"God in Light of Modern Cosmology"

The William Lane Craig/Sean Carroll Debate

By Jeff Laird

Single page/printer friendly
Continued from Page One

Sean Carroll

Carroll claimed three points for his view that Theism was not viable, but in practice only focused on two: "naturalism works", and "theism is not well defined." Unfortunately, I think the way in which Carroll presented these showed a lack of philosophical strength. He seemed to view Theism as a competing theory of cosmology, something Craig had already specifically denied. And, he repeated two particular points that open up gigantic holes in the plausibility of his reasoning, which I'll refer to below. However, he did an excellent job of reminding the audience that terminology matters, as does an accurate understanding of physics.

Carroll strongly disputed Craig's assessment of various cosmological theories, and included quotes from the authors in question. The quotes didn't so much contradict Craig as take some of the force out of his assessments. This is where I would have liked more direct discussion of the theories, but each participant only had 25 minutes total prior to the Q-and-A, with no direct cross-examinations, so they had to pick their battles. As far as it goes, Carroll's rebuttals only seemed to imply that the quoted authors did not believe in God, and did not take the same end conclusions, not that Craig was somehow misrepresenting their work.

I think Carroll made a fair point by criticizing the way some theists — including Craig, to an extent — shade the claims of non-theistic cosmologists by interpreting words somewhat differently than the cosmologists themselves do. Of course, you can't talk to an atheist for five minutes without experiencing the same thing towards the Bible, so I sympathize with his frustration. His belief that theists ought not run away from scientific support once it starts to contradict their preferences was both well-said and crucial, but I wonder if he recognized how well that can apply to atheistic cosmologists, as the entire premise of the debate would suggest.

He also noted, very importantly, that "everyday physics" did not really apply to all points or all places in the universe. This is another point often lost when discussing cosmology, but as it turns out, I think Carroll took the idea too far, leading to the second of his two primary weaknesses.

The Model Argument

Carroll's basic contention for naturalism was that one could construct "models" of the universe which solved all sorts of problems of time and entropy and causality, and required no God. This, I think, represented his first glaring error. I was actually startled to hear him say it the first time, and I'd be interested in reading a transcript or re-watching the debate later to be sure of exactly how he phrased it. In essence, Carroll said that many of these models "were not true", many of them "were not valid", and that they did not actually correspond to reality. And yet, he contended, the bare fact that one could construct models that were valid within themselves was proof that God was not necessary.

In truth, scientists and philosophers have long known that models do not need to be literally true to be useful. Stephen Hawking has noted a model's usefulness is in its ability to make predictions, not whether it's a perfect representation of reality. Punxsutawney Phil would be an acceptable model to use for climate predictions, if he was usually right, from that perspective, even if he's not really sensing anything. The problem is this admits that models do not represent the fullness of reality, and therefore cannot — by definition — be used to exclude plausible ideas that do not directly contradict them. So "naturalism works," in this sense, only if we purposefully ignore part of the real world.

More importantly, it seemed as if Carroll was saying that mere theory, regardless of viability or truth, was somehow a substitute for specific aspects of reality. That simply being able to propose alternatives — true or not — was good enough to dismiss God, sort of a perversion of Occam's Razor. Or, like suggesting that since one doesn't really need to know about wiring to use a light switch, we should be willing to abandon belief in wires and move on with other pursuits.

Imagine a person denying some historical event, on the grounds that they "have a theory". They admit that the theory is probably not correct, and that it fails to match reality in several places. "But that's not important, all that matters is that I can make lots of historical models that get around that fact," they say. "I can write all kinds of sentences and paragraphs which are grammatically correct, even if they're not necessarily true. So I can reject your historical claim." Does that make sense? I'd like to assume Carroll meant no such thing, but he repeated the basic premise several times — that models existed, and though none were really true, they were sufficient enough to dismiss theism.

Continue to Page Three

Image credit: the Milky Way from the Bermudas by Stakaly; Creative Commons

TagsCurrent-Issues  |  Reviews-Critiques  |  Science-Creation

comments powered by Disqus
Published 2-26-2014