24 February 2014

Did William Lane Craig really do that?

I was reading Sean Carroll's post-debate thoughts, and I had remembered seeing William Lane Craig's rephrasing of the Kalam somewhere else just after the debate. Sean confirmed it in his blog, and I just can't believe what I'm reading. Surely a professional philosopher (as he certainly likes to think of himself) can see the barn-door-sized fallacy here. This is the version of the Kalam that Craig used in the debate:
  1. If the universe began to exist, it has a transcendent cause for its existence
  2. The universe began to exist
  3. Therefore, the universe has a transcendent cause for its existence
What's changed from previous renditions is the first premise, which used to simply say "Everything that begins to exist has a cause for its existence". Craig added the term transcendent.

Now, I have personally argued in the past that this much is obvious. We clearly can't be talking about the mundane type of physical causality we actually observe in the universe, because the universe would not have existed. So if the universe came into existence by way of some cause, it must be a cause that's transcendent of physical time, space, and law.

Here's the elephant in the room: there is no evidence whatsoever that transcendent causes exist. Sean remarks that Craig seemed to just take the first premise as a given and focus his energy on the second, and that is a huge mistake from Craig. The existence of transcendent causes, while certainly not impossible, is by no means a well-established and uncontroversial fact. If you think String Theory is speculative, well, you'd be right – but String Theory is at least premised on well-established mathematics and laws of physics; there are many parameters it simply cannot violate and still be a viable theory. But a "transcendent cause", well, what the deuce is that supposed to be, exactly? How does it work? What rules govern its interactions? How can it be observed? It's speculative to the point of being absurd, because by definition it would unbound by the constraints that we conventionally use to clearly define the very concept of causality.

Craig can't just assume that transcendent causes exist in order to prove that the universe began to exist with a transcendent cause. That's a classic case of begging the question, and one so elementary that I'm stupefied that someone who fancies himself an academic philosopher can make a mistake that wouldn't fly in an introductory undergraduate philosophy course.  


Read Sean Carroll's full thoughts on the debate here.

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