Sean Carroll responds to William Lane Craig

Sean Carroll has an essay in the Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology called, "Does the Universe Need God?" I think it's an outstanding rebuttal to first-cause and design arguments, and a thorough overview of modern cosmology and its implications. His arguments buttress what I have read in many other books and articles by modern cosmologists.

Recently, William Lane Craig did a podcast in which he tried to offer a response. I was literally in the process of writing a post about it when it dawned on me that Sean may have responded himself. And indeed, he had. I particularly like Sean's post because it reinforces many of the arguments I've put forth here on this blog in response to Craig's arguments. I am definitely not a physicist, which is why I tend to quote them instead of trying to correct them as Craig does.

Some choice quotes from Carroll's response:
One point he makes repeatedly — really the foundational idea from which everything else he has to say flows — is that a naturalist account of the form I advocate simply doesn’t explain why the universe exists at all, and that in my essay I don’t even try. Our old friend the Primordial Existential Question, or Why is there something rather than nothing?
I have to admit I’m a bit baffled here. I suppose it’s literally true that I don’t offer a reason why there is something rather than nothing, but it’s completely false that I ignore the question. There’s a whole section of my paper, entitled “Accounting for the world,” which addresses precisely this point. It’s over a thousand words long. I even mention Craig by name!
This strikes at a consistent problem: William Lane Craig, like Alister McGrath, is either willfully ignorant or intellectually dishonest. Just as in his chapter in True Reason in which he purportedly responds to The God Delusion, Craig seems to be counting on his readers (or listeners, as it were) not actually having read the source material.
The idea is simple, if we may boil it down to the essence: some things happen for “reasons,” and some don’t, and you don’t get to demand that this or that thing must have a reason. Some things just are. Claims to the contrary are merely assertions, and we are as free to ignore them as you are to assert them.
This is the gist of an important idea I've discussed often: if you ask Why is there something rather than nothing?, or more specifically Why does the universe exist?, you are making the assumption that the existence of the universe requires an explanation. Maybe the universe simply is. What we know is this: cosmology does not force us to explain the mere existence of the universe; it allows for the possibility that it is self-contained or (per Carroll) "enclosed". So theologians like Craig do not get to simply insist that the rest of us have a burden of explanation here. They're making an assertion based on an unjustified assumption.

But what about the whole "beginning of the universe" thing?
The second major point Craig makes is a claim that I ignored something important: namely, the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin singularity theorem. This is Craig’s favorite bit of cosmology, because it can be used to argue that the universe had a beginning (rather than stretching infinitely far backwards in time), and Craig is really devoted to the idea that the universe had a beginning. As a scientist, I’m not really devoted to any particular cosmological scenario at all, so in my paper I tried to speak fairly about both “beginning cosmologies” and “eternal cosmologies.” Craig quotes (misleadingly) a recent paper by Audrey Mithani and Alex Vilenkin, which concludes by saying “Did the universe have a beginning? At this point, it seems that the answer to this question is probably yes.” Mithani and Vilenkin are also scientists, and are correspondingly willing to be honest about our state of ignorance: thus, “probably” yes. I personally think the answer is “probably no,” but none of us actually knows. The distinction is that the scientists are willing to admit that they don’t really know.
This is vital. Craig is committed to the idea that the universe had a beginning. His faith requires it to be true, so he clearly has a vested interest in cherry-picking the literature, which is exactly what he does. Carroll, being an actual physicist and not just a pretend one like Craig, is not committed to the idea that the universe does or does not have a beginning. Maybe, maybe not. But that's not all:
I don’t think that any result dealing with classical spacetimes can teach us anything definitive about the beginning of the universe. The moment of the Big Bang is, if anything is, a place where quantum gravity is supremely important. The Borde-Guth-Vilenkin results are simply not about quantum gravity. It’s extremely easy to imagine eternal cosmologies based on quantum mechanics that do not correspond to simple classical spacetimes throughout their history. It’s an interesting result to keep in mind, but nowhere near the end of our investigations into possible histories of the universe.
In just about every post I've ever done on first-cause arguments and the "beginning" of the universe, I point out that a beginning, in the best case scenario, only applies to the observable universe. No one has yet traversed the Planck Epoch to see what caused the big bang, or what the nature of spacetime really was prior to cosmological inflation. Until we have a theory of quantum gravity, that will simply be a giant question mark.

Carroll concludes with a whopper:
None of this matters to Craig. He knows what answer he wants to get — the universe had a beginning — and he’ll comb through the cosmology literature looking to cherry-pick quotes that bolster this conclusion. He doesn’t understand the literature at a technical level, which is why he’s always quoting (necessarily imprecise) popular books by Hawking and others, rather than the original papers. That’s fine; we can’t all be experts in everything. But when we’re not experts, it’s not intellectually honest to distort the words of experts to make them sound like they fit our pre-conceived narrative.
This illustrates why it is more intellectually honest to be a non-believer than a believer. As an atheist, I am not committed to any particular outcome of cosmology. Contrary to the assumptions of many theists I've encountered, being an atheist does not commit me to materialism, either – I'm simply committed to following the evidence. Perhaps "God" and "supernatural causality" will be part of our growing understanding of cosmology; perhaps not. But I'm not committed to the idea either way. When a believer challenges me with the old canard, If there's no God, then why does the universe exist?, it's enough for me to say, I don't know – and neither do you. There's no reason to believe the existence of the universe requires an explanation at all – perhaps it can simply be. That's enough to show that believers cannot present the mere existence of the universe as evidence for God.

Read Sean's full response to Craig here.


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