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Reflections on the Carroll-Craig debate-1: Craig’s case

I watched the debate Sean Carroll and William Lane Craig held on Friday, February 21, 2014 on the topic of god and cosmology. I thought it was a good one and I will spend a few posts exploring some of the issues for the benefit of those people without a physics background who may have been a little fogged by some of the technical issues that came up.

My overall impression was that I felt that Carroll achieved what he set out to achieve, which was to show that naturalism was sufficient to understand the universe and hence preferable to the theistic approach because bringing in a god was not only superfluous but added a layer of complication that caused more problems than it solved.

You can see the full debate below. Commenter Sam Johnson has provided a link to another video where the breaks have been edited out but since I took notes of times according to the original, I will stick with that in making my points

The format was for each person to alternately speak in chunks of 20 minutes, 12 minutes, and 8 minutes, for a total of 80 minutes. That was followed by about 30 minutes of questions from the audience. The whole tone of the event was low-key and respectful. Craig went first as he always insists on doing. This is because in standard college or high school debate contests if you get to take the affirmative position, then you can frame the question in a manner that is most suitable to you and put the onus on the responder to show that your position is untenable. If the responder cannot do that, the affirmative position ‘wins’.

Carroll was urged to not let Craig go first but he did not do so, rightly taking the view that this was not a college debate contest that required him to ‘win’ according to some set of rules but a way to get the audience to compare two world views. In such a scenario, it is actually better to have the last word so that audiences leave with your views dominant in their minds. He used that opportunity excellently at the very end, as I will discuss later.

There were opening introductions and the like that you can skip, and begin with Craig’s opening statement at the 24 minute mark. As expected, Craig made two arguments for his god: the Kalam cosmological argument and the teleological fine-tuning argument. To his credit, Craig is a clear and polished speaker, so that it is not hard to follow his reasoning. But this also works against him in that the flaws become more easily apparent.

Craig began by laying out what he was seeking to achieve.

“The evidence of contemporary cosmology actually renders god’s existence considerably more probable than it would have been without it. This is not to make some sort of naïve claim that contemporary cosmology proves the existence of god. There is no god of the gaps reasoning here. Rather I am saying that contemporary cosmology provides significant evidence in support of premises in philosophical arguments for conclusions having theological significance.”

Note that Craig made the standard debating move when you are arguing the affirmative, which is to frame the question in such a way so that you are asserting the absolute minimum so that it makes countering your case more difficult. Providing “significant evidence in support of premises in philosophical arguments for conclusions having theological significance” is a pretty weak statement.

He then introduces the Kalam argument at the 26:30 mark, saying that it consists of three pieces:

1. If the universe began to exist, then there is a transcendent cause which brought the universe into existence.
2. The universe began to exist
3. Therefore there is a transcendent cause which brought the universe into existence.

He then made the (to me) astounding statement that “I take it that (1) is obviously true” and did not try to substantiate it at all, and proceeded to spend considerable time looking at cosmological arguments that he claims support (2). I thought that this was a serious mistake on his part because (1) is not at all self-evident and he laid himself open to a challenge that undermined his entire case.

To make his case for (2), he selected those papers in the literature that argued against an infinitely existing universe (or ‘past eternal’ is the language of the cognoscenti), focusing especially the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin paper, that purport to argue for a finite time for the universe, and on the implications of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. He then infers (3).

He spends the last five minutes of his talk (beginning at 39:40) on the teleological argument which he frames as follows:

1. The fine-tuning of the universe is due to either physical necessity, chance, or design
2. It is not due to physical necessity or chance.
3. Therefore, it is due to design

He argues against necessity by saying that there are an enormous number of universes (of the order of 10500) that are consistent with the laws of physics, and hence ours did not have to occur. He frames the chance argument as one in which since we exist as observers of the universe, then of course we could exist only in a universe that is conducive to us existing.

He argues against an eternal universe by saying that according to the Second Law of Thermodynamics (according to which in a closed system entropy always increases until thermal equilibrium is reached) if the universe is ‘past eternal’ then we should have reached thermal equilibrium and become effectively dead and hence the only way we could exist now is as a random fluctuation that brought the present universe into existence. But if that were the case, he says, observers like us are not the most likely outcome and that ‘Boltzmann brains’ are far more likely to emerge as observers of the universe than ‘ordinary’ observers like us. I was a bit surprised at the major role that Boltzmann brains played in this debate and will come back to it in a later post.

Next in this series: Sean Carroll’s response

Comments

  1. jamessweet says

    It seems to me that Craig’s technique relies on exploiting “common sense” intuitions (which tend to fail rather badly when it comes to cosmology) but burying the intuitive leaps in a lot of (seemingly) rigorous language and logic.

    Like both you and Carroll, I find it facepalm-worthy that he simply asserts premise (1) of the Kalam argument as self-evident. It clearly isn’t, at all — but it does make some superficial intuitive sense. Craig attempts to bury us in the science of premise (2), which is uncertain but very well may be true. There’s legitimate scientific controversy there, so he gets us wrapped up in that, hoping that nobody will notice that he never came close to justifying premise (1).

    I think the Boltzmann brain thing is a similar technique, but even a little more clever. Boltzmann brains are not a problem for cosmology per se, as long as they are sufficiently rare. As Carroll pointed out in his post-debate comments, the number of Boltzmann brains predicted is useful in distinguishing plausible cosmologies from implausible ones. However, the idea of a Boltzmann brain sounds so ridiculous that “common sense” wants to reject any model that predicts even their remote possibility. The discussion is highly technical, but that’s all window-dressing: What he is seeking is the visceral reaction of “a brain that springs forth from nothing? Ridiculous!” Even if he is defeated on the technicals, invoking that image scores him points with many people.

  2. Reginald Selkirk says

    those people without a physics background who may have been a little fogged by some of the technical issues

    In other words, William Lane Craig’s target audience. He counts on the audience not knowing that he is saying preposterous things about cosmology, probability and infinity.

  3. Wylann says

    [Craig] then made the (to me) astounding statement that “I take it that (1) is obviously true” and did not try to substantiate it at all[.]

    Are you really astounded, or is this a rhetorical flourish? ;)

    Seriously, this has always been the weakest part of this syllogism. (Or, as I prefer to call it, sillygism.) It’s a bald assertion that can be made with respect to pretty much anything that exists that isn’t man made (and it could be done with the same effect for man made artifacts really).

    He spends the last five minutes of his talk (beginning at 39:40) on the teleological argument which he frames as follows:
    1. The fine-tuning of the universe is due to either physical necessity, chance, or design
    2. It is not due to physical necessity or chance.
    3. Therefore, it is due to design
    He argues against necessity by saying that there are an enormous number of universes (of the order of 10500) that are consistent with the laws of physics, and hence ours did not have to occur. He frames the chance argument as one in which since we exist as observers of the universe, then of course we could exist only in a universe that is conducive to us existing.

    This is flat out dishonesty. Arguing against necessity by saying there are 10^500 possibilities, by it’s very statement, means that it is pretty much due to chance. Immediately asserting that all those possibilities are still insufficient (again, he really needs to show his work) is flat out dishonest, and I suspect he knows it.

    Douglas Adams his a simple and elegant refutation to this that is fairly well known…. ;)

    I’m sure you probably know all this, and it will be addressed by Carroll’s response, but I’m neither a philosopher or a physicist, and I can easily see through these kinds of arguments.

  4. says

    How can you tell the difference between a scientist and an apologist?
    One way is, when a scientist has great big holes poked in their argument, they stop using that argument until they can repair it or adequately explain the holes. An apologist just keeps using something as thoroughly debunked as presuppositionalism (that’s what Kalam is) no matter how many times it’s been debunked. A scientist is concerned with truth, whereas the apologist is trying to fool the listener.

  5. raven says

    1. If the universe began to exist, then there is a transcendent cause which brought the universe into existence.

    This is an assertion without proof or data. It’s just a claim.

    What the First Cause/Kalam does is just a word game. It’s not even faulty logic. They use the premise to prove the premise. It reduces down to god exists = god exists.

    This is true of almost all theology. It starts by assuming god exists and then takes pages of dense prose to prove that god exists. It’s nonsense.

  6. raven says

    1. If the universe began to exist, then there is an Invisible PInk Unicorn which brought the universe into existence.

    2. The universe began to exist

    3. Therefore there is an Invisible Pink Unicorn which brought the universe into existence.

    Kalam works for the Invisible Pink Unicorn. It works for the Flying Spaghetti Monster as well. In fact, I could put my cat in the premise.

  7. raven says

    2. The universe began to exist

    This is however, a real physics question and one we would all like to know the answer to.

    1. It’s not at all sure that the universe began to exist. Craig is claiming the Big Bang for this as proof. His Philosopher’s god is hiding behind the Big Bang.

    2. Despite claiming that it isn’t God of the Gaps, it is God of the Gaps. We don’t know what came before the Big Bang. Craig is claiming:

    Lack of Knowledge = god exists. But in reality,
    Lack of knowledge = Lack of Knowledge

    3. So what came before the Big Bang? We have hypotheses. UFO aliens left over from a previous universe, herds of gods instead of one, the eternal universe of colliding branes, and the Multiverse.

    My reading of current Cosmology seems to show that most models more and more rely on the Multiverse.

  8. Mano Singham says

    @#4,

    Wylann, I really was astounded that he did not make any attempt to justify that statement. You can’t make a syllogistic argument and not at least make a pass at justifying the premises. As a professional philosopher (and debater), he has to know that.

  9. joeschoeler says

    Hearing Carroll’s response really made Craig sound like a crank. Made it really obvious that everything Craig said about physics was grossly oversimplified, misleading, or just plain wrong. My favorite part was the statement Carroll read from Alan Guth?, one of the authors of a paper Craig kept referencing, which stated the exact opposite of what Craig was saying.

  10. Rob Grigjanis says

    I wonder whether Craig has turned his thoughts to the possible end of our universe, since the mass of the Higgs indicates we may be living in a false vacuum.

    I’m guessing this would be unacceptable to Craig, theologically speaking. A Kalamity, one might say.

  11. dmcclean says

    Isn’t there also a reverse Zeno’s paradox to consider? A continuous-time universe could have a finite age, but still have an infinite regression of causation that was within the universe. (I’m not qualified to speak on whether this universe has continuous time, or even what we know about that question.)

  12. Ceres says

    @singham
    He does justify the first premise and he has more rigourous defenses of it in his published articles.
    I don’t think anyone seriously says that something can come into being without being caused by something else. Otherwise something could just come from nothing.
    If I told you anything had come into being from nothing (say a tiger or a planet or a star) I don’t think you’d take me seriously.

    You do have a good summary of the debate and the cases of both.
    I think Carroll’s best point was that there were cosmologies that allowed for a past eternal universe. I don’t think he did so good a job on the fine-tuning argument.

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