God, the reasonable, and the possible

imagesIn my philosophy of religion class we are working through the excellent book Debating Christian Theism, edited by Moreland, Meister, and Sweis. The strength of this book is that it places leading defenders of opposing views on the nature and existence of God in dialogue. The book highlights the current state of play in the God debate as well as the strength (and firm ground) of the arguments for God in the face of atheism. It also highlights what I think is a kind of double standard that is sometimes applied to theistic arguments by its detractors.

To wit, this week, we covered the Kalam Cosmological Argument, defended by William Lane Craig, and criticized by the philosopher Wes Morriston. The argument is simplicity itself:

(1) Whatever begins to exist has a cause.

(2) The universe began to exist.

(3) Therefore, the universe had a cause.

 

With respect to premise (1), Morriston offers the following “substantive worry:”[1]

I quite agree that tigers couldn’t spring into existence uncaused. But we have been given no reason to think that what’s true of a tiger applies to physical reality as a whole. . .  . as far as I can see, there is no comparable context for the origin of physical reality as a whole, and no analogous reason for thinking that it could not have begun to exist uncaused.

I’m tempted to respond with a stare of incredulity. Really? Why is it that universes might pop into existence out of nothing and without a cause but not tigers? No reasons are offered for thinking that physical reality as a whole is different in this case that its parts. Rather, the above scenario is offered as a mere possibility, a possibility that we are to take as a substantive objection to the truth of premise (1).  Let’s grant, for the sake of argument, that we have a genuine possibility. (I actually think that premise (1) is a metaphysical truth that is self-evident and a kind of synthetic necessary truth—so, really, I doubt that it is a genuine possibility, but this stronger claim is not needed.)

But, and here is the point of my post, even if it is possible, is it reasonable to think that the universe came into existence uncaused out of nothing? To this, I answer, clearly “No.” Morriston offers this worry as a substantive problem in affirming premise (1) of the Kalam Argument. But, this is to apply a double standard to theistic arguments that is not applied in less contested debates. All that is required for the argument to go through is that the affirmation of the premise is more reasonable than its denial. Certainty of its truth is not required. On this more modest (and realistic standard), Morriston’s possibility (if it is one) is just that—a mere “what if” that has no basis in empirical evidence or logic. On the other hand, the truth of premise (1) is supported every day by science itself.[2] It hardly counts as a “substantial worry” to the truth of premise (1) of the Kalam Argument.

To be clear, let me spell out the two distinctions I have in mind that we must keep before our atheist friends when discussing the God question:

  • Reasonable vs. Possible: When assessing arguments, the standard is reasonableness. We do not need to rule out all possible counter-examples in order to reasonably affirm a premise in an argument.

 

  • Certainty vs. Proper Confidence: The goal in assessing arguments for God isn’t to construct a proof that provides 100% certainty. Setting aside some truths of mathematics and logic, there is very little in life that we can know with certainty. All that is required in the epistemic life is a kind of proper confidence that our beliefs are warranted or justified.

 

If we want to be good thinkers, we need to learn to make distinctions. If we want to bring clarity to the God debate, let’s keep these distinctions before us, and not allow the atheist to apply a standard to the God question that they don’t apply to their nonbelief.

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[1] Wes Morriston, “Doubts About the Kalam Argument,” in Debating Christian Theism, eds. J. P. Moreland, Chad Meister, and Khaldoun A. Sweis (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 29.

[2] Ignoring Lawrence Krauss’s confusions on this point for the moment. I’ve discussed him here and here.

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