Tuesday, 10 July 2012

WLC6: Addressing A Futile Argument

In earlier articles, I looked at William Lane Craig’s debating style (in Debatable Theism) and the logic in his “logical” arguments (in The Logic of an Apologist).  In the latter, I said that I would address the content of Craig’s arguments, please check that article if you are not already familiar with the logical forms.  This article addresses what I have numbered as Craig’s Sixth Argument – note that I’ve not come across an example where Craig uses this argument during a formal debate phase.  Shortly after 100 minutes into the audio version of the debate with Lewis Wolpert, Craig claims that the lack of objective rights and wrongs implicit in the evolutionary account is morally abhorrent.  This is essentially the same argument with absurd being replaced by abhorrent.  First a quick recap:

Craig’s Sixth Argument – Argument from Absurdity (alternatively Argument from Futility)
(from one of Craig’s books – the specific chapter is here)

  1. If God does not exist, then life is futile.
  2. If the God of the Bible does exist, then life is meaningful.
  3. We may only live happily and consistently if life if meaningful.
  4. If the evidence for these two options (non-existence and existence of God) were absolutely equal, a rational person ought to choose biblical Christianity.
Unlike some of Craig’s other arguments, this one doesn’t even seem logical.  I sort of tried to put it into some sort of logical format:

  1. Premise 1 – The words “does exist” (All M) are interchangeable with the words “is believed in by a person” (P).
  2. Premise 2 – If God does not exist (not A), then life is futile in general (not B).
  3. Corollary 1 – If God is not believed in by a person (from not A1 and P), then life for that person is futile (not B1).
  4. Premise 3 – If life for a person is futile (not B1) then that person cannot live happily and consistently (not C).
  5. Premise 4 – If the God of the Bible exists (A), then life is meaningful in general (B).
  6. Corollary 2 – If the God of the Bible is believed in by a person (A1 from A and P), then that person may live happily and consistently (B1).
  7. Premise 5 – If life is meaningful for a person (B1) then that person will live happily and consistently (C).
  8. Premise 6 – If a person so chooses (D), they can believe whatever they want (E)
  9. Premise 7 – If a person is rational (F), they will choose to live happily and consistently (G).
  10. Random Assertion – People are more interested in living happily through belief than dealing with what is true (H, I think).
  11. Premise 8 – If the evidence for these two options (non-existence and existence of God) were absolutely equal (I), a rational person ought to choose biblical Christianity (J).
  12. Assertion – The evidence for these two options (non-existence and existence of God) were absolutely equal, or possibly (in the mind of William Lane Craig) leaning towards Biblical Christianity (I)
  13. Conclusion – A rational person ought to choose Biblical Christianity (J).
I accept that this formulation is a mess.  For that reason, we’ll have to just look Craig’s original statements.

If God does not exist, life is futile

What does futile mean? A quick visit to an on-line dictionary gives us:
Futile: 1. incapable of producing any result; ineffective; useless; not successful: 2. trifling; frivolous; unimportant
In chapter 2 of Craig’s “Reasonable Faith”, he uses the word “futile” twice without definition.  The first is in reference to a character in Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse:
One of the most devastating novels I’ve ever read was Steppenwolf, by Hermann Hesse. At the novel’s end, Harry Haller stands looking at himself in a mirror. During the course of his life he had experienced all the world offers. And now he stands looking at himself, and he mutters, “Ah, the bitter taste of life!” He spits at himself in the looking-glass, and then he kicks it to pieces. His life has been futile and meaningless.
The second is in the conclusion (from which the wording of the whole argument is taken):
Now I want to make it clear that I have not yet shown biblical Christianity to be true. But what I have done is clearly spell out the alternatives. If God does not exist, then life is futile. If the God of the Bible does exist, then life is meaningful. Only the second of these two alternatives enables us to live happily and consistently. Therefore, it seems to me that even if the evidence for these two options were absolutely equal, a rational person ought to choose biblical Christianity. It seems to me positively irrational to prefer death, futility, and destruction to life, meaningfulness, and happiness. As Pascal said, we have nothing to lose and infinity to gain.
From this we can gather that Craig is using “futile” to mean “meaningless”, thus “trifling; frivolous; unimportant”.  This is supported by earlier text.  Craig then establishes the following during the chapter:
  • Dostoyevsky wrote about the problem of evil and concluded that, in Craig’s words, “atheism is destructive of life and ends logically in suicide” because of problems associated with moral relativism.
  • Kierkegaard indicated that the “self-centered, aesthetic man finds no ultimate meaning in life and no true satisfaction. Thus, the aesthetic life leads finally to despair, a sort of sickness with life” and the life of the moral man “ends in unhappiness. For the more one tries sincerely to bring one’s life into conformity with the objective standards of the good, the more painfully aware one is that one cannot do it. Thus, the ethical life, when earnestly pursued, leads ultimately to guilt and despair”.
  • Schaeffer wrote (in Craig’s words) that “denial of absolutes has gradually made its way through Western culture. In each case, it results in despair, because without absolutes man’s endeavors degenerate into absurdity. Schaeffer believes that the Theater of the Absurd, abstract modern art, and modern music such as is composed by John Cage are all indications of what happens below the line of despair. Only by reaffirming belief in the absolute God of Christianity can man and his culture avoid inevitable degeneracy, meaninglessness, and despair.”
Craig also had some interesting things to say about Pascal. What I noted with interest was that Pascal produced one of the earliest examples of Christian apology, in Pensées - a document which he published after his death! (I vaguely recall that some other chap is famous for doing his best work after death.) In certain circles I am known for a dislike of relying on the words of the dead to support an argument, but this is ridiculous. Not only is Pascal dead, but he was already dead when the notes he had written were massaged into something publishable.

Even if Pascal fully intended to publish something along the lines of what was produced, his wager can hardly be taken seriously. Do Christians honestly think that believing simply for the potential reward would be adequate for their god?

Getting back on topic, it should be noted that Pascal's apparent strategy in Pensées was "to bring the unbeliever to such despair and confusion that he would embrace God".

So ... it seems that “futile” according to Craig means not only meaningless, but that which leads to despair.  And apparently atheism is something that leads directly to despair, at least according these writers - who, rather unsurprisingly, were all writing as Christians (although Dostoyevsky seems to have been a bit unorthodox, or at least confused, in his faith).

Craig then continues to expand on the theme, establishing that:
  • People die
  • Dying is scary
  • Not existing is a scary thought (at least to Craig, but I think it's fair to assume that this fear is not unique)
It is possibly better to let Craig speak here:
Look at it from another perspective: Scientists say that the universe originated in an explosion called the “Big Bang” about 15 billion years ago. Suppose the Big Bang had never occurred. Suppose the universe had never existed. What ultimate difference would it make? The universe is doomed to die anyway. In the end it makes no difference whether the universe ever existed or not. Therefore, it is without ultimate significance.

The same is true of the human race. Mankind is a doomed race in a dying universe. Because the human race will eventually cease to exist, it makes no ultimate difference whether it ever did exist. Mankind is thus no more significant than a swarm of mosquitos or a barnyard of pigs, for their end is all the same. The same blind cosmic process that coughed them up in the first place will eventually swallow them all again.

And the same is true of each individual person. The contributions of the scientist to the advance of human knowledge, the researches of the doctor to alleviate pain and suffering, the efforts of the diplomat to secure peace in the world, the sacrifices of good men everywhere to better the lot of the human race—all these come to nothing. In the end they don’t make one bit of difference, not one bit. Each person’s life is therefore without ultimate significance. And because our lives are ultimately meaningless, the activities we fill our lives with are also meaningless. The long hours spent in study at the university, our jobs, our interests, our friendships—all these are, in the final analysis, utterly meaningless. This is the horror of modern man: because he ends in nothing, he is nothing.
This is a common argument, but a curious one all the same.  If God does not exist, then Craig’s parody of an analysis is not too far from the mark.  We aren’t important in the grand scheme of things.  We live for but a short time, on a planet which has only been around a few billions years and will be gone in a few billion more, in a solar system which exists in a universe that is probably headed for some sort of figurative death after who knows how many billions of years.  That’s all true enough.

As far as the universe is concerned, the importance of our existence - as a species - is on a par with the importance we place on individual bacteria within our digestive systems.  We don’t have any idea about whether individual bacteria live or die, we don’t even identify them, we are completely oblivious to them but cumulatively, if all bacteria in our gut died, we’d suffer.  The universe, on the other hand, is not only oblivious to us, but it would not suffer one iota if all of us died.  That’s true not just literally, but also metaphorically – the workings of the universe as a whole is totally unaffected by what we all individually consider to be “me”.   The universe is modified (infinitesimally) by the fact that we move things around, but so far, we have not moved anything significant out of our local area.  (We have sent spacecraft (for example the Voyager space probes) and electromagnetic energy transmissions, but the vast majority of our efforts have amounted to moving stuff around on one rock among the many circling one star out of many billions.)  There is absolutely no effect on the universe resulting from our mental processes per se.  If our composite material gets converted into worm food (or directly into water, carbon dioxide, nitrogen, nitrous oxides and some other minor bits and pieces), the universe literally could not care less.

If we were to measure the importance of our lives in terms of the universe, how important we are to the universe and how long our stay in it is, then yes - our lives could be considered meaningless, or "futile". The thing is that we don’t measure the importance of our lives in terms of the universe as a whole.  We don’t consider our existence in terms of billions of years.  We live our lives within a much smaller context.

For each of us individually, our short existence in an obscure corner of a massive universe is important. For each of us individually, the existence of other people is important.

Even if we did live our lives in universal terms, it is worth noting that Craig simply glides over the fact that all of us spent the vast majority of the universe's first 13.7 billion years not existing.  (Craig is at pains to tell people that he is not a Young Earth Creationist and he claims to be pro-science/pro-reason.  Another of his arguments rests on the initial conditions associated with the Big Bang, so he is not someone who denies the timescales involved with the standard cosmological model.) 

It seems quite clear that not existing wasn’t really all that bad.  If we don’t exist after we die, then it won't be that bad then either.  The only time at which we can despair at not existing is during the ephemerally brief period in which we do exist.  We should not be spending that time in despair, but rather glorying in the fact that against all the apparent odds, we are here, completely by chance, for a limited time only, and we should be making the absolute best use of that opportunity – rather than going around pretending that there will be another, rather vaguely defined existence once we die.

I have examined the absurdity of this sort of argument via the medium of a mock play in which I compare the metaphorical "gift" of a life to the literal possession of a block of chocolate.  See "Despair, A Play in One Act".

God makes life meaningful

Even if we agree with Craig’s argument that not-existing after death is bad, there remains the problem that living forever would be simply awful.  Craig accepts this, but attempts to solve the problem by via God, who is now not only the root cause of immortality, but also the justification for wanting immortality:
(I)t is important to see that it is not just immortality that man needs if life is to be meaningful. Mere duration of existence does not make that existence meaningful. If man and the universe could exist forever, but if there were no God, their existence would still have no ultimate significance. To illustrate: I once read a science-fiction story in which an astronaut was marooned on a barren chunk of rock lost in outer space. He had with him two vials: one containing poison and the other a potion that would make him live forever. Realizing his predicament, he gulped down the poison. But then to his horror, he discovered he had swallowed the wrong vial—he had drunk the potion for immortality. And that meant that he was cursed to exist forever—a meaningless, unending life. Now if God does not exist, our lives are just like that. They could go on and on and still be utterly without meaning. We could still ask of life, “So what?” So it is not just immortality man needs if life is to be ultimately significant; he needs God and immortality. And if God does not exist, then he has neither.
So, without God, not only could you not live forever, but you wouldn’t want to. This pretty much negates the whole wanting to live forever thing, making a relatively short existence in the universe the optimal solution after all. Which means God is no longer necessary. Even worse, God becomes an imposition, some do-gooder giving us something we don’t actually want and telling us it’s OK, because we get to spend eternity with him.  It seems like we might not get a choice about that either since some theists believe that if we live sufficiently good lives, we might get into heaven away (Cardinal Pell vs Richard Dawkins).

Meaning is required for consistent, happy lives

In order to support this premise negatively, Craig finally takes a swipe at atheism, which he paints as the presence of a specific mind-set rather than the absence of a theistic mind-set.
About the only solution the atheist can offer is that we face the absurdity of life and live bravely. Bertrand Russell, for example, wrote that we must build our lives upon “the firm foundation of unyielding despair.” Only by recognizing that the world really is a terrible place can we successfully come to terms with life. Camus said that we should honestly recognize life’s absurdity and then live in love for one another.

The fundamental problem with this solution, however, is that it is impossible to live consistently and happily within such a world view. If one lives consistently, he will not be happy; if one lives happily, it is only because he is not consistent.
Craig never explains why being consistent is a requirement (let alone consistent with his misrepresentations).  Even if he did convince us that being consistent is necessary, all he’s done is quote a couple of writers, and assumed that their views represent the only possible options without a theistic delusion: despair and accepting absurdity.  Camus was an absurdist, meaning that he has a very specific meaning in mind when he talks of life being absurd.  Craig is therefore conflating again if he thinks that “absurd” and “futile” mean the same in this context.  Camus most definitely did not think that life was futile.  Equally, someone as prolific and socially involved as Bertrand Russell cannot seriously be considered to think of life being “futile”.  If neither of them considered life to be futile, then they could quite easily live their lives happily and consistently.  Similarly we lesser atheists can live our lives consistently and happily.

Seeking more justification for God

Craig’s remaining argument, as we look through the rest of the chapter, is that we need objective meaning, objective value, absolute rights and wrongs, post-mortem judgment and punishment for bad people, and externally directed purpose.  Then, at the end, he claims victory for Biblical Christianity because if offers all of them via God and immortality.

The problem is that this would work, sort of, but only if God existed.  In the absence of God, as Craig argues, no rational person with any foresight would want to live forever.  We don’t really seem to need objective value or externally directed purpose.  God, even if he existed, would be a poor source for objective morality. 

As for post-mortem judgment and punishment, life can be terribly unfair.  People get away with doing things we don’t like.  People get punished for doing things we assess as good.  Biblical Christianity doesn’t do away with that, since within its world-view Mengele (Craig’s example, not mine) could have avoided punishment altogether by having a last minute revelation about the truth of the New Testament and accepting Jesus as his saviour.  That’s hardly fair and unlike what would happen in a godless universe: Mengele could be living the high life in heaven while the women he vivisected were suffering in hell for being unreformed Jews (No-one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again – John 3:3 … No-one can come to the Father except me – John 14:6).  At least for an atheist, the wicked go unrewarded.

Craig has a swipe at atheists when discussing self-sacrifice:
A number of years ago, a terrible mid-winter air disaster occurred in which a plane leaving the Washington, D.C. airport smashed into a bridge spanning the Potomac River, plunging its passengers into the icy waters. As the rescue helicopters came, attention was focused on one man who again and again pushed the dangling rope ladder to other passengers rather than be pulled to safety himself. Six times he passed the ladder by. When they came again, he was gone. He had freely given his life that others might live. The whole nation turned its eyes to this man in respect and admiration for the selfless and good act he had performed. And yet, if the atheist is right, that man was not noble—he did the stupidest thing possible. He should have gone for the ladder first, pushed others away if necessary in order to survive. But to die for others he did not even know, to give up all the brief existence he would ever have—what for? For the atheist there can be no reason. And yet the atheist, like the rest of us, instinctively reacts with praise for this man’s selfless action.
How shallow are we supposed to be?  Every thinking person, irrespective of their world view, will have a self-image.  We act to protect that self-image and avoid doing things that affect that self-image negatively.  That man had a self-image which did not let him shoulder others out of the way to save himself.  While he was American and thus more likely to be religious than would be the case in other western countries, there is no certainty that he was a Christian, but for the sake of the argument, let’s say he was a committed believer.

As a committed Christian, that man would be utterly convinced that he was doing a good thing, and dying while doing a good thing after having accepted Jesus as your personal saviour is a sure-fire way to get to heaven.  He wasn’t going to “die”, he was going to be “taken up into the bosom of the Lord”.  As a devout Christian, you are not allowed to commit suicide, but giving up your life to save another is another thing altogether.

So, as a Christian, why be so amazed by this guy?   He’s just being consistent with his beliefs and, if you believe in God, you believe that he benefited from the deal.  Thinking as an atheist, on the other hand, he died, he really truly died.  He transitioned from a brave, albeit deluded, and probably frightened human being into … nothing.  That was a true sacrifice, and something that is worthy of true respect and admiration, the true respect and admiration that only an atheist can offer him.

Imagine for a moment then that he was not a committed Christian, but rather a humanist atheist.  What does the Christian think about such a person?  Firstly, a Christian can’t understand it, because of the sorts of arguments that Craig raised above – it seems that with the theist mindset, you don’t do things unless there is a substantial reward for doing them (like eternal salvation) or (eternal) punishment if you don't.

But if the Christian can get past that inherent prejudice, then she can understand that the brave humanist atheist died doing a good thing, sacrificing not only his life but also the opportunity to repent.  He’s either on his way to eternal damnation or oblivion.  Was that an amazing sacrifice or an act of abject stupidity?  For the atheist thinking about it, the situation hasn’t changed.  For the atheist, the fact the guy sacrificed himself is the point, the fact that (as an atheist) he was not delusional is inconsequential.

The Premise – If evidence for the non-existence and existence of God were absolutely equal, a rational person ought to choose biblical Christianity

Well, actually, no.

If there were a quarter as much evidence for the existence of the Christian God as there is for the identified processes which don’t require the existence of that God, then a rational person should plump for biblical Christianity.  Hell, if there were a hundredth of the evidence, I’d say go for it. 

The trouble is when you lay out all the evidence, evidence for God and evidence that God is not necessary, it doesn't work out close to equal.

You end up with statements like “There’s this book about God and in it, it says stuff that could not be true if God did not exist and people who believe in God believe that it’s all true” as “evidence for God” being lined up against huge quantities of experimentally tested facts which consistently show that the God hypothesis is unnecessary.

You get, as evidence from the theists, “no-one knows how this works, therefore God probably does it” against painstaking research which reveals the mechanisms necessary to close each of the "gaps" claimed by theists.  (Young Earth Creationists are renowned for using the "God of the Gaps" argument: simply ignoring reams of evidence, ignoring museums full of evidence, and claiming the apparent absence of evidence proves that God did it).

If Craig really means: “if your belief in a) the non-existence and b) the existence of the Official WLC-Approved Godlike Entity are absolutely equal, you should choose to believe in the Official WLC-Approved Godlike Entity”, then I’d have to agree.  If your brain is wired such that you truly believe that the evidence stacks up in favour of the OWLCAGE rather than for its non-existence, then there's really very little that can be done for you.

My message to such people, genetically predisposed and/or brainwashed theists, is they should feel free to believe what they want to believe.  Furthermore, they should feel free to only ever talk with people who believe what they want to believe.  But as soon as they start claiming that there is even the tiniest scrap of evidence in support of their patent nonsense, they should expect to be visited by the righteous fury of the those who base their lives on proper evidence (also known as atheists).

They'll also invoke our righteous fury when they try to restrict access to education simply because the evidence that does exist is incompatible with their beliefs.  They should be aware that this applies even to their own children.  Child abuse is never acceptable, be it physical, emotional, psychological, sexual or educational.

I did a little research into whether there are people out there who are psychologically scarred by the experience of not existing for 13.7 billion years.  I didn't find any.  I'm pretty confident that not existing after I die will be equally benign.


  1. Buying into these kinds of apologetical arguments requires one to deny everything in life.
    Rationality must be denied in order to accept the flawed arguments.
    Meaning must be denied in order to accept the need for external collective meaning.
    Purpose must be denied in order to accept the need for external collective purpose.
    Love must be denied in order to accept the need for divine love.
    Morality must be denied in order to accept the need for external non-human morality mandated by God without violating our free will.

    This kind of theism has no ultimate purpose, meaning or morality. It only brings ultimate nihilism.

    1. This might explain some of the more bizarre behaviour of those famous apologists who get caught doing what they preach fervently against. Everything is denied, including personal responsibility :)

  2. This is nothing but an argument from ignorance. What WLC is saying can be rephrased as; "I cannot understand how life can be meaningful without God therefore God has to exist. He has to, has to, has to"

    So what? Maybe life IS meaningless. Get over it.

    Never mind that plenty of people find meaning in life without his god. He writes as though Samuel Beckett and Jean Paul Sartre never wrote a word.



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