05 / 06

Is God a Delusion?

William Lane Craig at the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford, UK

Time : 01:59:48

Richard Dawkins was invited by the Oxford University Christian Union to defend his book The God Delusion in public debate with William Lane Craig in the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford on Tuesday 25th October 2011. The invitation remained open until the last minute. However, Dawkins refused the challenge and his chair remained empty. Craig then gave a lecture to a capacity audience on the weaknesses of the central arguments of Dawkins' book and responded to a panel of academics. The event, which was chaired by atheist Professor Peter Millican, was part of The Reasonable Faith Tour 2011 sponsored by UCCF, Damaris & Premier Christian Radio.


INTRODUCTION: Ladies and gentlemen, good evening and can I warmly welcome you to the Sheldonian Theatre this evening for the talk we are just about to hear, Is God a Delusion? My name is Robbie Strachan, I am the president of the Christian Union here at Oxford University. And it is a delight to be joined this evening by William Lane Craig who will be in a moment giving a lecture in response to Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion. Now it would have been great to be able to welcome Professor Dawkins here tonight for public debate, unfortunately, he wasn’t able make it. It is instead a great privilege to be joined by Professor Peter Millican who is the Gilbert Ryle Fellow and Professor of Philosophy at Hertford College, Oxford. He is going to be chairing this event, and I really hope you enjoy the event this evening.

PETER MILLICAN: Thank you very much. It is a real pleasure to welcome William Lane Craig to talk to us tonight. For the last 15 years he has been Research Professor of Philosophy at the Talbot School of Theology in La Mirada, California. He is the author of over 30 books and over 100 peer reviewed articles in philosophy and theology. I am just going to mention a couple of those books. The Cosmological Argument: From Plato to Leibniz, that is actually my own copy, dated 1980. I got it when studying the BPhil here, studying philosophy of religion under Basil Mitchell, and it was clear even then that Bill’s book was a new landmark in the discussion of the cosmological argument. More recently, 2009, one of his latest contributions is the monumental Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, which he jointly edited, no less that 700 pages, and a snip at 125 pounds. Another book that I will particularly mention is this one: God: A Debate Between a Christian and an Atheist, jointly done with Walter Sinnott-Armstrong. It grew out of a debate they did together, and I can’t think of a better book to recommend if you want to see the theist and atheist point of view put robustly, but with respect, and a very energetic argument.

Bill has a particular connection with Britain. He actually did his PhD in philosophy under John Hick at the University of Birmingham back in 1977. Birmingham is actually where I debated with Bill on Friday, and we had a spirited debate. So I am in the other camp, but you won’t be hearing much from me tonight apart from directing proceedings. If you want to know what I think about these things I think our debate is soon to appear on the web.[1]

After doing the PhD in philosophy, Bill also took a doctorate in theology under the celebrated theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg at Munich. So he is extremely well prepared on both sides. In my debate on Friday I realized what it is like dealing with such an extremely well prepared opponent where it is very hard to come up with things that he hasn’t heard before and thought through. It will be very interesting tonight to hear what he has to say on Richard Dawkins’ arguments.

The pattern for tonight will be that Bill will be speaking for 45 or 50 minutes. We then have three Oxford academics who have kindly offered to come representing a range of views to comment on what Bill has to say. Bill is then going to be given a chance to respond to them and then we will have a short break.[2] Cards have been given out to the audience; if you haven’t got one, then in that break, please feel free to ask one of the ushers for one. On those cards you are welcome to write questions, also you are welcome to tell us to whom you would like those questions to be addressed. Our three speakers are Daniel Came, Stephen Priest, and John Parrington and I will be saying a little but more about them in turn when we introduce them. But if one of them, as well as Bill, says something to which you would like to respond, please feel free to do so. Those questions will come to me during the break, and then I will try to sort though them and pick ones that are particularly representative of the questions that have been asked and give our speakers a chance to respond to them.

So without further ado, I would like to hand it over to William Lane Craig on the subject “Is God a Delusion?” Thank you.

DR. CRAIG: Thank you very much. It is a privilege to be here with you this evening and speaking in such an august setting such as this. During the years that Jan and I lived in England while I was doing my doctoral studies at the University of Birmingham we grew to have a deep affection for this county and its people, and so it is truly a joy and a delight for us to be back in the UK and to be participating in this speaking tour, including the event tonight.

A couple of years ago I published an article in which I described the renaissance among contemporary philosophers concerning arguments for the existence of God. And it was fascinating to read the discussion in the blogosphere in response to this article. Along with expressions of appreciation there were also comments like the following:

Dawkins’ The God Delusion soundly deals with these arguments; did you do any research?

Or, again,

Have you even read Dawkin’s (apostrophe ’s’) book? He answers every one of those argument quite well.

Or, again,

I was dismayed that Dr. Craig has used these arguments to defend the existence of God, as someone mentioned before, has he even read Dawkins’ book?

Well, what is remarkable about these comments is the degree of confidence placed in Richard Dawkins’ supposed refutation of the arguments for God’s existence. Are they right? Has Richard Dawkins dealt the death blow to these theistic arguments that I discuss? Well I propose this evening to look at those arguments and see what Dawkins has to say about each one. Now since our time is very limited tonight I can consider only the objections that Richard Dawkins himself raises, doubtless you can think of other objections. For a fuller treatment I would refer you to my book Reasonable Faith[3] or the Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology[4].

To begin with then, the cosmological argument. Dawkins does not even discuss the first form of the cosmological argument, which I mentioned in my article, namely the argument from contingency. Now this is a remarkable oversight since it is the most famous version of the cosmological argument, indeed it would be deserving to be called the standard form of the cosmological argument. So obviously it isn’t the case that Richard Dawkins has refuted all the arguments that I surveyed in my article. But Dawkins does discuss a different type the cosmological argument which may be formulated as follows:

1) Everything that begins to exist has a cause.

2) The universe began to exist

3) Therefore, the universe has a cause.

Once we reach the conclusion, that the universe has a cause, we can analyze what properties such a cause must have. Now premise (1), that everything that begins to exist has a cause, seems obviously true, at least more so than its negation. To suggest that things can just pop into being, uncaused, out of nothing is to quit doing serious metaphysics and to resort to magic. Premise (2), that the universe began to exist, can be supported by both philosophical argument and scientific evidence.[5] The philosophical arguments aim to show that there cannot have been an infinite regress of past events, or in other words, that the series of past events must have had a beginning. The philosophical arguments against an infinite regress of events are fascinating and mind expanding but we need not consider them this evening since Dawkins doesn’t object to any of these arguments.

The scientific evidence for the beginning of the universe is based on the expansion of the universe. We now have pretty strong evidence that the universe is not eternal in the past but had an absolute beginning a finite time ago. In 2003 Arvind Borde, Alan Guth, and Alexander Vilenkin were able to prove that any universe which has on average been in a state of cosmic expansion throughout its history cannot be infinite in the past, but must have a past space-time boundary.[6] Even if our universe is just a tiny part of a so called multiverse, composed of many universes, their theorem requires that the multiverse itself must have an absolute beginning. Of course, highly speculative scenarios, such as loop quantum gravity models, string models, even closed time-like curves, have been proposed to try to avoid this absolute beginning. Although these models are all fraught with problems, the bottom line is that none of these theories, even if true, succeeds in restoring an eternal past. At most, they just push the beginning back a step. Vilenkin pulls no punches. He writes,

It is said that an argument is what convinces reasonable men and a proof is what it takes to convince even an unreasonable man. With the proof now in place, cosmologists can no longer hide behind the possibility of a past-eternal universe. There is no escape, they have to face the problem of a cosmic beginning.[7]

Now it follows from the two premises of the argument that therefore the universe has a cause.

What properties must the cause of the universe possess? Well by the very nature of the case, as the cause of space and time, this entity must transcend space and time, and therefore exist non-temporally and non-spatially, at least without the universe. This transcendent cause must also therefore be changeless and immaterial since anything that is timeless must be unchanging and anything that is changeless must be nonphysical and immaterial since material thing are constantly changing, on at least the molecular and atomic levels. Such a cause must be beginningless and uncaused, at least in the sense of lacking any prior causal conditions since there cannot be an infinite regress of causes. Ockham’s Razor, the principle that says we should not multiply causes beyond necessity, will shave away any further causes, since only one cause is required to explain the effect. This entity must be unimaginably powerful, if not omnipotent, since it created the universe without any material cause. Finally, and most remarkably, such a transcendent first cause is plausibly personal.

Two reasons can be given for this conclusion. First, the personhood of the first cause of the universe is implied by its timelessness and immateriality. The only entities which can possess such properties are either unembodied minds or abstract objects like numbers. But abstract objects do not stand in causal relations. The number 7, for example, cannot cause anything. Therefore it follows logically that the transcendent cause of the origin of the universe is an unembodied mind or consciousness.[8] Second, this same conclusion is also implied by the origin of an effect with a beginning from a beginningless cause.

We have concluded that the beginning of the universe was the effect of a first cause. By the nature of the case that cause cannot have either a beginning of its existence or a prior cause. It just exists changelessly, without beginning. And a finite time ago it brought the universe into existence. Now this is exceedingly odd. The cause is in some sense eternal, and yet the effect which it produced is not eternal but began to exist a finite time ago. How can this be? If the necessary and sufficient conditions for the effect are eternal, then why isn’t the effect also eternal? How can the cause exist without the effect? There seems to be only one way out of this dilemma and that is to say that the cause of the universe’s beginning is a personal agent endowed with free will who freely chooses to create a universe in time.

Philosophers call this type of causation agent causation, and because the agent is free he can spontaneously initiate new effects by freely bringing about conditions which were not previously present. And thus a finite time ago a creator endowed with free will could have freely brought the world into being at that moment. In this way, the creator could exist changelessly and eternally but freely create the universe in time. By exercising his causal power he brings it about that a world with a beginning comes to exist. So the cause can be eternal, but the effect is not. In this way then it seems that it is possible for a temporal universe to have come into being from an eternal cause through the free will of a personal creator. We may therefore conclude that a personal creator of the universe exists who is uncaused, beginningless, changeless, immaterial, timeless, spaceless, and unimaginably powerful.

Now, Dawkins does, as I say, address this version of the cosmological argument. Remarkably, however, he doesn’t dispute either premise of the argument. Instead, he merely questions the theological significance of the argument’s conclusion. He writes,

Even if we allow the dubious luxury of arbitrarily conjuring up a terminator to an infinite regress and giving it a name, there is absolutely no reason to endow that terminator with any of the properties normally ascribed to God: omnipotence, omniscience, goodness, creativity of design, to say nothing of such human attributes as listening to prayers, forgiving sins and reading innermost thoughts.[9]

Now, apart from the opening slur this is a remarkably concessionary statements. Dawkins doesn’t dispute that the argument proves the existence of an uncaused, beginningless, changeless, immaterial, timeless, spaceless, and unimaginably powerful, personal creator of the universe. He merely complains that this cause hasn’t also been shown to be omnipotent, omniscient, good, creative of design, listening to prayers, forgiving sins, and reader of innermost thoughts. So what? The argument was never intended to prove such things. It would be a bizarre form of atheism, indeed one not worth the name, which admitted that there exists an uncaused, beginningless, changeless, immaterial, timeless, spaceless, and unimaginably powerful, personal creator of the universe, who may, for all we know, also possess the further properties listed by Dawkins. We needn’t call the personal creator of the universe “God” if Dawkins finds this unhelpful or misleading. But the point remains that such a being, as is here described, must exist.[10]

Secondly, the moral argument. Here is a simple moral argument for God’s existence:

1) If God does not exist then objective moral values and duties do not exist.

2) Objective moral values and duties do exist.

3) Therefore, God exists.

What makes this little argument so powerful is, not only that it is logically iron clad, but also that people generally believe both premises. In fact, Dawkins himself seems to be committed to the truth of both premises. With respect to premise (1), that if God does not exist objective moral values and duties do not exist, Dawkins informs us, “there is at bottom no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pointless indifference. . . . We are machines for propagating DNA. . . . It is every living object’s sole reason for being.”[11] But although he says that there is no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference, the fact is that Richard Dawkins is a stubborn moralist. He vigorously condemns such actions as the harassment and abuse of homosexuals, the religious indoctrination of children, the Incan practice of human sacrifice, and prizing cultural diversity over the interests of Amish children. He even goes so far as to offer his own amended Ten Commandments for guiding moral behavior, all the while marvelously oblivious to the contradiction with his ethical subjectivism. Thus, affirming both premises of the moral arguments Dawkins is, on pain of irrationality, committed to the argument’s conclusion, namely that God exists.

Thirdly, the teleological argument. The cutting edge of contemporary discussion of the teleological or design argument concerns the remarkable fine-tuning of the cosmos for life. Dawkins responds to this form the argument in chapter 4 of his book under the heading “The Anthropic Principle, Cosmological Version.” Here is a simple formulation of a teleological argument based on fine-tuning.

1) The fine-tuning of the universe is due to either physical necessity, chance, or design.

2) It is not due to physical necessity or chance.

3) Therefore, it is due to design.

Now, with respect to premise (1) I had better explain what is meant by fine-tuning. This expression does not mean designed; otherwise, the argument would be obviously circular. Rather during the last forty years or so scientists have discovered that the existence of intelligent life depends upon a complex and delicate balance of initial conditions given in the Big Bang itself. Were nature’s fundamental constants and quantities to be altered by less than a hair’s breath, the life permitting balance would be destroyed, and no living interactive organisms could exist. Dawkins himself, citing the work of the Astronomer Royal, Sir Martin Rees, acknowledges that the universe does exhibit this remarkable fine-tuning.

Now premise (1), the fine-tuning of the universe is due to either physical necessity, chance, or design, simply lists the three possibilities for explaining the presence of this amazing fine-tuning of the universe. The question is, which of these alternatives is the most plausible. Premise (2) addresses that question. The first alternative, physical necessity, is extraordinarily implausible because the constants and quantities are independent of the laws of nature. The laws of nature are consistent with a wide range of values for these constants and quantities.[12] So, for example, the most promising candidate for a theory of everything to date, M-theory or superstring theory, allows for a cosmic landscape of around ten to the five hundredth power [10500] different possible universes governed by the present laws of nature. Dawkins notes that Sir Martin Rees rejects this first alternative, physical necessity, and Dawkins adds his own comment, “I think I agree.”[13]

So, what about the second alternative, that the fine tuning of the universe is due to chance? The problem with this alternative is that the odds against the universe’s being life permitting are so incomprehensibly great that they cannot be reasonably faced. In order to rescue the alternative of chance, therefore, its proponents have been forced to adopt the remarkable hypothesis that there exists an infinite number of randomly ordered universes, composing a sort of world ensemble, or multiverse, of which our universe is but a part. Somewhere in this infinite ensemble finely tuned universes will appear by chance alone, and we happen to be in one such world. This is the explanation that Richard Dawkins finds most plausible.

Now Dawkins is acutely sensitive to the charge that postulating a world ensemble of randomly ordered universes seems to be what he calls, an unparsimonious extravagance. But, he retorts, and I quote, “The multiverse may seem extravagant in sheer number of universes. But if each one of those universes is simple in its fundamental laws, we are still not postulating anything highly improbable.”[14] Unfortunately, this response is multiply confused. First, each universe in the ensemble is not simple but is characterized by a multiplicity of constants and quantities. If each universe were simple then why did Dawkins feel the need to recur to the hypothesis of a world ensemble in the first place? Second, Dawkins assumes that the simplicity of the whole is a function of the simplicity of the parts. But this is an obvious mistake. A complex mosaic, for example, is made up of a great number of individually simple parts. In the same way, an ensemble of simple universes will still be complex if those universes are randomly ordered in the values of their fundamental constants and quantities rather then all sharing the same values. Third, Ockham’s Razor tells us not to multiply entities beyond necessity, so that the number of universes being postulated simply to explain the fine-tuning is at face value extravagant. Appealing to a world ensemble to explain fine-tuning is like using a sledge hammer to crack a peanut. Fourth, Dawkins tries to minimize the extravagance of the postulate of a world ensemble by claiming that despite its extravagant number of entities, still, such a postulate is not highly improbable. But it is not clear why this rejoinder is relevant or even what it means. The objection under consideration is not that the postulate of a world ensemble is improbable, but that it is extravagant and unparsimonious. To say that the postulate isn’t also improbable is to fail to address the objection. Indeed it is hard to know what probability Dawkins is talking about here. He seems to mean the intrinsic probability of the postulate of a world ensemble considered apart from the evidence of fine-tuning. But how is such a probability to be determined? By simplicity? But then Dawkins hasn’t shown the world ensemble hypothesis to be simple.[15]

What Dawkins needs to say, it seems to me if I may offer a suggestion, is that the postulate of an ensemble of universes may still be simple if there is a simple mechanism which through a repetitive process generates the many worlds. In that way the huge number of entities postulated is not a deficit of the theory because the entities all issue from a very simple fundamental mechanism. So what mechanisms does Dawkins propose for generating such an infinite, randomly ordered world ensemble. Well, he suggests two. First, he suggests an oscillating model of the universe according to which the universe has gone through an infinite series of expansions and contractions. Dawkins is, however, apparently unaware of the many difficulties of oscillatory models of the universe which have made contemporary cosmologists quite skeptical of them. Such models contradict the Hawking-Penrose singularity theorems. The evidence of observational astronomy has been consistently against the hypothesis that the universe will someday re-contract. And the thermodynamic properties of such models imply the very beginning of the universe that their proponents sought to avoid. But leave all that aside. Even if the universe could oscillate from eternity past, ironically such a universe would require an infinitely precise fine-tuning of initial conditions in order to persist through an infinite series of expansions and contractions. So that the mechanism that Dawkins postulates for generating his many worlds is not simple; in fact, quite the opposite, it requires infinite fine-tuning. Moreover such a universe involves fine-tuning of a very bizarre sort because the initial conditions have to be set at minus infinity in the past, but how can that be done if there was no beginning.

Dawkins second suggested mechanism for generating a world ensemble is Lee Smolin’s evolutionary cosmology, according to which black holes are portals to baby universes being birthed by our universe. Universes which produce lots of black holes therefore have an evolutionary advantage in producing more offspring. Now since black holes are the result of star formation, and stars favor planets where life can evolve, the unintended effect of evolutionary cosmology is to make life-permitting universes more probable. Dawkins acknowledges that “not all physicists” are enthusiastic about Smolin’s scenario. Talk about an understatement. For Smolin’s scenario, wholly apart from its ad hoc and even disconfirmed conjectures, encountered insuperable difficulties. First, a fatal flaw in Smolin’s scenario was his assumption that universes which produce lots of black holes would also produce lots of stable stars; in fact, the exact opposite is true. The most proficient producers of black holes would be universes which generate primordial black holes prior to star formation, so that life-permitting universes would actually be weeded out by Smolin’s evolutionary scenario. Thus it turns out that Smolin’s scenario would actually make the existence of a life-permitting universe even more improbable. Second, speculations about the universe's begetting baby universes via black holes seems to contradict quantum physics. The conjecture that black holes may be portals of wormholes through which bubbles of vacuum energy could tunnel to spawn new expanding baby universes was the subject of a bet between Stephen Hawking and John Preskill which Hawking finally admitted in 2004 that he had lost.[16] The conjecture would require that the information which is locked up in a black hole could be utterly lost forever by escaping to another universe.[17] One of the last holdouts, Hawking finally came to agree that quantum theory requires that information is preserved in black hole formation and evaporation. The implications? Hawking writes, “There is no baby universe branching off, as I once thought. The information remains firmly in our universe. I’m sorry to disappoint science fiction fans, but if information is preserved, there is no possibility of using black holes to travel to other universes.”[18] Now if this result is correct then Smolin’s scenario is literally physically impossible.

These are the only two mechanisms that Dawkins suggests for generating an ensemble of randomly ordered universes. Neither of them is even tenable much less simple. Dawkins has therefore failed to turn back the objection that his postulation of a randomly ordered world ensemble of universes is an unparsimonious extravagance.

But there are even more formidable objections to the postulate of a world ensemble of which Dawkins is apparently unaware. Roger Penrose has argued forcefully that if our universe is just a random member of a world ensemble, it is inconceivably more probable that we should be observing an island of order no larger than our solar system.[19] Observable universes like those are simply much more plenteous in the world ensemble then worlds like ours, and therefore ought to be observed by us. Since we do not have such observations, that fact strongly disconfirms the multiverse hypothesis. On atheism, at least, it is highly probable that there is no world ensemble.

The fine-tuning of the universe is therefore plausibly due neither to physical necessity nor to chance. It therefore follows that the fine-tuning of the universe is due to design unless the design hypothesis can be shown to be even more implausible than its competitors. And Dawkins contends that the alternative of design is indeed inferior to the many worlds hypothesis. Summarizing what he calls “the central argument of my book,” Dawkins insists that even in the admitted absence of a strongly satisfying explanation for the fine tuning in physics, still, the relatively weak explanations we have at present are, “self-evidently better than the self-defeating . . . hypothesis of an intelligent designer.”[20] Really? What is this powerful objection to the design hypothesis that renders it self-evidently inferior to the admittedly weak many worlds hypothesis?

Well here it is. We are not justified in inferring design as the best explanation of the complex order of the universe because then a new problem arises; namely, who designed the designer? Notice that because Dawkins erroneously thinks that the world ensemble is simple it never even occurs to him to ask, who designed the world ensemble. But this question, who designed the designer, is apparently supposed to be so crushing that it outweighs all the admitted problems with the world ensemble hypothesis.

Dawkins’ objection however has no weight for at least two reasons. First, in order to recognize that an explanation is the best, you don’t need to have an explanation of the explanation. This is an elementary point in philosophy of science. If archeologists digging in the earth were to unearth things looking like arrowheads and pottery shards they would be justified in inferring that these artifacts are not the chance result of sedimentation and metamorphosis, but rather the products of an unknown group of people, even if they had no idea whatsoever who these people were or where they came from.[21] Similarly, if astronauts were to discover a pile of machinery on the backside of the moon they would be justified in inferring that it was the product of intelligent agents even if they had no idea whatsoever who these agents were or how they got there. In order to recognize an explanation as the best, you don’t need to have an explanation of the explanation. In fact when you think about it such a requirement would lead to an infinite regress of explanations so that nothing could ever be explained and science would be destroyed. For before any explanation could be acceptable, you would need an explanation of it, and then an explanation of the explanation of the explanation, and then an explanation of the explanation of the explanation of the explanation and so on to infinity; nothing could ever be explained if you accept Dawkins’ requirement. So in the case at hand, in order to recognize that intelligent design is the best explanation of the appearance of design in the universe one doesn’t need to be able to explain the designer. Whether the designer has an explanation can be simply left as an open question for future inquiry.

Secondly, Dawkins thinks that in the case of a divine designer of the universe, that is to say if the designer is identified as God, then the designer is just as complex as the thing to be explained so that no explanatory advance is made. Now this objection raises all sorts of interesting questions about the role played by simplicity is assessing competing explanations. For example, there are many other factors besides simplicity that scientists weigh in determining which explanation is the best, such as explanatory power, explanatory scope, plausibility and so forth. An explanation which has broader explanatory scope, may be less simple than a rival explanation but still be preferred because it explains more things. Simplicity is not the only, or even the most important, criterion for assessing theories. But again, leave those questions aside. Dawkins more fundamental mistake lies in his assumption that God is just as complex an entity as the universe. That is plainly false. As a pure mind or consciousness without a body, God is a remarkably simple entity. A mind (or soul) is not a physical object composed of parts. In contrast to the contingent and variegated universe with all its inexplicable constants and quantities, a divine mind is startlingly simple. Dawkins protests, “A God capable of continuously monitoring and controlling the individual status of every particle in the universe cannot be simple.”[22] This is just confused. Certainly a mind may have complex ideas (it may be thinking, for example, of the infinitesimal calculus) but the mind itself is a remarkably simple non-physical entity. Dawkins has evidently confused a mind's ideas, which may, indeed, be complex, with the mind itself which is an incredibly simple entity since it has no parts. Therefore, postulating a divine mind behind the universe most definitely does represent an advance in simplicity, for whatever that's worth.

Dawkins central argument in his book thus fails to show that the alternative of design is in any way inferior to the many worlds hypothesis. Indeed his self-congratulatory attitude about this pitiful argument sustained even in the face of repeated correction by prominent philosophers and theologians like Richard Swinburne and Keith Ward is marvelous. Therefore, of the three alternatives before us, physical necessity, chance, or design, the most plausible of the three as an explanation of the cosmic fine-tuning it design.[23]

Finally, the ontological argument. The next argument to be discussed by Dawkins and the last that I have time to review is the famous ontological argument. The version I have presented comes from Alvin Plantinga. It is formulated in terms of possible worlds semantics. Now for those of you who are unfamiliar with the terminology of possible worlds, let me explain that by a possible world one does not mean a planet or a universe or any sort of concrete entity, but rather just a complete description of reality or a way reality might have been. To say that God exists in some possible world is just to say that there is a possible description of reality which includes the statement “God exists” as part of that description. Now, in his version of the argument, Plantinga conceives of God as a being which is “maximally excellent” in every possible world. Plantinga takes maximal excellence to include properties such as omniscience, omnipotence, and moral perfection. A being which has maximal excellence in every possible world would have what Plantinga calls “maximal greatness.” Now Plantinga argues as follows:

1) It is possible that a maximally great being (aka God) exists.

2) If it possible that a maximally great being exists, then a maximally great being exists in some possible world.

3) If a maximally great being exists in some possible world then it exists in every possible world.

4) If a maximally great being exists in every possible world then it exists in the actual world.

5) If a maximally great being exists in the actual world then a maximally great being exists.

6) Therefore, a maximally great being (or God) exists.

Now, it might surprise you to learn that steps 2-6 of this argument are relatively uncontroversial. Most philosophers would agree that if God’s existence is even possible then He must exist. The principle issue to be settled with respect to Plantinga’s ontological argument is what warrant exists for thinking the key premise “it is possible that a maximally great being exists” to be true.

The idea of a maximally great being is intuitively a coherent idea, and so it seems plausible that such a being could exist. In order for the ontological argument to fail the concept of a maximally great being must be incoherent, like the concept of a married bachelor. But the concept of a maximally great being doesn’t seem even remotely incoherent. This provides some prima facie warrant for thinking that it is possible that a maximally great being exists.

Dawkins devotes six full pages, brimming with ridicule and invective, to the ontological argument, without raising any serious objection to Plantinga’s argument. He notes in passing Immanuel Kant’s objection that existence is not a perfection. But since Plantinga’s argument doesn’t presuppose that it is, we can leave that irrelevance aside. He also reiterates a parody of the argument designed to show that God does not exist. Because a God “who created everything while not existing” is greater than one who exists and created everything.[24] Ironically, this parody, far from undermining the ontological argument, actually reinforces it. For a being who creates everything while not itself existing is a logical incoherence and therefore is impossible. There is no possible world which includes a nonexistent being which creates the world. If the atheist is to maintain, as he must, that God’s existence is impossible, the concept of God would have to be similarly incoherent, but it is not. And that supports the plausibility of premise (1), that it is possible that a maximally great being exists.[25]

Dawkins also chortles, “I’ve forgotten the details, but I once piqued a gathering of theologians and philosophers by adapting the ontological argument to prove that pigs can fly. They felt the need to resort to Modal Logic to prove that I was wrong.”[26] Well this is just embarrassing. The ontological argument just is an exercise in modal logic – the logic of the necessary and the possible. I can just image what the philosophers and theologians whom Dawkins piqued at that conference must have been thinking.

Well, I am out of time. There are other arguments to be discussed. Doubtless you can think of substantive objections to the arguments that I have discussed. But at least I hope to have shown that the objections raised by Richard Dawkins to these arguments are not even injurious, much less deadly.



PETER MILLICAN: Well thank you very much, Bill, plenty of food for thought there. You can imagine, I am itching to respond myself having been in the position to do so on Friday, but I must not. We now move on to our panel. As I mentioned before we have three Oxford academics. Daniel Came is lecturer in philosophy at St. Hugh’s College, Oxford, and has recently made quite an impact on the blogosphere discussing tonight and whether Richard Dawkins would or should come. Stephen Priest is also in the philosophy faculty at Oxford, senior research fellow at Blackfriars Hall. And John Parrington is lecturer in pharmacology and tutor in medicine at Worchester College. So each of these is going to speak for about eight minutes, after which Bill will respond quickly to them and then we will move on to your questions afterward. Without further ado, Daniel Came.

DANIEL CAME: Thank you. In the course of his critique of The God Delusion, Professor Craig has offered several arguments for the existence of God and it will be impossible for me to address or comment on all of them in the time available. So what I would like to do is to focus on a couple of key steps in two of Professor Craig’s arguments that I think are problematic.

So I would like to say something first of all about the crux of Professor Craig’s version of the cosmological argument, namely the second premise of the argument, that the universe began to exist. Citing the Hawking-Penrose singularity theorem, Professor Craig presents this second premise as an established scientific fact. Now it is true that most cosmologists believe that our universe began to exist at the moment of the Big Bang, but physicists are also exploring the possibility that the universe was created from the death of an earlier universe. Instead of a Big Bang, the models indicate that our universe began from a kind of Big Bounce, with a predecessor universe contracting as it ended and then reemerging as our new expanding universe. Now if that theory proved correct then it could mean that our universe did not have a finite beginning but is instead part of a chain of universes that expand and then contract to give rise to a brand new universe. Now this is very much a live possibility in contemporary cosmology so I think it is a bit more of an open question than Professor Craig suggests, whether the universe did in fact have an absolute beginning in time.

Professor Craig also alludes to the mathematical reasons for thinking that the universe cannot be infinite it its past.[27] The main mathematical reason for supposing that an infinite series of past events could not exist is something like the following: it is part of the concept of an infinite series of events that it didn’t start, that it never started. So it follows that for any event in the series that event had an infinite amount of predecessor events. Now that makes it extremely hard to see how we could have ever got to now; that makes it extremely hard to see how we could have ever gotten to the present moment. If the universe did not start, if for every event in the series of past events there is an infinite number of predecessor events, then how did we ever manage to get to this particular event? Now considerations such as these do indeed render the notion of an infinite series of past events counterintuitive. They do render the notion counterintuitive. But that something is counterintuitive doesn’t entail that it is false. That something is counterintuitive doesn’t entail that it couldn’t exist. We used to think in philosophy that the way the world is had to confirm to our intuitions. But the description of reality given by quantum mechanics shows that reality at its most fundamental level is radically counterintuitive. So to say that something is counterintuitive or absurd or leads to counterintuitive or absurd consequences I don’t think carries much weight, and certainly isn’t sufficient to establish the truth or impossibility of something.

What is more, we don’t seem to have a problem with the notion of an infinite series of numbers. We don’t have a problem with an infinite series of negative numbers, for example. So why should there be a problem with an infinite series of past events? Now, standardly, this sort of objection is dealt with by drawing a distinction between potential infinities and actual infinities. So the series of negative numbers is a potential infinite whereas the infinite series of past events is an actual infinite. But in any finite region of space, if we assume that space is real, then there will, it seems to me, be an inifinite number of actual sub-regions within that area of space. There will be an infinite number of sub-regions, all of finite size. You can take a region of space that is, say, a meter long and that region will be divisible into an infinite number of smaller sub-regions. Now that is not a matter of a potential infinite, that seems to me to be a matter of an actual infinity of spacial regions. So if space is real then that actual infinity of regions is real. So I, for one, find it very hard to put my finger on any reason why there could not be an actually infinite series of events. There is no contradiction, it seems to me, in the notion of an infinite series of events. So again, it seems to be an open question as to whether or not the universe began to exist.

Now the second point I would like to make relates to Professor Craig’s claim that to prefer the multiverse hypothesis to the God hypothesis as an explanation of the fine-tuning in physics would be to violate Ockham’s razor. Now you will remember that the fine-tuning argument presupposes that there is only one actual universe with one set of values for the fundamental constants. The multiverse based objection says, well, it might be that there are in fact multiple actual universes each with a different set of values for the fundamental constants. Now this idea, again, seems to be taken very seriously in modern physics. If there have been trillions or perhaps an infinite number of Big Bangs then the probability of at least one universe being able to sustain life would then be very high. Now as Professor Craig pointed out this is the explanation that Professor Dawkins finds most plausible. Professor Craig, on the other hand, claims that to postulate a near infinite number of universes in order to explain our own is contrary to Ockham’s razor, which says that, other things being equal, it is rational to prefer theories that are more parsimonious. But here I think we need to draw a distinction between qualitative parsimony, or the number of types or kinds of things postulated, and quantitative parsimony, the number of individual things postulated. Now the default reading of Ockham’s razor is as a principle of qualitative parsimony; that is, as the principle that it is rational to prefer theories which commit us to smaller ontologies.[28] Now, Professor Craig’s defense of the fine-tuning argument relies on an unorthodox quantitative reading of Ockham’s razor. In a quantitative sense, it is of course the multiverse that violates Ockham’s razor, but in the standard qualitative sense of Ockham’s razor it is theism which is the more extravagant hypothesis. On the multiverse hypothesis we are only multiplying individual entities, whereas on the God hypothesis we are multiplying kinds of entities and so are therefore inflating our ontology. So I think it is hard to rule out the possibility of a multiverse just as it is hard to rule out the possibility of an infinite number of events. And so we were left not with theism or atheism but rather with agnosticism.

So, in conclusion, I’d just like to say that I think both Professor Craig and Professor Dawkins are a little too bold, as it were, in thinking they know that God does or does not exist. It seems to me we are all profoundly ignorant as to whether God exists or not, and so the position that I commend to you this evening is one of skeptical agnosticism according to which the knowledge of the existence or non-existence of God is beyond our cognitive reach. Thank you very much.

STEPHEN PRIEST: Thank you very much Peter. I should say that I have no prior or previous religious commitment whatsoever. I am interested in philosophy. I am interested in trying to solve philosophical problems. For decades I was some kind of materialist and reductivist in my thinking. Now as a matter fact it is pretty much impossible, it turns out, to solve the really fundamental problems about the universe without recourse to theology, without recourse to the existence of God, the immortality of the soul, and the freedom of will. I don’t particular desire this conclusion. Like most people, in a way, over the last several decades I was brought up to be suspicious of religious institutions and skeptical of religious beliefs. So I think that the answers to philosophical questions are theological. I think that the academic subject called philosophy exists through a lack of spiritual understanding or huge misconceptions about what spirituality is. Now some of these misconceptions about religion and spirituality are shared by theists as well as atheists. Now I’ll just mention two misconceptions.

One misconception is that the whole business is a matter of belief or disbelief. This is not right; it seems to me fundamentally a matter of knowledge. There is spiritual knowledge and it is possible to have spiritual knowledge and it is possible to lack spiritual knowledge. And the knowledge is of the nature of acquaintance, or experience, and it is not of essentially or paradigmatically of a propositional nature.

Now the other huge misconception is, if there is a spiritual reality (or as the Dali Lama puts it “ultimate reality”), or if there is God, the other misconception is that God is a being, or in some way a thing, but not a physical thing but an immaterial thing. No, God is not being-like or thing-like.

Now I will just very briefly mention three philosophical questions which show that we need to endorse a kind of theology or a kind of spirituality in order to do philosophy adequately or to stand any chance of answering the questions. Now the first philosophical question is about time, the second philosophical question is about existence, and the third one is about you. Now, contrary to popular belief, the hardest part of doing philosophy is not answering the questions, it is understanding the questions. There are very few people, even teaching philosophy professionally in the West, who understand philosophical questions in their profundity. In fact, I’d say that philosophy is essentially stuck in the 18th century and is sort of arguing for and against the existence of being, based on the view that metaphysics is impossible or cannot be done. Stephen Hawking says that philosophy is dead. Well, if philosophy is dead it committed suicide.[29] Hume and Kant both committed suicide. But philosophy is not dead, it is just stalled. It stalled 200 years ago. In this millennium there are two huge pieces of human understanding which have yet to be digested by philosophy which will make a colossal difference. One of these is the philosophical implications of quantum physics which my colleague Daniel Came mentioned. And the other is Martin Heidegger’s thinking, which is yet to be fully digested and understood in European and North American philosophy departments. These two will bring about a revolution in philosophical understanding, rather late in the day.

Now the three questions, just very briefly, are “Why is it ‘now’ now?”, “What is it to be?”, and “Why is a human being you?” Now if you ask this question, “why is it ‘now’ now?” either simplistically or naively, the answer is, well, this is as far as the universe has got. Whether it had a beginning or not, these events happening now have unrolled or are unrolling, but this is as far as it has got. But this is a comparatively superficial answer for many reasons. Intuitively or centrally this is a superficial answer because in a sense it is always now, or it is never not now, the future is always in the future, and the past is always in the past (well maybe the future is in the past as well, but we have to keep it simple). It is certainly true that any present is somebody else’s future and somebody else’s past; I mean we are in some people’s future and some people’s past, but never mind about that. The point is that there is a sense in which now is timeless. There is a sense in which it is always now, where always doesn’t always pick out duration or a moment or even something that is instantaneous but something that is utterly changeless. Now if you are sufficiently perceptive you can notice that it is always now. Members of the public who are not trained in philosophy are actually much better at spotting these insights than people who are trained in philosophy faculties. But the point is that presence is the presence of God. If we understand the unchanging nature of now, the nowness of now, if we understand that thoroughly, we will realize that it has the attributes of God, it is immaterial, it is timeless, it is a necessary condition for anything that happens in time, and so on.

Second question, what is being? There is a distinction between being and beings. By beings I mean the Sheldonian Theatre, your head, the library, this ball point pen, these manuscripts, and so on. These are beings or things that are. But by being or being as being I don’t mean another thing like that, I mean the existing that all this is doing. Or what it is for any of this to be, or the being of what is, whatever is. Now if you understand Heidegger, or if you don’t like Heidegger, if you read Parmenides (you can start at the beginning of philosophy instead of the end, if you like), if you understand Parmenides you will begin to understand that the properties of being, thoroughly understood, are the properties of God. Being is largely ineffable, necessary for beings, it is infinite, it is immaterial, and so on.

And the third philosophical question is why is something you? Now, this is again a hard question to understand because we think we already have the answer. We think the answer lies in biology, physics, chemistry, evolution, and so on. Now I don’t want to deny any of those known facts of science, let’s suppose they are all true (even though, because science has a history, it is very unlikely they are true). Now once all those facts are in about you, you were born in such and such a place, you’ve got such and such a mind, you’ve got such and such a mother, such and such a father, and so on, we have not begun to understand why you view the world from this human being, this human being who you are. We have not begun to understand why all the human beings who are not you are, so to speak arranged around you, but one of these human beings is inside out, or outside in, and that is this being you. We haven’t even begun to understand that and it certainly has no materialist or scientific explanation. Thank you.[30]

JOHN PARRINGTON: Thank you. When I accepted the invitation to speak today, I was thinking of some biblical phrases like sacrificial lamb and into the lion’s den because I am the atheist who is, I guess, supposed to be representing the views of Richard Dawkins here. But, also, as I am only a scientist and not a philosopher, you may find my arguments slightly cruder and not quite as sophisticated but I would like to try and address what I see to be the main points I think are important in the question of whether we can say, is there a God or not.

OK, so we have heard quite a lot about the cosmos and the Big Bang and I think I would echo some of the things Daniel said about it, in that we have to be very careful not to oversimplify what we see as the situation about the origin of the universe because certainly it can seem a very straightforward thing. A Big Bang, everything starts from this tiny spot and nothing came before it. And yet if you look at the physical science community, actually you do find a whole range of ideas. So even in The Guardian today, Professor Jeff Forshaw, physicist at the University of Manchester, was saying that, actually, it is a mistake to think that there was necessarily nothing before the Big Bang because, while that may be true if you rae looking at the visible universe, but there is more and more awareness that there might be a lot more to the universe than what we can see around us. There is interesting dark matter and things like that that may actually have existed before the Big Bang. So I do think we need to be very careful when we assume that there was nothing before the Big Bang. So that is one point.

Obviously another key point that has been raised tonight by Bill Craig is the business about the physical constants that govern life, the idea that the precise physical constants that were there at the Big Bang are somehow the most compatible for life. Here again I think we need to be careful not to assume that there is a consensus on this question. There are, for example, theoretical scientists like Victor Stenger who have modeled the universe using a different set of physical constants and has actually come up with quite a complex kind of universe, not necessarily one that would harbor human life, but there again we have a potential problem. Because if we assume that the only kind of intelligent life is of the sort that we associate with ourselves as human life, I think that can show an anthrocentric principle in which we can’t really think beyond what we know around us. So I think, again, we have got to be careful that we don’t see that there is actually all sorts of other possibilities even with these different physical constants.

So let’s say that there really is a very finely tuned universe. I don’t quite see why this argument, that there might be multiple universes and that kind of thing that have been forwarded by Bill Craig, at all lead to the idea that the only alternative is that there is a God. I think if anything it shows that there is an ignorance about the whole process and that in a sense things are much more backward really in what we know about cosmology compared to what we know about my own field, which is biology. But also, I think the big problem I have with the idea that, if we postulate a God to explain all these things that somehow solves the problem, is this being, this being who is outside space and time seems to me so unknowable. It doesn’t actually take us any further in understanding the universe. And, in a sense, I think it is in a similar position, really, to where we might have been, say, 300 years ago if we had been debating this question. It is almost certain we wouldn’t be talking about cosmology, and I think it is actually a potential weakness of religion that we are now debating this mostly on the ground of cosmology whereas 300 years ago it would have been all really about life around us and the fact that God was supposed to have a hand in the creation of life (actually, we probably wouldn’t be having this debate because I would probably have been hauled off and burnt at the stake for having heretical views). But let’s assume we could have had the debate, we would have been talking about how God had his hand in the creation of all the diverse life forms around us. And yet I, as a biologist, don’t see any real sign at all of that hand of God in the life we see around us. And I say this as a geneticist, somebody who is very used to thinking about the way genes work within the body.[31] And that seems to me to be a potential problem for religion. OK, you could say, well, God set everything off. Well that seems to me a minor role compared to this idea of an all powerful God that somehow intervenes and creates life and even shapes life along the way. And I think there is a problem for religion because I think Darwin’s theory of evolution really has shown that there really is no need of a creator to explain all the full diversity of life around us.

Now, one thing I would say, even though I consider myself an atheist, I don’t see that it is possible to actually disproof the idea that there is a God; neither do I think that we can prove that there is a God. But one thing that you could imagine, obviously, is that somehow God has set evolution going or even intervenes to push evolution along, and yet I don’t see any sign of that. And one of the arguments one might put forward in favor of that idea is that life is so exquisitely designed that that implies that maybe God did set evolution up. And yet if you look at life actually one of the interesting things is how badly designed it can often be. And so I say this as somebody who studies the genome. If you look at the genome, although it is an incredible thing, how it hangs together, we have this incredible thing called life that comes out of the genome, but there is a huge amount of redundancy and potential problems with the genome. Just think about our own genomes, 2-3 percent of that genome actually makes up the protein coding genes that make up our bodies. Apparently, over 90 percent is just junk DNA (got to be a bit careful because we may find out that junk is not quite junky as all that), and I am quite aware of the dangers of over assuming things from what we know now. But certainly it seems as if the genome is just stuffed full of parasitic elements, bits of retroviruses, all that kind of thing left over. I find it very hard to reconcile all this with the idea of someone designing this.

But I think the other problem is that Darwin’s theory of natural selection essentially shows that there is no real need for a designer and creator; random chance really can explain it all and evolution, natural selection itself, is a perfectly adequate driver of the process. Now, that is what I wanted to say in favor of atheism and I guess it is along the lines of what Richard Dawkins would have said. I just want to end in the last minute and a bit by talking about some of the problems I have with Dawkins book, and I am only going to be able to say very little about that.

One of the big problems I have with Dawkins’ book is the fact that, although I think he puts forward some very good ideas (despite what Bill has said) against the idea of God, what I find most lacking in his book is any real sense of why religion has a resonance today, and why it is still such a powerful force. And that could be seen in a kind of bad way; you know, the guys who flew their plane into the twin towers could be seen as what Dawkins sees as the irrational side of religion. Or it could be seen in a very good way in which people come together and do very good things in the world because of their religious beliefs. I am quite a political person, many of my political heroes – Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr – these are very religious people. I think their religion is actually a big part of why they went out and tried to change the world. And so the problem I have with Dawkins’ account is that there is no real sense of any material reasons for why religion is so powerful and why it spreads. But as I am running out of time I will have to leave it at that. Thank you.

DR. CRAIG: When I was told that if Richard Dawkins didn’t show up for this debate I would have three Oxford panelists responding to me instead, I was wishing and hoping that Richard Dawkins would show up. 3-on-1 seemed to me much worse odds than 1-on-1, and I think you can see why. But I thank the panelists for their interesting and provocative responses.

Two of the arguments that I discussed were mentioned by the panelists, the cosmological argument and the fine-tuning argument. Let me say in response to Daniel Came, that if I do sometimes seem too bold in my assertion of these arguments it is simply because I am really convinced that the premises are true. I think that the evidence for these premises is very good, but, that doesn’t mean that you need to have that sort of boldness. You can simply say that these arguments make it reasonable to believe that a personal creator and designer of the universe exists, and that is enough. [32]

Now, what about the premise that the universe began to exist? Here both Dr. Came and Dr. Parrington object that there may be and are