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Questions on God's Infinity, Inspiration, and Kant

January 13, 2013     Time: 11:56
Questions on God’s Infinity, Inspiration, and Kant


What is meant by "God's infinity"? Do ancient stories discredit the Bible? Did Kant think the universe was infinite?

Transcript Questions on God's Infinity, Inspiration, and Kant


Kevin Harris:Hey there, welcome to Reasonable Faith with Dr. William Lane Craig. I'm Kevin Harris in studio with Dr. Craig. We're going to try to get to as many questions as we can today that you've been sending in. We have a question about God's infinity that we want to look at again; that is, what do we mean by God's infinity, God being infinite? What about stories in ancient literature that are similar to the Bible? Does this in any way discredit the Scriptures? We have a question about Immanuel Kant that is very interesting. And we've got a question about people who say, well, I know you're wrong in what you're saying because somewhere out there is something that disproves you, we just don't know where it is yet. So, what about the phantom third option? We're going to be looking at that as well.

But first, Dr. Craig, this question from Matthias in Finland. He says,

Dear Dr. Craig, thank you for your work. It is refreshing to see your objectivity and intellectual honesty when you deal with hard issues. I've certainly been challenged and greatly encouraged by the material here on Reasonable Faith. I am a student of mathematics and plan on working toward a PhD. I have read through several of your discussions on abstract objects and particularly the ones dealing with math. I've found your explanation of God's relationship with Godel's incompleteness theorem to be quite an elegant solution. I would like to ask a question, however, on your interpretation of the word “infinite” when it is used as a characteristic or description of God. In the mathematical sense infinities are countable and uncountable, as George Cantor proved. There are many different sizes and degrees of infinity and so on. So when thinking about God as an infinite being should I abandon the mathematical definition? Is it wrong to understand God as an actually infinite or a potentially infinite being? Or, when describing God as infinite, do you just mean that God is beyond our universe and understanding? Could you bring some clarity to my understand on God in this regard?

Dr. Craig: I really appreciate Matthias' quite humble and, I think, very insightful question. And I would say the answer to his question straightforwardly is, yes; you should abandon the mathematical definition of the infinite when you're describing God as infinite. Why do I say that? Well, because the mathematical concept of infinity is a quantitative concept that is inapplicable to God. In Cantor's set theory sets are collections of a number of definite and discrete particulars into a whole, and as such it's a definition which is inapplicable to God. God is not a collection of an actually or potentially infinite number of definite and discrete particulars into a whole. So the mathematical concept of infinity really doesn’t apply to God. When theologians speak of God as infinite they are using a qualitative concept, not a quantitative concept. They mean that God possesses these superlative attributes, like moral perfection, omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, eternity, necessity, aseity, and so on and so forth. And none of those attributes involves an actually infinite number of definite and discrete particulars which are gathered into some sort of a whole. These are qualitative notions, not quantitative notions. And in fact, Kevin, I would say with respect to God there really isn't a separate attribute of God called the infinity of God. I suspect that when we say God is infinite this is just a catch all or an umbrella term meaning he is omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, eternal, necessary, and so on and so forth. But if you were to abstract from the concept of God those specific attributes it's not as though there would be some attribute left over called God's infinity. There really isn't any such attribute, that's just a collective term for all of these superlative attributes of God. So the concept of a mathematical infinite is simply inapplicable to God. When we talk about God as infinite we mean it in a qualitative sense; we mean that he has all of these superlative attributes that I mentioned.[1]

Kevin Harris:Gabriel from Puerto Rico says,

Dr. Craig, as with most of your fans everywhere in the world [you've got some fans out there, Dr. Craig] I cannot thank you enough, Bill, with a ridiculously impressive contributions to the defense and promulgation of the Gospel of salvation. I have to say that I have three of your books, have listened to almost all of your Defenders podcasts, and regularly read your question of the week articles. Recently I have been listening to you Defenders doctrine of revelation and am very enthusiastic about all the new things I've been learning from biblical inspiration and how God reveals himself through Scripture and nature. I'm a college freshmen from Puerto Rico and, sadly, my church simply doesn't provide this high level of intellectual discussion. My question arises from the fact that in my humanities class I've been reading the Epic of Gilgamesh, and the professor has taken pains to establish parallelism between the Bible and this ancient Mesopotamian text. For example, in the epic a great deluge occurs and only Utnapishtim and his family are saved, and he sends a raven and a dove to find land. Then he makes a holocaust for the gods and they find the aroma pleasing. Although my faith has not been truly shaken by this it does make me uncomfortable to know that these parallelisms exist between both texts, and there is an entire sub-branch of Assyriology studies called pan-Babylonism that is focused on these similarities and how the Bible took from it. Also, since these Mesopotamian texts were written at least one millennia before the Genesis account, the writers of Genesis probably read these Mesopotamian texts and copied it from there, says my professor.

Bottom line: he wants to know, does this provide a challenge to the Bible?

Dr. Craig: I don't think that this does provide a challenge to biblical inspiration because it's not inconsistent with the doctrine of inspiration that the authors of the biblical text would use sources and use prior traditions. In the New Testament, for example, we know that the authors of the New Testament would employ sources for what they wrote, and would sometimes quote from or be dependent upon others. So the doctrine of inspiration is not that the authors of Scripture were inspired; that needs to be understood. It is that the text itself is inspired. That is to say the final product is God's Word to us. But we shouldn't think – as I thought when I was a very young Christian – that inspiration was that God sort of bent down and whispered in the ear of the biblical author what he should write so that the product of his authorship was almost like a kind of magical dictation that was given supernaturally independent of research, independent of sources, independent of prior traditions. And when we understand the doctrine of inspiration as I've laid it out in the lectures that he's referring to I think you can see that it's not at all inconsistent with the fact that a biblical author would employ prior traditions and sources in writing his documents. What it simply requires is that the end product is God's Word for us and is therefore true and reliable. And that's not inconsistent with anything that he's said in this. I myself have studied primarily the relations between the first chapter of Genesis and ancient creation myths. And what I can say about that at least is there, what is striking about the Genesis account, is how utterly distinct it is from these other ancient creation stories. It is profoundly anti-mythological – or demythologizing might be the better way to put it – in comparison with these Babylonian myths or Egyptian myths. It secularizes, as it were, the natural world, so that the sun and the moon and the stars are not deities, they're just things that God made. There are no warring dragons, there's no verbal trace in the Genesis account of mythological monsters from Assyrian mythology like Leviathan or Behemoth, things of that sort. Those don't appear in the Genesis account. So the Genesis story is striking for precisely the way in which it demythologizes these ancient creation stories, which I think the author did know. There's no reason to think that he was in a vacuum and that he didn't know these other creation myths, but the story he's going to tell is quite different and written as a kind almost conscious repudiation of those other stories in certain respects[2]

Kevin Harris:I've heard theologians talk, as well, about the Epic of Gilgamesh and parallelisms and things like that; that we can expect in the event of a flood that there would be other accounts of it. But there are arguments for why the Bible got it right. For one thing, the Bible's depiction is rational, it's sober. In the Epic of Gilgamesh you have the gods scared of the water and the flood and so they're hiding in the clouds, and they have heads like dogs, and things like that, that you don't find in the biblical narrative. Genesis is the one that got it right.

Dr. Craig: That would be the implication of inspiration, I think. So, you're quite right, Kevin, if these are actual events that occurred it would hardly be surprising that you would find traces of this in other ancient creation myths. I'm grateful to Gabriel for his question. I wanted to let him know I'll be coming to Puerto Rico in February. I'll be brought there for a conference in San Juan, and this will be our first visit to the island and so I hope maybe to be able to meet him during that time.

Kevin Harris:Alright, excellent. Matt from the United States says,

Dr. Craig, have you or anyone else considered that the modern sciences' claim that the universe began from nothing is related to on some level or in some way parallel with the Kantian antinomies. There seems to be something in the idea that science tells us the universe came of nothing, even though that claim clearly contradicts common sense and traditional metaphysics, which fascinatingly alludes to the Kantian idea of dialectical antinomies; that is the idea that the emphasis on one aspect of reason or possible idea at the expense of another leads to absurd contradictions. I think even if it is not exactly a Kantian antinomy there is still something about this which seems fascinatingly dialectical.

Dr. Craig: Alright, let's unpack Matt's question a little bit here. First, modern science doesn't tell us that the universe came from nothing in the sense that it lacks a cause, as Matt seems to think. What modern science tells us is that the universe began to exist, and therefore it would not have a material cause since all matter and energy come to exist with the universe, but it's no part of modern science to say there exists no transcendent cause of the universe beyond space and time and matter and energy.

Now is this conclusion, that the universe began to exist, related to the famous antinomies of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant? Well, by way of explanation, Immanuel Kant wrote one of the most important works in the history of western philosophy in the late eighteenth century called The Critique of Pure Reason. And in this book Kant argued that reason will lead you to certain mutually contradictory conclusions about reality and then therefore reason is ultimately bankrupt and cannot be trusted to deliver us the truth about reality. He therefore wanted to be able to appeal to God. He said, “I have found it necessary to deny reason in order to make room for faith.” Now, one of these antinomies or contradictions that Kant discussed, his first in fact, was an antinomy concerning time and space. And it is directly related to what Matt is talking about. In Kant's first antinomy he argues that there is a rationally compelling argument for the beginning of the universe, and here he presents one form of the ancient kalam cosmological argument. And Kant regards this argument as mathematically certain. He thinks that the conclusion is rationally undeniable that the universe began to exist. Only problem is, Kant thought on the other side that there was an equally rationally compelling demonstration that the universe did not begin to exist, and therefore reason leads us into an antinomy that we cannot escape.

I have discussed this, in fact, in my original book The Kalam Cosmological Argument in the appendix to that argument, because it is so fascinating how the kalam argument came to play such a key role in Kant's critical philosophy. Moreover, while I think that the argument he gives for the thesis of the antinomy – namely, the universe began to exist – is a sound argument, it seems to me that the argument for the antithesis – that the universe did not begin to exist – is a terrible argument that is obviously fallacious and easily refuted.[3] And therefore the result is that Kant has given us a good argument for thinking that the universe began to exist. Now, what is that argument for the antithesis? Well, it's kind of similar to Richard Swinburne’s argument. He says that to say that the universe began to exist meant that there was kind of an empty time before the universe began at some point in which the universe came into being. But, he says, in this sort of empty void time every moment is alike, and so there would be no reason why the universe would come to exist at one moment rather than another in this void time, and therefore the universe could never begin to exist. Now, what Kant is obviously presupposing here is Newton's concept of absolute time, as some sort of a container that could be completely empty of physical or any kind of events, that would be just utterly devoid of events, and then the universe would begin to exist in this absolute time. However, as Leibniz pointed out, if you think of time as relational then the beginning of the universe doesn't imply this sort of empty time in which the universe sprang into being, rather time itself comes into existence with the first event. So on a Leibnizian relational view the universe doesn't come to exist in time, it comes to exist with time. And to say that the universe began to exist does not mean that there was an empty time prior to the universe during which the universe did not exist. Rather to say that the universe began to exist means that there is a time t at which the universe exists and there was no time earlier than t at which the universe existed. That is a fully coherent definition of beginning to exist that does not presuppose the existence of this prior empty time. So the Kantian antithesis simply falls apart. And this is in fact what modern cosmology thinks about the beginning of time. When the modern cosmologist says that time began to exist he means that there is a moment of time, t = 0, which was not preceded by any earlier moment of time.

Kevin Harris:So in other words what Kant would call an antinomy wasn't . . .?

Dr. Craig: It wasn't an antinomy at all because the antithesis failed to be proven. He gave an argument for the thesis, which I think is good, but his argument for the antithesis is defective in a number of ways, so there's no real antinomy, no paradox, no contradiction.

Kevin Harris:Mike from the U.S. says,

Dear Dr. Craig, I've been watching with interest the YouTube videos of many of your debates with atheists of many stripes and colors, and have been struck by the way that, despite your frequent use of a standard twenty minute presentation of five arguments for theism, so many of them are almost ludicrously unprepared to respond or to raise any of the many interesting objections that might lead to a fruitful debate. Lazy thinking, indeed, and we can't even suppose that they're trusting the Holy Spirit to give them the words to say.

Dr. Craig: Right, I've noticed this too, Mike, and have been shocked by it, honestly. I come to these debates prepared for an interesting discussion, and if you'll read my published works you'll find that I present the objections against my own view that I think my opponents need to raise, and these are interesting and important objections. But it's sad how rarely they get raised in these debate situations, and I think that this sometimes gives unbelievers the false impression that these arguments are very superficial and have no real depth to them simply because they never read my published work on these arguments. All they see is the sort of superficial discussion that takes place in the debates when in fact, as you say, there are quite a number of very interesting issues about the nature of time, the nature of mathematical entities, and so forth that are raised by these arguments.

Kevin Harris:And his point is well taken, as well, Bill, and that is: your material is out there, it is accessible, and why in the world come to a debate without looking these over and having a response for a fruitful debate? Maybe that will happen more. I get his point there. He continues,

but what's also struck me is that you extend your version of the cosmological argument to arrive at a personal first cause,[4] although to do so you need to assume what might be a dubious dichotomy, that all physical entities must either be abstractions, like numbers, or be disembodied minds.

Dr. Craig: Yeah, an unembodied mind, that's right. Either an unembodied mind or an abstract object could be described as an immaterial, spaceless, timeless entity.

Kevin Harris:

Abstractions, you argue, are incapable of being causes so that the first cause must be personal. This argument seems to me to be vulnerable to the objection that it might be metaphysically possible for there to be some third kind of a-physical entity; impersonal, but capable of causation. Is there an answer to this objection?

Is there a third option?

Dr. Craig: What I would say is that it's not an objection. If there is a third option then my opponent should tell us what it is, and offer it, and then we'll consider it. But in listing the options available that I'm aware of in the history of philosophy for entities that could be described truly as uncaused, immaterial, spaceless, and timeless, I can't think of anything else that fits that description apart from an abstract object or an unembodied mind. And if there is one then certainly my opponent is welcome to bring it up and then we'll have to consider it. But until he does so, to simply say, “Well, maybe there's some unknown explanation” is not to offer an explanation. That is not an alternative. If you could imagine someone considering how best to explain the existence of fossils in the geological strata, one hypothesis might be that these are the remains of living organisms that once roamed the earth. And can you imagine someone disputing that by saying, “Well, maybe there's some unknown forcefield or cause that produces these fossils in the rocks, and that they're not really remains of organisms that actually lived.” And if you said, “Well, what is that?” And he says, “Well, I don't know, it's just some unknown force that we haven't discovered yet.” That's not an alternative explanation. So when we're looking for the best explanation of the beginning of the universe we need to consider all of the hypotheses that are offered as candidates. But it's not an alternative to just simply say, “Well, maybe there's an unknown explanation.”[5]