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The Death of Victor Stenger

September 28, 2014     Time: 18:46
The Death of Victor Stenger


Dr. Craig discusses two debates he had with the late Dr, Victor Stenger which included the concept of 'nothing', the Ontological Argument, multiple universes, and evidence for God.

Transcript The Death of Victor Stenger


Kevin Harris: Dr. Craig, you've had a couple of debates with a man that we, sad to say, has passed away: Dr. Victor Stenger. He was very active in the Internet Infidel community and in the atheist community. You've had a couple of exchanges with him. We will talk a little bit about some of his views, what they were. You met him after the debates, as well, and had a couple of anecdotal interactions with Dr. Stenger.

Dr. Craig: Yeah, we got on well together on a personal level. The first debate I had with Vic Stenger was at the University of Hawaii, Manoa Campus. He was a professor of physics for most of his career at the University of Hawaii. We were invited by a Christian group there to have a debate on campus on the existence of God. It was fun because part of the arrangements for the debate was the hosting group wanted to buy us each a Hawaiian shirt, an Aloha shirt, to do the debate in. So they gave us each some money and we went out shopping. I bought a beautiful Aloha shirt that I still wear today sometimes when I teach Defenders class. I wore that for this debate. It was really in the Hawaiian atmosphere. That debate went very well. I felt really great about the outcome.

Stenger then moved to the University of Boulder during his retirement years. This was when he really became active in the atheist community, and began to publish books dealing with religion and science. We were invited by the Socratic Club at the University of Oregon to have a debate there on the existence of God. So I flew out to Oregon and we had this debate there. I thought, “Well, I shouldn't just run the same arguments that I did the first time. I'll use some different arguments this time.” So I think that was the very first time I ever presented and defended the ontological argument in the context of a debate as well as certain other arguments. Stenger was caught rather flat-footed because he thought I was going to give the usual five arguments that I always give. After that debate was over, after talking with students, I went back to the hotel where I was staying, and there was Vic Stenger sitting alone in the bar having a drink. I walked up to him to say hello, and he looked up at me and he said, “You used different arguments this time!” I said, “Yeah, I thought I'd like to mix it up a little bit.” That was a sort of funny encounter. But those two debates are available on YouTube. If you Google “William Lane Craig and Victor Stenger” both the debate in Hawaii and the one in Oregon will come up. I think they are worth watching.[1]

Kevin Harris: They are. There are some real teaching moments in there, especially when it comes to the ontological argument. If you want to see how the ontological argument plays out and what a typical defense against it is, or an opposition to it, is there such a thing as the greatest conceivable pizza or island or something like that . . .

Dr. Craig: Exactly! Stenger said the greatest conceivable pizza must necessarily exist, and so if the ontological argument is sound so is this argument for the greatest conceivable pizza. As I pointed out to him, the idea of a greatest conceivable pizza is simply logically incoherent because a pizza is something that you can eat. It is a foodstuff made of crust and tomato sauce and so forth, and therefore it cannot be metaphysically necessary. So the whole idea is just logically incoherent. Yet this was the sort of, as you say, typical parody that was presented against the argument. I think it only went to show the credibility of the argument because the idea of God isn't logically incoherent like the idea of a maximally great pizza.

Kevin Harris: Dr. Stenger also defended the idea that the universe could, or did, come from nothing.[2] In some of his writings he quotes from Krauss' book. He says,

The “nothing” that Krauss mainly talks about throughout the book is, in fact, precisely definable. It should perhaps be better termed as a “void,” which is what you get when you apply quantum theory to space-time itself. It’s about as nothing as nothing can be. This void can be described mathematically. It has an explicit wave function. This void is the quantum gravity equivalent of the quantum vacuum in quantum field theory.

All of that, again, as you pointed out, is to say that is not nothing.

Dr. Craig: Exactly. It has properties, it has a wave function. This is a physical system that then undergoes evolution and change according to the laws of quantum mechanics. Krauss knows this. Stenger knows this. Therefore, it is a deliberate misrepresentation of science to say that this is a description of literal nothing. These fellows don't seem to understand that the word “nothing” is not a substantive term that refers to something. Nothing is what philosophers would call a quantifier. It is like “all things,” “no things,” “some things.” It is a quantifier term. So what the word “nothing” means is “not anything.” If I say, “I had nothing for lunch,” I don't mean, “I had something for lunch and it was nothing.” I mean, “I did not have anything for lunch.” So when you understand the use of the word “nothing” as a quantifier rather than as a substantive term you can just see how utterly misconceived are these attempts to call the quantum vacuum or these other physical systems nothing.

Kevin Harris: I had nothing for lunch and it tasted just like chicken. You just can't apply these properties to nothing.

Dr. Craig: That is right. The further point that needs to be made, and I made this in the debate, is that these physical systems cannot be past-eternal according to contemporary cosmology. These things are finite and had a beginning and therefore the universe began to exist.

Kevin Harris: Dr. Stenger felt that the multiverse objection was valid against the fine-tuning argument.

Dr. Craig: Right. Let's understand the multiverse objection. It depends upon two assumptions. First, that there is this array or ensemble of other universes out there undetectable by us, invisible, causally unconnected with us now. Moreover, these are preferably infinite in number and that they are randomly ordered according to their fundamental constants and quantities. That is an enormous metaphysical assumption for which we have no evidence at all. George Ellis has been emphatic about this. He is a quantum cosmologist at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. Ellis has been very emphatic that there is just no evidence at all for this sort of World Ensemble or multiverse. That is the first assumption – that there is such a thing to begin with.

But then, secondly, is this assumption that the only worlds that have observers in them are fine-tuned for the existence of interactive, embodied life. This assumption is necessary in order to explain why we shouldn't be surprised at observing a finely tuned universe around us. The idea is that observers can only exist in worlds that are finely tuned. So we shouldn't be surprised when we look around and see the universe fine-tuned for our existence. If it weren't fine-tuned we wouldn't be here to be surprised about it. So this observer self-selection effect is a crucial assumption of the multiverse explanation of fine-tuning. But as Robin Collins, who is, I think, the philosopher who has most occupied himself with these questions, points out, this assumption of the observer self-selection effect is false. You don't have to have a universe fine-tuned for the existence of embodied, interactive observers like us. You could have a world in which an observer simply fluctuates into existence out of the quantum vacuum and observes its otherwise empty world, has delusory observations of the world around it, illusions. This is called a Boltzmann Brain after the German physicist Ludwig Boltzmann.[3] These Boltzmann Brains could just fluctuate into existence. They would be the only thing that exists with an illusory universe surrounding them. These types of universes are vastly, vastly more probable than a finely tuned universe like ours. So if you go with the multiverse hypothesis, you really ought to believe that you are a Boltzmann Brain – that you are the only thing that exists and the world around you, your friends, your family, even your own body are just all illusions of your mind. That is all that exists. No sane person believes that he is a Boltzmann Brain. In that case, that means that this multiverse explanation of the fine-tuning fails.

So I think Stenger was all too quick to advert to the metaphysical hypothesis as though it were unproblematic. He never really addressed these very serious problems with the assumptions that underlie the multiverse explanation.

Kevin Harris: There is more on Boltzmann Brains in your debate with Sean Carroll.

Dr. Craig: That's right.

Kevin Harris: So people can look at the transcripts for the videos there.[4]

Dr. Craig: Yes. In the debate with Carroll on “Does the evidence of contemporary cosmology point to God's existence?” the issue of Boltzmann Brains really takes pride of place in the discussion of fine-tuning because Carroll is acutely aware in his published work of the problem of why we have these low entropy conditions at the beginning of the universe. In the book he is just driven back and back until he adopts this model that he presents in order to try to explain why there is this observed low entropy condition around us. In the debate he won't even defend that model. He really backs away from it and just appeals to other unnamed theories that would make Boltzmann Brains avoidable without really telling us how.

Kevin Harris: Dr. Stenger also often used the lack of evidence argument against God in its various forms. He did with you, as well, I believe.

Dr. Craig: Yes, he used that in the debate in Oregon. His argument there is that the absence of evidence for some entity can count as evidence of absence (that is, evidence that it doesn't exist) if we would expect to have more evidence of that thing if it did exist.

Let me give you an example. The absence of any evidence for a planet between Venus and the Earth is pretty good evidence that there is no such planet. Why? Because in this case if there were a planet between Venus and the Earth we would expect to see it and have evidence of it. So what Stenger maintains is that if God did exist then we would expect to have more evidence of his existence than what we have. I had a two-pronged response that I think is thoroughly adequate to this objection.

The first one is: it is not clear that if God exists he would have to provide that sort of evidence. Here I talk about Reformed epistemology. It could well be the case that God would provide a kind of inner testimony to people apart from the evidence that would lead them to himself if their hearts are open rather than closed and hostile to him. So those who approach God with a spirit of humility and openness will come to a knowledge of God through this interior way. That is a possibility.

But secondly, what Stenger and those who press this objection assume is that there aren't any good arguments for God's existence. That is why they say that if God existed we ought to have more evidence of his reality than we do, because they think there are no good arguments. I think there are good arguments for God's existence. So to say that if God existed he would provide more evidence of his existence is to say that if God existed he would provide more evidence than the origin of the universe out of nothing at some time in the finite past, than the incomprehensible fine-tuning of the universe for intelligent life, more evidence than the existence of a realm of objective moral values and duties in the world, more evidence than raising Jesus of Nazareth from the dead in attestation of his radical personal claims.[5] I don't see any reason to think that if God existed he would be obligated to provide more evidence than that. I think that is plenty of evidence to justify belief in his existence.

Kevin Harris: Any other acts pale in comparison. They are like parlor tricks.

Dr. Craig: They really do. The creation of the universe and the resurrection of Jesus.

Kevin Harris: Pick a card, any card! Bill, haven't you said that what people's expectations of evidence are varies from person to person – what they would consider evidence? What may convince one person may not convince another. It is kind of arbitrary. People have their own little tests. One thing that Dr. Stenger pointed out is the prayer test. He thought that since so many of those failed that that was evidence that he would be convinced by.

Dr. Craig: Right. If God existed then these tests about the efficacy of intercessional prayer ought to yield evidence of his existence. I've never been impressed with that attempt to trap God in these sort of laboratory situations. Even when I heard about these initially I was skeptical of them, because I just don't have any reason to think that God would allow himself to be trapped by these sociologists doing these kinds of surveys of the efficacy of prayer. Prayer is not an apologetic for the truth of Christianity or the existence of God. That is not the way prayer operates. Prayer is an expression of the life of faith. It is an expression of the piety and trust in God of a person who has already come to believe that God exists and now is living a life of discipleship in obedience to that. So to try to use prayer as a means of proving God's existence or disproving it, I think, is just utterly inappropriate. I see no reason that God would allow himself to be snared by sociologists in this way.

Kevin Harris: We also hear you say the nature of prayer is just so personal to the person who is doing the praying. There are so many factors involved to test it in such a way without the personal factors that would be involved in the life of that person.

Dr. Craig: That is very true, Kevin. There is absolutely no reason, contrary to the health-and-wealth gospel people, to think that God's will for your life is that you be healthy, and therefore every time you get sick and pray to get better that God is going to bring along some means to heal you. He may have great things to teach you or those about you through sickness and hardship and suffering. So it is just very naive to think that you can run these intercessional prayer tests for the sick and determine whether or not God exists based upon the answers.

Kevin Harris: Bill, as we conclude today, we wanted to acknowledge the passing of this man whom you debated.

Dr. Craig: Yes, I've always found him to be congenial and not mean-spirited. I had good relations with him on a personal level. So when I heard this I was saddened to hear about his passing.[6]