05 / 06
birds birds birds

An Atheist Answers Dr. Craig's Five Points

April 15, 2019


How well does an atheist biologist and blogger understand Dr. Craig's five points on the existence of God?

KEVIN HARRIS: Hey, thanks for joining us on Reasonable Faith with Dr. William Lane Craig! I’m Kevin Harris. Bill, last week we talked[1] about PZ Myers,who is a biologist who also includes his atheism in topics on his blog. He discussed the demise of the New Atheism. And lo and behold, I also came across an article[2] in which he talks about you. He addresses the Fox News feature[3] they did on you several years ago on five points concerning the existence of God. We need to warn everyone that some of this gets a little irreverent. Bill?

DR. CRAIG: First, I think it is important to see the way in which he misrepresents the force of these arguments. He says that this piece that I published claims to “refute all of the arguments of atheists” and “to conclusively demonstrate the existence of his god.” I've never claimed to offer conclusive demonstrations of the existence of God. Typically I'll say that God is the best explanation for certain phenomena, together this provides a powerful cumulative case that makes the existence of God more probable than not. So contrary to what PZ Myers says here, I don't claim that these “must be real humdingers to wrap up the whole debate.” He is caricaturing the arguments that I present rather than considering them in the way that I offer them.

KEVIN HARRIS: He goes through your five arguments that you are known for.

DR. CRAIG: Yes. The first argument is:

1. God provides the best explanation of the origin of the universe.  Given the scientific evidence we have about our universe and its origins, and bolstered by arguments presented by philosophers for centuries, it is highly probable that the universe had an absolute beginning. Since the universe, like everything else, could not have merely popped into being without a cause, there must exist a transcendent reality beyond time and space that brought the universe into existence. This entity must therefore be enormously powerful. Only a transcendent, unembodied mind suitably fits that description.

That is the quote from me in the Fox News article.

KEVIN HARRIS: Bill, that sounded just like you!

DR. CRAIG: Good!

KEVIN HARRIS: His response?

But Mr Craig! Where’s the math? I know you don’t like any kind of evidence and are a being operating on pure logic, but you could at least provide the mathematical foundation for your assertion. You know your holy book just baldly states that a god did it, with no backing rationale, right? It makes for a very unsatisfactory explanation. There’s no meat to it.

DR. CRAIG: Let me respond to this. He seems to be under the impression that I say that because the Bible says “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” that that's the basis for my believing in the beginning of the universe with no backing rationale, he says. That ignores the paragraph that he just quoted where it says, “given the scientific evidence we have about our universe and its origins and bolstered by the arguments presented by philosophers for centuries it is highly probable that the universe had an absolute beginning.” So I appeal to both scientific evidence and philosophical argument in support of the premise that the universe began to exist. So, where's the math? The math is in the article of the astrophysicists who have written on the evidence for the origin of the universe. Originally, Alexander Friedmann and George Lemaitre who applied Einstein's gravitational field equations to the universe as a whole and saw that they predicted an expanding universe. More recently, the article by Arvind Borde, Alan Guth, and Alexander Vilenkin gives the math in support of the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin theorem that any universe which, on average, is in a state of expansion throughout its history cannot be infinite in the past but must have a beginning. This is just a brief little paragraph summarizing scientific evidence which is published in peer-reviewed journals by noted astrophysicists. So I don't think his complaint has any merit at all.

KEVIN HARRIS: He does complain just a little further. He says,

And don’t you think it’s a bit of a leap to jump from a necessary first cause (which I don’t necessarily grant you) to the conclusion that it required an “unembodied mind”? Maybe it required an unembodied anus to poop out the universe, no brain needed.

DR. CRAIG: The suggestion of an unembodied anus pooping out the universe is a self-contradiction because an anus is a physical feature of a body and we are looking for a cause of all matter and energy, indeed of physical space and time themselves. So his facetious hypothesis is logically contradictory and physically impossible.

KEVIN HARRIS: And obnoxious.

DR. CRAIG: Yes, yes, but I won't say that. I think there's very good grounds for thinking that the cause of the universe is an unembodied mind. I've given actually three arguments in support of this in my published work, one of which I allude to here – namely that the most plausible candidate for something that is an uncaused, timeless, spaceless, and immaterial thing would be an unembodied mind. The only other thing that could fit a description like that would be an abstract object like a number or a proposition. But here’s the rub: abstract objects don't stand in causal relations. The number seven has no effect upon anything. So it would follow then that the best explanation is that the transcendent cause of the universe is an unembodied mind which is exactly what theists mean by God.

KEVIN HARRIS: Let's go to number 2. Bill, you play you, and I’ll play PZ.

DR. CRAIG: Alright.

2. God provides the best explanation for the fine-tuning of the universe. Contemporary physics has established that the universe is fine-tuned for the existence of intelligent, interactive life.  That is to say, in order for intelligent, interactive life to exist, the fundamental constants and quantities of nature must fall into an incomprehensibly narrow life-permitting range.  There are three competing explanations of this remarkable fine-tuning: physical necessity, chance, or design. The first two are highly implausible, given the independence of the fundamental constants and quantities from nature’s laws and the desperate maneuvers needed to save the hypothesis of chance. That leaves design as the best explanation.


But Mr Craig! The universe isn’t finely tuned. The overwhelming bulk of it is inaccessible to us, and even on this one planet we inhabit, 70% is underwater, vast swathes are icy wastes or deserts, and those toasty warm damp tropics, which are otherwise paradisial, are heaven for parasites and diseases. You even admit this yourself when you say our nature requires an environment that falls within an “incomprehensibly narrow life-permitting range”. Do [you] think that range is everywhere?

DR. CRAIG: This is just an embarrassing misunderstanding of what's meant by fine-tuning on Myers’ part. Fine-tuning as I present it has nothing to do with life on Earth or the conditions here on Earth such as having 70% of the world underwater. What fine-tuning is all about is these fundamental constants and quantities of nature which are present in the Big Bang itself and which must fall into an exquisitely narrow life-permitting range in order for intelligent interactive life to evolve anywhere in the cosmos. Fine-tuning so defined is simply a fact of physics today. It's a measure of desperation that Myers has to deny the fact of fine-tuning rather than to explain it, and that means he flies in the face of contemporary physics which has established rather firmly that physics is replete with these constants and quantities that are finely tuned for the existence of intelligent interactive life.


Also, without other universes to compare, you can’t claim that ours has optimal parameters. Don’t you also claim the existence of a heaven which is perfect? Therefore, we can obviously see that the Earth is a much inferior place.

DR. CRAIG: This is an odd misunderstanding. There's no claim in the fine-tuning argument that our world is somehow optimal or the best possible world that could exist. Rather, the claim is that our universe is fine-tuned for the existence of intelligent interactive life, and that cries out for some sort of explanation. Here he seems to want to suggest that because there is only one universe we can't make any intelligent statements about the odds of the universe being life-permitting. You can't say 1-out-of-every-100 universes is life-permitting, for example. I think, however, the physicist John Barrow gives an illustration which illustrates very clearly the sense in which a life-permitting universe is improbable. Barrow says put a dot on a white piece of paper and let that dot represent our universe. Now alter ever so slightly one or more of these fundamental constants and quantities. That now describes a different universe, and make that a dot on the piece of paper. If it's a life-permitting universe, make it a red dot. If it's a life-prohibiting universe, make it a blue dot. Now do it again, and do it again, and do it again until the piece of paper is filled with dots. What you find is a sea of blue with only a few pinpricks of red. It is in that sense that a life-permitting universe is incomprehensibly improbable. There are simply many more ways in which the universe can be life-prohibiting by altering these constants and quantities than that it should be life-permitting. And so I think we're on solid ground in saying that the fine-tuning of the universe is indeed something that cries out for explanation.

KEVIN HARRIS: Your third point.


3. God provides the best explanation of objective moral values and duties. Even atheists recognize that some things, for example, the Holocaust, are objectively evil. But if atheism is true, what basis is there for the objectivity of the moral values we affirm? Evolution? Social conditioning? These factors may at best produce in us the subjective feeling that there are objective moral values and duties, but they do nothing to provide a basis for them. If human evolution had taken a different path, a very different set of moral feelings might have evolved. By contrast, God Himself serves as the paradigm of goodness, and His commandments constitute our moral duties. Thus, theism provides a better explanation of objective moral values and duties.


But Mr Craig! Atheists do have an objective source for morality: ourselves. I can strive to create a society which provides a good moral framework that makes me happy, keeps my family safe and productive, builds communities and nations that work cooperatively, and just generally makes life better for my species over the long run. I don’t need a god to do that. And besides, your god doesn’t provide moral guidance to anyone.

DR. CRAIG: This just shows, again, that he doesn't understand the difference between objective and subjective moral values and duties. What he described here is culturally relative social mores that differ from society to society. Suppose you live in Afrikaner South Africa where discrimination against blacks was legal. Or suppose you live in National Socialist Germany during the 1930s, and that provides the moral framework for life. Which, if any of these, is objectively true? I can't see any basis on the atheist view for answering that question.


And yes, people can have different objective moral values. For instance, a person could decide that the well-being of a broader spectrum of organisms than just one species is an important value, and dedicate themselves to maintaining life everywhere it exists. I can respect that. It doesn’t take a god to acquire that moral code, just an appreciation of beauty and a greater empathy.

DR. CRAIG: Now here he describes subjective moral values! When he says “people can have different objective moral values” that's a self-contradiction in terms! If they are person-relative then they are subjective, not objective! He says a person can decide that the well-being of a broader spectrum of organisms than our species is of important value. Similarly, a person can decide that the well-being of a narrower spectrum of organisms is an important value! For example, Aryans or whites, and therefore promote the kind of racist and bigoted society that I just described. Would Myers also respect that? If not, on what grounds? On atheism I don't see any basis for making this differentiation between different societal values which are held to by the people in those societies.

KEVIN HARRIS: Number four.


4. God provides the best explanation of the historical facts concerning Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.  Historians have reached something of consensus that the historical Jesus thought that in himself God’s Kingdom had broken into human history, and he carried out a ministry of miracle-working and exorcisms as evidence of that fact. Moreover, most historical scholars agree that after his crucifixion Jesus’ tomb was discovered empty by a group of female disciples, that various individuals and groups saw appearances of Jesus alive after his death, and that the original disciples suddenly and sincerely came to believe in Jesus’ resurrection despite their every predisposition to the contrary. I can think of no better explanation of these facts than the one the original disciples gave: God raised Jesus from the dead.


But Mr Craig! Does your god also provide the best explanation for how Mohammed flew to heaven on a winged horse, or how Odin lost his eye, the divinity embodied in every noodly appendage of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, how Breatharians can live without eating, or how the Amazing Randi did that really amazing card trick?

DR. CRAIG: Of course, it does not supply an explanation of those things because those things are not facts. He's equating the empty tomb, post-mortem appearances of Jesus, and the origin of the disciples’ belief with these fanciful legends and fictions, and they're not. He needs to explain why he is skeptical about these facts which, as I say, represent something of a consensus among historians who have studied the life of Jesus.


Does your god blind you to the possibility that there are better explanations? Say, that the entire story of the empty tomb was a legend invented well after the fact, or that if there were a tomb, a Roman surgeon had the body stolen for the purposes of his anatomical studies, or that a bear dragged the corpse away for a little snack? There are many simpler and explanations, and it seems to me to be a bit of a deficiency on your part that you can’t think of them.

DR. CRAIG: Of course, I can think of alternative explanations. I'm not blinded to them. In fact, I typically discussed them in my published work, which he is obviously unaware of. To say that the empty tomb story was a legend is not an explanation of the empty tomb; that's a denial of the fact of the empty tomb that goes contrary to what most historical scholars think. In my written work I explained the multiple lines of evidence that have led scholars to believe that, in fact, Jesus’ tomb was found empty by a group of his female disciples on the Sunday morning after his crucifixion. This represents a reversal of scholarship from back in the 1930s and 40s when, in fact, the empty tomb stories were largely regarded as legendary. Scholarship has come to reject that view and to accept the fundamental historicity of the empty tomb account. As for these alternative explanations like a bear dragging off the corpse or the Roman surgeon stealing the body, I see absolutely no reason to think that these ad hoc explanations better fulfill the criteria for a good explanation than does the resurrection hypothesis which explains all three of the facts in question without some sort of an ad hoc appeal to an explanation of just one of the three.

KEVIN HARRIS: Finally, number five.


5. God can be personally known and experienced.  The proof of the pudding is in the tasting. Down through history Christians have found through Jesus a personal acquaintance with God that has transformed their lives.


But Mr Craig! Every god-believer claims that about their god, not just yours. Atheists do not deny that believers experience subjective psychological phenomena that can affect how they see the world. What we deny is that there is an objective, external super-being that is diddling their brains or making the moon orbit the Earth or making people healthy if they beg hard enough. You’re avoiding addressing the nature of the phenomenon that is “experienced”, which is ultimately the whole question, so your little essay completely misses the mark.

I guess I’m still an atheist.

DR. CRAIG: What he fails to understand is that the first four arguments that I offer does address the nature of the phenomenon that one claims to experience. It offers argumentation for a personal Creator and Designer of the universe who is the locus of absolute goodness and who has revealed himself in Jesus Christ. Then the experiential appeal, I think, is quite legitimate. I wouldn't deny that people in other religions also have subjective experiences. Of course they do. But what I would insist on is that in the absent of some sort of a defeater for that experience, one is perfectly rational to continue to believe what seems to one to be experientially true. Myers would need to show what he denies. He needs to show that there is no objective external super-being which we are experiencing. In the absence of some sort of defeater for my theistic beliefs, it seems to me I’m entirely within my rights to believe that what I experience is real.[4]