tuning of the universe for intelligent life.
It really is remarkable that theists find this one persuasive, since there are so many problems with the argument (as I’ve expounded at length). As one example, where else would we expect to find ourselves, given naturalism, other than in a universe of the sort that could produce us? Indeed, not finding this would be an actual argument for “intelligent design”, since only by intelligent intervention could we find ourselves in a world — a “zoo” — that is not the sort that would produce us.
Against the idea of a multiverse ensemble, Craig asserts as “an insuperable objection”, the idea that: “By far, the most probable observable universes in a World Ensemble would be worlds in which a single brain fluctuated into existence out of the vacuum and observed its otherwise empty world”. Oh yeah? Craig, have you actually calculated the probability of a brain (a petabyte of ordered information) fluctuating out of the vacuum, or did you just assert that because it suits you?
But, again, at root the argument is special pleading. Craig asks for an explanation for all the remarkable properties of our universe, but offers no explanation whatsoever for the properties of his god.
If I were to assert that “the properties of our universe are easily explained, they simply arise from the properties of a pre-existing meta-universe”, then even the dumbest theologian would know enough to retort: “Ok, now explain the properties of the pre-existing meta-universe. Without doing that you’ve explained nothing”. How come they’re so bad at this retort when the “pre-existing meta-universe” is re-named “God”?
(V) God is the best explanation of intentional states of consciousness
The argument here is: “We don’t really understand consciousness, so I’ll assert that human consciousness is merely a chip off the block of God’s consciousness. Of course I’ll make no attempt to explain or understand the origin of God’s consciousness.” Anyone spot the special pleading? Here again the “solution” simply makes the conundrum worse.
(VI) God is the best explanation of objective moral values and duties
The argument here is: “We don’t how objective moral values could arise in an atheistic universe, so I’ll assert that moral values are merely a chip off the block of God’s values. Of course I’ll make no attempt to explain or understand the origin of God’s moral values.” Anyone spot the special pleading? And no mention that this argument was destroyed 24 centuries ago by Plato in the Euthyphro dialogue.
(VII) The very possibility of God’s existence implies that God exists
Ah, the ontological argument. Are theologians still trying this one? Really, you can’t magic things into existence by word-play.
“God is the greatest conceivable being – a maximally great being. … He would exist in every logically possible world. … But this implies that if God’s existence is even possible, then God must exist. For if a maximally great being exists in any possible world, He exists in all of them.”
Yep, and if he didn’t exist in any of them then he wouldn’t exist in any of them. Note that the argument works just as well backwards, to prove the non-existence of God.
1) One possible world is a world not containing this “maximally great being”.
2) This maximally great being would (if it existed) have to exist in all possible worlds.
3) Therefore this “maximally great being” doesn’t exist.
Funny that Craig doesn’t run the argument this way. Craig’s argument thus needs to be that there is no possible world that does not contain his god, and thus that his god is logically necessary. Thus, in an atheistic world, this God would think, “but I need to exist, this universe can’t exist without me; I’m so great that I can necessitate my own existence”, and thus magic himself into existence.
What is Craig’s argument that his god is a necessary being, and that a universe without his god is a logical impossibility? He doesn’t give one. It is simply special pleading again. In order to plead for his god he adds — with no justification — the magic ingredient of the god being “necessary”.
(VIII) God can be personally known and experienced
The Bible promises, “Draw near to God and he will draw near to you.” (James 4:8) … For those who listen, God becomes a personal reality in their lives”.
In other words, if you believe it, you’ll end up believing it. Overall, Craig has nothing more than wishful thinking and special pleading. The remarkable thing is how feeble the arguments are, and yet this is the product of centuries of the best theological minds. This is the stuff that supposedly has atheism in headlong retreat.
Interestingly, though, at the same time as writing this piece in Philosophy Now, Craig wrote a similar piece for Fox News. It is a shorter and simplified piece with only five reasons, but one of the five is not in the longer Philosophy Now version. It is this one:
(IX) God provides the best explanation of the historical facts concerning Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.
Most historical scholars agree that after his crucifixion Jesus’ tomb was discovered empty by a group of female disciples, that various individuals and groups saw appearances of Jesus alive after his death, and that the original disciples suddenly and sincerely came to believe in Jesus’ resurrection despite their every predisposition to the contrary. I can think of no better explanation of these facts than the one the original disciples gave: God raised Jesus from the dead.
Why is this one not part of the longer and more technical piece? It can’t be because it is not a philosophical argument, so less suitable for Philosophy Now, since neither is (VIII). I suspect that it isn’t in Philosophy Now because it would be laughed at.
“Most historical scholars” agree that there was an empty tomb? Oh yeah? You have a hard enough time producing sufficient evidence for Jesus being a real person at all, never mind this. The only “evidence” for the “empty tomb” comes from accounts written by, well, we have very little idea who they were, all the gospels are anonymous, and written decades later, though we don’t really know when, and we have no idea what the sources of information were (none of the gospel writers name any source, and none of them claim to have met Jesus, nor do they even claim to have met anyone who had met Jesus). And the argument against these stories about the tomb being simply made up is … nothing; there simply is no corroboration of these “empty tomb” gospel accounts from anywhere (since of course the later three gospels all borrowed from the first).
To say that “most historical scholars” agree that there was an empty tomb is simply dishonest, it is an attempt to mislead readers. And it is revealing that Craig does this with readers of Fox News but doesn’t dare attempt it with readers of Philosophy Now.
That tells us a lot about all of these arguments. None of them is the sort of thing that convinces a fair-minded non-believer. I’m willing to bet that almost no-one has ever been converted to Christianity by this sort of argument. Rather, these arguments are all about shoring up the faith of the believer, giving them something to point to, to say, “look, there is the intellectual justification, produced by Professors of Philosophy”, even though their own faith derives instead from emotional desire and wishful thinking.