Dr. Craig's Newest Book: God Over All
Knowing about abstract objects is not only fascinating but crucial in understanding much of theology. Dr. Craig discusses what's in his new book.
Dr. Craig’s Newest Book: God Over All
KEVIN HARRIS: I love the smell of a new car and the smell of a new book. Bill, you've got one: God Over All.
DR. CRAIG: Which is not a car!
KEVIN HARRIS: It is not a car; it is a book. It is from Oxford Press. It is hot off the press, as well. Divine Aseity and the Challenge of Platonism – a project of yours for quite some time. You've dedicated this to Richard Swinburne. What kind of influence has he had on you?
DR. CRAIG: Swinburne has been one of the most important Christian philosophers alive today. I thought it was appropriate to say thank you by way of dedicating this book to him. Although this wasn't a motivation for the dedication, it is true that Swinburne and I see pretty much eye-to-eye on this issue of God and abstract objects. But I've appreciated his defense of Christianity in the realm of philosophy, and even more recently his very courageous stand on traditional biblical sexual ethics which has caused some controversy. Although that happened after the dedication was made, nevertheless it does make the dedication, I think, especially appropriate.
KEVIN HARRIS: I have found personally that being conversant in this material and knowing about abstract objects and God's aseity has filled in some blanks and helped me in everything from my devotional life as I contemplate God to filling in some blanks in theology and in giving me some undergirding that I wouldn't have had otherwise. I want to encourage people to get this. Get it through ReasonableFaith.org, get it at your local bookstore, and begin reading it and absorbing this material. If we go through the table of contents here let's talk about each chapter. After the introduction your first chapter is “God: The Sole Ultimate Reality.”
DR. CRAIG: That's s-o-l-e not s-o-u-l. God is the sole or only ultimate reality. This is a phrase I borrow from Brian Leftow who was Swinburne's successor as the Nolloth Professor of the Christian Religion at Oxford University. Brian wrote a massive book called God and Necessity in which he defends the view that God is the sole ultimate reality. That is to say, God alone is uncreated and is the source of all reality apart from himself. I thought Brian's phrase “the sole ultimate reality” really captured that idea of divine aseity very well. So that is the title that I use for the chapter in which I lay out the biblical, church historical, and theological grounds for affirming the doctrine of divine aseity – that God is the sole ultimate reality.
KEVIN HARRIS: I've heard you say that God is ontologically ultimate. There's nothing more ultimate than he. What are some of the things in the chapter?
DR. CRAIG: In this chapter I first begin with an exegetical study of the New Testament and what it has to say about God’s being the sole ultimate reality, and in particular I look at the prologue of the Gospel of John where in verse 3 John says all things came into being through him and without him nothing came into being; not one thing came into being. Then I look at the writings of the apostle Paul. You find very similar teaching that God is the one from whom and through whom and for whom all things exist.
My exegetical study of these passages revealed very, very intriguing backgrounds for these New Testament affirmations in Middle Platonism. Middle Platonism is a form of Platonism that evolved several centuries after Plato himself had died. It was the type of Platonism that was dominant in the first century – the time at which the New Testament was written. One of the key tenets of Middle Platonism is that the Platonic ideas (things like numbers and properties and other so-called abstract entities) don't exist on their own. Rather they exist as ideas in the mind of God. This is not an unusual notion in the ancient world. Rather, this became a widespread and standard doctrine in Middle Platonism. The Platonic ideas are really in fact ideas in the mind of God. In the Jewish Alexandrian philosopher Philo, who is contemporaneous with the New Testament, Philo locates the Platonic ideas in the mind of God which he calls The Logos or The Word. This is the same word that is used in the Gospel of John in the prologue: in the beginning was the Logos and the Logos was with God and the Logos was God. This is just exactly the same thing that Philo affirms. Again, for Philo, the Logos is the seat of the Platonic ideas. So there is no realm of uncreated abstract objects apart from God. These are concepts in the mind of God. This, I believe, forms the background for understanding the prologue of the Gospel of John and many of Paul's statements where he replaces the word Logos with the word Christos. Christ now, for Paul, is the formal cause of all things and the instrumental cause of all things. When you read the New Testament against this historical background of Middle Platonism I think it really illuminates the doctrine of divine aseity.
I go on in the chapter to explain that the pre-Nicene fathers (the early church fathers prior to the Council of Nicaea) adopted this same view. When it came to Nicaea, this gets codified in the Nicene Creed where it says, We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and the creator of all things visible and invisible, and in his Son, one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom all things came into being. So both the Pauline language and the Johannine language are picked up in the Nicene Creed and affirmed as God's being the only uncreated thing. The historical background to this doctrine is just fascinating.
KEVIN HARRIS: We've got Middle Platonism, Middle Knowledge, and Middle Age. I'm struggling with all three! Middle Platonism – the third chapter – the challenge of Platonism. That is kind of the crux isn't it?
DR. CRAIG: Yes, the idea here is that this doctrine of God being the sole ultimate reality receives a significant challenge from what is called Platonism. This is the view that there are uncreated abstract objects. These are not material entities which are contingent. These are abstract entities like numbers and sets and other mathematical objects, properties, propositions, possible worlds. Many, many contemporary philosophers believe that these abstract objects are real and exist just as robustly and objectively as automobiles or fundamental particles. Yet, if this doctrine is true, then it is not the case that God is the sole ultimate reality and the source of all being apart from himself. God is, in fact, an infinitesimal part of what exists. There are infinities of infinities of objects that exist independently of God eternally and necessarily. I maintain that this is a view that strikes at the very heart of theism and therefore requires a response from Christian theists.
KEVIN HARRIS: I've seen the bumper sticker “I brake for abstract objects” or “I brake for universals.” Things like that. Being that they are viewed as objectively real. That they exist somehow. They exist but they are not extended into space.
DR. CRAIG: Right. That's right. These things would not be in space. They would transcend space. I think some of them would plausibly transcend time as well if they exist. If numbers exist they would exist timelessly and spacelessly. Numbers would not be something that endure through the night while we're asleep and are still there in the morning when they wake up. Other sorts of abstract objects can be very weird, and may be spatiotemporal. For example, take the equator. The equator is a geometrical line that girdles the Earth and is about 25,000 miles in length and yet is an abstract object. There is no concrete object “the equator.” This is an abstract object but it clearly exists in space and time. You can step over this abstract object. That would be a really strange abstract object. Many of them, like numbers and mathematical objects, would seem to be non-spatiotemporal.
KEVIN HARRIS: In this chapter, do you spell out your particular view on how to view abstract objects?
DR. CRAIG: No. This is very much an exploration, this book. In fact, I don't try to close alternatives off. I try in this book to open up as many alternatives for the theist to respond to the challenge of Platonism. What I think is theologically unacceptable is Platonism – the view that there are uncreated objects apart from God. But there are a plethora of both realist and anti-realist alternatives to Platonism, and that's what I lay out in the remainder the book.
KEVIN HARRIS: OK. Chapter 4: “Absolute Creation.”
DR. CRAIG: This is the first realist alternative to Platonism. The easiest way to deal with the challenge of Platonism would be to say, yes, all of these abstract objects exist (like numbers and properties and possible worlds) but God created them. Not only did God create the concrete world, he created the abstract world as well. This view has been defended by people like Thomas Morris and Christopher Menzel. In this chapter I explore some of the real difficulties facing absolute creationism, particularly the so-called bootstrapping objection. This is most easily understood by thinking about properties. In order to create the property “being powerful” God would already have to have the property of “being powerful.” If he weren't powerful he couldn't do anything; certainly he couldn't create the property of “being powerful.” So there seems to be a vicious circularity in absolute creationism. It says that God creates properties but in order to create properties he'd already have to have some properties.
KEVIN HARRIS: You can't make what you don't have? You can't give what you don't have or don't possess?
DR. CRAIG: Not exactly. No. Because certainly, for example, God could create a material world without being a material object. But in the case of properties, in order to create certain properties you have to have some properties. In order to create the property of “being powerful” you would need to be powerful. You would also need to be a concrete object. You'd need to have certain other properties like will. The idea here is that there is a vicious circularity that seems to attend absolute creationism which everyone recognizes to be a very, very severe problem.
KEVIN HARRIS: The bootstrapping problem.
DR. CRAIG: That's right. I do, in the end of the chapter, suggest one way that the absolute creationist might be able to get out of the bootstrapping objection but it is not a very popular alternative. Nobody takes it. But it is a possible escape route.
KEVIN HARRIS: OK. Then chapter 5 is “Divine Conceptualism.”
DR. CRAIG: Divine conceptualism is another realist alternative to Platonism. Divine conceptualism is the view of the early church fathers that moved the Platonic ideas into the mind of God and said these are thoughts of God. The number “2” is actually God's thought “2.” Properties are God's concepts. Propositions are really God's thoughts that can be true or false. Divine conceptualism is a historic alternative to Platonism. This has been defended in our day by people like Brian Leftow and Greg Welty. It has also been endorsed by Alvin Plantinga interesting enough, though Plantinga only really gives a nod in its direction. You have to turn to Leftow and Welty to have a real development of the view. So it is their views that I examine in this chapter.
KEVIN HARRIS: Abstract objects are somehow located in God.
DR. CRAIG: Not exactly, Kevin. On this view there are no abstract objects because thoughts are concrete objects. Thoughts are things that have causal power. God's thoughts cause things. On this view, thoughts play the role normally assigned to abstract objects. This can be very misleading because people like Greg Welty is very prone of speaking exactly like you did: abstract objects are thoughts in the mind of God. That's very misleading. That is not what Welty really thinks. What he thinks is God's thoughts are functionally what abstract objects are. They play the role normally played by abstract objects.
KEVIN HARRIS: OK. You have two chapters – 6 and 7 – “Making Ontological Commitments, part 1 and part 2.”
DR. CRAIG: Here we now move from realist alternatives to Platonism to anti-realist views. These are views that deny that there are such things as mathematical objects, properties, possible worlds, and propositions. There is a whole cornucopia of these anti-realist views. In these chapters I examine three views in particular: free logic, one that is called Neo-Meinongianism (this is a kind of refurbished version of the 19th century Austrian philosopher Alexius Meinong – and there all on the contemporary scene these Neo-Meinongians who are very interesting), and the last alternative is what I call Neutralism. These views all would undercut the argument for Platonism by denying that truths about mathematical objects, propositions, and possible worlds require that these things really exist. A statement like “2+2=4” can be true even though there is no such object as “2+2” or “4.” An illustration. Suppose I say there are five Fridays in October this year. I think that that could well be true, but does that commit me to an ontology that includes “Fridays” as objectively existing? Do Fridays exist? That seems absurd. Fridays are clearly mind-dependent, socially constructed realities that are the result of our calendaring system. It is not as though in the absence of any human beings there would be Fridays laying around. So this would be an example of a non-theological sentence in which we can affirm there are five Fridays in October this year – that's true – but that doesn't commit you ontologically to the reality of things like Fridays; similarly with mathematical sentences, sentences about possible words and things of that sort.
So that's what these two chapters are about, and I have to say this is really where my sympathies lie.
KEVIN HARRIS: I am curious. Do you, as a philosopher, sometimes just have to think about things? That is what Plantinga says philosophy is: thinking real hard about stuff. Do you think while you are reading or while you are writing, or do you ever have to just sit or stand or walk and just think about it?
DR. CRAIG: Oh, yeah, that is very true. Sometimes I just lean back from my desk, put down my pen, and just sit there and think. Jan has said to people, When I don't hear anything, then I know he is working. [laughter]
KEVIN HARRIS: That is very true. Chapter 8 is “Useful Fictions.”
DR. CRAIG: Yes, in the next three chapters we consider anti-realist views that deny abstract objects exist but they accept the notion that the literal truth of sentences referring to abstract objects would commit you to their reality. This is very different than free logic, Neo-Meinongianism, or neutralism.
The first of these is called fictionalism. Fictionalists would agree with the Platonist that if 2+2=4 is true, that commits you ontologically to the reality of objects like “4.” But they would say these sentences are not true. Despite their obviousness and usefulness and utility in science, it is not literally true that 2+2=4 because there is no such thing as “2+2” or “4.”
KEVIN HARRIS: Not objectively.
DR. CRAIG: Right. Yeah.
KEVIN HARRIS: Chapter 9: “Figuratively speaking.”
DR. CRAIG: This is a fascinating view that is called figuralism. This view is championed by a philosopher named Stephen Yablo. What Yablo points out is that a great deal – indeed, I think he would say a majority of our language – is figurative, not literal. We say things like, He pulled over onto the shoulder of the road. Roads don't literally have shoulders. This is a metaphor.
KEVIN HARRIS: He hit the ceiling. He blew his top.
DR. CRAIG: Yeah, exactly. Yablo would say that this abstract object talk (including mathematical sentences) aren't meant to be taken literally. These are a form of figurative speech. As such they are figuratively true. It is true that he hit the ceiling or that he blew his top. But it is not literally true. It is figuratively true. Yablo shows a fascinating number of parallels between abstract object talk and figurative language. An interesting fact that our listeners might appreciate is that I've discovered that a person who holds to this view of divine aseity and abstract objects was C. S. Lewis. Lewis believed that mathematical talk and other talk of this ilk is figurative. It is just figurative language, and therefore the theist is not committed by that kind of language to the reality of these abstract objects.
KEVIN HARRIS: You have a paragraph here on silliness. What is that referring to?
DR. CRAIG: That is one of the many parallels that Yablo draws between figurative language. He says that when we speak figuratively it could invite silly questions. For example, he says we talk about how big the average star is. This might provoke the question of where is it located? Where is the average star? That's a silly question. When you talk about the average star you're not referring to a literal object that is somewhere. In a similar way, when you talk about abstract objects it could invite silly questions like, he says, what are the intrinsic properties of the empty set in mathematics which has no members. That would just be one of the parallels that I mentioned between abstract object talk and figurative language.
KEVIN HARRIS: Chapter 10: “Make-believe.”
DR. CRAIG: This is the last alternative to Platonism that I consider. This is called pretense theory. The idea here is that talk about abstract objects is a species of make-believe. This is based upon the fascinating work of Kendall Walton on fiction. Walton's theory of fiction is that fiction is a species of make-believe. Things are prescribed to be imagined as true, and then we develop that fictional world that we make believe is true. Mary Leng, who is a philosopher of mathematics at the University of Liverpool applies Walton's view to mathematical discourse. She argues that mathematics is a species of make-believe. You make believe that there are numbers or you make believe that there are sets, and then you can develop your theorems and draw your conclusions. I, again, find this to be a very plausible view of abstract object talk.
KEVIN HARRIS: The final chapter is the title of the book: “God Over All.”
DR. CRAIG: Right. Here I sum it up by laying out how I think we ought to best think about abstract object talk. I'm an anti-realist. I don't think that these things really exist. I think that neutralists, Neo-Meinongians, free logicians are correct in denying that the truth of abstract object sentences commits us to the reality of the objects in them.
KEVIN HARRIS: This topic and this book will cause you to sit back in your chair and think.
DR. CRAIG: [laughter] I hope so!
KEVIN HARRIS: It really will! As we conclude, talk to the layperson. Is this an intermediate-level?
DR. CRAIG: Actually, that is interesting. Yes, this is. This is not a book for scholars. This is a book for non-specialists. That doesn't mean just ordinary laypeople, but intermediate. If you look in the back of the book you will find a long glossary of terms to help the neophyte understand what we are talking about when we say “abstract object,” “ontological commitment,” “universals,” “sets,” and so forth. I am hoping that this glossary will be a real help to non-specialists.
KEVIN HARRIS: I love this topic! Get God Over All. Get the book at ReasonableFaith.org or look for it in your local bookstore.
 Total Running Time: 26:31 (Copyright © 2017 William Lane Craig)