05 / 06

Deconstructing New Atheist Objections to the Arguments for God

Time : 1:13:47

CHRIS KNIGHT: Good morning, everyone, and a very warm welcome to this, the first BeThinking apologetics conference. It's great to see so many of you here. My name is Chris Knight, and I work for the Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship editing and coordinating the apologetics website. To chair our first session, it's a great pleasure to have Tom Price with us. Tom is the founding editor of, my predecessor. He's a tutor at the Oxford Center for Christian Apologetics in Oxford, a speaker for the Damaris Trust, and for Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Europe. Tom, come up to introduce Bill Craig. Thank you.

TOM PRICE: Good morning! It's wonderful to be with you. I'm so excited to see so many of you here with a hunger to learn and think about apologetics. Many of you coming from different backgrounds, some of you being a more skeptical, more agnostic about some of the questions we're going to be discussing today. I, myself, 10 or 11 years ago wasn't a Christian, and I came to a Christian faith partly through studying and thinking about the questions and philosophy of religion. Some of the authors that I came across will be names that are familiar to some of you. I started to read Alvin Plantinga. Very quickly I started to read Bill Craig's books, J. P. Moreland, and Francis Schaeffer. These books and the ideas in them completely transformed the way that I viewed the world, the way that I read my Bible, and the way that I thought that we could reach out, that we could do mission, that we could reach out to people with the good news of the Gospel. So it's my pleasure to introduce you to William Lane Craig. Bill is the Research Professor of Philosophy at Talbot School of Theology in La Mirada, California. He did his first PhD – I don't know many people who have two, but Bill's just greedy like that – he did his first PhD on the cosmological argument under John Hick at Birmingham University in 1977. Then he did his second PhD under Wolfhart Pannenberg in Germany in 1984 studying the historicity of the resurrection. He comes with him with the credibility of being a widely known and respected philosopher of religion known in secular philosophy departments across the Anglo-American world. He is no Christian secret. He has made major contributions to the philosophy of religion and his defense of the kalam cosmological argument. In fact, that argument has been the most widely discussed argument for God in Western philosophy. I'd like to just put two books in front of you. The first book is the first book of Bill's that I read – it's called Reasonable Faith. I would encourage you, if you don't have a copy of this book, to get a copy of it. And then the second book is a book called On Guard. Now, this is seven pounds-ninety and for my money this is one of the best popular level explanations of the evidences and arguments for God's existence that I have ever read in my life. It is a fantastic book, and it's a triumph of popularization and writing at the same time keeping that academic and scholarly credibility. So, without further ado, may I introduce you to William Lane Craig who is going to deconstruct the New Atheist objections to the arguments for God.

DR. CRAIG: Thank you, Tom, and thank you very much. Thank you for coming. It's a delight to be with you here and share this conference with you this morning. After debating three times at British universities it's nice to have a day off and speak to friendly faces who are interested in the defense of the faith; so it's great to be with you today.[1]

Over the last fifty years or so there has been an extraordinary renaissance of Christian philosophy in the Anglo-American world, and one of the manifestations of this renaissance has been a revival of natural theology in our day – that is to say, arguments for the existence of God. One of the fruits of this revival of natural theology is the Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology published by Blackwell in Oxford. This book includes eleven detailed, lengthy, and I think indispensable expositions of the classic arguments for God's existence and is just one of the indications of the sort of renaissance that is going on in our day among contemporary philosophers with respect to the defense of arguments for God's existence.

I described something of this renaissance in an article for Christianity Today a couple years ago, and it was interesting to see the reactions in the blogosphere to this cover story. Along with expressions of appreciation there were comments like the following: “Dawkins' The God Delusion soundly deals with these arguments. Did you even do any research?” Or again: “Have you even read Dawkin's [apostrophe 's'] book? He answers every one of those arguments quite well.” Or this comment: “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?” Now, it is the merit of The God Delusion that it does engage seriously with the classic arguments for God's existence. The writings of the New Atheists in general do not typically even engage with theistic arguments, and at least Dawkins makes an attempt to do that. But what's remarkable, I think, 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 Dawkins really dealt the deathblow to these theistic arguments? Well, this morning I'd like to look at those arguments and see what Dawkins has to say about each one. Since my time is limited this morning I can only consider the arguments that Dawkins himself raises. Doubtless you can think of other objections to these arguments, and that's good. It means you're thinking for yourself. But for a fuller treatment I would recommend either my book Reasonable Faith or the Blackwell Companion.

We have a PowerPoint to help us, so let's bring up the first slide which is on the cosmological argument. Now, Dawkins doesn't even mention the primary form of the cosmological argument which I presented, namely the argument from contingency. This is, itself, a remarkable oversight because this is the most famous version of the cosmological argument that has been defended. So obviously it cannot be the case that Dawkins has refuted all of the arguments that I mentioned, since he doesn't even deal with the first form of the cosmological argument. But he does discuss a different type of the cosmological argument which can 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.

And once we reach the conclusion that the universe has a transcendent cause then we can analyze what sort of properties such a cause must have. Premise (1) of this argument seems obviously true, I think. It's at least more plausible than it's contradictory or negation – to suggest that things could just pop into existence uncaused out of nothing is to quit doing serious philosophy and to appeal to magic. Premise (2) can be supported by both philosophical argument and scientific evidence. 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. These philosophical arguments for the finitude of the past are mind-expanding and very fascinating, but we needn't consider them this morning since Dawkins doesn't object to any of these arguments.[2]

As for the scientific evidence for the beginning of the universe, this is based upon 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, Alexander Vilenkin, and Alan Guth were able to prove that any universe which is on average in a state of cosmic expansion cannot be infinite in the past but must have had a past space-time boundary. Even if our universe is just a tiny part of a so-called multiverse of many universes their theorem requires that the multiverse itself must have had an absolute beginning. Now, of course, highly speculative scenarios such as loop quantum gravity scenarios, string models, even closed time-like curves have been proposed to try to avoid this absolute beginning. These models are not merely fraught with problems but the bottom line is that these theories, even if true, do not succeed in restoring an eternal past. At the very most, they just push the beginning back one step. Vilenkin pulls no punches. He says,

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.[3]

It follows from the two premises that the universe has a cause. What properties must such a cause of the universe possess? By the very nature of the case, as the cause of space and time this entity must transcend space and time and therefore exist timelessly and non-spatially (at least without the universe). This transcendent cause must therefore be changeless and immaterial since anything that is timeless must be unchanging and anything that is changeless must be non-physical and immaterial since material things are always changing on the molecular and atomic level at least. 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. Occam's Razor, which is the principle that says we should not multiply causes beyond necessity, will shave away any further causes since 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 is implied by its immateriality and timelessness. The only entities which could possibly possess such properties are either unembodied minds or else abstract objects like numbers. But abstract objects don't stand in causal relations. The number 7, for example, can't cause anything. Therefore it follows logically that the transcendent cause of the origin of the universe is plausibly an unembodied mind. Second, this same conclusion is also implied by the origin of an effect with a beginning from a beginningless cause. We've concluded that the beginning of the universe was the effect of a first cause. By the very nature of the case that cause cannot have either a beginning of its existence or any prior cause.[4] It just exists changelessly without a beginning and a finite time ago it brought the universe into existence. When you think about it, 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 just 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 its effect? Well, it seems to me that there's 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 freedom of the 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 initiate new effects spontaneously by freely bringing about conditions which were not previously present. Thus a finite time ago a free Creator can bring about the universe at that particular moment without any antecedent determining conditions. So in this way the Creator could exist changelessly and eternally but freely choose to create the world in time. By freely exercising his causal power he brings it about that a universe with a beginning comes to exist, and so the cause is eternal but its effect is not. In this way it is possible for the temporal universe to have come to exist from an eternal cause, namely 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 of its premises. Instead he merely questions the theological significance of the conclusion. He says, and I quote,

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.[5]

Apart from the opening slur, this is an amazingly concessionary statement! Dawkins doesn't dispute that the argument successfully proves the existence of an uncaused, beginningless, changeless, 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 reading innermost thoughts. So what? The argument isn't intended to prove those things. It would be a bizarre form of atheism, indeed an atheism not worth the name, which admitted that there exists an uncaused, beginningless, changeless, timeless, immaterial, spaceless, unimaginably powerful, personal Creator of the universe who may (for all we know) also possess the properties listed by Dawkins. So 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 described by this argument must exist.[6]

Argument number two: the moral argument. Here's a simple moral argument for God's existence:

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

2. Objective moral values and duties do exist.

From which it follows logically:

3. Therefore, God exists.

What makes this little argument so powerful is that not only is it logically ironclad but also that people generally believe both premises. In fact, with respect to premise (1), Dawkins informs us, “there is at bottom no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference. . . . We are machines for propagating DNA . . . . It is every living object’s sole reason for being.”[7] 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 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 version of the Ten Commandments for guiding moral behavior, all of the while marvelously oblivious to the contradiction with his ethical subjectivism. Thus, affirming both premises of the moral argument, Dawkins is (on pain of irrationality) committed to the argument's conclusion, namely that God exists.

Number three: the teleological argument. The cutting edge of contemporary discussion of the teleological argument concerns the remarkable fine-tuning of the universe for intelligent life. Dawkins responds to this form of the argument in chapter four of his book under the heading The Anthropic Principle: Cosmological Version. Here's a simple formulation of the 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.

With respect to premise (1), I better explain what is meant by fine-tuning. The 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 breadth this life-permitting balance would be destroyed and so 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.

Premise (1) simply lists the three possibilities for explaining the presence of this amazing fine-tuning of the universe: physical necessity, chance, or design. The question is: which of these three alternatives is the most plausible? Well, 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. So, for example, the most promising candidate for a theory of everything to date (M-theory or super string theory) allows for a cosmic landscape of around 10 to the 500th power different possible universes governed by the present laws of nature. Dawkins notes that Sir Martin Rees rejects this first alternative, and Dawkins adds, “I think I agree.”[8] So what about the second alternative – that the fine-tuning of the universe is due to chance? Well, the problem with this alternative is that the odds against the universe as being life-permitting are so incomprehensibly great that they cannot be reasonably faced. So in order to rescue the hypothesis of chance its proponents have been forced to adopt the remarkable hypothesis that there exists an infinite number of randomly ordered universes comprising a sort of World Ensemble (or multiverse of universes) in which our universe is but a member. Somewhere in this World Ensemble finely tuned universes will appear by chance alone, and we happen to be in one such world. This is the explanation that 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, “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.”[9] Unfortunately this response is multiply confused. Let me mention four points.

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. If the parts are simple then the whole is simple. But this is an obvious mistake. For example, a complex mosaic (say, a Roman face) might be 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 than all sharing the same values. Thirdly, Occam's Razor tells us not to multiply entities beyond necessity. So 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 sledgehammer to crack open a peanut. Fourthly, Dawkins tries to minimize the extravagance of the postulate of a World Ensemble by claiming that despite the extravagant number of entities postulated still such a postulate is not highly improbable. It's not clear why this response is relevant or even what this means. The objection under consideration is not that the postulate of a World Ensemble is improbable but rather that it's extravagant and unparsimonious. To say that the postulate isn't also improbable is to fail to address the objection. Indeed, it's very hard to understand exactly 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 its simplicity? But then Dawkins hasn't shown the World Ensemble hypothesis to be simple.

So what Dawkins needs to say, it seems to me, 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.[10] 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 suggest for generating such an infinite randomly ordered World Ensemble? Well, 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 skeptical of them. Such models contradict the Hawking-Penrose singularity theorems. Moreover, the evidence of observational astronomy has been consistently against the hypothesis that the universe will someday recontract. The evidence indicates that it will expand forever. 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. Put it aside for now. Even if the universe could oscillate from eternity past, the irony is that such a model of the universe requires infinitely precise fine-tuning of the initial conditions in order to persist through an infinite series of bounces so that the mechanism that Dawkins suggests for creating the World Ensemble is not simple. In fact, exactly the opposite – it is infinitely fine-tuned. Moreover, this fine-tuning is of a very bizarre sort because the initial conditions have to be set at minus infinity in the past. But how can you set initial conditions at minus infinity if there was no beginning of the universe? So this mechanism is clearly untenable.

His second suggested mechanism for generating a World Ensemble is Lee Smolin's evolutionary cosmology. According to this cosmology, black holes are portals to baby universes which are being birthed by our universe. Since universes which produce lots of black holes will therefore have an evolutionary advantage by producing more offspring, worlds which have lots of black holes will be evolutionarily preferred and selected for. Since black holes are the result of star formation (they are the result of the collapse of stars) and stars favor planets where life can evolve, the unintended effect of evolutionary cosmology is to make a life-permitting universe more probable. Dawkins recognizes, and I quote, “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, it turns out that 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 natural selection in Smolin's cosmic evolutionary scenario. And thus it turns out that Smolin's scenario would actually make the existence of a life-permitting universe even more improbable.

Secondly, speculations about the universe's begetting baby universes via black holes seems to contradict quantum physics. The conjecture that black holes might be portals of worm holes through which bubbles of false vacuum energy can tunnel to spawn new baby universes was the subject of a bet between Stephen Hawking and John Preskill which Hawking finally admitted in 2004 that he had lost.[11] The conjecture would require that the information locked up in a black hole could be utterly lost by forever escaping to another universe. One of the last holdouts, Hawking finally came to agree that quantum theory requires that the information is preserved in black hole formation and evaporation. The implications, Hawking says, “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.”[12] End quote. And so if this result is correct, Smolin's scenario is literally physically impossible.

Well, these are the only 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 is an unparsimonious extravagance.

But there are even more formidable objections to the postulate of a World Ensemble of which Dawkins is apparently unaware. His Oxford colleague, Roger Penrose, has argued forcefully that if our universe is just a random member of a World Ensemble then it is inconceivably more probable that we should be observing an island of order no larger than our solar system in a sea of chaos. Observable universes like those are simply much more plenteous in the World Ensemble than worlds like ours and therefore ought to be observed by us. Since we do not have such observations, that fact strongly disconfirms the World Ensemble 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 follows that the fine-tuning is therefore due to design, unless the design hypothesis can be shown to be even more implausible than its competitors. And Dawkins does in fact contend 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.”[13] Really? What is this powerful objection to the design hypothesis that renders it self-evidently inferior to the admittedly weak World Ensemble hypothesis? Well, here it is. We are not justified in inferring design as the best explanation of the complex order in the universe because then a new problem arises, namely, who designed the designer? Now, notice that Dawkins never even thinks to ask who designed the World Ensemble because he mistakenly thinks that it's simple and so does not need a designer. But this question “who designed the designer?” is apparently supposed to be so crushing that it outweighs all the problems with the World Ensemble hypothesis.

Dawkins' objection, however, has no weight for at least two reasons. First, in order to recognize an explanation as the best, you don't need to have an explanation of the explanation. This is an elementary point in the philosophy of science. For example, if archaeologists digging in the earth were to find 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 they were the products of an unknown group of people even if they had no explanation whatsoever who these people were or where they came from.[14] Similarly, if astronauts were to come upon 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 who those agents were or where they came from 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. Before you could have an explanation of something you'd need an explanation of the explanation. But before you could accept that you would need an explanation of the explanation of the explanation, and so on to infinity so that nothing could ever be explained and science would be destroyed. Before any explanation was acceptable, you would need an explanation of it and then an explanation of the explanation and then an explanation of the explanation of the explanation. Nothing could ever be explained. So in the case at hand, in order to recognize intelligent design as the best explanation of the appearance of design in the universe you don't need to be able to explain the designer. Whether the designer has an explanation can simply be left as an open question for future inquiry.

Secondly, Dawkins thinks that in the case of a divine designer of the universe – if the designer is 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 questions about the role played by simplicity in assessing competing explanations. For example, there are many other factors than 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, for example, 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 to the side. 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 without a body God is a remarkably simple entity. A mind or a 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.”[15] Well, this is just confused. Certainly a mind may have complex ideas 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 a mind itself which is an incredibly simple entity being a non-physical substance which has no parts. Therefore, postulating a divine mind behind the universe most definitely does represent an advance in simplicity, for whatever that might be worth.

Dawkins' central argument thus fails to show that the alternative of design is in any way inferior to the many-worlds hypothesis. Indeed his smug and self-congratulatory attitude about this pitiful argument sustained even in the face of repeated correction by prominent philosophers and theologians like Keith Ward and Richard Swinburne is marvelous.

Therefore, of the three alternatives before us – physical necessity, chance, or design – the most plausible of the three is an explanation of the fine-tuning given by design.[16]

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 that I presented stems from Alvin Plantinga. It's formulated in terms of possible worlds semantics. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the terminology of possible worlds let me explain that by a possible world I do not mean a planet or a universe or any kind of concrete reality. Rather, a possible world is simply a complete description of reality or a way the world might be. 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 the 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 such properties as omniscience, omnipotence, and moral perfection. A being which has maximal excellence in every possible world would have what Plantinga calls maximal greatness. Plantinga argues as follows:

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

2. If it is 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 exists.

Now, it might surprise you to learn that steps (2) through (6) of this argument are relatively uncontroversial. Most philosophers would agree that if God's existence is even possible then it follows logically that he must exist. The principal issue to be settled with respect to Platinga's ontological argument is what warrant exists for thinking premise (1) (“It's possible that God exists”) to be true?

Well, the idea of a maximally great being is an intuitively 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 to be even remotely incoherent, and this provides at least 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 to the side. He 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. Ironically, this parody, far from disproving the ontological argument, actually reinforces it. For a being which creates everything while not existing is a logical incoherence and therefore is impossible. There is no possible world which contains a non-existent being which creates the world. If the atheist is to maintain, as he must, that God's existence is impossible, then the concept of God would have to similarly be incoherent. But it's not, and that supports the plausibility of premise (1).[17] 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.”[18] This is just embarrassing. The ontological argument just is an exercise in modal logic – modal logic is the logic of the possible and the necessary. I can just imagine what the philosophers and theologians whom Dawkins piqued at that conference must have been thinking.

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

TOM PRICE: We now have 20 minutes for your questions. There are two microphones – one here and one here. So if you could form an orderly queue. We'd ask you to keep your questions on the topic of Bill's lecture just now rather than asking other questions. I think you need to give yourself a round of applause for having done multiverses before 11:00 a.m. So give yourself another round of applause.

Now just as people are coming some of you may be feeling, Oh, I'm not sure if I understood all that and I certainly feel that I didn't understand everything that Bill said. And so one of the things that we can do is to take away that confidence that the Christian worldview possesses the resources to be able to answer and deal with some of the most pertinent and pressing intellectual questions. So I would invite you first of all to now put your questions to Bill. Are you ready, sir? Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Certain epistemologists have claimed over the years – Immanuel Kant, David Hume, and most recently Robert Fogel – in that making a jump from a priori or experience-based knowledge into the realm of the metaphysical is not possible or not intellectually responsible. How would we respond to something like this?

DR. CRAIG: Well, at least with respect to the lecture this morning, I haven't done that. The question concerns leaping from some sort of a priori knowledge to metaphysical knowledge. Now, what's a priori knowledge? This would be knowledge that is gained prior to experience – a sort of innate knowledge. But I think if you look at the premises of the arguments I discussed they're hardly a priori. They appeal to things like scientific evidence for fine-tuning, for the beginning of the universe, even the ontological argument I have come to see is really an a posteriori argument, that is to say, it is based on experience. It's based on our understanding of modality and our experience of possibility and necessity. So I don't think these arguments are a priori in any sort of objectionable way. I do think they appeal to rational intuition, but I see no trouble with that. If someone wants to defend a sort of strict naturalistic empiricism I think probably he's going to be caught in self-refutation because the person who says something like this – We should only believe what can be scientifically proven – that statement itself can't be scientifically proven. So that is itself self-defeating. Michael Rea in his book, The World Without Design, I think has shown that the only plausible view of naturalism is as a methodological assumption which someone might adopt. But as a methodological assumption it's neither true nor false and someone is able to adopt different methodological assumptions. So I guess I just don't see that concern as being relevant to what I've said with respect to these arguments.

QUESTION: My question has to do with objective moral values. I guess it is going to a passage in Exodus about the Ten Commandments. One of the Ten Commandments is to not kill and also to not lie. I guess my question is: if there are some situations in life where it is actually morally right to kill (in self-defense) or to lie (to protect somebody) does that not undermine the idea of objective moral values and actually God is morally relativistic?

DR. CRAIG: No, I don't think it does. Here you'll notice that I use the language of objective moral values rather than absolute moral values, and that is deliberate.[19] To say there are absolute moral values could be taken to mean that certain moral duties hold regardless of the circumstances you're in. So “thou shalt not kill regardless of the fact that a terrorist is about to kill your wife and children.” What I'm talking about is objective moral values which means that in any given situation in which you might find yourself there is something that is really right and really wrong independently of human opinion. But clearly that might vary with the circumstances. In some cases it would be morally permissible to kill, but in other cases it would be morally impermissible to kill. So what I'm talking about is objective right and wrong but not necessarily absolutes that take no cognizance of the circumstances in which a person finds himself.

QUESTION: First of all pleasure, it is a pleasure to be here and hear your lecture. Thanks very much. I have a question on the moral argument – a kind of a comprehension type of question. I understand the first premise of the argument “if God does not exist, then objective moral values and duties do not exist” is not logically equivalent to the claim that objective moral values and duties exist if and only if God exists; that is, it's not a bi-conditional. In a recent Q&A on the Reasonable Faith website you explain that the first premise of the moral argument is actually a counterfactual. Now if the first premise were a bi-conditional, I take it that to demonstrate its truth you'd have to outline the necessary and sufficient conditions for the existence of objective moral values and duties and then show that necessarily those conditions cannot obtain on atheism. But my question is what must be done to defend the first premise as a mere counterfactual and more specifically can you outline the premises that you would in fact use in an argument for the truth of that counterfactual kind of step by step?

MODERATOR: Bill, could you translate that question for us as well? [laughter]

DR. CRAIG: Could we bring up the moral argument slide? As I stated it today, I think I stated it in the indicative mood: if God does not exist, then moral values and duties do not exist. But I think one can actually state it as a subjunctive conditional, and this is the way I ran it in my debate with Peter Millican last night. I did use that. Namely, if God did not exist then objective moral values and duties would not exist. And the argument would be exactly the same, namely that if atheism were true (if naturalism were true) then there just isn't any reason to regard human beings as loci of intrinsic moral value. They would just be relatively advanced primates, and I just don't see any reason – any explanation – for thinking that the flourishing of these primates on this little planet is the source of intrinsic moral value. Especially difficult for the atheist view would be source of moral obligation. Where would moral obligations and prohibitions come from if there is no moral lawgiver to prohibit or prescribe moral duties? As chemists and ethicists alike recognize, prescriptions require a prescriber, and that would be missing if atheism were true. So the arguments would be exactly the same whether it's a counterfactual or whether it's an indicative conditional.

QUESTION: Hi. This is to do with the moral question as well. Premise (2) – objective moral values and duties do exist – how do you justify that? I deeply think objective moral values and duties exist but it doesn't seem to me necessarily true. It seems to me equally likely if I were an atheist that nihilism is true. In other words there are no objective moral values. Everything is just socially determined or whatever as do objective moral values do exist. So how would you convince an atheist that no they really do exist as opposed to nihilism being true apart from simply saying lots of very unpleasant things?

DR. CRAIG: I think that the second premise is necessarily true, but let's distinguish necessity from certainty. That is very important. Certainty is a property of persons; necessity is a property of propositions.[20] And some propositions can be necessary even though they're very uncertain. For example, some complicated mathematical equation will be necessarily true, if true, but we may be very uncertain about it. So the necessity of the second premise and the truth of the second premise doesn't require certainty. What reason would we have to believe that objective moral values and duties exist? Well, basically it would be our moral experience. Just as we believe in the world of sense objects around us – physical objects – because we have a sense of them through our senses, so we can believe in the objective reality of moral values and duties on the basis of our moral experience. And any argument you run to be skeptical about our moral experience, I can run a parallel argument about why you should be skeptical about our experience of the physical world of objects around us. Maybe you're a brain in a vat of chemicals being stimulated by a scientist to think you're here in this lecture hall listening to this lecture. Maybe you're a body lying in the Matrix and you're inhabiting a virtual reality. In the absence of some reason to defeat your experiences, you're justified in believing in what those experiences teach you. And similarly in the absence of a good defeater of our moral experience I think we're justified in believing what that experience tells us. Louise Anthony is an atheist philosopher who put it so well, I think. This is how she put it: any argument for moral skepticism is going to be based upon premises which are less obvious than the reality of objective moral values themselves and therefore you would never be justified in accepting moral skepticism. I like that and I think that's correct.

QUESTION: I wonder if you could speak on increasing entropy with regard to the cosmological argument and the multiverse. I heard it said that when the last black hole dissipates and we completely run out of energy our universe could run into another universe spawning a new universe. I wonder if the increasing entropy would discount that or how that would all come out.

DR. CRAIG: Well, that would depend on the multiverse hypothesis – that there are in fact other universes with which our universe might collide. As I said, the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin theorem applies to the multiverse itself. So even if we are part of a multiverse containing other worlds with which we might collide, nevertheless the multiverse itself must have an absolute beginning at some point in the finite past. So it doesn't avoid the problem.

QUESTION: With regard to the teleological argument, I talked about it with one of my friends. He said to me that's all irrelevant because you are thinking about it from the beginning. You are saying how likely a universe like this would exist, whereas actually as observers we could only exist in a universe this fine-tuned. I have heard other people say that as well. Given that neither Dawkins addresses that, is he just putting on a false dichotomy?

DR. CRAIG: What your friend is talking about is the so-called anthropic principle, and this was an attempt to say that we shouldn't be surprised at the fine-tuning of the universe for our existence because after all if it weren't fine-tuned then we couldn't be here to be surprised about it. And therefore we shouldn't be surprised. This is generally recognized today to be a fallacious argument. Just because it's true that only a universe which is fine-tuned for observers can have observers in it, it doesn't follow that it isn't improbable that a fine-tuned universe should exist. That's why the appeal to the so-called anthropic principle today requires the appeal to the World Ensemble. You've got to have the many universes – the many worlds – so that somewhere in the World Ensemble by chance alone finely tuned worlds will appear. And then you can appeal to the anthropic principle to say we shouldn't be surprised because all the possibilities are actualized in the World Ensemble. In the discussion today, the anthropic principle requires the World Ensemble or multiverse hypothesis just as Richard Dawkins recognizes. So your friend would need to deal with the arguments about the multiverse in the World Ensemble that I shared.[21]

QUESTION: You argued from the cosmological argument that God is changeless. Does that show it is not the God of the New Testament who became a man who lived amongst us?

DR. CRAIG: Very good question! Can we have that first argument up – the cosmological argument? I said that the cosmological argument gets us back to a being who transcends time and space. Notice my caveat. I said “and who is therefore timeless at least without the universe.” Now philosophers introduce these little caveats for reasons. That is because I think, as you indicate, that it's very plausible that when God creates the universe that at the moment of the creation of time God enters into relationship with the universe and therefore is in time. Therefore the incarnation is no problem because God is in time. I think God exists right now, and he existed yesterday. He will exist tomorrow. So my studied view of this subject is that God is timeless without the universe and in time from the moment of creation on.

QUESTION: A question about the ontological argument. It seems to me you can get away usually in metalogic with using a counterpart relation. But I assume Plantinga has a solution to this. Presumably you have to pass the first premise that there's a world at which something is such that it is maximally excellent at every world in which it exists. It seems that you need not just counterpart relation but actually identity there between worlds. I wonder how you make sense of that.

DR. CRAIG: This is a very technical question about identity across possible worlds. Alvin Plantinga, as perhaps you know, gives, I think, a very sound critique of counterpart theory in his book The Nature of Necessity. I see no reason whatsoever that we can't just stipulate which being it is in each possible world in which that being exists. The problem with people who appeal to counterparts seem to think that it's a matter of sort of looking into this other possible world and finding Peter May in this other world and how do you find him if he has red hair and he's short and fat? How do you discover which one is Peter May? But that's completely wrong-headed. It's just a matter of stipulating “In this world Peter May weighs 300 pounds, has red hair, and is short. In this world he's tall and skinny.” It's simply stipulation. So I don't see that there's any sort of problem with transworld identity. In that the vast majority of contemporary philosophers, I think, would agree. There are very few that would hold to this kind of modal realism and counterparts of you that exist in other worlds.

We've obviously got some philosophers in the audience today! [laughter]

QUESTION: This is also about the ontological argument. It may even be the same question. I don't have the philosophical vocabulary to tell if it is. What do you mean by a maximally great or maximally excellent being? That seems a very ill-defined term to me. Somebody could say, “I think it'd be more excellent for it to be a flying pig than not a flying pig.” So it is very subjective what we mean by excellent. Again, we're kind of saying this maximally great being has properties that apply across different worlds – kind of making a metaworld statement about it. Is that a fair thing to do?

DR. CRAIG: I've already I think addressed the second issue. I think it does make sense to talk about transworld identity, and many contemporary philosophers think, for example, that mathematical objects are necessarily existent beings – that numbers exist in every possible world. There's no world lacking the number 1, for example. So the idea of necessary existence is not problematic, I think. The idea of maximal excellence as Plantinga defines it is pretty clear. It is a being which is omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect.[22] I don't think that's problematic. It's greater to be powerful than impotent and weak. It's greater to know everything than to be ignorant. It's greater to be morally perfect than morally flawed or evil. So those seem to be clear great-making properties. And moreover it's greater to be necessarily existent than merely contingent – to just sort of happen to be there. So it does seem to me the concept of a maximally great being – that is to say, a being which has maximal excellence in every possible world – is a perfectly coherent concept. It's possible. So the atheist, I think, to resist this argument has to say the concept of God is like that of a married bachelor or a round square. And I think that is a very radical position. It's not enough for the atheist to deny that God exists; he's got to say it's impossible that God exists. And why think something like that? That seems to me to be extraordinarily implausible.

MODERATOR: Thank you very much. Now we will move to a break until 11:45 when John Lennox will come and speak on Stephen Hawking and The Grand Design.

May I also just make one further point. In the presentation of what Bill has done this morning and then by standing up here and defending his view, opening himself up to questions, he's demonstrated a core principle of what we believe as Christians – that our beliefs are open to question. We're not six-foot above contradiction but we want to expose what we believe to these questions. So I hope that you will be encouraged by that. I hope that you'll be inspired by that and to approach apologetics and to pick up these tools and use them in your own way and in your own circumstances. If you didn't have your question addressed then what I would be encouraged for you to check out Bill's own website which is the Reasonable Faith website (which you'll find at He will regularly answer questions that come in from writers and from emails there. So you may have the opportunity to have your question answered even if you didn't have it there this morning. Please would you give Bill a thoroughly deserving round of applause.[23]


[1]          5:00

[2]          10:10

[3]          Alex Vilenkin, Many Worlds in One: The Search for Other Universes (New York: Hill and Wang, 2006), p. 176).

[4]          15:06

[5]          Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York: Houghton-Mifflin, 2006), p. 77.

[6]          20:00

[7]          Cited in Lewis Wolpert, Six Impossible Things before Breakfast: The Evolutionary Origins of Belief (New York: Norton, 2006), 215. Unfortunately, Wolpert’s reference is mistaken. The quotation seems to be a pastiche from Richard Dawkins, River out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life (New York: Basic, 1996), 133, and Richard Dawkins, “The Ultraviolet Garden,” Lecture 4 of 7 Royal Institution Christmas Lectures (1992), (Thanks to my assistant Joe Gorra for tracking down this reference.)

[8]          25:02

[9]          Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York: Houghton-Mifflin, 2006), p. 147.

[10]         30:02

[11]         35:06

[12]         S.W. Hawking, “Information Loss in Black Holes,” (September 15, 2005): p. 4.

[13]         Dawkins, God Delusion, p. 158.

[14]         40:13

[15]         Dawkins, God Delusion, p. 149.

[16]         45:07

[17]         50:04

[18]         Dawkins, God Delusion, p. 84.

[19]         55:15

[20]         1:00:02

[21]         1:05:15

[22]         1:10:00

[23]         Total Running Time: 1:13:47