Thursday, July 1, 2010

Sifting through the Ashes

This will be my first, and perhaps only, attempt at blogging. For a long time now, I have avoided things like blogging and twitter because of a simple principle: Wait to speak until you have something to say. I don't expect that to change.

Last week I dipped my toe into the twitter waters, looking for a more interactive way to discuss topics of interest (my finally getting a new phone also had something to do with it) and, though I am still learning the ins and outs of it, I was not disappointed. Within a day, I had found a few serious "discussions" that engaged me. So much, in fact that I felt I needed a supplemental space to present topics that were too complex to be filtered down to tweet-length.

And here I am. A few days ago, I offered to help point out the flaws in one tweeter's (or perhaps it's twit) arguments for the existence of capital G god. When I did so, I failed to realize two things. Firstly, that almost none of it was his own words. And second, that a comprehensive discussion of the flaws might actually reach book length.

I called this post Sifting through the Ashes because that's what I feel like. Here I've come upon this burned over disaster and I'm trying to go through the wreckage and find where things went wrong. For now, I'll be focusing on a piece from William Lane Craig, which can be found here .

Since I am mostly concerned with the errors in his arguments, I won't make much comment on the misrepresentations he packs into his opening, other to say they are there. Instead, let me start by focusing on Craig's opening gambit, upon which the rest of his monument to fallacy is built. He begins by laying out the criteria for a sound argument, namely that its premises are true and that the conclusion follow from the premises, only to immediately abandon the first condition in favor of a more lax "premises are more plausibly true than their opposites." Aside from raising the spectre of false dichotomy, this is simply bad philosophical practice. If a premise is questionable, then it requires a sub-argument to support it. Asking us to accept an premise because it is "more plausible" is an attempt to get the results without the work and, since plausibility can be subjective, is destined for failure.

With this in place, Craig feels confident that he can present compelling arguments for the existence of god. (Actually Craig feels that they are arguments for the existence of God, but even if they held up, they fall short of that mark.) Because of the torrent of errors that plague these arguments, I'll limit myself to one per posting.

The first is the Cosmological Argument from Contingency. For brevity's sake, I won't repeat it here.This argument falls apart before we get past the first premise. It rests on the principle that there are two types of entities: necessary and contingent, but this principle is not self-evident. Craig gives us no supporting argument for the existence of such a division, nor does he give us sufficient means of determining necessity/contingency. Now, one might say that Craig does provide this means, but all he really does is say that things with external causes are contingent without explaining how he determined this. If contingency is to be relevant to this argument, it must be something more than another way of saying "has an external cause." More to the point, we have no guide for determining if an entities nature makes it necessary. Note that the qualifiers Craig gives are not equivalent opposites; nothing in these qualifiers precludes an entity from being both necessary and contingent.

Craig further muddies the water by presenting examples of what many mathematicians believe may be necessary entities. May be? It seems Craig can't find one solid example of something that is necessary. Even worse, he lists among his examples sets, which is going to cause trouble for him later.

Craig spends a good deal of time attempting to defend his first premise, and doesn't feel limited to strictly addressing the content of the premise. Instead, he goes on to insist that the universe is contingent and that atheists are guilty of question-begging and circular logic. Personally, I feel he should have quit while he was ahead.

While insisting that the universe is contingent, he slips into equivocation. It is never really clear what he means when he says 'universe' and he actually seems to slip back and forth between usages.

In cosmology and physics, the word universe refers to the collection of know, observable entities that entered its present state at the Big Bang (it's a bit more technical than this, but you get the picture). In philosophy, universe has historically referred to the totality of existence. Now, while it may be meaningful to ask for the cause of the first sense, it is ridiculous to ponder the second. It is asking for the cause of existence itself. The "taxicab fallacy" that Craig raises is relevant only to the first case, but wishes to apply it to the second case simply because both are identified by the word universe. This does not stand and is horribly dishonest.

In both uses, however, the universe is not a thing: it is a set of things. Remember Craig pointed to sets as possible necessary entities. Even if necessity/contingency can be made coherent, the universe falls into the category of necessity.

Craig's accusation of fallacy and question-begging exposes his own need to commit these offenses. We know of the universe, we do not know of anything else. To assume that the universe is all there is is the null hypothesis. Not maintaining this is begging the question in favor of that which Craig is purporting to prove.

Having thrashed his way through the first premise, Craig feels safe to move to the second, where he fairs a little better, if only because he doesn't say as much. He begins by setting up a strawman concerning what atheism says about the nature of ultimate reality and the cause of the universe. Atheism is the lack of belief in god(s). The only statement that atheism makes about the universe and ultimate reality is that a god was not involved. Once this is clear, the logical equivalence of atheism to the second premise dissolves, and with it goes any hope of agreement that the premise is true.

Craig finally gets something right with his third premise, but by this point his argument is so far gone that it hardly matters. With his crucial premises left gasping, Craig's Argument from Contingency crumples under the weight of its unsupported conclusions.

That wraps thing up for this one. Next time: kalamity strikes!

Credit goes to Dan Barker, Victor Stenger, and George H Smith, whose works preceded and influenced this post.

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