Well, well. Here we have an article in the Guardian by Rowan Williams, the previous Archbishop of Canterbury, arguing that atheists are constantly “arguing against propositions that no serious Christian writer would endorse.” I would have thought that the propositions we were arguing against were those of God’s existence, the divinity of Jesus, salvation, and so on—things that seem pretty much in the Christian mainstream—but Williams, a Sopisticated Theologian™, says “nope.”
In fact, Williams is exaggerating here: the argument he says atheists make, but that no Christian believes, is our refutation of the First Cause argument, also known as the Cosmological Argument. The argument goes, of course, like this: everything must have a cause, including the Universe, but the chain of causation cannot run on forever: there must be a First Cause. And that cause must have been God. God therefore exists, QED.
One response to this argument is this: “But who caused God?” That’s a perfectly sensible question: what brought God into existence? What was he doing before he created anything? In response, theists finesse the argument with a definitional ploy: God is the ONE AND ONLY THING that doesn’t need a “cause.” So their argument is basically tautological and semantic.
I’ll add here that the so-called “law of causality” implied in this argument doesn’t really hold in modern physics. As Sean Carroll pointed out to me, it’s more sensible just to use the “laws of physics” instead of “causality.” That is, there is no “cause” why the Earth orbits the Sun: it’s just obeying the laws of physics. In the same way, there is no “cause” for an atom to decay, even though an ensemble of atoms decays in a predictable way. (I suppose theists would respond, “Well, tell us where the laws of physics came from, then? Must have been God!”)
Williams’ essay is inspired by Rupert Shortt’s new book, God is No Thing: Coherent Christianity, coming out July 1. I haven’t read it since it’s not available, so I’m just discussing Shortt’s argument that Williams finds so persuasive. And it turns out to be the same old cosmological argument, gussied up in fancy language:
Whatever can be said of God, God cannot by definition be another item in any series, another “thing” (hence the book’s title). The claim made by religious philosophers of a certain kind is not that God can be invoked to plug a gap, but that there must be some fundamental agency or energy which cannot be thought of as conditioned by anything outside itself, if we are to make sense of a universe of interactive patterns of energy being exchanged. Without such a fundamental concept, we are left with energy somehow bootstrapping itself into being.
As for Krauss’s Universe from Nothing, Williams is scornful (and of course he has a point: what is “nothing”, anyway?):
And Shortt is rightly merciless towards those who wriggle out of difficulties by slipping disguised constants into the “nothingness” out of which the universe comes – primitive electrical charges, quantum fields, timeless laws or whatever. He quotes the British scholar Denys Turner to good effect on the fact that “nothing” ought to mean what it says – “no process … no random fluctuations … no explanatory law of emergence”. The problem of origins cannot be defined out of existence, and the highly complex notion of creation by an act that (unlike finite agency) is not triggered or conditioned needs to be argued with in its own terms, not reduced to the mythical picture of a Very Large Person doing something a bit like what we normally do, only bigger.
But in the end Shortt’s (and Williams’s) “solution” is again a semantic and tautological one, with the dubious premise that nothing can go on forever and that there is a “Law of Causation.” Yes, maybe there is some conception of “nothing” beyond a quantum vacuum, but it doesn’t follow that such a theological form of “nothing” ever existed, that “causation” is always meaningful at the physical level, or that the cosmos in some form (e.g., a multiverse) could not have existed indefinitely. The argument remains what it always has been: “because something exists, there must have been a god.” Atheists do understand that, and we do see its problems. It’s the theologians, in their willingness to take anything as evidence for god, who don’t look too hard at the philosophical and empirical difficulties of the Cosmological Argument.
Williams gives Shortt’s book a big endorsement, calling it “a powerful indirect commendation of Christian faith, insofar as it lays out some of what it looks like to think in a Christian mode, how the system works – in such a way that it is possible to see that Christian thinking is not automatically stupid or incapable of being used as a resource in handling complex current issues.”
Well, let’s avoid using the word “stupid.” Can we say “blinkered”, for Christian thinking is automatically tendentious and laden with confirmation bias. Before you can start invoking God, you have to give evidence for God: evidence that goes beyond the puerile Cosmological argument.
If you want to hear Sean Carroll go after the cosmological argument in a debate against William Lane Craig, go here. The debate is nearly 3 hours long, but Caroll’s post has some discussion of the argument at issue. For a shorter take by Carroll go here.
h/t: Barry, Matthew Cobb