The Debate in Melbourne Part 1

The Debate in Melbourne Part 1

Is it reasonable to believe in God? What did the email from Vilenkin to Krauss actually say?


Transcript The Debate in Melbourne (Part 1)

Kevin Harris: Dr. Craig, I am worn out and out of breath just doing podcasts on this Australian tour. I just cannot imagine the emotional things, the emotionally taxing things that happen on this tour. The spiritually rewarding things that happen on this tour. The opportunities. It all combines into something that can just make you need to take some vitamin B, you know [laughter]. But we’re at the third exchange here with Lawrence Krauss in Melbourne, and Graham Oppy was the moderator for this. Now it seems to me, Bill, just as I observe, Graham Oppy is really a man and a philosopher to interact with, and in fact you have a lot.

Dr. Craig: Yes, he and I have published articles responding to each other and criticizing each other’s work. He is a very prominent Australian philosopher from Monash University which is in or near Melbourne, and is scary smart, a really brilliant guy. And many people couldn’t believe that he was the moderator of the third debate rather than one of the debaters. He would have been more apt, I think, to be the person with whom I was interacting than the person moderating the discussion.

Kevin Harris: The topic of this exchange – I keep wanting to say debate – really, it was a dialogue . . .

Dr. Craig: . . . supposed to be a dialogue.

Kevin Harris: Yeah. Is it reasonable to believe there is a God? You spoke first and the first thing that you pointed out, from looking at the transcript and watching the video, is, well, you know, at first blush yeah you can make a case that it’s reasonable to believe in God, but I’m going to take the harder burden and show that it’s – what? – more reasonable to believe in God?

Dr. Craig: Yes, in other words, it could be reasonable to believe in God and reasonable not to believe in God. There are some questions that are just open questions and it could be reasonable to believe either alternative. And when you say reasonable, as Graham Oppy pointed out in his lead questions, if you simply mean permissible, that you’re within the bounds of reason in believing this, it’s almost trivially easy to show that it’s reasonable to believe in God. That’s not to say that the belief is true.

Kevin Harris: You could just say, as you pointed out, look how many really smart people throughout history have believed in God, and so that’s a pretty good reason right there. Now it doesn’t show it’s true. That would be – what? – argumentum ad populum, appeal to authority and all those other things. But it just shows that, at first glance, you can come up with all kinds of things to show that of course it’s reasonable.

Dr. Craig: Yes, and when Krauss retorts, “Reasonable people often believe false things” Oppy says, “That only shows that they could hold false beliefs but it doesn’t show they’re unreasonable in doing so.” When you have people like Alvin Plantinga and Robert Adams and Richard Swinburne and Peter van Inwagen, as well as notable scientists, historians, and others who believe in God, it’s a pretty bold move to say that all of these people are irrational in so believing. So in one sense the topic was a no-brainer. But to make for an interesting debate I decided to shoulder a heavier burden of proof, and I interpreted it to mean: are there better arguments for God’s existence than against God’s existence? And so that was the position I said I was willing to defend.

Kevin Harris: You had six points that you went to. First one, very familiar to all of us, God is the best explanation of the origin of the universe. You know, Bill, knowing that Lawrence Krauss is friends, colleagues, with Alexander Vilenkin, you knew your stuff, and to present Vilenkin’s material knowing that Dr. Krauss would know the material.

Dr. Craig: Yes, I appreciate you saying that, Kevin, because I was very self-conscious in doing this. It would be easy in dealing with a physicist for me to hide behind philosophical arguments against the infinitude of the past, or to present ontological arguments for God’s existence that would be outside his area of expertise. But for the sake of an interesting dialogue on this I chose to lead with the science. I put my neck out and said that there is better scientific evidence to believe that the universe began to exist than that it did not. And similarly that the scientific evidence supports that the best explanation of fine-tuning is design rather than chance or physical necessity. So I was arguing quite self-consciously in Krauss’ area of expertise rather than trying to hide in my area, philosophy, where he would be on less familiar territory.[1]

Kevin Harris: Wow. And as I notice here, Bill, I don’t even think you used the argument of the impossibility of traversing an actual concrete infinite.

Dr. Craig: Oh no. Didn’t even appear.

Kevin Harris: Yeah, I mean, that’s the killer one.

Dr. Craig: That’s the main reason I believe in the finitude of the past. It’s not these scientific arguments. I see them as mere confirmations – empirical confirmations – of an argument already reached by philosophical argumentation.

Kevin Harris: Was there an opportunity to respond to this first argument?

Dr. Craig: Yes, there was. And this, I think, Kevin, is one of the most interesting features in this whole remarkable series of three dialogues. In the Sydney dialogue, and then again in the Melbourne dialogue, Dr. Krauss put up a PowerPoint slide of a private email message that he had received from Alexander Vilenkin, whose theorem I quoted in support of the beginning of the universe, ostensibly claiming to undercut the evidence for the beginning of the universe. And of course since this is a private unpublished letter there’s no way to check its accuracy, and therefore it makes it difficult to respond to such a thing.

Now, someone took a cell phone photo of the PowerPoint in the Sydney dialogue, and I had a chance then to look at it and analyze it before the Melbourne dialogue. And what I noticed were some very suspicious and interesting features of this. In the opening paragraph of this letter from Vilenkin he says that a possible loophole around the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin theorem is that there might be an epic of contraction prior to the expansion, and in this way the universe would not have been in a state of cosmic expansion on average throughout its history if you had this contracting phase prior to the expanding phase. And the email message says such models have been discussed by Aguirre and Gratton, and by Carroll and Chen. Well, immediately my antenna went up because I thought, these are the very models that Vilenkin discusses in the paper that I quoted from that he presented last year at Cambridge University in which he says, none of these scenarios can actually be past eternal. And he shows specifically, by name, why the Aguirre/Gratton model and the Carroll/Chen model do not succeed in restoring an eternal past.

So as I looked at this I thought, when he says a possible loophole what he must mean is that here’s a possible way you might try to get around the theorem, but in fact this won’t work, he closes the loophole. That’s what he does in the paper. And I had seen a similar letter like this that Vilenkin wrote to Victor Stenger that is out there on the web in which he says very much the same thing. He says you can have a contraction prior to the expansion, but then the letter to Stenger goes on to say this might make it sound like there’s nothing the matter with having a contraction but in fact such a model would involve all kinds of messy singularities so that it would never get to the expanding phase. In other words, these models don’t work, they don’t succeed in restoring an eternal past. And I thought, that’s what he meant when he said “a possible loophole.” And that’s then, Kevin, when I noticed the ellipsis points in the email message that Dr. Krauss reproduced.

Kevin Harris: Dot, dot, dot.

Dr. Craig: Yes, dot, dot, dot, indicating material had been deleted from this email. And I thought, Krauss has omitted some of this letter. What did he leave out? Could it have been a qualifying phrase similar to what he offered to Stenger. Well, I had no way at that time of knowing because I didn’t have the original letter. But in the Melbourne dialogue I confronted Krauss on this and I said, in the paper at Cambridge these very models are mentioned by name as not restoring a past eternal universe, and I wonder what you’ve omitted from this letter by Vilenkin. And Krauss’ response was “technical material,” and he said this again, “I told you, technical material.” Well, in fact, Kevin, it wasn’t technical material. I have now obtained a copy of the original letter – Alex Vilenkin has sent it to me. And can I read you the two sentences that are deleted from the letter?[2]

Kevin Harris: Please.

Dr. Craig: Okay. He says, “Models of this sort have been discussed by Aguirre & Gratton, and by Carroll & Chen.” And then here’s the deleted sentences:

They had to assume though that the minimum of entropy was reached at the bounce and offered no mechanism to enforce this condition. It seems to me that it is essentially equivalent to a beginning.

Kevin Harris: Uh oh.

Dr. Craig: Yeah. That second sentence would have been devastating for Krauss to quote in the dialogue. Vilenkin’s whole point is that these models are equivalent to a universe with a beginning in that they have a universe in which you have a minimal entropy state from which two arrows of time go out. You have in a sense a twin universe, two arrows of time that both emerge from a common origin point, a common beginning, it is not a past eternal universe. And that’s why he rejects them in the Cambridge paper as restoring a past eternal universe. So this quotation was deliberately doctored by Dr. Krauss to give a contrary impression. And I find this so ironic, Kevin, in light of Krauss’ opening remarks in Brisbane about the need in science for honesty, transparency, and full disclosure, which he then in the severest terms criticized me for violating, when in fact it turns out that it was Krauss himself who was doing this.

Kevin Harris: Yeah, I mean, that would scare me to death; it would scare me to death if I’m on stage like you were and I present Vilenkin’s material and then my opponent stands up and says, “Well here is my personal email from Vilenkin.” You’re thinking, “Uh oh.” But it turns out that there’s so much verification because you’re . . . of this, and what Vilenkin’s been saying.

Dr. Craig: One of the positive things to come out of this unhappy episode is that it has put me in touch with Alex Vilenkin so that we’ve been able to correspond now on this issue. And I wrote to Vilenkin the following, I want to quote from my letter to Vilenkin. I said,

You should be aware that your work has entered into popular culture, where it has become the subject of heated debate. Certain staunchly secular thinkers want to avoid the beginning of the universe because to them it smacks of theism, and so they are bent on reconstruing the significance of your work. That is why you are receiving letters from people like Stenger, Krauss, et al. I hope to have understood and represented you accurately. If not, I want to be corrected.

Kevin Harris: That’s very generous of you, Bill. I mean, it really is.

Dr. Craig: Well, no, I do, I do. If I’m misrepresenting him I want to know. And here is what Vilenkin, in part, wrote back to me, Kevin. He says, “I think you represented what I wrote about the BGV theorem in my papers and to you personally very accurately.” He then goes on to say, “This is not to say that you represented my views as to what this implies regarding the existence of God.” Vilenkin, as we know, is an agnostic. He says, “Which is OK, since I have no special expertise to issue such judgments.” And he goes on to say that he thinks that the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin theorem is neutral on the existence of God, and he thinks that you could explain the beginning of the universe naturalistically as a quantum event. And I’ve responded to Vilenkin’s theory both in Reasonable Faith and in the Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology. But the thing that was so gratifying to me, Kevin, was that in the face of these statements by Dr. Krauss that “You don’t understand Vilenkin’s paper; you don’t understand this theorem,” Vilenkin himself says that you have represented what I’ve written about the theorem very accurately. And that was really gratifying to hear.

Kevin Harris: You and Dr. Vilenkin were on a panel together at Berkeley.

Dr. Craig: Yes, that’s right. Several years ago there was a Templeton sponsored conference on science and theology – again, part of this flourishing dialogue between science and theology that I talked about in my Brisbane opening statement – and that was the first chance I had to meet him and get to know him.[3] I don’t know if he remembered me from that little roundtable conference. But it was fascinating to hear his story, coming from Russia, he is an agnostic. I find it actually very helpful, Kevin, that he is an agnostic because no one can accuse Vilenkin of having a theological axe to grind in his very unflappable defense of the beginning of the universe and of the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin theorem.

I do want to say one other thing with respect to what Krauss had to say because he not only presented that opening paragraph but he also appealed to a statement of Vilenkin’s later in the email message where Vilenkin says that if there is a quantum theory of gravity then we may not even know the right questions to ask. Krauss interpreted this to mean that we’re just utterly uncertain about whether or not the universe began to exist. What Vilenkin’s email back to me, however, shows is he said that Krauss had asked him to respond to the claim that the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin theorem definitively rules out a beginningless universe. And Vilenkin properly responded, in science we don’t deal with definitive sorts of arguments. What Vilenkin thinks is that it’s more plausible than not that the universe began to exist in light of the evidence, and that’s exactly the position that I take. And as for the influence of quantum gravity upon this conclusion, what Vilenkin goes on to explain is that it is not quantum gravity as such which would invalidate the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin theorem. That theorem has only one condition, Kevin, and that is that the universe is on average in a state of cosmic expansion over its history. It doesn’t presuppose the gravitational equations of Einstein’s general theory of relativity. So Vilenkin is clear that even if that needs to be modified the theorem will still hold so long as you have a universe which is expanding over time on average throughout its history. However . . .

Kevin Harris: Are you saying that even if a newer theory and some more thorough theories of gravity come about, that that’s still not going to affect it?

Dr. Craig: Exactly, it won’t invalidate the theory. What would invalidate the theory would be if you were to utterly dissolve time so that time no longer exists, because then you couldn’t say that the universe is expanding on average throughout its history because there wouldn’t be any time, there wouldn’t be any before and after. But that isn’t based upon quantum gravity. You can have quantum gravity theories in which you do have a time parameter and the theorem will still apply. In fact in Mlodinow’s and Hawking’s most recent book The Grand Design, in that book they interpret the quantum gravity regime to be temporally ordered and so the, what they call, the lines of latitude as the universe shrinks down and goes back to the south pole, they say that that represents the beginning of time and of the universe at the south pole. They think of it as temporally ordered even though it’s a quantum gravity theory. So in fact Dr. Krauss has just seriously misrepresented Vilenkin’s views on this subject. And for those listeners who are interested in this I’m putting these email communications on our website in their entirety, unabridged, in question 336 – question of the week 336 – where they can read this correspondence.[4]

Kevin Harris: We all expected you to go to fine-tuning next as your second argument. Dr. Craig, you added something new to your presentation, it seems, or fairly new, and that is, God is the best application of the applicability of mathematics to the physical world.

Dr. Craig: Yes, this was an argument I used against Alex Rosenberg, and Rosenberg, in his final response to this debate, admits that this is the really big problem for naturalism that seems to be insoluble. How do you handle mathematical truth and its applicability to the universe. And here Dr. Krauss’ response was inadequate, not to say pathetic. In response to my claim that theism offers the best explanation of why the universe is built on this mathematical structure, his response was, well then why isn’t the Bible written in mathematics?[5]

Kevin Harris: Huh?

Dr. Craig: This is just the sort of left field comment that you wonder, where in the world does this come from? How in the world would thinking that a designing mind has created the physical universe on a mathematical structure mean that the Bible ought to be written in mathematics? I mean that’s so ridiculous, it would have been incomprehensible to anybody but a mathematician and it would hardly communicate to us the truths that God wanted it to communicate to us. And then later on, Kevin, he responds to this by saying, well if God is a mathematician then why didn’t God reveal calculus to Moses? And people applauded; the atheists in the audience at that point, and I was absolutely dumbfounded that anyone could think that this was a serious response to the argument about the applicability of mathematics.

Kevin Harris: Well, I heard that and I kind of threw my hands up.

Dr. Craig: Atheist listeners to our podcast today need to realize this is just silly sloganeering and sound bites. This is not the way you seriously engage with a philosophical argument that has really exercised both mathematicians and philosophers alike, not to say physicists; namely, how do you explain the uncanny effectiveness of mathematics in modeling the world? How is it that these mathematical objects and equations are the structure upon which our universe is built? And you cannot responsibly interact with this by giving these retorts, “Well then why didn’t God reveal calculus to Moses?”

Kevin Harris: Bill, did you come across this argument and add it to your presentation because of the study you’ve been doing in abstract objects?

Dr. Craig: Yes, exactly. I have been working now for over ten years on the existence of God and the reality of mathematical objects. And this is a question that I’ve found surfacing again and again in debates between Platonists, who think that there are mathematical entities, and fictionalists, who think that mathematical entities are just useful fictions. And neither of these two schools can answer this question as to the applicability of mathematics. For Platonists the mystery is why these causally effete abstract entities beyond space and time can have any impact upon our physical world. For the fictionalist the difficulty is if these are just useful fictions that we’ve made up then how is it that physical reality is structured on the basis of these fictions? So Platonists and fictionalists alike will say, “We don’t have an answer to this question; we do not understand the applicability of mathematics to the physical world.” And it occurred to me that for the theist, whether he’s a Platonist or a fictionalist, he has the resources to answer this question; namely, mathematics is applicable to the physical universe because there is a transcendent intelligent designer of the universe who built the physical world on the mathematical structure that he had conceived in his mind, and therefore this mathematical structure would reproduce or be similar to the mathematical structure that is inherent in the physical world itself. So whether you’re a Platonist or a fictionalist, if you’re a theist, you can answer this question which I think is just unanswerable on naturalism or atheism.

Kevin Harris: I’m trying to recall if you ever got that argument back on track: calculus revealed to Moses . . .

Dr. Craig: Well, no I did respond to it in the dialogue. Remember this wasn’t a debate so we didn’t have a chance to respond to each other specifically other than as these issues surfaced in the dialogue. And I must say that this Melbourne dialogue was the most substantive of the three. In this dialogue we really did begin to engage with these arguments, as I’ve just described. However the engagement with regard to the second argument, the applicability of mathematics, was not very substantive. It was, again, just these silly statements about revealing calculus to Moses. And the obvious answer to that is that the purpose of the Bible is not to communicate mathematical truth but to tell you who God is, what he’s like, how you can come to know him, what your moral responsibilities are before him, how forgiveness and grace is available, and so on. That’s the purpose of the Bible, and God will leave it up to mathematicians to figure out the calculus.[6]

Kevin Harris: Number three, you went to: God is the best explanation of the fine-tuning of the universe for intelligent life. We’re familiar with this in your presentations. This seemed to be the one that most resonated, stimulated, Dr. Krauss. He really wanted to talk about and respond to the fine-tuning. And of course he’s saying, no it’s not fine-tuned.

Dr. Craig: That’s right, Kevin. Now I want our listeners to understand what a radical line Krauss was taking in this regard. He wasn’t saying that the fine-tuning is best explained by chance or even the multiverse, which is what I thought he would say. Nor is he saying that the fine-tuning is physically necessary. Rather his claim is, essentially, the fine-tuning is an illusion; that the universe is not fine-tuned. Now it’s very important that our listeners understand what fine-tuning means. Fine-tuning does not mean designed. To say that the universe is fine-tuned for intelligent life does not mean that the purpose for which the universe was designed is intelligent life or human life. Rather fine-tuning means that when you look at the values that these fundamental constants and quantities have the range of life-permitting values is exquisitely narrow in comparison to the range of values that these physical constants and quantities could have taken. So that for all of these constants and quantities to fall into the infinitesimally small life-permitting range is so improbable that these odds cannot be reasonably faced. And in that sense fine-tuning is a religiously neutral fact about the universe. It’s not a design fact, it’s not theologically loaded in any way. In fact the majority of physicists today recognize the fact of the fine-tuning of the universe, including Krauss’ compatriot Richard Dawkins. So when Krauss is denying that the universe exhibits this kind of sensitivity and complexity he is taking a very radical line that goes against what the majority of physicists believe today.

Kevin Harris: People get the impression that this is a design argument because you give the three options.

Dr. Craig: Right, and design is one of the explanations. The best explanation of the fine-tuning of the universe is either, and then here are the three live options that are on the table in contemporary discussion: physical necessity, chance, or design. Now if fine-tuning meant designed, Kevin, then the argument would be question-begging! The best explanation for the design of the universe is design! That’s tautologous; that’s just a re-statement. So obviously fine-tuning doesn’t mean designed because you wouldn’t be looking around for explanations of it if it did. So fine-tuning just means that when you compare the range of possible values these constants and quantities could have taken with the range of life-permitting values, the life-permitting range is incomprehensibly small compared to that range of possible values. And Krauss, I mean, I know he’s an intelligent physicist, he didn’t understand this. He thought that if the cosmological constant could take the value zero, and the universe still be life-permitting, then that means that the cosmological constant is not fine-tuned. And that’s simply wrong. The cosmological constant could take a value from zero to a certain maximum, and that range of values is infinitesimally, incomprehensibly small in comparison to the possible range of values. So showing that there’s a range for the cosmological constant that would be life-permitting does nothing to deny fine-tuning, as he seemed to think. You need to compare that range to the range of possible values in order to see whether or not that constant is finely-tuned; and it is finely-tuned.

Kevin Harris: How would you categorize the argument from fine-tuning? Would it be a type of teleological argument?

Dr. Craig: Yes. It’s an argument for design based upon the constants and quantities of the universe that are, as I say, finely-tuned for life in the sense described. So it does an end-run around the whole emotionally poisoned question of biological evolution by going right back to the initial conditions of the universe and explaining for life to evolve and exist anywhere in the cosmos requires this exquisitely set table in advance, right from the very beginning.[7]



[1] 5:02

[2] 10:10

[3] 15:00

[4] For more details, including the full text of Vilenkin’s letters to both Dr. Krauss and to Dr. Craig, see Dr. Craig’s Q&A #336 “’Honesty, Transparency, Full Disclosure’ and the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin Theorem” found at http://www.reasonablefaith.org/honesty-transparency-full-disclosure-and-bgv-theorem (accessed December 12, 2013).

[5] 20:06

[6] 25:04

[7] Total Running Time: 31:16 (Copyright © 2013 William Lane Craig)