Bang Goes Theism?

Bang Goes Theism…

I have written about and defended the Kalam cosmological argument for the existence of God by philosopher William Lane Craig on numerous occassions. This deceptively simple argument runs as follows:

1. Everything that begins to existence has a cause of its existence.

2. The universe began to exist.

3. Therefore the universe has a cause of its existence.

After establishing this argument, Craig goes on to argue – primarily on the basis of conceptual analysis – that this cause must be timeless, spaceless, changeless, immaterial, incredibly powerful, and even personal.

Given that premise one is strongly supported by our universal experience of the world as well as our rationally ingrained metaphysical intutions that things cannot just pop into existence ucaused and out of nothing, Craig spends most of his time defending premise two: The universe began to exist. Not only does he provide two strong philosophical reasons to support this premise, but he also provides two scientific reasons – evidence from thermodynamics and evidence from what we know of the origins of the universe in the event that has come to be known as the Big Bang. What makes his case so strong is that we have two very different bodies of evidence both pointing strongly in the same direction. Much of the science is technical and weighty, going into deeper issues within cosmology and even quantum physics, but I was reminded this week of an argument against the existence of God from the evidence of the Big Bang by philosopher Quentin Smith.

It is this argument that I want to deal with here. I will first lay out the argument in its logical form and then bring some criticisms against it which to my mind are devastating to Smith’s case.

Smith’s argument runs as follows:

1. If God exists and there is an earliest state of the universe, then God created that earliest state.

2. God is omniscient, omnipotent and perfectly benevolent.

3. A universe with life is better than an inanimate universe.

4. Therefore, if God created that earliest state, then it must either contain life or eventually lead to a universe containing life (1, 2 & 3).

5. There is an earliest state of the universe, and it is the unique event of the Big Bang.

6. The earliest state of the universe involves the life-hostile conditions of infinite temperature, infinite curvature, and infinite density.

7. Since the Big Bang even is inherently unpredictable and lawless, there is no guarantee that it will lead to a universe with life.

8. Therefore, there is no guarantee that the earliest state of the universe will lead to life (from 5 & 7).

9. Therefore God could not have created that earliest state (4 & 8)

10. Therefore, God does not exist.

Theists are highly unlikely to quibble with premise 1, since being the creator of the universe is one of the main features of God as conceived across a broad spectrum from deism to specifically Christian theism. It’s possible of course for God to exist and yet not have created the universe, but we can set that possibility aside here. Premise 2 lays out the more specific concept of God that Smith is dealing with in this argument. Of course even if the argument is success it would remain open that some other type of deity exists – perhaps an all-powerful but benevolently-indifferent being, or a less than perfect God, or perhaps a God of limited power. However, a huge number of theists hold to this conception of God, and so we shall run with it and still show the shortcomings of the argument.

The first significant problem with Smith’s argument appears in premise 3, the statement that “a universe with life is better than an inanimate universe,” and thus the initial conclusion stated in premise 4 is also suspect as it relies on 3 in order to function. Why must God create a universe with life? What reason is there for the claim that a universe with life is better than an inanimate universe? Better for whom or what? It can hardly be better for the beings that do not exist in such a lifeless world, since non-existence beings can have no interests at all. Nor can it be better for God. If God is perfect and lacks nothing then a universe of life is no better for Him either. Smith seems to think that God has some sort of obligation to bring about the best possible world. However, not only has he given us no reason to accept that a universe with life is in some way “better,” he fails to appreciate the incoherence in the notion that God could have any such obligation. Where does such an obligation come from? Who or what could possibly lay an obligation on God? The notion of divine obligations which exist over and above God himself simply makes little sense. It might indeed be the case that God has a reason for creating a universe with life but there is no obligation or necessity here.

Far more can be said about this point but I want to leave it here since the really fatal premise is further on.

Premise 5 is fairly unobjectionable, as is Premise 6. However, the argument really begins to come apart at the seams with Premise 7:

“Since the Big Bang event is inherently unpredictable and lawless, there is no guarantee that it will lead to a universe with life.”

It strikes me that this premise is begging the question, albeit implicitly. After all if an all-powerful God who wishes to bring about life exists, then it simply isn’t true that “there is no guarantee that [the Big Bang event] will lead to a universe with life.” Quite simply if God exists then there is a guarantee that we will get a universe with life. It would appear, then, that if God exists there is no reason to grant Premise 7, and in fact unless we already know that the conclusion of the argument is true then Premise 7 is flat out false. The only way Premise 7 can possibly be true is if we already know that the conclusion of the argument is true. The argument therefore commits the informal fallacy of begging the question. As such it is dead in the water.

But in the interests of flogging the goat a little more we should point out that there is good reason to deny Premise 7 in its own right. The premise, as we have seen, describes the Big Bang event as “inherently unpredictable and lawless, [with] no guarantee that it will lead to a universe with life.” However, maybe such a capacity to guarantee life was present at the outset even if to our eyes it appears to have been inherently unpredictable and lawless. After all, as Smith rather splendidly overlooks, the universe did in fact produce life despite massive odds to the contrary! Alternatively God could very easily have ensured a universe with life through subsequent intervention. Smith owes us a good argument if he wishes to persuade us that there is some logical necessity that a life-engendering capacity be present from the very start, but all he offers us is his own musings that if God had to intervene it would be “a sign of incompetent planning. . . The rational thing to do is to create some state that by its own lawful nature leads to a life-producing universe.” Leaving aside Smith’s apparent knowledge of the field of universe creation, he has given us scant grounds to suppose that intervention after the initial Big Bang event is in some way illogical. He only hints that God should have adopted a more efficient way of working, a way which would rule out any need for subsequent intervention. In response to this notion, Thomas Morris concludes, quite rightly, that: “Efficiency is always relative to a goal or set of intentions. Before you know whether a person is efficient in what she is doing, you must know what it is she intends to be doing, what goals and values are governing the activity she is engaged in. . . In order to be able to derive the conclusion that if there is a God in charge of the world, he is grossly inefficient, one would have to know of all the relevant divine goals and values which would be operative in the creation and governance of a world such as ours.” I have my doubts if Smith – or any human being – is in the right position with the necessary knowledge to make such a judgment call.

In any event, why should we even think that efficiency is a necessary property of a divine – and perfect – being? Even if God does not act efficiently is that somehow a defect? Hardly. Efficiency is arguably a good property to possess if you’re a being with limited time, power and resources; but God presumably lacks neither time, nor power, nor resources. God, as a perfect being, is creatively free and thus under no constraints with respect to the property of having to act efficiently.

On the basis of these considerations I therefore conclude that Smith’s argument collapses under the weight of its own faulty premises and unwarranted assumptions. No rational person need accept it without making several significant quantum leaps of logic.

Stephen J Graham



Filed under Atheism, God, Quentin Smith, Theism

2 responses to “Bang Goes Theism?

  1. I’ve been pondering lately about how different arguments in the realm of philosophy of religion interact with each other, and this post is a perfect example. In your critique of premise 3, you question the idea that a universe with life is better than an inanimate universe. If you are right, and neither is better than the other (by whatever metric), then what happens to the fine tuning argument? That is, if a universe with life isn’t better in some way than an inanimate one, then God wouldn’t have any preference. But if that’s the case, a universe finely tuned for life wouldn’t be evidence for theism!

    Moving on, you say that obligations on God make little sense. This may or may not be true, but if it is, then it has implications for the moral argument. In his debates, William Lane Craig often notes (wrongly, IMO, but that’s not relevant here) that atheism-compatible accounts of metaethics fail to instill moral obligations on us; and he takes this to be a criticism of atheist metaethics. If this feature (bug?) is rationally undesirable for atheist ethicists, then why not equally so for theist ethicists? I don’t think God should get a pass on not having obligations – that’s just special pleading.

    Finally, you say, “Even if God does not act efficiently is that somehow a defect? Hardly.” Drawing from the writing of Gregory Dawes in ‘Theism and Explanation’, with a dash of Paul Draper, what we can do here is ask ourselves first what sort of things God is supposed to explain, and then what we’d expect to see if God was, in fact, the explanation of something.

    So we have these facts: that the universe exists, that it has the properties that we see, and that it’s inefficient. Supposedly, God is the best explanation of these facts. Now, you think that the first two facts support God as an explanation, and that the third fact doesn’t count against God as an explanation. But if that’s the case, what *would* count against God as an explanation, if we were to observe it? Probably not efficiency; an argument that the universe is efficient, therefore no God, would be a very strange argument. Do you think God just explains every potential fact, and no observation could even in principle count as evidence against him?

    That can’t be, for Draperian reasons. If naturalism is true, there’s only a few rationally feasible explanations – and all of them are going to involve some level of inefficiency. if theism is true, on the other hand, God *could* have done things in an efficient manner, or not; and he could have done things in a billion billion different ways (being omnipotent). What a surprising coincidence that he chose to do things in the only way things could have been done if naturalism were true!

    Furthermore, many Christian apologists point to efficiency in nature as evidence for God – “tide goes in, tide goes out, never a miscommunication”, etc. If you’re right about efficiency, then these design arguments (including arguments for intelligent design), made often by the Christian masses, are defeated.

    Now, maybe you’re ok with this, and you think that all these other arguments are weak anyway. That’s fine on its own, but then I don’t see very many good arguments left in favor of theism. Especially since there are other objections to the Kalam which I think are much stronger than Smith’s. 🙂 And in the end, this post isn’t really for you directly – it’s for other Christians who use the arguments I mentioned, and might want to add your post to their repertoire.

    • Hey Skep,

      First of all, thanks for the response and apologies for being so tardy in replying. I can only plead extreme busy-ness due to a deadline.

      As it is I have some more time so thought I’d finally post a response.

      At the out-set I want to state my agreement with several fellow tweeters who expressed admiration for your response here. It was both well thought out and well written.

      In addition I want to agree fully with your comments concerning the interaction between different arguments. It’s not uncommon to see someone offer arguments A, B, C and D for some position P, whilst giving little or no thought as to how A, B, C, and D sit together as a bunch. Sometimes on closer inspection A does not cohere well with C, or B implies something that makes it difficult to hold D. One recent example of this I saw involved a Calvinist using the free will defense to respond to the problem of evil – obviously paying no attention to the fact that his arguments for Calvinism and the view of providence it adheres to does not cohere particularly well with assumptions one must make concerning human freedom, if we are to use the free will defense against evil. As it is the various bits of our noetic structure hang together like a spider’s web, such that changes in one part can have effects elsewhere, sometimes without us even realizing it.

      Secondly, I want to draw attention to the fact that even if your response here is sound, my critique of Smith’s argument still stands because it seems, I think, that you’ve left the basic criticism of it intact, namely that it begs the question.

      In any event I think there are a few mistakes in your response.

      Firstly, you appear to think my critique of premise 3 – challenging the idea that a universe with life (UL) is “better” than an inanimate universe (IU) – presents difficulties for the fine-tuning argument. I’m not sure I see how. Firstly, my point here was simply that Smith would need to give an account of what he means by “better” in this context. Secondly, and in any event, take, for instance, the fine tuning argument as presented by WLC. Which premise of his argument would be challenged here? It seems to me his argument is unaffected whether I am correct on this particular point or not. Of course, I could very easily grant that a universe with life is better without substantially affecting the argument of this article.

      Secondly, I don’t see how my claim that obligations on God make little sense has any effect on the moral argument. I think you misconstrue divine command ethics in your response. On DCE God’s commands are the source of our moral obligations. So, unless God presents Himself with moral commands then He has no moral obligations. This isn’t special pleading at all, it’s simply the nature of the case, given that moral obligations are constituted by the commands of God. Again, take WLC’s moral argument – which premise is incorrect if I am right and God has no moral obligations? I don’t think any of his premises are challenged, and in fact he would agree that God has no moral obligations (since God does not command Himself to do this or that but rather simply acts according to His nature/character).

      Lastly, you see problems with my claim that “Even if God does not act efficiently is that somehow a defect? Hardly.” Now, this comes at the end of a long paragraph in which I challenge the idea of our knowing whether or not God acted “efficiently.” As such this latter claim is simply an additional point, claiming that I know of no reason why God must act “efficiently” – in this particular case why God must set the universe up to run in such a way as there is no need for God to intervene along the way. In the paragraph right before this quote I argued at some length that I cannot see how Smith can claim to know that the Big Bang is *inherently* unpredictable and lawless and with no guarantee that it will yield a universe with life. For all we know, if God exists then the capacity WAS present from the beginning. I then challenged the idea that efficiency is necessarily a divine attribute. In any event, note that I didn’t refer to the universe as “inefficient” as you appear to suggest.

      You argue that:

      “If naturalism is true, there’s only a few rationally feasible explanations – and all of them are going to involve some level of inefficiency. if theism is true, on the other hand, God *could* have done things in an efficient manner, or not; and he could have done things in a billion billion different ways (being omnipotent). What a surprising coincidence that he chose to do things in the only way things could have been done if naturalism were true!”

      Of course, this is precisely what theists dispute! Many theistic arguments take some feature of the world – its existence, its beginning, its fine-tuning, the origin of life against astronomical odds, the emergence of mind/consciousness – and argue that such things are *not* so amenable to naturalistic explanation.

      As for those apologists you refer to who point to efficiency in nature as evidence for God (I don’t know of any, to be honest), I simply say they’re using a poor argument. Whether the universe is efficient or not fits comfortably into either a naturalistic or a theistic explanation. I don’t think the notion of efficiency is of any worth here, and if there is to be a weighing of the pros and cons of theism versus naturalism then it will have to be done on grounds other than efficiency.

      Other than that, it seems to me that Christians who wish to add my argument to their repertoire are not making many risks in terms of other theistic arguments. Even if you are right about the arguments you mention, a theist could accept my chief criticism of Smith without agreeing with some of the more persnickety side points that I make concerning efficiency or whether a universe with life is “better” than one without life.

      Stephen J. Graham

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