Fire Back: Where the Readers Respond

In which we discuss an atheist’s not-so-clever attempt to dismiss the Argument from Contingency and the Kalam Cosmological Argument.

JB is arguing science and faith with an atheist friend and asked for a bit of help with the science. JB’s friend sent him a link to “Arizona Atheist,” who attempts to refute two of William Lane Craig’s arguments for God’s existence. Despite AA’s bold claim to have “demolished” Craig’s arguments, it is in reality such a weak and muddled attempt that it hardly seems worth commenting on. However, since it’s apparently cited with some frequency by those seeking to refute Craig’s arguments, it’s worth getting into it.

The first argument is the Argument from Contingency, which goes like this (quoted from the link):

1. Everything that exists has an explanation of its existence, either in the necessity of its own nature or in an external cause.
2. If the universe has an explanation of its existence, that explanation is God.
3. The universe exists.
4. Therefore, the universe has an explanation of its existence (from 1, 3).
5. Therefore, the explanation of the universe’s existence is God (from 2, 4).

Now this is a logically airtight argument. That is to say, if the premises are true, then the conclusion is unavoidable. It doesn’t matter if we don’t like the conclusion. It doesn’t matter if we have other objections to God’s existence. So long as we grant the three premises, we have to accept the conclusion. So the question is this: Which is more plausible–that those premises are true or that they are false?

Since the logic is airtight, the only way to attack this argument is to show that any of its premises are wrong. AA goes after Premise 1:

According to modern physics, however things can seemingly happen without cause. There are several things we observe that appear to have no cause. For example, “[w]hen an atom in an excited energy level drops to a lower level and emits a photon, a particle of light, we find no cause of that event. Similarly, no cause is evident in the decay of a radioactive nucleus.”

This constitutes a very weak attack on Premise 1, for two reasons:

  1. Just because we find no cause doesn’t mean there is no cause. Note the tacit acknowledgement of this with hedge words like “seemingly” and “evident.”
  2. AA has misunderstood the argument. The Argument from Contingency doesn’t address events, it addresses existence. The photon exists, and it most certainly has a cause — an electron in an atom dropping from a higher energy level to a lower energy level. The products of radioactive decay exist, and they likewise have a cause — radioactive decay of a nucleus.

Next, AA goes after the Kalam Cosmological Argument, which goes like this:

1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause.
2. The universe began to exist.
3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.

The Kalam Cosmological Argument is similar to the Argument from Contingency, but differs in that it rests on the “controversial” nature of Premise 2. (As we’ll see, it’s only controversial in the sense that you can sort of dispute the standard interpretation of big bang cosmology if you accept some strange assumptions.) AA therefore primarily goes after Premise 2, but not before first dismissing Premise 1, again on the erroneous basis that “things can seem to happen without cause.” (Note how he once again hedges and does not state that things do happen without cause, just that they “can seem to.”)

AA then goes on to attack Premise 2 in one of the most desperately feeble attempts to dismiss reason and evidence I have ever seen. (Why are atheists constantly held up as champions of reason? I have seen no evidence that this stereotype is warranted.)

Craig supports the validity of Premise 2 with both philosophical and scientific arguments against an infinitely old universe. For the latter, he cites work by theoretical physicist Alexander Vilenkin, who figures prominently in AA’s refutation.

AA awkwardly begins his refutation by stating,

Again, as I’ve said already, just because Craig can’t imagine an infinite universe doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Simply arguing that it’s impossible without any proof is no argument.

Craig rejects an infinitely old universe, not on the basis of his inability to imagine an infinitely old universe, but on the basis of what he demonstrates is a logical impossibility. At this point, it is incumbent on AA to show in what way Craig’s philosophical argument for Premise 2 is flawed or to provide evidence contradicting it, but he doesn’t do this. Instead, he supplies a quote from Vilenkin, which is irrelevant, because it doesn’t address any of the premises, but instead disagrees with the interpretation that Premise 3 implies the cause is necessarily God*.

Okay, now for the bit where AA completely abandons any reasonable standard for evidence and reason. The prevailing paradigm of modern physics is that the universe began to exist somewhere (somewhen?) between 11 and 17 billion years ago in a sudden event called the big bang. There is loads of evidence for the big bang, which is why virtually no one believes the steady-state cosmological model anymore. Now, even though the standard interpretation has been that the big bang represents the creation of the universe from complete and total nothing, there’s a wrinkle: in actuality, it’s not entirely clear what sort of a beginning the big bang represents. In spite of the mounds of evidence supporting the big bang, there is a limit to what we can know about it. As physicist Alan Guth put it, the big bang theory “gives not even a clue about what banged, what caused it to bang, or what happened before it banged.”

AA rests his entire case against the Kalam Cosmological Argument on this wrinkle, even after Vilenkin’s commentary on it should have convinced him otherwise.

Vilenkin is an author of a theorem that shows pretty conclusively that the universe cannot be past-infinite; in other words, it has a finite age. But does this necessarily imply a beginning? In a correspondence AA initiated between Vilenkin and the late atheist physicist, Victor Stenger, Vilenkin comments that his theorem does not prove that the universe must have had a beginning, however

…it proves that the expansion of the universe must have had a beginning. You can evade the theorem by postulating that the universe was contracting prior to some time.

First of all, it doesn’t disprove that the universe had a beginning. Second, what this essentially means is that the big bang could represent, not the beginning, but one of many “beginnings.” If the universe is cyclical, that is, if it bangs and expands and then contracts and crunches, and does this over and over for eternity, then the universe is effectively eternal, and this is what supposedly negates Premise 2.

That could kind of, sort of maybe present a very weak argument against Premise 2 — its chief drawback being that not only is there no evidence for it, there is no known way to test it — except that AA inexplicably goes on to quote Vilenkin stating that it also happens to be theoretically impossible given what we assume about the nature of time, and that even if we grant that something very weird happens at time = 0 to allow a contracting universe, it still effectively supports Premise 2:

This sounds as if there is nothing wrong with having contraction prior to expansion. But the problem is that a contracting universe is highly unstable. Small perturbations would cause it to develop all sorts of messy singularities, so it would never make it to the expanding phase. That is why Aguirre & Gratton and Carroll & Chen had to assume that the arrow of time changes at t = 0. This makes the moment t = 0 rather special. I would say no less special than a true beginning of the universe.

So, AA’s refutation of Premise 2, his “demolishment” of the Kalam Cosmological Argument, rests not on the standard, accepted interpretation of the prevailing paradigm of cosmology — that the universe began to exist billions of years ago — but on the untested, unproved possibility that Vilenkin’s theory is wrong, that you can somehow get around a beginning, but at the cost of accepting something that is “no less special than a true beginning of the universe.”

I’m genuinely confused by AA’s response to Vilenkin’s comments. How much do you have to hate evidence and reason to read Vilenkin’s responses to these questions about his theorem and still conclude that it supports your case?

Having gone through this exercise, the absolute worst you can say about the Kalam Cosmological Argument is that Premise 2 is not 100% proven. But we already knew that. If you know anything at all about how science works, you know that nothing in science is a done deal — you can’t ever prove beyond doubt that any scientific theory is true — which is why Craig says “that for an argument to be a good one the premises need to be probably true in light of the evidence.” That is the standard by which all of modern science has operated for centuries. For something to be considered “true,” it only needs to be probably true based on a preponderance of evidence to support it and with no evidence to seriously contradict it. By this standard, it is true that our universe began to exist 13.8 billion years ago — which means we are reasonably assured Premise 2 is true, and therefore the Kalam Cosmological Argument is a legitimate argument. Given the weight of evidence and reason, it is far more supported than an untested — and untestable — theoretical exercise in exploring alternatives.

AA says he does not think philosophy is the best way to get at the truth; it’s reasonable to assume that he thinks science is, and yet he does his level best to ignore it to avoid accepting the conclusions of two very powerful arguments in favor of God.

Incidentally, two years after AA posted his attempted refutation of Craig’s arguments, Vilenkin announced — at Stephen Hawking’s 70th birthday celebration, no less — that there is just no getting around a beginning for the universe.

—–

* I don’t know what Vilenkin’s arguments are against Premise 3 implying the cause is necessarily God, but there is a case, however weak, to be made on the basis of an eternally expanding and contracting model of the universe. If it’s correct, it renders God superfluous. However, not only is this model theoretically unlikely, it’s physically untestable.

2 thoughts on “Fire Back: Where the Readers Respond

  1. “either in the necessity of its own nature or in an external cause.”
    “[w]hen an atom in an excited energy level drops to a lower level and emits a photon, a particle of light, we find no cause of that event.”

    I see the cause right there – “an atom in an excited energy level drop[ing] to a lower level”

    Why it happens that a photon is emitted I do not know, but it appears to be its nature in such a state.

  2. Nice summary, Sarah.

    It’s always interesting to get atheists to define “supernatural” and “faith” prior to having these sorts of discussions with them. They will invariably try to move the goal posts before it’s over.

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