An atheist reads "True Reason": Chapter 3

Tonight I read the third chapter of True Reason: Christian Responses to the Challenge of Atheism. William Lane Craig, my favorite apologist punching bag, wrote chapter 3 of this book. Craig fancies himself a sophisticated philosopher and, when he's not proclaiming himself the winner of his own debates, loves to let everyone know how unimpressed he is with atheists' arguments.

The previous chapter of this book was an unmitigated disaster. Can a learned philosopher and theologian like Craig provide some much-needed leverage to this so far unimpressive book?


Again, I must stress here that I am not expecting this book to convert me. But I am hoping it can at least present some arguments that raise points I have not yet considered. So far, though, the arguments of the book seem to count on its readers not actually reading the source material (see the previous entry for lots of examples). Craig's chapter is a criticism of Richard Dawkins' polemic The God Delusion. But Craig runs into a problem here: I actually own a copy of The God Delusion, so I can check it myself to see if I think Craig is fairly representing Dawkin's points. Not only is he not, but he finishes the chapter with what appears to be an outright lie. I mean, I'd say he was just wrong, but someone who thinks himself as such a prestigious academic ought to be able to use Google. Anyway, into the meat grinder:

Chapter 3: The Dawkins Delusion

It's funny that the title of this chapter is identical to Alister McGrath's flea, because McGrath didn't actually read The God Delusion either. Sorry guys, skimming it doesn't count!

Craig launches into what he correctly quotes Dawkins as saying is "the central argument in my book". But the quote is misleading, because Craig subsequently presents it as though it's supposed to be a logical syllogism with six premises and a conclusion. But this is Dawkins' actual quote, from the end of chapter 4:
"This chapter has contained the central argument of my book, and so, at the risk of sounding repetitive, I shall summarize it in six numbered points."
Craig's already misleading readers. Dawkins' six points are a summary, not a syllogism. Craig then gives very brief paraphrases of the six points, and finishes with "Therefore, God almost certainly does not exist." Craig leaps:
This argument is jarring because the atheistic conclusion that “Therefore, God almost certainly does not exist” seems to come suddenly out of left field. You don’t need to be a philosopher to realize that that conclusion doesn’t follow from the six previous statements.
The problem is that Dawkins never said, "Therefore, God almost certainly does not exist." This ought to make it perfectly clear that the six points are not meant to constitute a syllogism. It also makes it perfectly clear that Craig is misquoting Dawkins. Also of great importance are the words "almost certainly". McGrath missed those, too. Strange, since it's, y'know, in the title of the fucking chapter. But Craig will soon be mocking Dawkins for failing to disprove the existence of God – which Dawkins never set out to do in the first place.

Now, to Craig's credit, he allows for my above point:
A more charitable interpretation would be to take these six statements, not as premises, but as summary statements of six steps in Dawkins’ cumulative argument for his conclusion that God does not exist. But even on this charitable construal, the conclusion “Therefore, God almost certainly does not exist” simply doesn’t follow from these six steps, even if we concede that each of them is true and justified.
"Charitable"? More like "accurate". Anyway, Craig is now poised to argue that the improbability of God's existence doesn't follow from Dawkins' arguments. So let's see what he's got.
So what does follow from the six steps of Dawkins’ argument? At most, all that follows is that we should not infer God’s existence on the basis of the appearance of design in the universe. But that conclusion is quite compatible with God’s existence and even with our justifiably believing in God’s existence. Maybe we should believe in God on the basis of the cosmological argument or the ontological argument or the moral argument. Maybe our belief in God isn’t based on arguments at all but is grounded in religious experience or in divine revelation. Maybe God wants us to believe in him simply by faith. The point is that rejecting design arguments for God’s existence does nothing to prove that God does not exist or even that belief in God is unjustified.
Sigh. Dawkins said it was the "central" argument of his book. Not the only argument of his book. Dawkins talks in a fair bit of detail elsewhere in the book about the cosmological, ontological and moral arguments, as well as the unreliable nature of faith-based claims about reality. This is glaring evidence that Craig never actually read the book. (On a side note, I've had occasional comments from Christians echoing Craig's claims that TGD is "unsophisticated". When I ask them to get specific, it immediately becomes obvious they haven't read the book either.)

Note: I am now going to pimp my takedown of the ontological argument, because, not to toot my horn too much, it's fucking awesome. Read it here.

But anyway, let's focus on what Craig thinks are the problems with Dawkins' argument that we aren't justified in inferring the existence of God from apparent design or gaps in scientific knowledge:
... several of these steps are plausibly false in any case. Take just step 3, for example. Dawkins’ claim here is that one is not justified in inferring design as the best explanation of the complex order of the universe because then a new problem arises: Who designed the designer? This objection is flawed on at least two counts.
[First, in] order to recognize an explanation as the best, one needn’t be able to explain the explanation. In fact, so requiring would lead to an infinite regress of explanations, so that nothing could ever be explained and science would be destroyed.
That's not actually true. There are certain things that science takes as fundamental facts that simply do not require an explanation. They just are. Why are subatomic particles composed of quarks? They just are. Why does an empty vacuum produce virtual particles? It just does

Craig gives an example using archeology, but he fails to distinguish between pragmatic and possible explanations:
If archaeologists digging in the earth were to discover things looking like arrowheads and hatchet heads and pottery shards, they would be justified in inferring that these artifacts are not the chance result of sedimentation and metamorphosis, but products of some unknown group of people, even though they had no explanation of who these people were or where they came from.
I'll save the point that Craig is ignoring Dawkins' entire argument about the fallacies inherent in inferring design from the appearance of design in nature, and drawing a false analogy. Yes, if we found artifacts that we knew were man-made because we'd seen other man-made objects just like them, we'd be justified in inferring that they are man-made. But we don't need to know what the molecular or atomic structure of the objects are. That arrowhead you found? It's made of quarks! Why? It just is

The point is this: at some point, the regress of explanations terminates. Craig, quite wrongly, apparently thinks the only way for that to happen is if you say "that's where God did it!" But we can just as plausibly, and far more parsimoniously, terminate the regress right here in the natural world.

But this is the real crux of Craig's first point:
in order to recognize that intelligent design is the best explanation of the appearance of design in the universe, one needn’t be able to explain the designer.
Dawkins isn't saying you need to "explain the designer". I'm not even clear on what Craig thinks that statement means. Dawkins is saying that, by the same logic we can infer that the universe required a designer, we can infer that God required a designer. The only way to say that God doesn't need a designer is to arbitrarily terminate the regress, usually by claiming that certain rules of logic don't apply to God. So for example, how can something think or act without respect to time and space? Well, you see, God is a timeless entity. Or something. See? When the rules of logic don't support your theistic argument, you can just define God in such a way that he fundamentally defies the rules of logic.  And that's exactly what Craig does in his second point:
Dawkins’ fundamental mistake lies in his assumption that a divine designer is an entity comparable in complexity to the universe. As an unembodied mind, God is a remarkably simple entity. As a non-physical entity, a mind is not composed of parts, and its salient properties, like self-consciousness, rationality, and volition, are essential to it. In contrast to the contingent and variegated universe with all its inexplicable physical quantities and constants (mentioned in the fifth step of Dawkins’ argument), 3 a divine mind is startlingly simple.
This is pure, unadulterated gobbledygook. What does it mean to talk about the simplicity or complexity of a supernatural being? If it's not composed of parts, then what's it composed of? Nothing? But wait, Craig would be the first to tell you that something can't come from nothing. So, maybe some kind of supernatural substance? A thing that isn't a thing? How does it interact with and influence the matter, energy and fundamental forces of the universe? Your guess is as good as mine, and let's not kid ourselves into thinking Craig himself has any idea either.

Craig closes the chapter with a whopper:
Several years ago my atheist colleague Quentin Smith unceremoniously crowned Stephen Hawking’s argument against God in A Brief History of Time as “the worst atheistic argument in the history of Western thought.” 5 With the advent of The God Delusion the time has come, I think, to relieve Hawking of this weighty crown and to recognize Richard Dawkins’ accession to the throne.
It's worth noting that Hawking's No Boundary Proposal is a model of theoretical physics meant to explain the features of the observable universe. It has theological implications, but it's hardly an "argument against God". Anyway, I've been searching around for this, and I cannot find any such reference not coming from the mouth of Craig. I did, however, find plenty of material from Quentin Smith, including a book co-authored by Craig and Smith that debates Hawking's No Boundary Proposal. Here's an excerpt from the introduction:
Much of this debate concerns the interpreation of Hawkin's quantum cosmology and whether his cosmology even makes physical sense. Craig argues that Hawking's theory (with its notion of imaginary time, splitting universes, infinite dimensional superspace, etc.) is physically unintelligible and therefore is not a realistic alternative to theism. Smith argues that Hawking's theory does not carry any of the above-mentioned physical implications (imaginary time etc.) and that Hawking's cosmology is both inconsistent with theism and rationally preferable to theism.
In an article called Why Steven [sic] Hawking's Cosmology Precludes a Creator, Smith vigorously defends Hawking and concludes:
The moral of this story is that quantum cosmology and classical theism cannot both be true. One has two choices: become an atheist or else argue that science, in the form of quantum cosmology, is false. However, since Copernicus and Galileo, any time that religion has opposed science, religion has lost.
Why would Smith spend a whole book defending an argument he thinks is literally the worst argument against God?

It's obvious from this disaster of a chapter that William Lane Craig doesn't read his source material. And it's also obvious that he's hoping you don't, either.

That was a "sophisticated theologian". Sigh. Just thirteen chapters to go. They can't all be this bad... can they?


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