Excursus on Natural Theology (Part 27)May 24, 2016
The Problem of Evil and Suffering
During our excursus of natural theology we’ve looked at various arguments for God’s existence. On the other hand, there needs to be considered arguments against God’s existence as well. It is not enough simply that there be good arguments to believe that God exists. We want to know where the balance of the evidence lies. Are there equally good arguments for atheism on the other side of the scale that counterbalance these arguments or perhaps tip the balance in the other direction? During this section we want to look at arguments against God’s existence.
As a matter of fact, there really aren’t very many arguments against God’s existence, quite frankly. I find that the atheist’s main complaint is just that there isn’t any evidence for God’s existence. He complains that there is no reason to believe that God exists, and so he is content to simply remain in unbelief. But, you see, if you’ve got these arguments that we’ve just surveyed over the last several months memorized and ready to share then that objection won’t apply to you. Frankly, unbelievers, I find, are not very used to running into Christians who are able to offer good arguments for the hope that is in them. When the unbeliever says to you “There is no evidence that God exists” you can stop him dead in the tracks by looking at him with a surprised expression on your face and saying, “Is that what you think? I can think of at least five arguments for God’s existence.” At that point he’s got to say, “Yeah, like what?” Then you are off and running, and you can be able to share your arguments with him. So rather than a conversation stopper, his challenge actually becomes a conversation starter to begin to share reasons to believe in God.
I think you’ll find that unbelievers are generally speaking so ill-equipped to deal with these issues that in response to the arguments for God’s existence that you share they tend to just repeat themselves. “That is no evidence that God exists.” One blogger characterized my debate with the British atheist Lewis Wolpert in Central Hall, London in the following way:
Wolpert: There’s no evidence for God’s existence.
Craig: There is evidence for God’s existence. And here it is . . . one, two, three, four.
Wolpert: There’s no evidence for God’s existence.
Craig: There is evidence for God’s existence. And here it is . . . one, two, three, four.
Wolpert: There’s no evidence for God’s existence.
Sadly, this characterization was not too far off the mark. Sometimes it seems like non-believers are just deaf. They’ve simply been taught to repeat the slogan “There’s no evidence for God’s existence.” Apparently thinking that by saying it over and over again that somehow makes it true. I think that for many people it is just an excuse for intellectual laziness and a lack of engagement. It is just a way of saying, “I am not convinced by your arguments.”
But if the unbeliever is not convinced then I think the appropriate response to him is to say politely, “Well, you apparently don’t find my arguments convincing. So you must think that some of my premises are false. So which premise of the argument do you reject and why?” Force them to engage with the argument. One atheist that I was talking to said at that point, “I reject all of them!” I said, “Surely you don’t reject all of them. Do you reject the premise that the universe exists” (which is one of the premises of the Leibnizian argument), “…or that the fine-tuning of the universe is due to physical necessity, chance, or design?” (which just lists the alternatives). He recognized at that point his remark had been careless, and then we began to have a good conversation. Try to get the unbeliever to engage with your specific premises.
I think all of this underscores the importance of having these arguments memorized. Doing so will help you to stay on track in a conversation with an unbeliever.
In response to your question, “Which premise do you reject and why?” the unbeliever is apt to say something like, “I think that religion is just all in your head” or “Religion has done more harm than good to society than anything else.” Don’t allow him to get you distracted to get you off track. Say, “I understand that is how you feel. But you said there is no evidence for God’s existence. Now I’ve shared an argument. So what I want to know is which premise do you reject and why?” Stay focused on the arguments and the premises and don’t be distracted. Try to get him to engage. Eventually you may get to the point where you can say to him, “I don’t think that you really are rejecting God because of lack of evidence. I sense a deeper emotional rejection of God that is going on. What is the real reason that you reject God?” At that point you’ve moved beyond mere apologetics into real counseling and personal engagement with the unbeliever.
My point is that having a few arguments memorized is a tremendous tool in dealing with unbelievers, and it will completely pull the rug out from under the unbeliever’s main reason for his unbelief, namely the claim that there is no evidence for God’s existence. In fact I have found in personal witnessing experiences that just having a list of the arguments to share with the unbeliever may often be enough. If he says there is no evidence for God’s existence, you can say, “I can think of five reasons to think God exists. God is the best explanation why anything at all exists rather than nothing. God is the best explanation of the beginning of the universe. God is the best explanation of the fine-tuning of the universe for intelligent life. God is the best explanation for the existence of objective moral values and duties in the world. And the very possibility of God’s existence implies that God exists.” Very often just sharing that list with the unbeliever will be so overwhelming that it will be enough to answer his objection that there is no evidence for God’s existence. Of course, if he wants to hear more then you can go into the arguments individually. But the point is that if you are prepared you will be able to easily meet the main objection that unbelievers offer to the existence of God, namely this slogan “There is no evidence for God’s existence.”
Student: In my experiences of dealing with argumentation with atheists, do you oftentimes, when they bring up no evidence, feel like they are equivocating with the term “proof?” I’ve always given out a lot of these evidences that you speak of with physical things like fine-tuning in the universe, and then it is like they always dismiss it and the next words out of their mouth they say is “it doesn’t prove God.”
Dr. Craig: That is a very good point. The way I put the objection is there is no evidence for God’s existence. I didn’t use the word “proof.” I do think you are quite right that when people use the word “proof” they are thinking of 100% certainty. As you indicated, there is no reason that we should set the bar that high for success in natural theology. You are saying there is good evidence for God. That on balance it is more probable than not that God exists, and there is a powerful cumulative case. Whether that amounts to a proof is not really germane. I think that here that sort of intellectual modesty is very attractive. You are not trying to prove too much. I think what you try to do is set the bar low and then exceed it as high as you can rather than set the bar high and then struggle to get over it. But you are quite right in saying that you may need to explain to the unbeliever that you are not offering proofs that compel assent.
Student: Just in response to that, if a person says “You haven’t proven that God does exist” wouldn’t you turn that around and say “But you haven’t proven that God doesn’t exist.” If this is an atheist, you have 100% certainty that God doesn’t exist? So show me what this absolute proof is, and then I will believe it. If that is your criteria.
Dr. Craig: We will talk some more about that. Is there a differential burden of proof here between the theist and the non-theist? We will see that the atheist will very often claim that he doesn’t have a burden of proof to bear. He need prove nothing; the burden of proof lies all on the shoulders of the theist. I think you are quite right in saying that that is a mistake. There is no differential burden of proof. Both are making truth claims that would need to be justified if we are to believe in them.
Student: If the atheist says that by atheism they mean a form of agnosticism . . .
Dr. Craig: I will say something about that in just a few minutes, about the attempt on the contemporary scene to redefine atheism so as to shirk any burden of proof. It becomes equivalent to agnosticism. So hang on to that point.
I’d like to turn first to epistemological objections to the existence of God. I will just go through these fairly quickly because I don’t think that these are very substantive objections on the contemporary scene.
The first epistemological objection is verificationism. Verificationism was a philosophy that was very dominant in the United States and Britain during the 1930s and 40s. Basically what the verificationist said is that any statement in order to be meaningful must be capable of being empirically verified. If a statement cannot be verified through the five senses in some way then it is a meaningless statement.
Notice that this is a criterion of meaning. It is not a truth test. The verificationists weren’t saying in order to be a good scientific theory or in order to be a good explanation you need to have some evidence that would verify your explanation or your theory. I think few scientists would disagree that a good theory would be one that enjoys empirical verification. But the verificationists were much more radical than that. They are offering a criterion of meaning. They are saying that if a statement cannot be empirically verified then it is literally meaningless.
In saying that these statements are meaningless, they didn’t mean that the statement is just like gargling, just gibberish. Rather what they meant was that statements which are not verifiable don’t make any factual assertion. They don’t make any factual claim. They may be meaningful in a grammatical sense. You can understand the claim. It is not just gibberish. But these claims don’t make any factual assertion. To give an analogy, questions and commands are meaningful in the sense that we understand them grammatically. If someone asks you, “Is Publix open today?” you understand the meaning of that question. Or if someone says to you, “Shut the door” you understand the meaning of that command. But those questions and commands don’t make any factual assertions. Questions are not true or false. Commands are not true or false because they are not factual assertions. So they are meaningful in a grammatical sense, but questions and commands are not the sort of things that are true or false. They are not factual assertions. In the same way the verificationist said that statements about God don’t make any factual assertion, and therefore it is neither true nor false. Don’t misunderstand me. They are not claiming that statements about God are disguised questions or disguised commands. I am just using questions and commands as illustrations of statements that are grammatically meaningful but make no factual assertion. In the same way they would say that statements about God, though grammatically meaningful, express no fact. They make no factual claim, and therefore they are neither true nor false.
Even atheism, on this view, is meaningless because atheism would say “God does not exist” and that is a meaningless statement. It makes no factual claim just as the statement “God does exist” makes no factual claim. On verificationism, statements about God don’t even have the dignity of being false! They are neither true nor false. They just don’t make any sort of factual claim.
Verificationism succumbed to criticism during the second half of the 20th century. In fact, it has been said (I think rightly so) that the most important philosophical development of the 20th century was the collapse of verificationism which had so dominated the first half of the 20th century. There were basically two criticisms that led to the demise of verificationism.
First, the principle was too restrictive to be plausible. If the verification principle were true that only empirically verifiable statements are meaningful, this would force you to trash not only theological statements but vast, vast ranges of human discourse so that much of what we say and act on would turn out to be meaningless. Metaphysical truths about the existence of the external world, aesthetic truths about beauty and ugliness, mathematical and logical truths cannot be verified by empirical matters. As it turned out, even scientific truths are often not verifiable so that the verification principle would undermine science itself which was the sacred cow of the verificationist.
If you want an example of this, consider the principle in the Special Theory of Relativity that light has a constant one-way velocity. It is a postulate of Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity that the one-way velocity of light is constant. But that is non-verifiable. All we can measure is the round-trip velocity of light. As light goes out, is reflected back, and then returns to the source. We can measure that round-trip velocity of light. It is always constant. But Einstein’s theory presupposes that the one-way velocity of light from A to B is constant, and that is non-verifiable. Theoretically light could go out at one speed and come back at another speed and at varying speeds, just so long as the round-trip velocity is constant. So the theory is based upon a postulate which is non-verifiable. This is common in science. So verificationism would actually destroy science which was, as I say, for the verificationist the sacred cow that they wanted to support.
Secondly, though, not only was the criterion too restrictive but it turned out to be self-refuting. It is self-refuting. Just ask yourself: is the statement “Only statements that are empirically verifiable are meaningful” empirically verifiable? No! It is just an arbitrary definition, and therefore one that we are at liberty to reject. By its own light, the verification principle, being non-verifiable, is meaningless! It makes no factual claim whatsoever and therefore it has no claim upon us. Therefore, during the second half of the 20th century verificationism simply collapsed. This resulted in a renaissance of metaphysics and ethics and all of the traditional questions of philosophy, including the renaissance in Christian philosophy that is ongoing in the Anglo-American world.
Sadly, however, I find that this kind of verificationism still has a long lingering shadow especially over older scientists who were educated during the verificationist era. That is often sadly passed on to their students. So you will often find this kind of verificationist mentality on the Internet and among people, especially in the sciences, who think that theology or claims about God are just meaningless because they are not empirically verifiable. I can’t emphasize too strongly that this kind of verificationism is universally rejected today by philosophers, both epistemologists and philosophers of science, because of the reasons that I mentioned.
If you run into this, you need to simply share with your unbelieving friend the reasons why verificationism is untenable and that he is adopting a position that is obsolete and universally rejected among philosophers of knowledge and of science.
Student: I thought it was amusing how in your debate with Hector Avalos on the resurrection of Jesus there was a part where he brings up something very similar to this. Well, if you can’t see it, touch it, or taste it, you know in this case, miracles or God – it’s meaningless. You pointed out that it was self-refuting. He replied, well actually no, it’s self-affirming. Whatever that means.
Dr. Craig: It is amazing how often you encounter this. I am sure many of you have in your own witnessing situations.
Student: On my blog I was talking about how people tend to rule out the supernatural because they claim there’s no evidence. One of the things I was talking about was…I said thunder would exist and still accompany lightning even if everyone were born deaf. The idea of empiricism is that if you can’t experience it then therefore it’s not valid or doesn’t exist. But I was showing that there are things in the natural world that even if we couldn’t experience it directly….So to me it seems very arbitrary and presumptuous to assume that there cannot be a supernatural realm just because we can’t experience it with our five senses.
Dr. Craig: That is a good point. In theoretical physics, there are all kinds of entities postulated because of their explanatory value even though we don’t have any direct access to them empirically. But these are theoretical entities that, if they exist, they help explain the things that we do experience. Many of the arguments for God’s existence are of that nature. God is like a theoretical entity in physics – the existence of which will explain plausibly empirical data that we do experience like the fine-tuning of the universe, for example, or the beginning of the universe That is a nice analogy, I think, between these high level theoretical entities and God.
Student: Can you repeat the analogy?
Dr. Craig: The questioner brings out a nice analogy between these non-empirically detectable theoretical entities in physics like, for example, certain subatomic particles which, if they exist, will explain very plausibly empirical evidence that we do experience. These theoretical entities may not be directly empirically accessible but they are indirectly posited because of their explanatory value in explaining the things that we can access empirically. That is rather analogous to God, I think.
Student: Even beyond on the cosmological side that you are referring to, there are a number of theorists that have admitted they have theories about strings and concepts that allow certain mathematical formulas to come out but they admit we don’t know if this corresponds to anything that is happening in the real world. A lot of these cosmological theories are just theories that allow certain mathematical formulas to work but not necessarily correspond to anything that is really happening.
Dr. Craig: Fair enough. That would be an instrumentalist interpretation of these theories. Especially when you have empirically equivalent theories that have different theoretical entities, then you may not know which one is actually true. But here, again, I want to emphasize very strongly that the verificationist was not talking about a test for the truth of the theories. He was talking about whether or not they are meaningful. I think we would agree that whether you are a string theorist or a particle theorist and you don’t know which one is correct, say, nevertheless they are making meaningful claims. Those are meaningful accounts even if we don’t know which one is true, if either. Again, be sure not to make the confusion between verification as a test for truth and verification as a criterion for meaning. What we are talking about here is a criterion for meaning.
Student: Would the opposite of verificationism be strict constructivism where nothing exists until you’ve thought it up?
Dr. Craig: That is not clear to me. Why wouldn’t a sort of objectivism be right? That there is objective meaning and it is not tied to empirical verification. I am not sure there is a sort of opposite to verificationism. If verificationism is false, there could be probably a variety of alternatives to it.
Student: I’ve noticed that when you get into the empirical evidence that atheists are requiring, it is funny that it usually breaks down to they want to see something huge out of God like him parting the clouds and saying Here I am! Or that Jesus would have walked off the cross and said You can’t crucify me. They demand from their own worldly theology that God make a big spectacle out of something. The hiddenness or humility of the way God does things is untenable, it seems to be, to atheists. Regardless of how many arguments we come up with, if we can’t show them some kind of huge spectacle they reject it, and they say they are rejecting it because it is not empirical but what they really mean is they want a spectacle.
Dr. Craig: That is kind of related to the hiddenness of God that we will talk about later. Why doesn’t God appear to each person as a three hundred foot Jesus or something, or write his name in the heavens? Why doesn’t he do these sort of spectacular miracles rather than this kind of indirect evidence that requires you to seek and to search and to look for God. We will talk about that a little bit later. I think God can have good reasons for not making his existence just as plain as the nose on your face. But you are quite right that many skeptics are demanding that God give them the kind of evidence they want to see rather than asking themselves “Has God given evidence sufficient for his existence, to make belief in God rational or justified?” That is the real question, not whether it meets my desires.
Student: All human endeavor is to discover. We are to discover the empirical data, and the creator and discovers are there and also human history are very . . . there is some design in place for us to discover. Doesn’t that establish the verify effect of the design?
Dr. Craig: If I understand the question right, again, you are dealing with verification and truth – in order to believe a theory is true you need to have some sort of verification of it, some evidence for it. That is not the issue here. The verificationists weren’t claiming there is inadequate evidence for God’s existence. What they are saying is that it is meaningless to claim that God exists because there is no empirical evidence for or against his existence. So atheism, as I say, is as meaningless as theism is on this view. It is a criterion of meaning, not a criterion of truth or of rationality. It is this criterion of meaning that has collapsed. Claims can be meaningful even if they are not verifiable.
Student: What I am trying to say is they twist that verification into their . . .
Dr. Craig: Oh, I see. Yes, I think that would be fair to say. Certainly verification is very important in truth-seeking. You want to find a theory or a view of the world that fits the facts of experience, whatever they might be. They have twisted that claim into a claim about the meaning of statements, which is, as I say, far too restrictive to be plausible and in the end self-refuting.
Let me say by way of conclusion today that verificationism has been universally rejected by philosophers of science and philosophers who are epistemologists. Therefore we need not be worried about it.
In light of this many atheists have argued for the presumption of atheism instead. That is to say that atheism is a kind of default position; that until and unless you have evidence for God’s existence then you should believe that God does not exist. Atheism is a sort of default position, and it is that argument that we will take up next time.
 Total Running Time: 31:12 (Copyright © 2016 William Lane Craig)