Sunday 6 October 2013

Krauss and Craig in Australia

When I heard that Lawrence Krauss was going to debate William Lane Craig again, I was confused. Why would Krauss agree to this, given what happened last time?

Anyway, the videos of the three sessions are now available, so I decided to watch them. Unbelievable? also featured Krauss and Craig, subsequent to the debates, but I decided to postpone listening to the programme until I had seen all three debates. I had misgivings about Unbelievable? having Craig on, as host Justin Brierley has in the past given Craig an unopposed platform to badmouth his debating opponent. At least this time Krauss was, I assumed, giving his side of the encounters.

As for the debates, I began with the first one, in Brisbane. Krauss spoke first — the format was to be an opening statement from each participant, then a moderated discussion, followed by Q&A. Not long after Krauss began, I thought I got a sense of why he had agreed to participate. It seemed it was payback time, with Krauss calling out Craig for his dishonest tactics (even though — this being the first debate of three, and this the opening statement from the first participant — we hadn't yet heard anything from Craig).

The topic was "Has Science Buried God?" — Krauss said yes, science has buried gods, plural, and gave reasons, but he also attacked Craig for misrepresentation of science, and for lying about the Dawkins and Krauss film, The Unbelievers.

In Craig's opening statement he made the odd claim that theology provides the foundation for science. He put up a slide listing "Assumptions Undergirding Science". Among these were laws of logic, the orderly structure of the physical world, the reliability of our cognitive faculties in knowing the world, and the validity of inductive reasoning. This is thinly disguised presuppositionalism. Anyone who has had dealings with presuppositional apologetics will recognise it immediately. But the fact that Craig was using a presuppositional argument to support his claim that science has not buried God lends credence to Krauss's contention that Craig is being dishonest. In Five Views on Apologetics, edited by Steven Cowan, Craig wrote:
Where presuppositionalism muddies the waters is in its apologetic methodology. As commonly understood, presuppositionalism is guilty of a logical howler: it commits the informal fallacy of “petitio principii,” or begging the question, for its advocates presuppose the truth of Christian theism in order to prove Christian theism.
So Craig is on record as decrying presuppositionalism as not a useful apologetic — and here we have him using it when it suits him. In a debate, it appears, Craig will use whatever will fit his current purpose, no matter if he believes it's true, or if it's already been refuted a thousand times. If it will help him "win" a debate, then it's all dubious theological grist to his apologetic mill. To those who have heard Craig debate a few times, this will not be a surprise.

As if to illustrate his pragmatic debating ethos, Craig offered a quote from Stephen Hawking: "Almost everyone now believes that the universe, and time itself, had a beginning at the big bang." Aside from the neutrality of the quote — Hawking appears to be stating what he thinks others believe — it seems like a gratuitous and selective appeal to authority, as Craig has previously described Hawking's explanation of the beginning of the universe in The Grand Design as "metaphysically absurd".

As part of Craig's thesis that science has not buried God, he claimed that the big bang theory — that the universe had a beginning — is an example of how science verifies theological claims. He cited Borde, Guth & Vilenkin in this endeavour, as they apparently show that all models of the beginning of the "universe" — whether that's our own universe or any number of other universes in a multiverse — cannot be "past eternal". That is, the universe must have had an absolute beginning. Well, that's what the Bible says! QED! What the implications of the Borde Guth Vilenkin Theorem actually are in respect of the finiteness or otherwise of the universe became a recurring theme in this series of debates — but not, generally, in a good way.

Craig's version of cosmology has always seemed to me — a non-cosmologist — overly simplistic. The beginning of the universe entails the beginning of time as well as the beginning of space, which Craig acknowledges, but he conveniently ignores the problem of causation without time. Without time, cause and effect have no meaning, so to say that anything that has a beginning (including space-time) must have a cause, is to talk nonsense. So, the universe had a beginning. Why? It's impossible to know. Craig, however, thinks otherwise, using what he called the Contingency Argument:
  1. Every existing thing 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 is an existing thing.
  4. Therefore the explanation of the existence of the universe is God.
Apart from the obvious tautology, this argument (originally from Leibniz) has serious flaws right from the start. In the first premise there is the suggestion that something that is necessarily existent is somehow explained by that necessity. But where's the explanation in saying something exists just because it must? The reason that this kind of "logic" is acceptable to theists is that it's what they use to justify God. God exists because he must. Then there's the matter of an external cause. It sounds reasonable, but if you're applying this argument to the existence of the universe the only way it works is if the definition of "universe" is such that it has something external to it. If that's what Craig means, then this argument is of no use because it's not doing what he wants, which is to explain the existence of the Universe with a capital U — the universe that includes everything and therefore by definition it's a universe with nothing external to it.

But the second premise is surely the ultimate hubris: "If the universe has an explanation of its existence, that explanation is God." This isn't a premise, it's a conclusion. That Craig can put up a slide like this with a straight face is simply astonishing.

Naturally Krauss and Craig both argued about the nature of "nothing", and it was here more than anywhere else in their debates that they consistently talked past each other. Krauss talked about "nothing" as a quantum vacuum, in which particles can spontaneously pop into and out of existence. Craig maintained, rightly, that because the quantum vacuum contains energy fields it isn't nothing. What Craig means by nothing is the philosophical nothing, the nothing-at-all, anywhere, anywhen. And what he's asking is why is there something — anything at all — rather than a state of absolute nonbeing.

But such a "why question" really is — as Richard Dawkins would say — a silly question. It's clear from the outset that this state of absolute nonbeing is not an option. It's not "one of a number of possibilities" — it's the total absence of possibilities. Indeed it's the total absence of anything, and as such it's not even worth talking about. It seems to me that a state of absolute nonbeing is no more than a philosophical concept, and I see no reason to even consider that such a state was ever the case. To ask "Why is there something rather nothing?" is to suggest in the question that "something" and "nothing" are somehow equivalent to each other, as if they are two sides of the same coin — and in Krauss's view they are, if "nothing" is taken to mean empty space. As a cosmologist he directs his efforts to that question, and the physics he talks about is addressing the question of why do we have a universe of galaxies, stars and planets rather than empty space. Craig says that's not the question being asked. But the question, "Why is there something rather than a state of absolute nonbeing?" is nonsensical, because these two are not equivalent. It's like asking "Why is there political intrigue rather than glass-fibre loft-insulation?"

The second debate, in Sydney, was supposed to address this question directly. Krauss delivered a very condensed version of his "A Universe from Nothing" lecture, and showed a slide of an email he had received from Alex Vilenkin which in effect stated that it may be erroneous to state that no valid theory of the beginning of the universe could legitimately posit a past-eternal universe. Krauss also picked up on Craig's use of unsound premises in his Contingency Argument for the existence of God.

When it was Craig's turn he began by clarifying what he meant by "nothing", but as I've already explained, the nothing that is not anything at all is an uninteresting philosophical concept of no practical use, no likelihood of being a description of an actual state, and therefore in my opinion not worth discussing. When certain philosophers say that the question, "Why is there something rather than nothing?" is one of the most crucial questions that can be asked, I beg to differ.

Craig reiterated the Leibnizian Cosmological Argument, claiming that the cause of the universe must be a non-physical immaterial being beyond space and time. There are multiple problems with this assertion. Why must the cause be a "being"? Do we have any examples of non-physical immaterial entities causing anything in the real world? If such an entity is "beyond space and time" how can it have an effect on anything in the real world (which is of course within space and time)? Finally, what does "beyond space and time" even mean, when applied to causative agents? Craig was just using big words to disguise the lack of evidence for his preferred "explanation". Despite what he claimed in the first debate he really was using a "God of the gaps" argument, but dressed up in fancy language.

By the third debate (Melbourne) I still had no real understanding why Krauss would want to engage with Craig, other than to settle a few scores. Craig began with his usual redefinition of the topic, from "Is it reasonable to believe there is a God?" to "Are there better arguments for God's existence than against God's existence?" This might seem innocuous, but notice the subtle shift in the burden of proof. From having to provide reasons for belief in God — reasons that are compelling enough to show that such belief is reasonable — Craig now only has to provide some arguments for God's existence in opposition to arguments against. His opponent, however, now has to provide better arguments to prove a negative.

Craig used six arguments to show why, in his opinion, it is reasonable to believe there is a God: the Kalām Cosmological Argument; Mathematics; Fine Tuning; Objective Morality; the Resurrection of Jesus; and the Personal Experience of God. We've heard these countless times, and I don't intend to go into them here. Suffice to say, I don't buy any of them.

The debate degenerated into petty arguments about whether Craig really had misinterpreted the Borde Guth Vilenkin Theorem, as Krauss claimed. Craig had obtained a copy of the email that Alex Vilenkin had sent to Krauss, and which Krauss had shown in an edited form. Craig claimed that Krauss had edited out sections favourable to Craig's argument. Krauss denied this. Subsequent to the debates Craig's supporters were citing this as hypocrisy on Krauss's part — Krauss being dishonest while claiming Craig was dishonest. And subsequent to that, Krauss published a joint open email from himself and Vilenkin showing their agreement that Krauss's edited version of Vilenkin's email did not distort its meaning. Petty and distracting, and in my opinion a further indication that Krauss should not have bothered with these debates. Particularly in this last one there were extended moments when Krauss came over as cantankerous, dismissive and constantly interrupting. By the end I still didn't know why he agreed to participate. Perhaps the City Bible Forum offered him lots of money.

When I did get around to listening to the relevant Unbelievable? podcast, I heard Krauss give his reasons for engaging with Craig. Firstly to explain how science works, and secondly:
The other thing that I try and do is counter misrepresentations, not only about science, but about nature, by people who have vested interests, and in this case I agreed to do these because having had interactions with William Lane Craig before, it was clear to me that he misrepresents science completely, in order to try and provide justification for beliefs he has that are just his beliefs, yet he presents them as if with the authority of science, which he certainly — demonstrated in these dialogues and in other cases — he certainly doesn't understand. And I felt it was really important to attack that credibility for people of goodwill who don't know, and they listen and they think "well, when this man is quoting scientists, or he's quoting science, he's doing it accurately" and I tried to show, especially in the first discussion, there's very little accuracy there whatsoever.
Host Justin Brierley interviewed Krauss and Craig separately on his show — though it's not clear whether each interviewee heard what the other said until after the whole programme was recorded. My guess is that they didn't. Frankly the whole thing was pretty tedious, with accusations flying in both directions. Nevertheless Craig still got the last word, characterising Krauss as "incapable of carrying on a civil conversation." As it happens I've met Lawrence Krauss on two separate occasions and he was perfectly charming both times, but the impression left by these debates and the Unbelievable? programme is one of cantankerous belligerence with a score to settle. Craig, on the other hand — in the debates at least, if not on Unbelievable? — came over as patient and forbearing.

It's a shame, because Lawrence Krauss is right, and William Lane Craig is wrong.