Exploring Meaning and NothingnessJanuary 12, 2015 Time: 46:52
Dr. Craig interacts with a speech by science and philosophy writer Jim Holt on the most sublime questions ever asked.
Exploring Meaning and Nothingness
Kevin Harris: Dr. Craig, I heard a TED talk (which are very popular online), and it is so right up your alley I just knew that we had to talk about it. Everything that this philosopher talked about we’ve done podcasts on, and it intersects with so much of your work. TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, and Design – it is an ideas forum. We are going to listen to one today from philosopher Jim Holt, who writes for New Yorker and the New York Times. He writes about science and philosophy. You’ll love this: “Why is There Something Rather Than Nothing?” Who was it that originally said that?
Dr. Craig: That was Leibniz’ question. He said it is the most fundamental question, and the very first question which should be asked. Why is there something rather than nothing? That is to say, why does anything at all exist?
Kevin Harris: In fact, Jim Holt calls this “the sublime question of all.” Let’s listen to some audio and then interact.
Jim Holt: Why does the universe exist? Why is there — Okay. Okay. [Laughter] This is a cosmic mystery. Be solemn. Why is there a world, why are we in it, and why is there something rather than nothing at all? I mean, this is the super ultimate “why” question?
So I’m going to talk about the mystery of existence, the puzzle of existence, where we are now in addressing it, and why you should care, and I hope you do care. The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer said that those who don't wonder about the contingency of their existence, of the contingency of the world's existence, are mentally deficient. That's a little harsh, but still. [Laughter] So this has been called the most sublime and awesome mystery, the deepest and most far-reaching question man can pose. It’s obsessed great thinkers. Ludwig Wittgenstein, perhaps the greatest philosopher of the 20th century, was astonished that there should be a world at all. He wrote in his “Tractatus,” Proposition 4.66, “It is not how things are in the world that is the mystical, it’s that the world exists.”
Kevin Harris: He is off with a bang there, but did you hear the audience’s reaction when he introduced his topic? They began to laugh.
Dr. Craig: Yeah, I wonder why.
Kevin Harris: It is such a big question; what is he supposed to do? Given an answer at the TED conference? [laughter]
Dr. Craig: It makes me wonder what went before. Whether or not it was something that had prejudiced them about asking a question like this.
Kevin Harris: How much grease is on French fries? I don’t know. Now he is really going on to a sublime question. Anybody, after hearing him quote those philosophers, has got to care and say this is not a question that you can bypass.
Jim Holt: And if you don’t like taking your epigrams from a philosopher, try a scientist. John Archibald Wheeler, one of the great physicists of the 20th century, the teacher of Richard Feynman, the coiner of the term “black hole,” he said, “I want to know how come the quantum, how come the universe, how come existence?” And my friend Martin Amis — by the way, I’ll be doing a lot of name-dropping in this talk, so get used to it — my dear friend Martin Amis once said that we’re about five Einsteins away from answering the mystery of where the universe came from. And I’ve no doubt there are five Einsteins in the audience tonight. Any Einsteins? Show of hands? No? No? No? No Einsteins? Okay.
So this question, why is there something rather than nothing, this sublime question, was posed rather late in intellectual history. It was towards the end of the 17th century, the philosopher Leibniz who asked it, a very smart guy, Leibniz, who invented the calculus independently of Isaac Newton, at about the same time. But for Leibniz, who asked why is there something rather than nothing, this was not a great mystery. He either was or pretended to be an orthodox Christian in his metaphysical outlook, and he said it's obvious why the world exists: because God created it. And God created it, indeed, out of nothing at all. That’s how powerful God is. He doesn't need any preexisting materials to fashion a world out of. He can make it out of sheer nothingness, creation ex nihilo. And by the way, this is what most Americans today believe. There is no mystery of existence for them.
Kevin Harris: Has he characterized Leibniz’ view?
Dr. Craig: The only thing that I am a little puzzled about would be his claim that Leibniz didn’t think this was a difficult question, that it was easy to answer. When you read Leibniz’ work, I don’t get that impression, that he cavalierly says this is a simple question. He gives a fairly detailed argument as to why the ultimate reason for the existence of the universe cannot be found in the universe itself, in any part of the universe, or in prior states of the universe, and therefore must be found in a transcendent being beyond the universe. So it is not a sort of quick fix for an easy question. Leibniz, I think, wrestled seriously with the question.
Kevin Harris: He is saying now that most of the American population believe:
Jim Holt: God made it. So let’s put this in an equation. I don’t have any slides so I’m going to mime my visuals, so use your imaginations. So it’s God + nothing = the world. Okay? Now that's the equation. And so maybe you don’t believe in God. Maybe you’re a scientific atheist or an unscientific atheist, and you don’t believe in God, and you’re not happy with it. By the way, even if we have this equation, God + nothing = the world, there’s already a problem: Why does God exist? God doesn’t exist by logic alone unless you believe the ontological argument, and I hope you don’t, because it’s not a good argument.
Kevin Harris: Whoops!
Dr. Craig: [laughter] Now, when he says God doesn’t exist by logic alone, we need to distinguish between strict logical possibility and what philosophers call broad logical possibility. There is no strict logical impossibility in saying that there is a married bachelor. Those aren’t strictly contradictory. But it is broadly logically impossible to say that there is a married bachelor. Or to give a different example, to say that the prime minister is a prime number involves no logical contradiction. But it is nevertheless broadly logically impossible. That is to say, capable of being actual.
Those who believe that God is the explanation of the contingent universe would admit that the proposition “God does not exist” does not contain a logical contradiction, but they would nevertheless say that the proposition “God exists” is logically necessary in this broad sense. It is not strictly logically necessary in that its denial doesn’t involve a contradiction but it is broadly logically necessary. God is a necessary being in that sense.
So his claim about logic needs to be nuanced somewhat, and particularly with respect to the ontological argument. The claim of contemporary proponents of the argument would be that God is broadly logically necessary and that this is possible. And if it is possible then that means that God exists.
Kevin Harris: By the way, Bill, I liked the way that he put it correctly, and that is “Why does the universe exist? Why does God exist?” He didn’t ask “Where did God come from?” or “Who made God?” which is the typical move. But he did follow Leibniz there which would be a legitimate question.
Dr. Craig: Right! That is a very good point, Kevin. He posed the question correctly.
Kevin Harris: Leibniz’ answer is there are only two kinds of being – necessary being and contingent being. But he doesn’t like the ontological argument. Let’s see if he continues.
Jim Holt: So it's conceivable, if God were to exist, he might wonder, I'm eternal, I'm all-powerful, but where did I come from? Whence then am I? God speaks in a more formal English. And so one theory is that God was so bored with pondering the puzzle of His own existence that He created the world just to distract himself.
Dr. Craig: Let’s pause it here. What he seems to be expressing there is what has been called the concept of God as a factually necessary being. That is to say, God is eternal, uncaused, indestructible, and incorruptible. This was the concept of God that John Hick, my doctoral mentor in Birmingham, defended. Hick did not believe that God is a broadly logically necessary being. God is contingent in that logical sense. But he would say God is factually necessary in that he is eternal, uncaused, indestructible, and incorruptible. Here Holt is quite right. A God who is merely factually necessary might still wonder Why do I exist rather than nothing? I think that drives us ultimately to a higher and more adequate concept of God as a metaphysically necessary being – a being whose nonexistence is broadly logically impossible.
So although I once, following Hick, believed God to be merely factually necessary, with a deeper understanding of the ontological argument and the distinction between strict and broadly logically necessity, I came to embrace the view that God’s existence is broadly logically necessary and not merely factually necessary.
Kevin Harris: Can you explain to us why Swinburne has a view similar to this – of a contingent God?
Dr. Craig: Swinburne’s view is the same as Hick’s. I don’t know. I never talked to him about this. All I could say is that back in the 50s and 60s it was just very widely assumed by philosophers that the only logically necessary truths were analytic truths like “If it is raining, it is raining” or something of that sort. On that basis a proposition like “God exists” isn’t strictly logically necessary. The proposition “God does not exist” has no contradiction in it. So I think that philosophers who were trained and educated in that era tended to have this view of God as merely factually necessary. But what has happened since Kripke and the development of possible-world semantics is that, I think, philosophers have become completely open to the idea of a being that exists in every logically possible world and is therefore metaphysically or broadly logically necessary. It is impossible that God not exist. There is no possible world in which God fails to exist, and so God isn’t merely factually necessary. I suspect that Swinburne’s holding to this other view may be sort of a hangover from this earlier era during which he was educated. I don’t know, though, why he hasn’t changed his mind in the way that I did.
Kevin Harris: Well, give him a call sometime! Let’s continue with Jim Holt.
Jim Holt: But anyway, let's forget about God. Take God out of the equation: We have (blank) + nothing = the world. Now, if you're a Buddhist, you might want to stop right there, because essentially what you've got is nothing = the world, and by symmetry of identity, that means the world = nothing. Okay? And to a Buddhist, the world is just a whole lot of nothing. It's just a big cosmic vacuity.
Dr. Craig: Wait, wait. That’s not right. He has misstated it. It is God + nothing = the world, right? That doesn’t make the world identical to nothing. That would make the world identical to God, which may also have pleased the Buddhist or the Hindu. But here one is being sloppy. What one means is not that God and nothing are identical to the world. What one means is that God is the cause of the world, but there isn’t any material cause of the world. It is not a matter of composition; of having God and having nothing and then this is identical to the world. Using that sign of identity “=” like “2+2=4” is just misleading. That is fine for a popular-level talk, but then he shouldn’t be drawing these kinds of false identifications out of it as he just did. The connection between God and the world is causal. It is not one of identity.
Jim Holt: And we think there's a lot of something out there but that's because we're enslaved by our desires. If we let our desires melt away, we'll see the world for what it truly is, a vacuity, nothingness, and we'll slip into this happy state of nirvana which has been defined as having just enough life to enjoy being dead.
So that's the Buddhist thinking. But I'm a Westerner, and I'm still concerned with the puzzle of existence, so I've got (blank) + — this is going to get serious in a minute, so — (blank) + nothing = the world. What are we going to put in that blank? Well, how about science? Science is our best guide to the nature of reality, and the most fundamental science is physics. That tells us what naked reality really is, that reveals what I call TAUFOTU, the True And Ultimate Furniture Of The Universe. So maybe physics can fill this blank; and indeed, since about the late 1960s or around 1970, physicists have purported to give a purely scientific explanation of how a universe like ours could have popped into existence out of sheer nothingness, a quantum fluctuation out of the void. Stephen Hawking is one of these physicists, more recently Alex Vilenkin, and the whole thing has been popularized by another very fine physicist and friend of mine, Lawrence Krauss, who wrote a book called A Universe from Nothing, and Lawrence thinks that he's given — he's a militant atheist, by the way, so he's gotten God out of the picture. The laws of quantum field theory, the state-of-the-art physics, can show how out of sheer nothingness, no space, no time, no matter, nothing, a little nugget of false vacuum can fluctuate into existence, and then, by the miracle of inflation, blow up into this huge and variegated cosmos we see around us.
Kevin Harris: OK. The “nugget theory.” He does at this point rehearse some of the scientists and physicists who would hold to this possibility of nothing. We’ve interacted a lot with that, Bill, on this definition of nothingness. Anything there?
Dr. Craig: The only thing I would add is that when people like Krauss say there was no space and time, it is important to understand that they are talking about space and time as defined by classical or non-quantum theories of physics. It is not what I think a philosopher or the ordinary person would mean by space and time. This can be seen very evidently in the fact that this quantum era is supposed to be temporally prior to the classical universe. Yet, if there is no time, that is impossible. So I think that what they are saying is that the time and space that is defined in classical physics didn’t exist then, but there was a “then” and it was temporally prior to what we now experience, and there clearly was a place because this quantum vacuum is extended. It has breadth and length and so forth. So in the philosophical sense, this is a spatio-temporal reality even if it isn’t according to the current conceptions of space and time as defined in classical physical theory.
Jim Holt: Okay, this is a really ingenious scenario. It’s very speculative. It’s fascinating. But I've got a big problem with it, and the problem is this: It's a pseudo-religious point of view. Now, Lawrence thinks he's an atheist, but he's still enthralled to a religious worldview. He sees physical laws as being like divine commands. The laws of quantum field theory for him are like fiat lux, “Let there be light.” The laws have some sort of ontological power or clout that they can form the abyss, that it’s pregnant with being. They can call a world into existence out of nothing. But that’s a very primitive view of what a physical law is, right? We know that physical laws are actually generalized descriptions of patterns and regularities in the world. They don’t exist outside the world. They don't have any ontic clout of their own. They can’t call a world into existence out of nothingness.
Dr. Craig: That’s what we are talking about.
Kevin Harris: He really takes Lawrence to task there.
Dr. Craig: Yes, and it is not just Krauss. I’ve heard this from other physicists, even those more sympathetic to theism like Paul Davies, for example, or Hawking as well. They think that the laws of physics have causal powers to make things, whereas (as Holt says) the laws of physics are just generalized statements or propositions.
Kevin Harris: And those don’t have causal powers.
Dr. Craig: They don’t have causal powers. That is what I was going to say. Holt assumes that they don’t exist on their own. But suppose you think there are these laws that exist as sort of mathematical equations or propositions. If so then what they are are abstract objects, and abstract objects are causally effete. They have no causal powers. So even if you say that these things do exist on their own, they cannot be responsible ontologically for the origin of the universe because they don’t have causal powers. So his critique, I think, is spot on in that respect.
Jim Holt: That’s a very primitive view of what a scientific law is. And if you don’t believe me on this, listen to Stephen Hawking, who himself put forward a model of the cosmos that was self-contained, didn’t require any outside cause, any creator, and after proposing this, Hawking admitted that he was still puzzled. He said, this model is just equations. What breathes fire into the equations and creates a world for them to describe? He was puzzled by this. So equations themselves can't do the magic; they can't resolve the puzzle of existence. And besides, even if the laws could do that, why this set of laws? Why quantum field theory that describes a universe with a certain number of forces and particles and so forth? Why not a completely different set of laws? There are many, many mathematically consistent sets of laws. Why not no laws at all? Why not sheer nothingness?
So this is a problem, believe it or not, that reflective physicists really think a lot about, and at this point they tend to go metaphysical, say, well, maybe the set of laws that describes our universe, it's just one set of laws and it describes one part of reality, but maybe every consistent set of laws describes another part of reality, and in fact all possible physical worlds really exist, they’re all out there. We just see a little tiny part of reality that’s described by the laws of quantum field theory, but there are many, many other worlds, parts of reality that are described by vastly different theories that are different from ours in ways we can’t imagine, that are inconceivably exotic.
Kevin Harris: Wow. He says even the most ardent physicist can’t help but go metaphysical when they are talking about these things.
Dr. Craig: What he seems to be describing here is a sort of modal realism according to which other possible worlds are actual, concrete, spatio-temporal realities, which is an extravagant metaphysical view for which I think there is just no good argument at all.
Kevin Harris: He calls it exotic.
Dr. Craig: Yeah, and it has some really bizarre consequences. For example, if you are in these other worlds then there is this counterpart to you that is in these other worlds, and it is not you but it is a sort of counterpart to who you are. But then what does it mean to say that you possibly have, say, blonde hair? What that would mean is there is a world with a counterpart to you in it that has blonde hair. But that is not you. So it doesn’t really seem to be true that you can possibly have had blonde hair. If at least he is identifying these worlds with possible worlds as an expression of modal notions then I think it really gets into really bizarre results.
Kevin Harris: He says a little bit later that he does not want to live in that kind of a world.
Dr. Craig: I am not suggesting that Holt believes this.
Kevin Harris: No. He just says he is acknowledging it, and he says there are reasons why you don’t want to live in that world.
Jim Holt: Steven Weinberg, the father of the standard model of particle physics, has actually flirted with this idea himself, that all possible realities actually exist. Also, a younger physicist, Max Tegmark, who believes that all mathematical structures exist, and mathematical existence is the same thing as physical existence, so we have this vastly rich multiverse that encompasses every logical possibility.
Now, in taking this metaphysical way out, these physicists and also philosophers are actually reaching back to a very old idea that goes back to Plato. It’s the principle of plenitude or fecundity, or the great chain of being, that reality is actually as full as possible. It’s as far removed from nothingness as it could possibly be.
Kevin Harris: Principle of plenitude.
Dr. Craig: Yes. I don’t think that is fair to Plato, because Plato wouldn’t have imagined that the realm of the forms or the abstract objects could encompass self-contradictory entities – that there would be square circles for example. But on this view that every possible mathematical structure is instantiated someplace, it would be important to understand these are inconsistent with each other. So they are saying that these logical inconsistencies are actualized. This is a view that I think is, frankly, just nonsense because logical contradictions cannot be true.
Jim Holt: So we have these two extremes now. We have sheer nothingness on one side, and we have this vision of a reality that encompasses every conceivable world at the other extreme: the fullest possible reality, nothingness, the simplest possible reality. Now what's in between these two extremes?
Kevin Harris: I want to highlight these two extremes that he says. On the one hand, you’ve got every possible reality that exists, on the other hand you’ve got nothing. Those are the two extremes, he says. And he wants to speculate as to what is in the middle. Perhaps the answer is in the middle?
Dr. Craig: Well, we already know that the one extreme is false because we exist.
Kevin Harris: So nothingness you can rule out?
Dr. Craig: Right. The whole question “why is there something rather than nothing” indicates that we know that at least we exist. Even if the rest of the world is an illusion of my consciousness, it is undeniable that I, at least, exist. So nothingness – that alternative is simply ruled out.
Jim Holt: There are all kinds of intermediate realities that include some things and leave out others. So one of these intermediate realities is, say, the most mathematically elegant reality, that leaves out the inelegant bits, the ugly asymmetries and so forth. Now, there are some physicists who will tell you that we're actually living in the most elegant reality. I think that Brian Greene is in the audience, and he has written a book called The Elegant Universe. He claims that the universe we live in mathematically is very elegant. Don't believe him. It’s a pious hope; I wish it were true. I think the other day he admitted to me it’s really an ugly universe. It’s stupidly constructed; it’s got way too many arbitrary coupling constants and mass ratios and superfluous families of elementary particles, and what the hell is dark energy? It’s a stick and bubble gum contraption. It’s not an elegant universe.
Kevin Harris: OK, I think he is being funny and facetious. But that often gets to an objection you hear against God: the universe would be better designed.
Dr. Craig: That is very different than this though.
Kevin Harris: You think?
Dr. Craig: Oh, absolutely. They are talking about things like the optic nerve going through the retina, or the tail bone or the way our wisdom teeth don’t fit in our jaw.
Kevin Harris: Our backs are too straight.
Dr. Craig: Yeah. That kind of stuff. Here he is talking about whether or not there is absolutely perfect symmetry between particles, or might there be sort of an extra type of particle that doesn’t have a partner? That isn’t ugly in a design sense. That might be the best way to make a universe. It just wouldn’t be perfectly symmetrical.
Kevin Harris: So he is saying it’s sloppy.
Dr. Craig: Yeah, they are using the word beauty here in this quasi-mathematical sense of perfectly symmetrical. I think you and I know that often beauty will be the result of asymmetry.
Jim Holt: And then there's the best of all possible worlds in an ethical sense. You should get solemn now, because a world in which sentient beings don't suffer needlessly, in which there aren't things like childhood cancer or the Holocaust. This is an ethical conception. Anyway, so between nothingness and the fullest possible reality, various special realities. Nothingness is special. It’s the simplest. Then there’s the most elegant possible reality. That's special. The fullest possible reality, that’s special.
But what are we leaving out here? There's also just the crummy, generic realities that aren’t special in any way, that are sort of random. They’re infinitely removed from nothingness, but they fall infinitely short of complete fullness. They’re a mixture of chaos and order, of mathematical elegance and ugliness. So I would describe these realities as an infinite, mediocre, incomplete mess, a generic reality, a kind of cosmic junk shot. And these realities, is there a deity in any of these realities? Maybe, but the deity isn’t perfect like the Judeo-Christian deity.
Dr. Craig: OK, see, there you have to stop immediately. He is assuming that God could not design a world that would exhibit certain sorts of asymmetries. As I just said, that is false. It may be that a world having certain asymmetries in it is a better world. It could be a world that would allow embodied observers like us to exist. That is a big leap to say that a perfect being could not make a world unless that world exhibited perfect mathematical symmetry.
Kevin Harris: He gives a nod to the Judeo-Christian God as being perfect, but let’s see what he continues to say.
Jim Holt: The deity isn't all-good and all-powerful. It might be instead 100 percent malevolent but only 80 percent effective, which pretty much describes the world we see around us, I think.
Kevin Harris: Some have told me that this is what he actually believes, or what he says a lot about God: that God is 100 percent malevolent but only 80 percent effective. That is why you see so much evil in the world.
Dr. Craig: I must say, that seems to me to underestimate enormously what an 80 percent effective deity could do to make life miserable for us. I mean, for most people life is very good. Otherwise, we’d all commit suicide. But when people go through hard times, they typically look to the future with hope that things will get better. When you go through bad times, you will often find that some good things come out of it. Life, for most people, is worth living. That is just an undeniable fact of the matter. If there were a being that were really 100 percent malevolent, goodness sake, we have no idea what sort of a torture chamber or something we might be living in, even if he is only 80 percent effective.
Jim Holt: So I would like to propose that the resolution to the mystery of existence is that the reality we exist in is one of these generic realities. Reality has to turn out some way. It can either turn out to be nothing or everything or something in between. So if it has some special feature, like being really elegant or really full or really simple, like nothingness, that would require an explanation. But if it's just one of these random, generic realities, there's no further explanation for it. And indeed, I would say that's the reality we live in. That's what science is telling us. At the beginning of the week, we got the exciting information that the theory of inflation, which predicts a big, infinite, messy, arbitrary . . .
Dr. Craig: Here is seems to have lost his way in the argument. He seems to be now somehow morphing into a design argument, and thinking that if the world is crummy and unexceptional that therefore you don’t need a deity to explain why it exists. That has just completely lost your way from Leibniz. On Leibniz’ view, anything that exists requires an explanation for why it exists rather than nothing. He admits there are all these possible crummy universes that could exist instead of nothing, right? And one of them does exist. So Leibniz’ question is perfectly appropriate. Why does this crummy universe exist?
Kevin Harris: Why does this mediocre universe exist?
Dr. Craig: Rather than nothing? So he hasn’t done anything to address Leibniz’ question. He has just avoided it because the universe doesn’t exhibit features of elegance and beauty and symmetry. That is a very different argument. That is not Leibniz’ argument.
Jim Holt: . . . pointless reality, it's like a big frothing champagne coming out of a bottle endlessly, a vast universe, mostly a wasteland with little pockets of charm and order and peace, this has been confirmed, this inflationary scenario, by the observations made by radio telescopes in Antarctica that looked at the signature of the gravitational waves from just before the Big Bang. I'm sure you all know about this. So anyway, I think there's some evidence that this really is the reality that we're stuck with.
Dr. Craig: All right. Let’s pause it there. There he is endorsing this inflationary multiverse – that our world is just one bubble of true vacuum in this expanding false vacuum. That does nothing to answer Leibniz’ question as to why something exists rather than nothing. Even why does that sort of multiverse exist rather than nothing – one described by those particular laws rather than different ones? I am just so amazed that after posing the question so well he would think that this somehow answers it or circumvents it.
Kevin Harris: A universe with this very chaotic but has very little pockets of order is just a description perhaps of it.
Dr. Craig: And it is based upon these quantum physical laws that he himself said are causally impotent, don’t explain anything, and there could be other consistent sets of laws so why this one? It is just amazing to me – he described the problem so well, and then he adverts to this solution that doesn’t even connect with it.
Jim Holt: The question, “Why does the world exist?” that's the cosmic question, it sort of rhymes with a more intimate question: Why do I exist? Why do you exist? you know, our existence would seem to be amazingly improbable, because there's an enormous number of genetically possible humans, if you can compute it by looking at the number of the genes and the number of alleles and so forth, and a back-of-the-envelope calculation will tell you there are about 10 to the 10,000th possible humans, genetically. That's between a googol and a googolplex. . . . we've won this amazing cosmic lottery. We're here.
So what kind of reality do we want to live in? Do we want to live in a special reality? What if we were living in the most elegant possible reality? Imagine the existential pressure on us to live up to that, to be elegant, not to pull down the tone of it. Or, what if we were living in the fullest possible reality? Well then our existence would be guaranteed, because every possible thing exists in that reality, but our choices would be meaningless. If I really struggle morally and agonize and I decide to do the right thing, what difference does it make, because there are an infinite number of versions of me also doing the right thing and an infinite number doing the wrong thing.
Kevin Harris: [laughter] Now that is interesting.
Dr. Craig: That connects with what I talked about: the counterpart theory. Those aren’t you. Those are merely other people that look just like you that are doing those things. That is why you are not guilty because one of your counterparts is a Nazi war criminal in these other worlds. It is also why you are not to be morally praised because one of those other counterparts gives his life to save a drowning child. What you choose to do in this world is morally significant because you are responsible for what you do or fail to do. What your counterparts do or not is utterly irrelevant to the moral worth of what you do. So I think he’s really confused on this point.
Kevin Harris: He would consider all those counterparts to be you as well. You would do A in this world, but you would do B in this world. But law of identity? Where are we going here, Bill?
Dr. Craig: Right. They are not you because you are in this world. You are not in that world. You can’t have contradictory properties. So these are not you. They are counterparts of you that exist in different spatio-temporal concrete realities.
Kevin Harris: I was hoping to get out of some of the things I’ve done.
Jim Holt: So my choices are meaningless. So we don't want to live in that special reality. And as for the special reality of nothingness, we wouldn't be having this conversation. So I think living in a generic reality that's mediocre, there are nasty bits and nice bits and we could make the nice bits bigger and the nasty bits smaller and that gives us a kind of purpose in life. The universe is absurd, but we can still construct a purpose, and that's a pretty good one . . .
Dr. Craig: Whoa, whoa, whoa! Wait! Did you hear what he just said? The universe is purposeless but we can construct a purpose. This is exactly the sort of despair of existential philosophers who talk about the meaninglessness of life and the purposelessness of the universe and of my own individual life. When he says we can make a purpose, that is just purely subjective. You can invent a purpose for your life but that isn’t really the reason for which you exist. On this view there is no more difference between a person who decides to become a Hitler or a Mother Theresa. It is like the difference between going to McDonalds or Burger King. It is just arbitrary because there is no objective purpose for which you exist. These are subjective illusions of human beings.
I also just want to comment. I don’t know whether I am making too much of this, but you notice he didn’t want to live in the elegant universe because we would be incapable of living up to the demands of that.
Kevin Harris: “Imagine the existential pressure.”
Dr. Craig: Is there some theological significance to that? Living in a world in which there is a perfect being like God and we can’t live up to his demands and so find ourselves sinful and fallen and in need of his forgiveness. Would we rather live, or would Holt rather live, in an atheistic universe where he doesn’t have to live up to those kinds of expectations and demands? I don’t know but it is worth asking.
Kevin Harris: That is. I think he is using this as kind of a literary device maybe of saying I don’t want to live in a world that does this and I don’t want to live in a world that does that. Whether you want to live in it or not, it doesn’t make any difference. It would be the argument from outrage. It would be outrageous to live in this so therefore it must not be true. He is just using it as an illustration. I don’t want to live in that universe. Well, maybe neither does anybody else but that doesn’t mean that universe doesn’t exist.
Dr. Craig: That is exactly right. What is this argument from “where do you want to live” supposed to prove? One woman once came up to Bertrand Russell (who was a non-theist) and she said, “Professor Russell, on your view, the world must be a terrible place.” And he said, “Madam, the world is a terrible place, and it is only by coming to that realization that we can come to terms with life.” So the universe is under no obligation to conform to our desires of where we want to live.
Jim Holt: . . . and the overall mediocrity of reality kind of resonates nicely with the mediocrity we all feel in the core of our being. And I know you feel it. I know you're all special, but you're still kind of secretly mediocre, don't you think? [applause]
Dr. Craig: Wait, wait! Why are these people applauding at that? This is where it is so different being a theist.
Kevin Harris: It is a commentary on our narcissistic society. I know you are all special, but don’t you feel there might be some mediocre part of you?
Dr. Craig: You see, on naturalism, they are all just mediocre or, as Dawkins says, just animated chunks of matter that have no meaning or objective purpose or value in life. But on theism every human being is created in the image of God and is therefore of inestimable value, whether it is a great scientist or a mentally retarded child. This person is created in the image of God and therefore of more value than the rest of the material universe put together. I think that speaks to human significance and meaning in life in a wonderful way. That is the kind of universe I would like to live in if you are going to think you can determine what universe is real by your preferences.
Jim Holt: So anyway, you may say, this puzzle, the mystery of existence, it's just silly mystery-mongering. You're not astonished at the existence of the universe and you're in good company. Bertrand Russell said, “I should say the universe is just there, and that's all.” Just a brute fact. And my professor at Columbia, Sidney Morgenbesser, a great philosophical wag, when I said to him, “Professor Morgenbesser, why is there something rather than nothing?” And he said, “Oh, even if there was nothing, you still wouldn't be satisfied.”
Dr. Craig: Stop! See, this is just a joke! This is not serious. This is a joke. Russell said that remark in the context of a debate on BBC Radio in, I believe, 1938 with Fredrick Copleston when Copleston was pressing this argument against him. Russell had no response other than to just say the universe is just there.
Kevin Harris: It is a brute fact.
Dr. Craig: Yeah. He had nothing by way of response to Copleston’s argument other than just this dogged insistence that the universe is inexplicable. That, I think, is enormously implausible. It seems to me that any sort of contingent reality that exists has an explanation for why it exists rather than not since it would be just as easy for it not to exist. So why is there something rather than nothing? To think that the universe doesn’t require an explanation is terribly unscientific because that is the whole project of modern cosmology – to try and find an explanation for the existence of the universe. I am not at all persuaded that these kind of one-liners and remarks taken out of context are any sort of adequate response to Leibniz’ question.
Kevin Harris: Let’s continue and finish his audio.
Jim Holt: Okay. So you're not astonished. I don't care. But I will tell you something to conclude that I guarantee you will astonish you, because it's astonished all of the brilliant, wonderful people I've met at this TED conference, when I've told them, and it's this: Never in my life have I had a cell phone. Thank you.
Kevin Harris: And he concludes on that. I think Jim kind of goes cynical, satirical, and entertaining here. But it certainly did devolve away from the serious question that Leibniz asked.
Dr. Craig: I think it is great to give an entertaining talk that is engaging and that people enjoy listening to, but it needs to be philosophically responsible and not change the subject and then just begin to make empty sorts of assertions or jokes. I would like to see someone who can popularize philosophy in such a way that it is fun to listen to and stimulating and interesting and where people really learn something through it and come to grips with some of these really deep questions about life and the universe.
Kevin Harris: What do you think he meant by “I have never owned a cell phone.”
Dr. Craig: He doesn’t have a cell phone and that is so crazy because everybody has a cell phone. People are astonished that he doesn’t own one or carry one. I hardly use one myself, but I do have one.
Kevin Harris: If that doesn’t astonish you, nothing will.
Dr. Craig: I hope that people who are interested in this topic will look at what I’ve written on this in the book On Guard in the chapter on why is there anything at all or in Reasonable Faith in the chapter on the existence of God where I look at Leibniz’ argument and explore the various ways of answering it and argue that Leibniz actually did have the best answer to the question; namely, there must be a metaphysically necessary being which carries within itself the sufficient reason for its own existence and is the reason for the existence of everything else.
https://www.ted.com/talks/jim_holt_why_does_the_universe_exist (accessed January 12, 2015).
Total Running Time: 46:51 (Copyright © 2015 William Lane Craig)
Total Running Time: 46:51 (Copyright © 2015 William Lane Craig)