Saturday, July 3, 2010

Kalamity Strikes

I'm back again to continue my discussion of William Lane Craig's Five Arguments for God. You can find the full article here . This time I'll be looking at Craig's second argument, The Cosmological Kalam argument.

The play on the words kalam and calamity that I use in my title was first brought to my attention in Dan Barker's Godless. Dan, for those of you that might not know, is a former evangelical preacher turned atheist. He is currently co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, and I encourage you to check out their website . Dan gives a thorough treatment of the kalam argument, and I will be following closely in his footsteps here.

The kalam argument is typically stated as follows:
1) Everything that begins to exist has a cause
2) The universe began to exist
3) Therefore, the universe has a cause

Now, many of you have probably already noticed something curious about this argument. It makes no mention of god, capital G or otherwise. As an argument for god, it fails at the outset, no discussion needed. The best it can hope for is to show that the universe had a cause. Craig seems to be aware of this and does make some attempts to show this cause is plausibly god. We'll get to this later.

The first premise seems strange. It appears to accord with common sense, and this is how Craig hopes to win agreement: by saying it is plausible and hoping no one studies it further. He asserts that the premise is a necessary truth and expects that to be the end of things. Unfortunately, I'm not so easily persuaded. Asserting that something is a necessary truth and establishing that it is are two very different things.

In this case, we actually have some reason to believe that it is not a necessary truth. Quantum physics allows for uncaused effects. Craig has been made aware of this before and countered by asserting that they are only seemingly uncaused because we do not know the cause. This does nothing to dismiss the problem. If we do not know the cause, how does Craig know there is one? The simple answer is he doesn't, he simply assumes there is because his argument depends on it.

Craig makes an attempt to shift scrutiny by asking why everything does no begin to exist uncaused. This points to an inability to properly defend his premise (because of the problem I noted above). The question, though, is irrelevant to the possibility of uncaused beginnings.

A further issue with the first premise is its implicit attempt to divide everything into two sets much in the same way necessity/contingency did. In this case, the categories are entities that began to exist and those that did not. (Barker used the abbreviations BE and NBE in his discussion; I will use the same convention.) Once again, Craig provides us with no argument for the existence of these two sets, he simply expects us to accept them.

What, though, is an NBE? Aside, from the god Craig is attempting to prove, what are examples of actual (as opposed to conceptual) NBE? There isn't one. In fact, for this argument to have any thrust in the direction Craig wishes to take it, this must be the case: god must be the only NBE. Sadly, that reduces NBE & BE to synonyms for god and 'not god' respectively and that causes all manner of problems. The worst of which is that it insists we assume the existence of god, making this whole argument an exercise in question begging.

The second premise turns out to be just as bad as the first. Once again, Craig falls into equivocation when he uses the word 'universe.' When he claims that scientific evidence supports the universe having a cause, he means universe in the cosmological sense, but hopes to get agreement for the philosophical sense. Once this sleight of hand is exposed, the implications of scientific findings are much less staggering than Craig would have us believe.

Craig also tells us that a beginning is supported by philosophical argument. The problem with this statement is that so is the existence of god. It just so happens that the arguments that support god are horribly flawed. The arguments that support a beginning may be equally as flawed. Since Craig does not present them, it is not our responsibility to make that determination. However, if these arguments are solid, they may present serious problems for Craig's god.

(This tactic, of stating something that is trivially true in a misleading way, is prevalent enough that I feel an aside is necessary. When looking at statements of facts and statistics, especially in politics, we must be cautious in our evaluation. For example, I once read a statement that said "It is a verifiable fact that no atheist organization voted in favor of the Civil Rights Act." What it fails to mention is that organizations do not vote, individuals do. Even if every member of an organization votes in favor of some measure or another, it is trivially true that the organization itself does not.)

When it comes to the science, Craig attempts a bit of trickery. He first mentions alternative hypotheses to the Big Bang, but does not list any. This is crucial because as well as truly alternative hypotheses, there are also supplemental ones. Craig is attempting to covertly dismiss both of them.

His reference to the Vilenkin paper is another bit of misinformation. Though they have been brought to his attention before, Craig does not feel the need to mention the scientific papers that show the work of Borde, Guth, and Vilenkin is compatible with an unbounded dimension of time.

Craig also feels the need to throw out the old canard about the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Craig, like most apologetic that use this, neglects the part where it says in a closed system. At least a few physicists and cosmologist question whether or not the universe can be defined as a closed system. He also fails to note that, because of its expansion, some have presented scenarios in which the universe has reached maximal entropy and entropy is still increasing. Since I am not a physicist by trade, I will not go into detail. Those of you interested in the topic can check out the popular works of Victor Stenger for an introduction to the subject.

Now we come to the conclusion and Craig realizes that it hasn't said anything about god. Not content with this, he attempts to show that god is a plausible cause. As I said before, that he is aiming for the easier mark of plausible should tell us something.

Since the kalam argument is so miserable, and since much of Craig's attempt at plausibility rests on his other arguments, I'll only mention here the contradiction he raises when speaking of a personal cause. Craig says that, if the cause is infinite, but its effect happened a finite amount of time ago, it stands to reason that a personal force must have chosen that moment to cause the effect. Essentially, he is saying that the effect could have happened earlier, but it did not, so personal choice is the reason. Assumptions aside, what he forgets is that elsewhere he has asserted that time began with the Big Bang, and this sinks his ship. If time began at the Big Bang, which Craig asserts is also the beginning of the (cosmological) universe, then the effect happened at the earliest possible time.

Because of the amount of errors that Craig packs into such a small space, I haven't covered all the problems here. I suggest checking out the previously mentioned Godless by Dan Barker and Victor Stenger's God: The Failed Hypothesis for more information.

In my next installment, I'll be taking on Craig's Argument from Not Wanting to be a Nazi.

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.