Reality 2, William Lane Craig 0: Craig's criticisms of "The Grand Design"

Stephen Hawking's The Grand Design, much like his seminal bestseller A Brief History of Time, contains some ideas that make theists uncomfortable. A central and well-publicized concept of the book is that the universe does not require the invocation of a god to explain its origin; the universe can be self-contained, without a beginning or end and exist without cause. This essentially removes the need for a creator, which while perhaps not undoing Deepak Chopra's vaguely defined pantheistic consciousness (beyond its superfluousness), certainly renders a divine Creator an obsolete concept.

William Lane Craig fancies himself somewhat of an expert on physics for some reason, and despite his frequently inane arguments is unquestionably well-versed in the obscure lexicon of philosophical theology. So when believers weren't sure of what to make of Hawking's book and didn't want to bother reading it themselves, they deferred to their expert and inundated Craig's inbox with inquiries about the book. Tell us, oh wise Craig, why Hawking and Mlodinow are completely wrong! In two very long-winded answers in his Q&A section, Craig attempts to quell the doubts of the faithful and, in the process, dismisses Hawking and Mlodinow as amateurs who have no business talking about philosophy and whose theories on physics are unfounded and nonsensical.

I already addressed Craig's criticisms of the physical theories in my review of The Grand Design (particularly part 4), so I'm not going to retread that here. Instead, I'm going to address the second essay he wrote pertaining to the book entitled "Hawking and Mlodinow: Philosophical Undertakers", in which he criticizes Hawking and Mlodinow's grasp of philosophy.

Before I dive into what is undoubtedly going to be a brutally long analysis, it's worth asking: why bother with this guy? This is a guy who does not even understand that the "cosmic singularity" is not actually the "beginning of the universe", but an artifact of Einstein's theory of general relativity. The laws of physics don't break down at the singularity; rather, the equations of general relativity lose their utility. The laws of quantum mechanics still hold just fine at the singularity (as Hawking discussed extensively in A Brief History of Time), and it's baffling that anyone who purports to be qualified to debunk a book on theoretical physics can't get such a basic and well-established concept correct. But (*whew*)... the fact remains that Craig is one of the few modern Christian thinkers who really attempts to tackle these subjects in depth, and a lot of people listen to him. Even people who probably can't make heads or tails of his frequently obscure rambling still hold him in esteem as a preeminent philosophical thinker in Christian apologetics. So, I think that his objections are worth addressing.

"Philosophy is dead"

Hawking's somewhat hyperbolic statement in The Grand Design certainly rattled the feathers of many a philosopher, Craig included:
The professional philosopher will regard their verdict as not merely condescending but also as outrageously na├»ve. The man who claims to have no need of philosophy is the one most apt to be fooled by it. One might therefore anticipate that Mlodinow and Hawking’s subsequent exposition of their favored theories will be underpinned by a host of unexamined philosophical presuppositions. That expectation is, in fact, borne out. Like their claims about the origin of the universe from “nothing” or about the Many Worlds Hypothesis to explain fine tuning, their claims about laws of nature, the possibility of miracles, scientific determinism, and the illusion of free will are asserted with only the thinnest of justification and little understanding of the philosophical issues involved.
Them's fightin' words! Craig has slapped Hawking and Mlodinow with his proverbial glove, and the duel is afoot. So, how does Craig justify such a vociferous rebuke?
Take, for example, their ruminations on laws of nature (pp. 27-34). After admitting the philosophical difficulty of defining just what a law of nature is, they proceed to ask three questions about natural laws: (i) What is the origin of the laws? (ii) Are there any exceptions to the laws, that is, miracles? (iii) Is there only one set of possible laws? 
With respect to (i) they note that the traditional answer is that God established nature’s laws. But Hawking and Mlodinow complain than unless one invests God with certain attributes, this answer amounts no more than defining God as the embodiment of the laws of nature. I find this complaint perplexing. Since the classical theists they have in mind (including Descartes, whose views they misrepresent) thought that nature’s laws were freely willed by God, God could not be just the embodiment of those laws, since God could have established quite different laws. What Mlodinow and Hawking are describing is the view of Spinoza, a pantheist who regarded “God” and “nature” as synonyms. Of course, classical theists regarded God as having certain attributes, which distinguished Him from nature; that is simply entailed in the answer that God established the laws.
Let's read this again:
[Exhibit A] "Hawking and Mlodinow complain than unless one invests God with certain attributes, this answer amounts no more than defining God as the embodiment of the laws of nature. I find this complaint perplexing."
[Exhibit B] "Of course, classical theists regarded God as having certain attributes, which distinguished Him from nature."
Is this guy serious? Thank you, Dr. Craig, for unintentionally proving Hawking's point. Let's look at another statement again:
"Since the classical theists they have in mind (including Descartes, whose views they misrepresent) thought that nature’s laws were freely willed by God, God could not be just the embodiment of those laws"
The concept of a God who can freely will nature's laws is, in fact, exactly what Hawking was talking about. To define God as such is to assign him attributes. Craig clearly did not rebut this argument at all, but actually supported it.
...why answer (ii) negatively? Incredibly, Hawking and Mlodinow think that science requires it:
The scientific determinism that Laplace formulated is the modern scientist’s answer to question two. It is, in fact, the basis of all modern science, and a principle that is important throughout this book. A scientific law is not a scientific law if it holds only when some supernatural being decides not to intervene (p. 30).
This argument is multiply confused. First, it is false that Laplacean determinism is the basis of modern science. Never mind the hordes of theistic scientists who affirm the reality of miracles
Suggesting that there are "hordes of theistic scientists who affirm the reality of miracles" is not an argument; it's an appeal to authority, one that, if most surveys about religiosity and science are to be taken seriously (most find that scientists, and especially physicists, are generally non-religious), is fabricated. And that's to say nothing of the compartmentalized thinking of these "theistic scientists".

The part that baffled me about this argument of Craig's isn't just that he misunderstood Hawking, but that the rebuttal to his complaint is in the book. Plainly. And Craig even cites it, ironically misconceiving it as supporting his objections.

Hawking is correct that Laplace's determinism is the foundation of all modern science: all laws of nature hold at all times and at all scales, and to suggest that the chain of causality is at some point broken would mean to suggest that the laws of physics themselves are broken. From that Hawking suggests, as Laplace did, that the interactions in nature at all scales are so unfathomably complex that we could never possibly calculate them precisely, thus we retain the illusion of free will: "While conceding that human behavior is indeed determined by the laws of nature, it also seems reasonable to conclude that the outcome is determined in such a complicated way and with so many variables as to make impossible in practice to predict. For that one would need a knowledge of the initial state of each of the thousand trillion trillion molecules in the human body and to solve something like that number of equations" (p. 32).

Craig then suggests that even Hawking and Mlodinow don't hold this view:
...there are plenty of scientists, including Hawking and Mlodinow themselves (p. 72), who regard the indeterminism characteristic of quantum physics as ontic, not merely epistemic. If nature itself is indeterministic, then the determinism of Laplace, a Newtonian, does not hold. Even a complete set of nature’s laws will not fully determine the future..
It’s puzzling that Hawking and Mlodinow are oblivious to the contradiction between their affirmation of both Laplacean determinism and quantum indeterminacy. 
This is the part from page 72 he's talking about: "Given the state of a system at some time, the laws of nature determine the probabilities of various futures and pasts rather than determining these events with certainty." It's Craig, not Hawking and Mlodinow, who is confused. Quantum indeterminacy doesn't contradict philosophical determinism; it simply says that events are expressed in probabilities, not absolutes. Hawking calls this "a new form of determinism" and says, "Though that is distasteful to some, scientists must accept theories that agree with experiment, not their own preconceived notions." There's much more to this, particularly that the probabilities in quantum mechanics are not like the probabilities in everyday experience, but I think that's better left to Hawking to explain. 

Craig weakly attempts to support his statements by erroneously claiming that Hawking and Mlodinow have confused determinism with naturalism:
The laws of nature describe the behavior of physical systems in the absence of any supernatural intervention. Were a supernatural agent to intervene, the predictions based on the laws would not hold precisely because non-natural factors, not envisioned by the laws, have entered the picture. The laws thus have implicit ceteris paribus conditions: they describe the behavior of physical systems given that no supernatural agent intervenes. If such a being does intervene, the natural law is not abrogated, since it describes the behavior of the system only under the assumption that such a being does not intervene.
I'm not sure how Craig feels that this addresses the argument. He's suggesting that when a supernatural being abrogates physical laws, the physical laws aren't actually abrogated because they're merely physical laws that don't account for whether supernatural beings arbitrarily decide to break them. This is clearly paradoxical, and an egregious case of special pleading. Laws either hold or they do not. If supernatural entities abrogate them, they cease to become laws at all but rather "guidelines" subject to the whims of a deity. Craig would like to separate the natural and supernatural into distinct realms, but if the supernatural has a direct, observable effect on the natural world it is no longer supernatural at all; in other words, if the laws of physics could be broken by supernatural beings and this could be observed and independently verified, we would have a "science of miracles."


Craig spends the remainder of his essay critiquing and misunderstanding Hawking and Mlodinow's model-dependent realism. What Hawking means by this is that there is no objective knowledge or concept of reality against which we can compare and validate any particular theory. It is the model that informs us of reality, not the other way around. From the book:
There is no picture- or theory-independent concept of reality. Instead we will adopt a view that we will call model-dependent realsim: the idea that physical theory or world picture is a model (generally of a mathematical nature) and a set of rules that connect the elements of the model to observation. (p. 42-43)
This, to me, makes perfect sense. Any understanding we have of the world can be thought of as a given frame of reference. Our day to day sensory experiences, for example, are a frame of reference; we develop a set of subconscious rules that make our concept of reality congruent with our daily observations. But at enormous scales and speeds or at subatomic scales – both of which must be observed indirectly with equipment rather than directly through sensory experience alone – we find that our immediate frame of reference does not adequately describe the laws of nature. We develop new models of reality, like Einstein's theories of relativity for the vast scales and quantum theory for subatomic scales, to explain and predict our observations using difference frames of reference. Accordingly, we can't say that one frame of reference is more "real" than the other; they all overlap, and different frames of reference are useful in different circumstances. Craig, however, thinks that Hawking and Mlodinow have gone off the deep end:
Mlodinow and Hawking, not content with ontological pluralism, really go off the deep end when they assert, “There is no model-independent test of reality. It follows that a well-constructed model creates a reality of its own” (p. 172). This is an assertion of ontological relativity, the view that reality itself is different for persons having different models. If you are Fred Hoyle, the universe really has existed eternally in a steady state; but if you are Stephen Hawking the universe really began with a big bang. If you are the ancient physician Galen blood really does not circulate through the human body, but if you are William Harvey, it does! Such a view seems crazy and is made only more so by Mlodinow and Hawking’s claim that the model itself is responsible for creating its respective reality.
The absurd examples Craig is giving here is a remarkable distortion, and not at all reflective of what Hawking and Mlodinow are saying. They are saying that each model is governed by its own rules which connect the model to observation, so that when we observe the universe through the frame of reference of a given model, we necessarily adopt its "reality". Since we don't have any way of knowing what reality ultimately is – all observations of reality must occur from a given frame of reference – we can only define reality contextually. This doesn't mean, as Craig seems to think they are implying, that the universe "really" behaves completely differently depending on the observer; it means that our concept of reality is contingent and provisional. Reality is still very much objective; it's just that exactly how we conceptualize reality necessarily varies based on the frame of reference through which we observe it.

Craig holds himself in high esteem as an expert in philosophy, but when he's not busy making horrible arguments like the oft-debunked Kalam Cosmological Argument or the pathetically circular Ontological Argument, he fancies himself worthy of going toe to toe with some of the most highly regarded scientists in the world. He tries more earnestly, and with more hubris, than just about anyone I've seen, but in the end he just ends up falling harder. And while Craig's efforts are sincere enough to be worth addressing, the reality is that in the end, we have a guy with a theology degree trying to debate science with a guy who was Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge for 30 years, and the match is just as lopsided as you'd expect.


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