Here is an article from The New Atlantis written by cosmologist Luke Barnes about one specific example of cosmic fine-tuning. (H/T Uncommon Descent via J. Warner Wallace tweet)
Today, our deepest understanding of the laws of nature is summarized in a set of equations. Using these equations, we can make very precise calculations of the most elementary physical phenomena, calculations that are confirmed by experimental evidence. But to make these predictions, we have to plug in some numbers that cannot themselves be calculated but are derived from measurements of some of the most basic features of the physical universe. These numbers specify such crucial quantities as the masses of fundamental particles and the strengths of their mutual interactions. After extensive experiments under all manner of conditions, physicists have found that these numbers appear not to change in different times and places, so they are called the fundamental constants of nature.
These constants represent the edge of our knowledge. Richard Feynman called one of them — the fine-structure constant, which characterizes the amount of electromagnetic force between charged elementary particles like electrons — “one of the greatest damn mysteries of physics: a magic number that comes to us with no understanding by man.”
[…]A universe that has just small tweaks in the fundamental constants might not have any of the chemical bonds that give us molecules, so say farewell to DNA, and also to rocks, water, and planets. Other tweaks could make the formation of stars or even atoms impossible. And with some values for the physical constants, the universe would have flickered out of existence in a fraction of a second. That the constants are all arranged in what is, mathematically speaking, the very improbable combination that makes our grand, complex, life-bearing universe possible is what physicists mean when they talk about the “fine-tuning” of the universe for life.
Atheists, both rank-and-file and expert, almost universally misunderstand the fine-tuning argument. They imagine that if the constants and quantities specified at the origin of the universe were different, then humans would just have green skin, or maybe forehead ridges, or pointy ears. Atheists tend to get their view of science from science fiction in novels or television or movies. Just this week I was talking to an agnostic woman (who since reverted to atheism) and brought up the fine-tuning argument. And she said “well, maybe if the initial constants and quantities were different, then we would have evolved differently”. No, the whole point is that life of any conceivable kind becomes impossible if the constants and quantities are altered higher or lower. Even slightly. It’s not that you have green skin, pointy ears, and forehead ridges. It’s that you have a universe that recollapses into a hot fireball, or contains only hydrogen, or does not form stars and planets at all.
I got the impression that she hadn’t read anything about the fine-tuning from peer-reviewed scientific publications, but had just read popular responses to it from atheists with degrees in English and drama and philosophy. If you want to understand a scientific argument, then you have to go to the scientific publications, and read the science. Here is an excellent start, from two astrophysicists, and published by Cambridge University Press.
So what does the scientific evidence actually show?
The strong nuclear force, for example, is the glue that holds protons and neutrons together in the nuclei of atoms. If, in a hypothetical universe, it is too weak, then nuclei are not stable and the periodic table disappears again. If it is too strong, then the intense heat of the early universe could convert all hydrogen into helium — meaning that there could be no water, and that 99.97 percent of the 24 million carbon compounds we have discovered would be impossible, too. And, as the chart to the right shows, the forces, like the masses, must be in the right balance. If the electromagnetic force, which is responsible for the attraction and repulsion of charged particles, is too strong or too weak compared to the strong nuclear force, anything from stars to chemical compounds would be impossible.
Stars are particularly finicky when it comes to fundamental constants. If the masses of the fundamental particles are not extremely small, then stars burn out very quickly. Stars in our universe also have the remarkable ability to produce both carbon and oxygen, two of the most important elements to biology. But, a change of just a few percent in the up and down quarks’ masses, or in the forces that hold atoms together, is enough to upset this ability — stars would make either carbon or oxygen, but not both.
It’s very important that theists are well-equipped to explain how individual cases of fine-tuning work. We need to know what you lose if you alter these constants and quantities even slightly. You can read about some more examples in this previous post.
The topic: What are the arguments that make belief in God reasonable or unreasonable?
First speech: arguments for reasonableness of belief in God
Second speech: respond to arguments against reasonableness of belief in God
Contingency argument: God – a transcendent, personal being – is the explanation of why a contingent universe exists.
Cosmological argument: God is the cause of the beginning of the universe, which is attested by physics and cosmology.
Applicability of mathematics to nature: God is the best explanation for the applicability of mathematics to nature.
Fine-tuning argument: God is the best explanation of the fine-tuning of the universe to permit life.
Intentionality of conscious states: God is the best explanation of the intentionality of our mental states.
The moral argument: God is the best explanation for the existence of objective moral values and duties.
The resurrection of Jesus: God is the best explanation for the core of historical facts accepted by most ancient historians across the ideological spectrum.
Religious experience: God is the best explanation of our immediate experience and knowledge of his existence.
Dr. Rosenberg’s opening speech
First argument: The fallacy of ad hominem
I don’t know whether to laugh or to cry
Dr. Craig has said all of that before in other debates
You didn’t need to come out on this cold night
Craig’s arguments have all been refuted
Dr. Craig just doesn’t listen
Dr. Craig is not interested in getting at the truth
Dr. Craig is just interested in scoring debate points
The adversarial system is the wrong approach to decide truth
Dr. Craig is very confident about his take of physics
Second argument: The fallacy of arguing from authority
95% of members of the NAS are atheists
Therefore Dr. Craig cannot use science
Third argument: Effects don’t require causes
I am going to pretend that Craig said that “every effect requires a cause”
Quantum mechanics shows that some effects occur without causes
A particle of uranium (which is not nothing, it is something) decays without a cause
This uncaused effect is the same as the universe coming into being out of nothing uncaused
Therefore the principle of sufficient reason is false
Fourth argument: Silicon-based life and the multiverse
If these constants had been different, maybe we would have other kinds of intelligent life, like silicon-based life
Carbon-based life is not the only kind of life, maybe you can have other kinds of life, none of which have been observed
There could be different kinds of life in other areas of the universe that we can’t see
There are things we can’t see that disprove the current physics that we can see
Quantum foam is evidence that a multiverse exists
The multiverse would solve the problem of fine-tuning
Fifth argument: The Euthyphro dilemma
The moral argument is refuted by Euthyphro dilemma
Dr. Craig is such a moron that he has never heard of the Euthyphro dilemma ever before
This is found in the first and simplest of Plato’s dialogs
Why is Dr. Craig so stupid that he has not read this simple dialog ever before?
Evolution explains why humans evolve arbitrary customs and conventions that vary by time and place
Alternative moral theories: utilitarianism, social contract, etc. that don’t require God
Sixth argument: Mormonism undermines Dr. Craig’s three minimal facts about Jesus
Why is Dr. Craig so stupid and ignorant to persist in pushing such an ignorant, stupid argument?
Mormonism is a silly religion that is not historically well founded
Therefore, Jesus was not buried
Islam is a silly religion that is not historically grounded
Therefore, the tomb was not found empty
Scientology is a silly religion that is not historically grounded
Therefore, the eyewitnesses didn’t have post-mortem appearances
Eyewitness testimony is unreliable in some cases
Therefore, eyewitness testimony was unreliable in this case
Apparitions of Mary are bizarre
Therefore, the majority of historians are wrong to think that the disciples saw post-mortem appearances
Seventh argument: Deductive problem of evil
Evil and suffering are logically incompatible with an all good, all powerful God
Eight argument: God is not just to allow evil and suffering
God cannot make the evils of this life right in the afterlife
Dr. Craig’s first rebuttal
Dr. Rosenberg sketched the deductive argument from evil.
Dr. Rosenberg presupposes naturalism. Naturalism is a false theory of knowledge:
1. It’s too restrictive: There are truths that cannot be proved by natural science.
2. It’s self-refuting: no scientific proof for naturalism exists.
That’s why epistemological naturalism is considered false by most philosophers of science.
But more importantly than that: Epistemological naturalism does not imply metaphysical naturalism. (E.g. – W. Quine)
Dr. Rosenberg has to present arguments in favor of (metaphysical) naturalism, not just assume that (metaphysical) naturalism is true.
Dr. Craig presented eight arguments against metaphysical naturalism taken from Rosenberg’s own book:
1. The argument from the intentionality (aboutness) of mental states implies non-physical minds (dualism), which is incompatible with naturalism
2. The existence of meaning in language is incompatible with naturalism, Rosenberg even says that all the sentences in his own book are meaningless
3. The existence of truth is incompatible with naturalism
4. The argument from moral praise and blame is incompatible with naturalism
5. Libertarian freedom (free will) is incompatible with naturalism
6. Purpose is incompatible with naturalism
7. The enduring concept of self is incompatible with naturalism
8. The experience of first-person subjectivity (“I”) is incompatible with naturalism
Metaphysical naturalism is false: it is irrational and it contradicts our experience of ourselves.
And epistemological naturalism is compatible with theism.
Rebutting Dr. Rosenberg’s responses:
1. Contingency: no response
2. Cosmological: he mis-states the first premise to say every effect… when it is whatever begins to exist…, the origin of the universe was not from a vacuum, virtual particles come from a vacuum not nothing, there are interpretations of QM that are compatible with determinism. Rosenberg has to believe that the entire universe popped into being from non-being.
3. Mathematics: no response
4. Fine-tuning: the multiverse is refuted by empirical observations of the universe. Without fine-tuning, it’s not that we still have silicon to make life out of. It’s that we lose basic minimal things like chemical diversity, matter, stars, planets, etc. No life of any kind, not just no carbon-based life.
5. Intentionality: no response.
6. Moral argument: the answer to the dilemma is that you split the dilemma: God is the standard of good, and the commands flow from his unchanging moral nature. The commands are not arbitrary, and the standard is not external to God. Dr. Rosenberg is a nihilist and he cannot ground good and evil on his nihilistic view.
7. Resurrection: The Gospels are early eyewitness testimony. Mormonism and Islam have nothing to do with the minimal set of historical facts about Jesus agreed to by the majority of ancient historians across the ideological spectrum, general statements against eyewitnesses do not refute the specific eyewitness testimony in this case.
8. Religious experience: No response.
Dr. Rosenberg’s first rebuttal
I wrote a book and you should buy it, because it got me invited to this debate. Let me repeat the title a few times for you. Please buy it.
Dr. Craig is right, there are multiple interpretations of QM, not just the one I presented, including deterministic ones.
All the disturbing implications of naturalism that Dr. Craig stated follow from metaphysical naturalism, and metaphysical naturalism is true. (Note: he equates science with metaphysical naturalism)
Science proves that metaphysical naturalism is true, but I won’t say what specific scientific tests prove my philosophical assumption of metaphysical naturalism.
I’ll pretend that the Big Bang (science) doesn’t disprove naturalism, like Dr. Craig said. Again. (covers ears) La la la, there is no Big Bang.
We didn’t come here to debate epistemological naturalism and metaphysical naturalism.
Let me explain the problem of intentionality since I’m so smart and no one knows what it means.
There are many answers to this problem of intentionality.
My answer is that most scientists are naturalists, therefore naturalism is true, regardless of the argument from intentionality of mental states.
That’s how I would respond to one of the eight problems with naturalism that Dr. Craig raised. I won’t answer the other seven problems.
It is an argument from ignorance to argue that the applicability of mathematics to the universe requires a designer, because there are non-Euclidean geometries. Craig’s argument, which he gets from people like respected physicists like Eugene Wigner, is bizarre. It is bizarre, therefore I refute Eugene Wigner and all the other scholars who make that argument. It is bizarre! Bizarre!
Deductive problem of evil: there is no response to this argument, certainly not Alvin Plantinga’s free will defense. The deductive argument from evil has not been entirely abandoned at all! It’s not like arch-atheist J.L. Mackie himself admits that the deductive problem of evil doesn’t lead to a logical inconsistency between evil and God.
Dr. Craig has to tell me why God allows evil or God doesn’t exist.
It is offensive that Dr. Craig cannot tell me why God allows every evil and suffering that occurs.
He literally said this: “I will become a Christian if Dr. Craig can tell me why God allowed EVERY EVIL THAT OCCURRED IN THE LAST 3.5 BILLION YEARS”
Dr. Craig’s second rebuttal
We are not in a position to know why God allows specific instances of evil and suffering.
God cannot force people to freely do anything – freedom is not compatible with determinism. Freedom is a good, but freedom opens up the possibility of moral evil. You cannot have the good of free will without allowing people to choose to do morally evil things.
God can permit evil and suffering in order to bring more people into a relationship with him.
The atheist has to show that God could allow less evil and achieve more knowledge of God in order to say there is too much evil.
The purpose of life is not happiness, but knowledge of God.
Dr. Craig quotes agnostic Paul Draper (Purdue) and Peter Van Inwagen (Notre Dame) to state that the deductive problem of evil is dead because of free will and morally sufficient reasons for permitting evil.
1. Contingency: no response.
2. Cosmological: QM does not apply, because the universe came from nothing, not a vacuum, and QM only works in a vacuum.
3. Mathematics: He mentions alternatives like non-Euclidean geometry, but we have to explain the structure of THIS universe.
4. Fine-tuning: ???
5. Intentional states: intentional mental states proves that minds exist, which fits with theism better than it fits with atheism.
6. Moral argument: You need God to ground morality, and Dr. Rosenberg believes in morality. He needs God to ground objective moral values and duties.
7. Historical argument: He has to respond to the minimal facts supported by the consensus of ancient historians across the ideological spectrum.
8. The problems of naturalism: He says that you can’t have science without naturalism, but you can have science with EPISTEMOLOGICAL NATURALISM, and theists accept science and methodological naturalism. We don’t accept METAPHYSCIAL NATURALISM because of the eight problems Craig presented, like intentionality, first-person, persistence of self, etc. You can believe in both science and theism, by embracing epistemological naturalism, while rejecting methaphysical naturalism.
Dr. Rosenberg’s second rebuttal
Dr. Craig hasn’t answered many of my points, I won’t say which ones though.
Debates don’t work as a way of deciding what’s true, so we should overturn the entire criminal justice system.
The principle of sufficient reason is false because it is disconfirmed by quantum mechanics. And quantum mechanics (vacuum and virtual particles that exist for a short time) is similar to the origin of the universe (nothing and entire universe and 14 billion years).
We know that alpha particles come into being without cause all the time from a quantum vacuum for a tiny sub-second duration before going out of existence, so we can say that the entire physical universe came into being for 14 billion years from absolute nothing which is not a quantum vacuum.
Peter Van Inwagen is the best metaphysician working today, and he says that my deductive argument from evil is not decisive, it’s not a successful argument. (Why is he undermining his own problem of evil argument????!)
Dr. Craig invoked Plantinga’s free will defense to the deductive POE. Freedom allows us to do evil. God could have given us free will without evil and suffering. I won’t show how, but I’ll just assert it, because debates are such a bad forum for supplying evidence for my speculative assertions.
If you answer the question 3 + 5 as being 8, then you don’t have free will – you are biologically determined if you answer 8, because everyone answers 8, and that means everyone is biologically determined with no free will.
Why can’t God give us free will and then prevent us from making a free choice?
No scholars date the gospels earlier than 60-70 AD, especially not atheists like James Crossley who dates Mark to 40 AD. Therefore Jesus’ burial isn’t historical, like the majority of scholars across the broad spectrum of scholarship agree it is.
The original New Testament documents were written in Aramaic.
All New Testament scholars are orthodox Christians, like atheist Robert Funk for example.
Dr. Craig’s concluding speech
In order to sustain the deductive argument from evil, Dr. Rosenberg must show that God could create a world of free creatures with less evil.
Principle of Sufficient Reason: not using the general principle of sufficient reason, but a more modest version of this states that contingent things should have an explanation for their existence. And we know that the universe is a contingent.
The New Testament was not written in Aramaic, they were written in Greek. Dr. Rosenberg is wrong there too.
(Dr. Craig spends the rest of his concluding speech giving his testimony and urging people to investigate the New testament).
Dr. Rosenberg’s concluding speech
Some long-dead French guy named Laplace said that he has no need of that (God) hypothesis. He did not know about any of Dr. Craig’s arguments made in this debate tonight when he said that, though.
There is no need to explain how the universe began or how the universe is finely-tuned if you just assume metaphysical naturalism on faith.
The Easter Bunny, therefore atheism.
Most scientists are atheists, therefore atheism.
You can do a lot of science without God, just don’t look at the origin of the universe, the fine-tuning of the universe, or the other parts of science that Craig mentioned, as well as the origin of life, the Cambrian explosion, the habitability argument, and so on.
You can be a Christian, but good Christians should not use arguments and evidence.
Good Christians should be irrational and ignorant. Bad Christians look for arguments and evidence from science and history.
Good Christians should embrace the absurd. Bad Christians want to search for truth and use logic and evidence.
You might remember Peter Millican from the debate he had with William Lane Craig. I ranked that debate as one of the 3 best I have ever seen, along with the first Craig vs Dacey debate and the second Craig vs Sinnott-Armstrong debate.
Science has revealed that the fundamental constants and forces of the cosmos appear to be exquisitely fine-tuned to allow a universe in which life can develop. Is God the best explanation of the incredibly improbable odds of the universe we live in being a life-permitting one?
Robin Collins is a Christian philosopher and a leading advocate of the argument for God from cosmic design. Peter Millican is an atheist philosopher at Oxford University. They debate the issues.
From ‘Unbelievable?’ on ‘Premier Christian Radio’, Saturday 19th March 2016.
As usual when the atheist is an expert, there is no snark or paraphrasing in the summary.
Brierley: What is the fine-tuning argument?
Collins: the fine-tuning is structure of the universe is extremely precisely set to allow the existing of conscious, embodied agents who are capable of moral behavior. There are 3 kinds of fine-tuning: 1) the laws of nature (mathematical formulas), 2) the constants of physics (numbers that are plugged into the equations), 3) the initial conditions of the universe. The fine-tuning exists not just because there are lots of possibilities, but there is something special about the actual state of affairs that we see. Every set of laws, parameters and initial conditions is equally improbable, but the vast majority of permutations do not permit life. The possible explanations: theism or the multiverse.
Brierley: How improbable are the numbers?
Collins: Once case is the cosmological constant (dark energy density), with is 1 part in (10 raised to 120th power). If larger, the universe expands too rapidly for galaxies and stars to form after the Big Bang. If smaller, the universe collapses in on itself before life could form. Another case is the initial distribution of mass energy to give us the low entropy we have that is necessary for life. The fine-tuning there is 1 part in (10 raised to the 10th power raised to the 123rd power).
Brierley: What do you think of the argument?
Millican: The argument is worth taking very seriously. I am a fan of the argument. The other arguments for God’s existence such as the ontological and cosmological arguments are very weak. But the fine-tuning argument has the right structure to deliver the conclusion that theists want. And it is different from the traditional design argument tended to focus on biological nature, which is not a strong argument. But the fine-tuning argument is strong because it precedes any sort of biological evolution. Although the design is present at the beginning of the universe, it is not visible until much later. The argument points to at least deism, and possibly theism. The argument is not based on ignorance, it is rooted in “the latest results from the frontiers of science” (his phrase).
Brierley: Is this the best argument from natural theology?
Collins: The cosmological argument makes theism viable intuitively, but there are some things that are puzzling, like the concept of the necessary being. But the fine-tuning argument is decisive.
Brierley: What’s are some objections to the fine-tuning argument?
Millican: The argument is based on recent physics, so we should be cautious because we maybe we will discover a natural explanation.
Brierley: Respond to that.
Collins: The cosmological constant has been around since 1980. But the direction that physics is moving in is that there are more constants and quantities being discovered that need to be fine-tuned, not less. Even if you had a grand unified theory, that would have to be have the fine-tuning pushed into it.
Millican: Since we have no experience of other laws and values from other universes, we don’t know whether these values can be other than they are. Psychologically, humans are prone to seeing purpose and patterns where there is none, so maybe that’s happening here.
Brierley: Respond to that.
Collins: It is possible to determine probabilities on a single universe case, for example using multiple ways of calculating Avogadro’s number all converging on the same number makes it more probable.
Millican: Yes, I willing to accept that these constants can take on other values, (“principle of indifference”). But maybe this principle be applied if the improbability were pushed up into the theory?
Collins: Even if you had a grand theory, selecting the grand theory from others would retain the improbability.
Brierley: What about the multiverse?
Millican: What if there are many, many different universes, and we happen to be in the one that is finely-tuned, then we should not be surprised to observe fine-tuning. Maybe a multiverse theory will be discovered in the future that would allow us to have these many universes with randomized constants and quantities. “I do think that it is a little bit of a promissary note”. I don’t think physics is pointing to this right now.
Brierley: Respond to that.
Collins: I agree it’s a promissary note. This is the strongest objection to the fine-tuning argument. But there are objections to the multiverse: 1) the fine-tuning is kicked back up to the multiverse generator has to be set just right to produce universes with different constants, 2) the multiverse is more likely to produce a small universe with Boltzmann brains that pop into existence and then out again, rather than a universe that contains conscious, embodied intelligent agents. I am working on a third response now that would show that the same constants that allow complex, embodied life ALSO allow the universe to be discoverable. This would negate the observer-selection effect required by the multiverse objection.
Brierley: Respond to that.
Millican: I don’t see why the multiverse generator has to be fine-tuned, since we don’t know what the multiverse generator is. I’m not impressed by the Boltzmann brains, but won’t discuss. We should be cautious about inferring design because maybe this is a case where we are seeing purpose and design where there is none.
Brierley: Can you negate the discoverability of the universe by saying that it might be psychological?
Collins: These things are not psychological. The selected value for the cosmic microwave background radiation is fine-tuned for life and for discoverability. It’s not merely a discoverability selection effect, it’s optimal for discoverability. If baryon-photon value were much smaller, we would have known that it was not optimal. So that judgment cannot be explained by
Millican: That’s a very interesting new twist.
Brierley: Give us your best objection.
Millican: I have two. 1) Even if you admit to the fine-tuning, this doesn’t show a being who is omnipotent and omnisicient. What the fine-tuning shows is that the designer is doing the best it can given the constraints from nature. If I were God, I would not have made the universe so big, and I wouldn’t have made it last 14 billion years, just to make one small area that supports life. An all-powerful God would have made the universe much smaller, and much younger. 2) The fine-tuning allows life to exist in other solar systems in other galaxies. What does this alien life elsewhere mean for traditional Christian theology? The existence of other alien civilizations argues against the truth of any one religion.
Brierley: Respond to those.
Collins: First objection: with a finite Creator, you run into the problem of having to push the design of that creature up one level, so you don’t really solve the fine-tuning problem. An unlimited being (non-material, not composed of parts) does not require fine-tuning. The fine-tuning is more compatible with theism than atheism. Second objection: I actually do think that it is likely that are other universes, and life in other galaxies and stars, and the doctrine of the Incarnation is easily adaptable to that, because God can take on multiple natures to appear to different alien civilizations.
Atheist Luke Muehlhauser interviews well-respect cosmologist Luke Barnes about the fine-tuning argument, and the naturalistic response to it.
Luke M. did a good job explaining what was in the podcast. (I wish more people who put out podcasts would do that).
In one of my funniest and most useful episodes yet, I interview astronomer Luke Barnes about the plausibility of 11 responses to the fine-tuning of the universe. Frankly, once you listen to this episode you will be better equipped to discuss fine-tuning than 90% of the people who discuss it on the internet. This episode will help clarify the thinking of anyone – including and perhaps especially professional philosophers – about the fine-tuning of the universe.
The 11 responses to fine-tuning we discuss are:
“It’s just a coincidence.”
“We’ve only observed one universe, and it’s got life. So as far as we know, the probability that a universe will support life is one out of one!”
“However the universe was configured, evolution would have eventually found a way.”
“There could be other forms of life.”
“It’s impossible for life to observe a universe not fine-tuned for life.”
“Maybe there are deeper laws; the universe must be this way, even though it looks like it could be other ways.”
“Maybe there are bajillions of universes, and we happen to be in one of the few that supports life.”
“Maybe a physics student in another universe created our universe in an attempt to design a universe that would evolve intelligent life.”
“This universe with intelligent life is just as unlikely as any other universe, so what’s the big deal?”
“The universe doesn’t look like it was designed for life, but rather for empty space or maybe black holes.”
“Fine-tuning shows there must be an intelligent designer beyond physical reality that tuned the universe so it would produce intelligent life.”
Download CPBD episode 040 with Luke Barnes. Total time is 1:16:31.
There is a very good explanation of some of the cases of fine-tuning that I talk about most on this blog – the force of gravity, the strong force, etc. as well as many other examples. Dr. Barnes is an expert, but he is also very very easy to listen to even when talking about difficult issues. Luke M. is very likeable as the interviewer.
‘Atheism’ means the negation of theism, the denial of the existence of God.
Stanford University is one of the top 5 universities in the United States, so that’s a solid definition. To be an atheist is to be a person who makes the claim that, as a matter of FACT, there is no intelligent agent who created the universe. Atheists think that there is no God, and theists think that there is a God. Both claims are objective claims about the way the world is out there, and so both sides must furnish forth arguments and evidence as to how they are able to know what they are each claiming.
In my discussions with atheists, they are using the term that they “lack belief in God”. They claim that this is different from not believing in God or from saying that God does not exist. I’m not sure how to respond to this. It seems to me that its a silly word-play and is logically the same as saying that you do not believe in God.
What would be a good response to this?
Thank you for your time,
And here is Dr. Craig’s full response:
Your atheist friends are right that there is an important logical difference between believing that there is no God and not believing that there is a God. Compare my saying, “I believe that there is no gold on Mars” with my saying “I do not believe that there is gold on Mars.” If I have no opinion on the matter, then I do not believe that there is gold on Mars, and I do not believe that there is no gold on Mars. There’s a difference between saying, “I do not believe (p)” and “I believe (not-p).” Logically where you place the negation makes a world of difference.
But where your atheist friends err is in claiming that atheism involves only not believing that there is a God rather than believing that there is no God.
There’s a history behind this. Certain atheists in the mid-twentieth century were promoting the so-called “presumption of atheism.” At face value, this would appear to be the claim that in the absence of evidence for the existence of God, we should presume that God does not exist. Atheism is a sort of default position, and the theist bears a special burden of proof with regard to his belief that God exists.
So understood, such an alleged presumption is clearly mistaken. For the assertion that “There is no God” is just as much a claim to knowledge as is the assertion that “There is a God.” Therefore, the former assertion requires justification just as the latter does. It is the agnostic who makes no knowledge claim at all with respect to God’s existence. He confesses that he doesn’t know whether there is a God or whether there is no God.
But when you look more closely at how protagonists of the presumption of atheism used the term “atheist,” you discover that they were defining the word in a non-standard way, synonymous with “non-theist.” So understood the term would encompass agnostics and traditional atheists, along with those who think the question meaningless (verificationists). As Antony Flew confesses,
the word ‘atheist’ has in the present context to be construed in an unusual way. Nowadays it is normally taken to mean someone who explicitly denies the existence . . . of God . . . But here it has to be understood not positively but negatively, with the originally Greek prefix ‘a-’ being read in this same way in ‘atheist’ as it customarily is in . . . words as ‘amoral’ . . . . In this interpretation an atheist becomes not someone who positively asserts the non-existence of God, but someone who is simply not a theist. (A Companion to Philosophy of Religion, ed. Philip Quinn and Charles Taliaferro [Oxford: Blackwell, 1997], s.v. “The Presumption of Atheism,” by Antony Flew)
Such a re-definition of the word “atheist” trivializes the claim of the presumption of atheism, for on this definition, atheism ceases to be a view. It is merely a psychological state which is shared by people who hold various views or no view at all. On this re-definition, even babies, who hold no opinion at all on the matter, count as atheists! In fact, our cat Muff counts as an atheist on this definition, since she has (to my knowledge) no belief in God.
One would still require justification in order to know either that God exists or that He does not exist, which is the question we’re really interested in.
So why, you might wonder, would atheists be anxious to so trivialize their position? Here I agree with you that a deceptive game is being played by many atheists. If atheism is taken to be a view, namely the view that there is no God, then atheists must shoulder their share of the burden of proof to support this view. But many atheists admit freely that they cannot sustain such a burden of proof. So they try to shirk their epistemic responsibility by re-defining atheism so that it is no longer a view but just a psychological condition which as such makes no assertions. They are really closet agnostics who want to claim the mantle of atheism without shouldering its responsibilities.
This is disingenuous and still leaves us asking, “So is there a God or not?”
So there you have it. We are interested in what both sides know and what reasons and evidence they have to justify their claim to know. We are interested in talking to people who make claims about objective reality, not about themselves, and who then go on to give reasons and evidence to support their claims about objective reality. There are atheists out there that do make an objective claim that God does not exist, and then support that claim with arguments and evidence. Those are good atheists, and we should engage in rational conversations with them. But clearly there are some atheists who are not like that. How should we deal with these “subjective atheists”?
Dealing with subjective atheists
How should theists respond to people who just want to talk about their psychological state? Well, my advice is to avoid them. They are approaching religion irrationally and non-cognitively – like the person who enters a physics class and says “I lack a belief in the gravitational force!”. When you engage in serious discussions with people about God’s existence, you only care about what people know and what they can show to be true. We don’t care about a person’s psychology.
Dealing with persistent subjective atheists
What happens when you explain all of that to a subjective atheist who continues to insist that you listen to them repeat over and over “I lack a belief in God, I lack a belief in God”? What if you tell them to make the claim that God does not exist, and then support it with arguments and evidence, but instead they keep leaving comments on your blog telling you again and again about their subjective state of mind: “I lack a belief in cupcakes! I lack a belief in icebergs!” What if they keep e-mailing you and threatening to expose you on Twitter for refusing to listen to them, or denounce you via skywriting: “Wintery Knight won’t listen to me! I lack a belief in crickets!”. I think at this point you have to give up and stop talking to such a person.
And that’s why I moderate and filter comments on this blog. There are uneducated people out there with access to the Internet who want attention, but I am not obligated to give it to them. And neither are you. We are not obligated to listen to abusive people who don’t know what they are talking about. I do post comments from objective atheists who make factual claims about the objective world, and who support those claims with arguments and evidence. I am not obligated to post comments from people who refuse to make objective claims or who refuse to support objective claims with arguments and evidence. And I’m not obligated to engage in discussions with them, either.