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Questions on Certainty and Debate

February 05, 2018
Questions on Certainty and Debate


Dr. Craig considers questions on the nature of certainty as well as questions about issues that have come up in his debates


KEVIN HARRIS: So, are you certain? Certainly! Welcome to the podcast. This is Reasonable Faith with Dr. William Lane Craig. I'm Kevin Harris. We are going to get right to some questions that you have been sending in. Some of these deal with certainty. We will get to as many of these questions as we can within the next several podcasts. If you haven't been there in a while be sure you check out the question-and-answer archives at It is just loaded with good stuff. Let's check out some questions with Dr. Craig.

Bill, this letter says:

Hello, Dr. Craig. I was reading Stephen Hawking's popular book A Briefer History of Time. In the concluding chapter he says something which I found very uncomfortable. He says, quoting,

In the 18th Century, philosophers considered the whole of human knowledge, including Science, to be their field . . . . However, in the 19th and 20th Centuries, Science became too technical and mathematical for the philosophers . . . . Philosophers reduced the scope of their inquiry so much that Ludwig Wittgenstein, the most famous philosopher of this century, said: “the sole remaining task of philosophy is the analysis of language.” What a come-down . . .

That is on page 142 of that book. What are your thoughts and comments on Stephen Hawking's thinking? Thanks.

DR. CRAIG: Thank you for your question. Science was once called “natural philosophy.” So in that sense Hawking is right that at one time natural science was actually considered to be a type of philosophy. It was natural philosophy. It has since become an independent realm of inquiry. But Hawking is simply uninformed when he thinks that the task of philosophy today is simply linguistic analysis. I think that what he is reflecting here is the view of philosophy during the 1920s and 30s and 40s when verificationism or logical positivism was predominant and thought of the typical tasks of philosophy like metaphysics and ethics to be meaningless exercises having no factual content. This view of philosophy, however, has now been universally abandoned. There has been a resurgence of metaphysics in our day and along with it the birth of a new field of philosophy which is philosophy of religion which is also a legitimate field of inquiry. Hawking's anti-philosophical polemic has been sharply criticized by secular philosophers Like Massimo Pigliucci and Tim Maudlin who have no ax to grind for philosophy of religion but who recognize the indispensable role that philosophy plays even in science itself through things like analysis of concepts, exploring assumptions, logical formulation of arguments, drawing out conclusions. Philosophy plays an indispensable role even in the study of science itself. And even so anti-philosophical a critic as Lawrence Krauss has recently come to admit the indispensability of philosophy to doing good physics. So Hawking is simply naive here, and this shouldn't be disturbing to you.

KEVIN HARRIS: Speaking of Lawrence Krauss, this next question says:

Hi, Dr. Craig. I have been compelled by many of your books and your arguments. I am now reading your book On Guard. I have been skimming into YouTube and found one of your videos debating Lawrence Krauss. In the middle of the debate Lawrence asked you, Are you certain that God exists? I was dead shocked that you said no in a matter of milliseconds. This disturbs me as a Christian apologist who has been studying philosophy, Christianity, and all sorts of stuff. It is like telling me that all your works were mere purposeless as you are not certain that God exists. Could you please tell me why you did say no?

- Joseph, the aspiring apologist in the Philippines.

DR. CRAIG: There is a number of levels on which one might answer Joseph's question. For one thing, he needs to understand that in a debate situation this question that Krauss posed was a trap.[1] It was designed to embarrass me. What he wanted to show was that religious believers are dogmatic and closed-minded, that they claim to have certainty about their conclusions, and this is in contrast to the open-minded scientist who is willing to follow the evidence where it leads and who doesn't have certainty but simply goes with the balance of the evidence.

KEVIN HARRIS: He can revise his views as he goes along.

DR. CRAIG: Exactly. He can revise them in contrast to the closed-minded, dogmatic religious believer. So the question was a trap. What I did was to elude the trap by simply saying no. No, I am not certain that God exists. What did Krauss have to say to that? You notice he was dumbfounded. He said good! And that was the end of it. His trap had been adroitly avoided. So you need to understand the context in which this is said.

Secondly, I think, Joseph, frankly, you are very naive if you think that apologetic arguments brings certainty. That may have been the view of Thomas Aquinas, but I don't know of any contemporary philosopher who would say that their arguments for the existence of God based upon premises which we know with 100% certainty. That is just naive. Rather, what you do is you put forth arguments that increase the probability that God exists. You want to show that it is more probable than not that God exists. And if you can do that, that will be a major accomplishment because it would follow that the rational person who is open to following the evidence where it leads will come to believe that God exists.

Moreover, I would say that it is the testimony of great saints and Christians down through the ages that they have often not had certainty that God exists. This might be people like Soren Kierkegaard, the existentialist who agonized with doubts. Or the hymn writer who wrote the great hymn Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing struggled with tremendous doubt during his lifetime. The fact is that God meets us with our doubts and lack of certainty. I am so encouraged by the man who came to Jesus and Jesus said, If you have faith and only believe, and the man said, Lord, I believe, help thou my unbelief. And Jesus accepted that. He didn't rebuke it. So this idea of certainty, I think, is a will-of-the-wisp that is irrelevant, frankly, to Christian conviction. It sets up a false standard of what knowledge is. You see this, Joseph, in your own words where you say if you don't have certainty than all your works were mere purposelessness. That is such a silly black and white dichotomy where if my works demonstrate that it is more probable than not that Christian theism is true they have had enormous purpose and accomplished a great deal.

Finally, I would say that if there is certainty available to the Christian it will not come through arguments and evidence which are always based upon premises that are merely more probable than not. It would come through the witness of the Holy Spirit. I think that in the lives of some people, and perhaps even at different times in my life, the witness of the Holy Spirit has been so powerful that it does indeed provide a sort of non-rational certainty that God exists. I can imagine that certain saints in certain situations of the world maybe in times of intense persecution or martyrdom have had the privilege of having this sort of powerful inner testimony of the Holy Spirit with which would give them certainty. But there is no reason at all to think that this is the day-to-day experience of the average Christian. Therefore, I think you are freighting my answer with a lot more theological weight than it really deserves to have.

KEVIN HARRIS: Help me out with this, Bill. Certainty it seems is not a property of propositions. It is a psychological state.

DR. CRAIG: That's right, Kevin.

KEVIN HARRIS: Is there such a thing as epistemological certainty?[2]

DR. CRAIG: Only in the sense that you said it is a psychological property. It is not a property of propositions. It is a property of persons. People can be certain about things that are false. When my son was 17 years-old he had that problem – Trust me dad!, he would say. He was absolutely certain about various things. In fact, they were wrong. They were false. So certainty is a psychological property that is irrelevant to truth. Similarly, you can have knowledge of truths without being certain of them. I know that I was born in Peoria, Illinois. But am I certain of it? No! There could have been a failure in the record-keeping or some massive conspiracy about my birth certificate that it turns out that that is false. But that doesn't undermine my knowledge that I was born in Peoria, Illinois and raised in Keokuk, Iowa. These things don't need to be certain in order to be known. They certainly don't need to be certain in order to be true. I think Joseph, like many, many other Christians, is just confused here about the relationship between certainty and knowledge.

KEVIN HARRIS: The next question:

Hi, Dr. Craig. It seems pretty obvious to me from my experience that most people don't believe in God not because they lack arguments for his existence. I would say a large number of people reject him for emotional reasons such as a rejection of the moral code in the Bible, or their view of the emotional problem of evil. There is also the category of people that actually sit down and think through the arguments for atheism. However, I feel like there is an elephant in the room that never gets address. The strongest argument from their perspective that atheists have found for their worldview is that God is intangible. Simply put, they don't believe in God because they can't see him. This brings me up to my question. Why don't you bring this up in any of your debates as a counter-argument and give the audience several reasons why this is false? Is there a reason why you never bring this up in your debates? It seems to me that addressing this argument at the outset of the debate would make closed-minded people a lot more open-minded to listen to the rest of the arguments for the existence of God.

DR. CRAIG: Let me interrupt at this point. The reason that I don't bring it up is because it is not my responsibility to do the debating for the negative side in the debate! It is his responsibility to bring up the counter-arguments. I bring up the arguments for God's existence, and then I am willing to talk about any arguments that the atheist brings up: the problem of evil, divine foreknowledge and human freedom, can a mind exist without a body? These are all arguments that the opposition can bring up and that I am then prepared to deal with. The real question is: Why don't any of my opponents in these debates bring up this argument? The answer is because it is such a bad argument! Contrary to what our listener here suggests, this is the argument of the village atheist ranting on the street corner – I can't see God! I can't hear God! I can't touch God! Therefore God doesn't exist! If this is really, as he says, the main reason that most atheists don't believe in God then that just exposes the intellectual emptiness of their position because this is pathetic. Don't these people believe in electrons or quarks or other things that we can't see that are intangible? How about time? Is that real even though you can't see it or hear it or touch it? The idea that because God is intangible therefore he doesn't exist is just a very unsophisticated terrible argument. What I do offer is positive arguments for the existence of God that entail his immateriality, transcendence, and incorporeality. So what I do is actually give arguments for the existence of a spaceless, timeless, immaterial, non-corporeal being. And that is even better.

KEVIN HARRIS: I think you answered this question here but he rounds his letter out:

If the primary intellectual reasons people are atheist (they can't detect God with any of their senses) would be dismantled, it would be a lot easier for them to wrestle with some of the other arguments for God. Otherwise, for many of them the arguments you present for the existence of God are pretty solid logically.[3] But they take them to be just clever wordplay. Atheists always like to attack the core of the Christian faith to cause the Christian to doubt. If they can disprove God's existence then they won't have to worry about biblical inerrancy, inspiration, or other minutiae. I think we Christians can learn from them and try to destroy their foundation in believing in atheism by pounding away at the idea that God's invisibility is a deal-breaker.

DR. CRAIG: Right. And I do pound away at that by offering arguments for the existence of God that entail God's invisibility, intangibility, and yet is causal reality. I think that would Bogoslov illustrates unfortunately is the inability of laypeople to connect the dots – to put two and two together. He doesn't understand that I have already offered powerful arguments that would defeat this atheist objection before it is even brought up. But he doesn't connect the dots and see the point. What we are doing here, I hope, is helping him to see clearly how his concern has been addressed as well as to show that this is a very weak argument and that is why my opponents never bring it up.

KEVIN HARRIS: He would run into this on the street level with laypeople; nevertheless it is good to give him the answer that you just gave.

This letter from Sweden starts out,

Hey, William! I know you weren't raised Christian but maybe you can provide some insight into a situation I feel that many lifelong Christians may relate to. How can I know that I am not just prejudiced towards a belief in God due to being raised in a Christian family? I think I can guess that the first term that jumps to your mind is genetic fallacy. But the suspicion remains that maybe I am just being stubborn. I have seen all the arguments for theism, the kalam and so forth, and being a physics major they really cry to me as obviously true. The fact that the only atheistic arguments that I commonly encounter are emotional (I don't like that God would do this) or arrogant (I don't need God) really add to my rational mind telling me that Christianity is true. Or is it correct?

DR. CRAIG: This is interesting. Here is a fellow who is a physics major, he finds the arguments not just convincing but obviously correct, and moreover the atheistic arguments he commonly encounters are just emotional or expressions of arrogance. You think, gosh, what problem has he got then? What reservation is there?


Despite all of that, I can't help but feel that I would be more certain if I had been born a non-Christian because then at least I'd know that it was just because of the arguments and my heart telling me. I have a few ideas of how to resolve this conflict, but even then I wouldn't know if I was just trying to convince myself. A long story short, I'm hoping you can give some rational, logical, biblical testimony arguments for why I can be sure that my beliefs aren't just colored by my past. Your brother, David in Sweden.

DR. CRAIG: I would say that he is undoubtedly influenced by his upbringing. We all are. The same is true of the atheists. They are going to be influenced in their beliefs by their upbringing and their study and so forth. But at the end of the day the question will be: are the arguments for Christian theism good arguments or are the arguments for atheism better arguments? You can assess those arguments and come to a conclusion that I think will be largely not determined by how you were raised. He shouldn't regret being born in a Christian home. He should thank God that he had the upbringing and the nurture of the Lord in a Christian family. I understand what he is saying that he would like to have had a non-Christian background so that he could say he came to faith from unbelief. But he should, in fact, be grateful to God for the nurture and the truth that God has blessed him with right from the beginning. If the arguments are as convincing to him as he says and the objections as weak as he suggests then any sort of residual Christian influence from his upbringing I think will be negligible.[4]


[1]          5:04

[2]          10:00

[3]          15:02

[4]          Total Running Time: 20:31 (Copyright © 2018 William Lane Craig)