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God Discussion in the New York Times Part 1

October 25, 2015     Time: 20:54
God Discussion in the New York Times Part 1


Two prominent philosophers, Gary Gutting and Michael Ruse, discuss God, science, and philosophy in the New York Times.

Transcript God Discussion in the New York Times Part 1


Kevin Harris: Two prominent philosophers, Dr. Craig, that you've interacted with – they’ve interacted with your work as well – are Michael Ruse and Gary Gutting. Talk about these two philosophers. I know that you’ve debated Michael Ruse and refer to him quite often.

Dr. Craig: Yes, Michael Ruse is a real character. He is a philosopher of biology. He is ardently committed to evolutionary theory – New Darwinian evolution – but is very appreciative of Christian philosophers and very open-minded about it. He is always a pleasure to dialogue with. I had a debate with him years ago in Canada that went very well, and more recently participated in an intelligent design conference with him in Atlanta. So we know each other and get on well.

When we were at the Atlanta conference, we actually went out to dinner afterwards as a group. He and I were seated across from each other. We had a really interesting conversation on a personal level. He asked me, to my surprise, if I had achieved in life what I had hoped to achieve. I didn’t know quite how to answer that question. I said, “I feel like things are going well. I am doing all I can. What about yourself?” And he said, “Well, when I was a young philosopher, I thought I could make a choice to either do really top-quality work and throw myself into it, or just sort of coast along. I thought of that line by Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront: ‘I could've been a contenda!’ I don’t want to come to the end of my life and say with regret, ‘I could’ve been a contenda!’” So Ruse is driven by this vision to really try to be all that he can be as a philosopher, and be a contender.

Kevin Harris: The reason that we are talking about these two philosophers is that Gary Gutting and Michael Ruse have a conversation in the New York Times. Gutting actually interviews Michael Ruse: “Does Evolution Explain Religious Beliefs?”[1]

Dr. Craig: I want to say straight away that that question that is the title is really a very minor part of this article. It is not about whether or not religious beliefs have an evolutionary explanation. It comes near the end. But there is a lot, lot more in this very interesting and wide-ranging interview.

Kevin Harris: Dr. Gutting is at Notre Dame.

Dr. Craig: Yes.

Kevin Harris: Let’s begin this interview then. Dr. Gutting says,

What do you think of the claim that scientific accounts provide all the explanations needed to understand the existence and nature of the world, so that there’s no need to posit God as the ultimate explanation?

Dr. Ruse says,

Let me start at a more general level by saying that I don’t think science as such can explain everything. Therefore, assuming that the existence and nature of the world can be fully understood (I’m not sure it can!), this is going to require something more than science. As far as I am concerned, if you want God to have a crack at the job, go right ahead!

Dr. Craig: Right. So this shows his openness, I think, to theistic explanations, but also that he doesn’t have the narrow blinders of scientism on. He recognizes that there are other sources of knowledge than simply what is delivered to us by the physical sciences.

Kevin Harris: Asked to elaborate he says,

In my view, none of our knowledge, including science, just “tells it like it is.” Knowledge, even the best scientific knowledge, interprets experience through human cultural understanding and experience, and above all (just as it is for poets and preachers) metaphor is the key to the whole enterprise. As I developed my own career path, as a historian and philosopher of evolutionary biology, this insight grew and grew. Everything was metaphorical — struggle for existence, natural selection, division of labor, genetic code, arms races and more.

Dr. Craig: Yes, isn’t that fascinating that he sees metaphor as lying at the very heart of science. This is so contrary to what scientistic types believe – that science gives us the literal truth about the way the world is. What Ruse is saying is that science is permeated by metaphors that aren’t to be interpreted in a literal way.[2] And he gives some interesting examples here from his own field – things like the struggle for existence. That is clearly a metaphor. There aren’t things in the world that are struggling for existence that is going on. Or natural selection – nature isn’t selecting things. That is an agent-related process where you make a choice or selection. Or division of labor. Genetic code. Arms races between competing species, and so forth. It really is interesting how much evolutionary biology is colored by these sort of metaphorical elements.

This is interesting as well to me because in my current work on God and abstract objects, the standard argument for Platonism today (that is to say, the view that things like mathematical objects, numbers, functions, and so forth actually exist) is that they appear in our best physical theories of the world. Since those theories are literally true there must actually be things like numbers and functions and so on and so forth. One of the responses to this argument is called Figuralism championed by Stephen Yablo, a prominent philosopher. Yablo makes precisely this point – that it is impossible to separate the literal from the metaphorical in our scientific theories, and that therefore the appearance of things like mathematical entities in scientific theories doesn’t imply that they literally exist. These could be part of the figurative speech of science. So it is very similar to the point Ruse is making here about metaphor.

Kevin Harris: Ruse continues,

Since the scientific revolution, one metaphor above all — the root metaphor — has dictated the nature and progress of science. This is the metaphor of the world as a machine, the mechanical metaphor. What questions are ruled out by this metaphor? One is about ultimate origins.

Dr. Craig: He says that using this mechanical machine metaphor you are not going to be able to answer the fundamental questions. He mentions here Martin Heidegger’s fundamental question of metaphysics: Why is there something rather than nothing? Ruse recognizes that there are these sort of ultimate questions that can’t be addressed when you are requiring mechanical sorts of explanations of everything.

Kevin Harris: This is so disturbing. So many people who listen to this because, Bill, they really cling to science – to scientism. They really think that science is the only way to knowledge or the most reliable way to knowledge. They imbue science with things that it does not have as a practice and as a methodology. Dr. Ruse himself is saying this right here, and we’ve done podcasts on it. So I really hope that people will get it. It is not in any way a denigration of science; it is just putting science in its proper context where it belongs – what it can and can’t do.

Dr. Craig: Right. It is recognizing its limits, and within those limits it is fantastic. It is a wonderful tool for understanding how the physical world operates. But as Ruse says it won’t be able to answer ultimate questions.

Kevin Harris: Yeah, he says, “I think it is a genuine question [why is there something rather than nothing] but not one answerable by modern science.”

Gutting asks, “So do you think that we need religion to answer the ultimate question of the world’s origin?” Ruse says,

If the person of faith wants to say that God created the world, I don’t think you can deny this on scientific grounds. But you can go after the theist on other grounds. I would raise philosophical objections: for example, about the notion of a necessary being.

Dr. Craig: OK. So that is, I think, very appropriate. I appreciate this. He is saying that you can’t go after the theistic hypothesis on scientific grounds. It is compatible with what science delivers to us about the world. You are going to need to raise philosophical objections. He mentions one here. He brings this up elsewhere in the interview, but he never explains what his misgivings are about the notion of a metaphysically necessary being. In fact, he will point out later that Platonists say that abstract objects like numbers are metaphysically necessary in their existence. But he expresses here a philosophical misgiving about theism, namely, the very concept of metaphysically necessary being. I would simply wonder what his misgivings are since he doesn’t explain them, and note the vast majority of philosophers don’t share such misgivings.[3]

Kevin Harris: He gets more specific, Bill. He says,

I would also fault Christian theology: I don’t think you can mesh the ancient Greek philosophers’ notion of a god outside time and space with the Jewish notion of a god as a person.

Dr. Craig: Right. I’ve dialogued with him about this before because this is my area of expertise, namely, the relationship of God and time. He is assuming here that Christian theology is committed to the idea of a God outside time and space. I think that is simply not true. That is one possibility. But there are many Christian theists who would hold that God is everlasting throughout all time; as the psalmist says “from everlasting to everlasting thou art God.” So it is a philosophical question that is an in-house argument among theists as to how to understand God’s relationship to time. So if Ruse is convinced that God as a person requires that God be temporal, there are a good many Christian philosophers who would be quite accommodating to that. Examples would be Nicholas Wolterstorff or Alan Padgett who would say that God is in time and is in infinite time – beginningless and endless time.

On the other hand, I myself don’t see any incompatibility between the notion of a God who transcends time and space and the idea of God as a personal being. I’ve addressed this in my published work. For example, in the book Time and Eternity there is a whole chapter devoted to arguments against divine timelessness, and one of these would be that a timeless being cannot be personal. In that chapter I look at the typical arguments against the compatibility of timelessness and personhood and I think they are all wanting. They either are predicated upon thinking that there are properties essential to personhood that really aren’t, or else that a being which is timeless can’t possess some of these properties, and again I think you can show that that is false. So although Ruse lays this out as one of his misgivings about Christian theology, I think it is both irrelevant and false. It is irrelevant because it is open to Christian theologians to say that God is in time, but it is false because I don’t think there is any incompatibility between timelessness and personhood.

Kevin Harris: Dr. Gutting then asks him about Dawkins’ notion that God would require at least as much explanation as the world in which God created. If there is complexity then what about the complexity of God?

Dr. Craig: Right, that is what Dawkins calls “the central argument” (those are his words) of the book The God Delusion. And that is that if you say God designed the universe then that raises the question, “Who designed the Designer?” Because God is just as complex an entity as the physical universe, and so would also require an explanation.

Kevin Harris: I know that you’ve interacted on that. We’ve done podcasts on it. But Michael Ruse says,

Like every first-year undergraduate in philosophy, Dawkins thinks he can put to rest the causal argument for God’s existence. If God caused the world, then what caused God? Of course the great philosophers, Anselm and Aquinas particularly, are way ahead of him here. They know that the only way to stop the regression is by making God something that needs no cause. He must be a necessary being. This means that God is not part of the regular causal chain but in some sense orthogonal to it. He is what keeps the whole business going, past, present and future, and is the explanation of why there is something rather than nothing.

Dr. Craig: Right. The first response to Dawkins is to say that the argument is simply misconceived. It is like the undergraduate student who thinks he can easily refute theism – if God is a metaphysically necessary being then there is no cause of God. Aristotle’s concept of God was of a first uncaused cause. This is the classic theistic concept of God – God is an eternal, metaphysically necessary, and uncaused being. Once you understand the concept of God then you can see that the question is just completely out of order.

Kevin Harris: Ruse goes on to say,

Also God is totally simple, and I don’t see why complexity should not arise out of this, just as it does in mathematics and science from very simple premises.

Dr. Craig: This is the point that I’ve made against Dawkins in my published work.[4] God, as a spiritual entity (a mind without a body), is a remarkably simple entity. That is to say, he is not composed of parts. The way Dawkins defines complexity in the book is something that is composed of physical parts. Of course, God isn’t like that. When you think about a mind, a spiritual substance, it is not composed of anything. So Ruse says it is totally simple. That is in contrast to the variegated universe with all of its fundamental constants and quantities – they are inexplicable that they are just there. So positing God as an explanation for the complexity of the universe is definitely an advance in simplicity. The explanation is far simpler. I think what Dawkins has done is he has confused a mind’s ideas with a mind itself. Certainly, a mind can have complex ideas. It might be thinking of the infinitesimal calculus, for example. But the mind itself as an entity or substance is remarkably simple being a spiritual entity not composed of parts. So Dawkins, I think, is just confused. He has confused a mind with a mind’s ideas. Those are obviously not identical.

Kevin Harris: He says,

Traditionally, God’s necessity is not logical necessity but some kind of metaphysical necessity, or aseity. Unlike Hume, I don’t think this is a silly or incoherent idea, any more than I think mathematical Platonism is silly or incoherent.

Dr. Craig: Now this is a very interesting sentence. Remember Ruse said before that he has difficulty with the idea of metaphysical necessary being. But here he says the idea of metaphysical necessity is not a silly idea or an incoherent idea. He gives the analogy of mathematical Platonism. Platonists think that numbers and sets and other mathematical objects exist necessarily. It is not as though numbers just happened to exist in this world but there is some other possible world in which 2+2 doesn’t equal 4 – there isn’t 2 or there isn’t 4. Numbers, if they exist, would be the sort of things that are metaphysically necessary in their being. And he says he doesn’t see that there is anything incoherent or silly about mathematical Platonism, and then quite rightly says, I don’t see anything silly or incoherent about God’s being a metaphysically necessary being. So it makes you wonder exactly what his objection or misgivings are. He doesn’t tell us.

Kevin Harris: No, he just says I don’t think the Christian God flies. But I really like this line here, Bill. He says,

. . . but I want to extend to Christians the courtesy of arguing against what they actually believe, rather than begin and end with the polemical parody of what Dawkins calls “the God delusion.”

Dr. Craig: Yes, very good. That is right. Dawkins is not coming to grips with what Christian theologians actually hold to, but is attacking these caricatures.

Kevin Harris: We are going to continue this podcast next time – part 2. But what is very interesting is that this is prominent in the pages of The New York Times. So if anyone thinks that these are just upper-shelf topics that not a lot of people are interested in – fascinating topics, and The New York Times actually published this interview.

Kevin Harris: I would love it if this sort of debate came into the cognizance of the general public and wasn’t just confined to philosophers.[5]