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Questions on Cosmology (part 2)

April 03, 2011     Time: 00:20:36
Questions on Cosmology (part 2)

Transcript Questions on Cosmology Pt. 2

Kevin Harris: Welcome to the podcast—the Reasonable Faith podcast. It's Kevin Harris in studio with Dr. William Lane Craig. We have been sorting through these questions, Bill. Here's a question from someone who's studying at Flinders University of South Australia, and he's developing an argument for God. Here's what he says:

I've been considering writing an argument for God, and I'm a great admirer of your work, and I'm seeking advice from you as to whether this is a good argument—if you'll take a look at it. And here it is, and it's pretty easy to lay out.

1. The number 1 exists. [That's pretty funny—number one, the number one exists.]

2. The number 1 is not contingent on the existence of the universe in order to exist.

3. Therefore, the number 1 exists apart from space and time.

4. The number 1 can only be perceived by a mind.

5. The universe requires the number 1 to exist.

Therefore, through (3), (4), and (5), the best explanation for the existence of the number 1 is a mind that is separate from space and time.

As a Christian, I'm worried about any theological complications that might emerge from me refining and making such an argument. I'd also like to seek advice on the best way for me to develop this argument in my doctoral studies.

Dr. Craig: Well, what he has here is a sort of conceptualist argument for God's existence. Such an argument has been floated by Alvin Plantinga and defended in detail by Quentin Smith. If he'd be interested in my book Philosophy of Religion: A Reader and Guide, which is published by Edinburgh University Press in the U.K. and Rutgers University Press in the United States, Quentin developed this conceptualist argument for God's existence. And I think it's a very, very interesting argument that would form the grist for a good paper or a thesis, as he wants to write. Now, I think his own statement of the argument needs to be tightened up a little bit. For example, his first premise is that the number 1 exists, and then later on he says that the universe requires the number 1 to exist. Now, I don't think that those are two independent premises, rather the second one would seem to be the evidence he would give for premise (1). Why do we think the number 1 exists? Well, because the universe requires the number 1 to exist. And here he would need to flesh this out. In what way does the existence of the universe require the number 1 to exist? Perhaps he would say something like this: 1 is the number of universes that there are – or something of that sort – and therefore the number 1 exists. And then he says the number 1 is not contingent on the existence of the universe in order to exist, and that would seem to be right, that although the universe would provide some sort of evidence for the existence of the number 1, the number 1 would not be something that would be contingent on the universe. And so the number 1 would exist independently of space and time. But then he says the number 1 can only be perceived by a mind. Now I think what he really means there is that the number 1 can only exist in a mind, as a concept of a mind or as an idea of a mind. In other words, this is the conceptualist move. He wants to say that mathematical objects like the number 1 are not independently existing objects but are somehow the contents of consciousness. Not simply that they're perceived by mind but they are in some way ontologically constituted by mental activity, or something, and therefore the best explanation for the existence of the number 1 would be some sort of a mind, which is separate from time and space, and independent of the contingent universe, which would go a long way toward theism. Quentin goes on to argue that because this mind must ground all mathematical truths, which are infinite in number and necessary in their existence, it follows that this is a metaphysically necessary omniscient mind, which really goes a long way toward theism.

So I would say that this has definite promise for an argument for the existence of God. My reservation is that I'm not sure the number 1 does exist! I am increasingly inclined toward a nominalistic view of abstract objects, like numbers, to say that these things really don't exist at all. [1] Now, certainly, we can have an idea of the number 1 but that doesn't mean that your idea is the number 1. I can have an idea of a unicorn but a unicorn is not an idea. A unicorn, if it exists, is something like a horse, a warm-blooded mammal with a horn in its head—it's not an idea. And similarly with a number: I'm not sure that a number just is an idea, although I can have an idea of a number. But this is a defensible and interesting position, which I think I would encourage our friend to keep working on.

Kevin Harris: Could he use any number—could he use the number 7?

Dr. Craig: Oh, sure, sure. Any number here is arbitrary.

Kevin Harris: If I'm hearing you right it sounds like number (5) of his premises is the most controversial one: the universe requires the number 1 to exist.

Dr. Craig: Yes, that would be a key move, and he doesn't tell us why he thinks that's true. That would be a really key move, is why should we think that these things exist at all?

Kevin Harris: Sure. It seems in one sense if there weren't a universe that there would be nothing to count. There would be nothing to which the number 1 applied.

Dr. Craig: Well, except he's arguing that if numbers exist they would exist necessarily, they would not be contingent on the universe, and I think that's right. It's very hard to see how numbers could be things that would be contingent in their being. It would seem that if they exist they exist necessarily. So you kind of have an ontological argument for the reality of numbers, incipient here, that numbers are either impossible or they're necessary in their existence. I'm rather inclined to accept that.

Kevin Harris: Would numbers, then, if they don't exist in that way, kind of where you're leaning, Bill, would they exist only epistemically but not ontologically?

Dr. Craig: I think that would be one way to put it, yes. I think I understand what you're saying. We can conceive of this just as we can conceive of other non-existent things.

Kevin Harris: And this overlaps into questions we get about the so-called transcendental argument from time to time, and that is the laws of logic, similar to numbers, could not exist if there were not a mind.

Dr. Craig: Right, that would be a similar sort of move, trying to ground logic in an omniscient mind, a necessary mind.

Kevin Harris: Alright. Got a question here on Alvin Plantinga's work. And he says,

Dr. Craig, you argue that the cause is likely a personal agent [we talked about the kalam]. You claim that since abstract objects, like numbers, do not have causal properties – they can't cause anything – that therefore the cause is likely an intelligent mind. How would you respond to someone who uses the escape route of trying to show that unembodied minds are impossible, and therefore the cause cannot be an immaterial intelligence?

Dr. Craig: This is an argument for the personhood of the cause of the universe, that you arrive at through the cosmological argument. And I hit upon this through my work on the existence of abstract objects like numbers such as was discussed in the last question. If mathematical objects and other abstract objects exist, what characterizes them, what is definitive for them, is that they're causally impotent. Concrete objects have effects. They have causal powers, whereas abstract objects like mathematical entities are devoid of causal powers. So it occurred to me if there must exist, as the cosmological argument implies, an uncaused, immaterial, timeless, spaceless entity which is the explanation of the origin of the universe or the existence of the universe, what could it be? Well, as I think down through the history of metaphysics the only candidates that I come up with that could fit that description would be either an abstract object or an unembodied mind or consciousness. Both of these could be characterized by the properties of being uncaused, immaterial, timeless, and spaceless. But an abstract object could not be the cause of the universe because it's essential to abstract objects that they're causally impotent, and therefore that would imply that the cause of the universe must be an unembodied mind or consciousness. Now the questioner says, well, what if someone says that such a thing is impossible? Well, then I invite them to give their argument. I have just given an argument for the reality of an unembodied mind. I haven't just asserted it. I've given an argument for it. So if they want to maintain this is impossible, they need to give some sort of an argument that there can be no such thing as an unembodied mind. And I don't know of any good argument for that. [2] Most of the arguments for physicalism or reductive materialism or some other view of mind would typically try to show correlations between the human brain and mental states, and therefore maintain that human consciousness is in some way essentially dependent upon physical brain states, and so forth. But none of that does anything to show that the notion of an unembodied consciousness is metaphysically impossible. Indeed, we've just seen a good argument for it. So I'd just wait for the objector to give his argument—he is the one who bears the burden of proof here if he's going to maintain that this explanation we're offering is impossible. We need to hear from him his proof or argument that such a thing is impossible.

Kevin Harris: Yeah. I mean, even the questioner says if they want to take an escape route by trying to show that unembodied minds are impossible—okay, well, then show it.

Dr. Craig: Right.

Kevin Harris: Show that you can do it.

Dr. Craig: Yeah, I think far too often Christians assume the burden of proof unnecessarily when it's up to the skeptic to provide warrant for his defeaters that he gives. When you give an argument and a defeater is brought against it that defeater has to have more warrant than your own premise if it's to be a successful defeater. It's not enough just to suggest possible defeaters. It's not enough to just lay out possibilities. You have to support your defeater by giving some kind of evidence and arguments, some sort of warrant. If there's less warrant for the defeater than for the premise then the defeater is unsuccessful—it's a non-starter.

Kevin Harris: Have you seen anybody try to come up with a third option, as far as our alternatives that fit the bill – that would be abstract objects or an unembodied mind – has anybody offered a possible third? Because that's the only two that I can think of.

Dr. Craig: Not that I've seen named. Recently I responded to a question of the week where the person was saying, well maybe there could be an impersonal unembodied cause. But the problem was he wasn't able to name it – it was just words – and there's no candidate there. So I don't know.

Kevin Harris: Sounds like an abstract object.

Dr. Craig: Yeah, I mean, an abstract object, that would be a candidate, a mind would be an object. But then if there is another alternative I'm happy to add it to the list and consider it. But I can't add it unless you name it. To just say, “Well, maybe there's some unknown something, some unknown x” isn't to offer an alternative hypothesis.

Kevin Harris: Another question that came to

Dr. Craig, as a theist I've been defending the existence of God in cyberspace, but there are a few questions to which I want some simple and brief answers to polish my arguments. First, [we'll take these one at a time] if God created out of nothing would this not violate the principle that out of nothing can only come nothing?

Dr. Craig: It's very important to distinguish in this connection between different types of causes. Aristotle distinguished between efficient causes and material causes. The efficient cause is that which produces its effect in being. A material cause is the stuff out of which a thing is made. So, for example, take Michelangelo's statue The David. The efficient cause of The David is Michelangelo himself, the sculptor. The material cause of The David is the block of marble which Michelangelo sculpted into the shape of The David. So when we say that God created all the matter and energy in the universe, and he created the universe out of nothing, we are not saying that out of nothing nothing came. Rather we're saying that the universe has an efficient cause but it has no material cause. So this is not a violation of the principle out of nothing nothing comes, which is to say being cannot come from non-being. On the contrary, we affirm that. There has to be some sort of cause for anything that begins to exist. And in this case we have an efficient cause of the origin of the universe, but not a material cause of the origin of the universe.

Kevin Harris: Yeah. It's easier to imagine that if there was stuff floating around that God could have used to craft something, that makes more sense to we as human beings. But that's not an option.

Dr. Craig: Not if the arguments against an infinite temporal regress are sound; no, you have to get back to an absolute origin of all matter and energy, and even space and time themselves, at least in contemporary cosmology. So we have good reason to believe that the universe doesn't have a material cause, that the matter and energy of the universe were themselves created. [3] On the atheist position it seems to me you're landed in a double absurdity because you have to say the universe had neither a material nor an efficient cause. And that, I think, is surely absurd. That contradicts the principle that out of nothing nothing comes.

Kevin Harris: Question number two: “How could the argument that God is the cause of all things avoid the fallacy of begging the question?”

Dr. Craig: Well, I don't understand why he thinks that the argument would be circular. To beg the question means that your only reason for affirming a premise is that you already believe the conclusion. But in the case of the kalam argument the two premises are: “whatever begins to exist has a cause,” and the second premise is “the universe began to exist.” And in the reasons that I give for affirming those premises neither of them assumes the conclusion, “that God exists,” so they're not question-begging. With respect to the causal premise, for example, which is the one he's asking about, I think, the reasons I give are first of all, that it's a metaphysical first principle that something cannot come into being from nothing – out of nothing nothing comes. The second one is that if things can come into being uncaused out of nothing then it becomes inexplicable why just anything and everything doesn’t come into being out of nothing. And then the third evidence is inductive evidence of science and everyday experience that things don't just pop into being uncaused out of nothing. We see things that come into being do have causes. So none of those is a circular or question-begging argument in favor of the causal premise, which I think we have ample reason to accept—certainly more so than its contradictory.

Kevin Harris: Third and final question that he asks: “Should we assume that everything exists unless proven otherwise? Who bears the burden of proof? Does it lay with the atheist or the theist?”

Dr. Craig: Well, certainly . . . well, I was going to say certainly we should not assume that everything exists. But actually, this is a very subtle point, Kevin. The great Harvard philosopher W. V. O. Quine, when asked “What exists?” his answer was, “Everything.” Everything exists because things that don't exist aren't things. So it's not as though there are things that don't exist in Quine's view. So Quine would actually say, yeah, everything exists and that's it.

Kevin Harris: It's almost a tautology—isn't it?

Dr. Craig: Now, the problem is that's very misleading. If you say, “Everything exists” the layperson will think, “Oh, well, then centaurs exist, unicorns exist.”

Kevin Harris: Mermaids!

Dr. Craig: “Mermaids exist, married bachelors exist.” No, what the Quinian would say is that those aren't really things. And so he's not saying that all possibilities are actualized. And I think that's what this fellow is asking in the question, and in that sense, no, we shouldn't assume that everything exists. There are obviously true propositions that are negative existentials – like mermaids do not exist, centaurs do not exist – those are true statements, and they don't imply that there are mermaids or centaurs. So, no, we shouldn't assume in that sense that everything exists. And so if someone asserts that God exists and means to offer this in a context of an argument, he needs to give some warrant for that. On the other hand if an atheist asserts that God does not exist, and he's doing this in the context of an argument or a debate, he needs to offer some warrant for that negative existential proposition. Both of these make assertions to know something, and if you're doing this in an argumentative context then you need to offer some sort of warrant for thinking that's true. Otherwise you're just believing by faith.

Kevin Harris: And it seems that he's asking in a sense, as well, okay, should I assume that leprechauns exist until I'm proven wrong? That is thrown at you in cyber-debates all the time. The second thing that is thrown at you is anyone who claims the existence of something bears the burden of proof.

Dr. Craig: And that's very different from that first statement. I wouldn't agree that you think that leprechauns exists until proven otherwise. But nevertheless someone who makes a negative existential assertion is making a claim, and if he wants me to believe it he needs to give some sort of warrant for it. There isn't a differential burden of proof here between those who make positive existential assertions and those who make negative existential assertions. The middle ground, which makes no assertion, is simply to say, I don't know whether x exists or x does not exist. That's the agnostic position—and that's the truly middle ground because it asserts nothing. [4]

Kevin Harris: So would it be if there were such a thing it would kind of be the default position?

Dr. Craig: Right, that would be the neutral, default position if you're in an argumentative context where you're trying to commend your beliefs to someone else and persuade them that they should join you in believing this.

Kevin Harris: Okay. We'll look at some more questions next time on the podcast. Thanks for joining us on Reasonable Faith with Dr. William Lane Craig [5]