Sunday, March 31, 2013

William Lane Craig versus Rosenberg

My series on the February 2013 debate between William Lane Craig and Alex Rosenberg:
  1. The Leibnizian Cosmological Argument
  2. The Applicability of Mathematics to the Physical World
  3. The Fine-Tuning of the Universe for Intelligent Life
  4. Intentional States of Consciousness in the World
  5. Objective Moral Values and Duties in the World
  6. The Historical Facts about Jesus of Nazareth
  7. God can be Personally Known and Experienced
  8. Arguments Against Naturalism
  9. The Argument from Evil
  10. Wrap-Up

Last month atheist philosopher Alex Rosenberg debated Christian philosopher William Lane Craig over whether faith in God is reasonable (debate begins at around 17:14). I’ve mentioned before the reason why William Lane Craig wins debates, and since this debate is a good example of how not to debate William Lane Craig, I’ll go through some of what Rosenberg did wrong and how he could have done a lot better. First up I’ll go through Craig’s arguments and Rosenberg’s inadequate rebuttals, staring with the Leibnizian cosmological argument (LCA), leaving the other arguments for future blog entries.

The Leibnizian Cosmological Argument

The LCA Craig gave in this debate was this:

  1. Every contingent thing has an explanation of its existence.
  2. If the universe has an explanation of its existence, that explanation is a transcendent, personal being.
  3. The universe is a contingent thing.
  4. Therefore, the universe has an explanation of its existence (from 1, 3).
  5. Therefore, the explanation of the universe is a transcendent, personal being (from 2, 4).

By “the universe” Craig says the means “all of space-time reality.” Premise 1 is a version of something called the principle of sufficient reason (PSR). Craig believes that a transcendent personal cause is responsible for the universe’s existence. In advancing this argument Craig is also advancing an explanation for why anything at all exists.

What Rosenberg did

Unfortunately Rosenberg doesn’t attack the actual PSR Craig uses in the debate. To quote him at around 43:09:

many of the arguments that Dr. Craig gave tonight and which he has given repeatedly in the past, rest on the first cause argument, an argument that goes back certainly to St. Thomas Aquinas and probably to Aristotle. It rests on, of course, the principle of sufficient reason; the principle that everything that exists must have a cause.

He then goes on to attack this version of the principle of sufficient reason (PSR), a principle that Craig never uses in the entire debate. While this also ties into the kalam cosmological argument (KCA), a version which says “anything that begins to exist has a cause,” I’ll deal with it here since Rosenberg explicitly invokes the term “principle of sufficient reason.”

His “counterexample” to the PSR is that given two physically identical uranium-238 atoms, one of them will emit an alpha particle and the other won’t, and there is no cause for the difference between the two.

Suppose we accept that the uranium-238 atom bringing about an alpha particle is uncaused in the sense that it is indeterministic (identical physical conditions could have produced different outcomes). There are two problems here. First, with respect to the KCA, we still have an (albeit indeterministic) cause for the alpha particle: the uranium-238 atom. Second, with respect to the LCA, there’s an obvious explanation to the alpha particle’s existence: the uranium-238 atom emitted it (even if it did so spontaneously and randomly). Not only did Rosenberg fail to provide a counterexample to the PSR Craig actually used, Rosenberg failed to make any sort of argument against Craig’s actual PSR.

Remarkably, even after Craig said he wasn’t using the PSR Rosenberg described, Rosenberg still seemed to act as if the distorted version of PSR was part of Craig’s view all along (see 1:32:57 onward). The upshot is that Rosenberg never really attacks Craig’s version of the LCA, and Craig can rightfully point out (as he did in 1:26:54) that there has been no response to this argument. Rosenberg’s failure here is egregious enough to be worth repeating: he never responds to this major argument for theism!

What Rosenberg should have done

When discussing the LCA Craig said:

Now there’s only one way I can think of to get a contingent universe from a necessarily existing cause, and that is if the cause is a personal agent who can freely choose to create a contingent reality. It therefore follows that the best explanation of the contingent universe is a transcendent personal being, which is what everybody means by “God.”

For the moment, let’s ignore that “the best explanation of the contingent universe is a transcendent personal being” doesn’t quite follow from “there’s only one way I can think of to get a contingent universe from a necessarily existing cause, and that is if the cause is a personal agent who can freely choose to create a contingent reality.” Craig’s argument from lack of imagination aside, it is simply false that a transcendent personal being who created the contingent universe is what everybody means by God. There’s also omnipotence, omniscience, and moral perfection—all “big three” attributes that are entirely missing from “what everybody means by ‘God.’” Remarkably, Rosenberg doesn’t put forth this objection at all.

That said, the conclusion of the “summarized” LCA is worrisome enough for the atheist. I’ve already attacked the LCA in my Rebutting the Leibnizian Cosmological Argument for God article, but I can summarize here. What Rosenberg should have done is attack the actual PSR that Craig used. Rosenberg could have argued, as I did in my article, that while contingent things that begin to exist require an explanation for their existence, contingent things that exist eternally need no explanation for their existence. As eternal things, they do not require any cause for their existence and their existence could quite plausibly be brute facts. This should be a pretty straightforward response, but Rosenberg messed up by attacking a pointless straw man.