Wednesday, 19 September 2012

The Misquoting WLC

I previously discussed the “Taxi-Cab Fallacy”, which I first stumbled across in a debate between William Lane Craig and Lawrence Krauss.  This particular debate highlights how intellectually dishonest an apologist such as Craig has to be to make his point.  Let’s take a little time to look at some issues from the debate. 

The very first appearance of the term was on Craig’s website (notionally in a response to a reader’s question, a reader who could have been Craig):

Premise 1 is the premise that the atheist typically rejects. Sometimes atheists will respond to premise 1 by saying that it is true of everything in the universe but not of the universe itself. But this response commits what has been aptly called “the taxicab fallacy.” For as the nineteenth century atheist philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer quipped, premise 1 can’t be dismissed like a hack once you’ve arrived at your desired destination!

(referring to the first premise of his Cosmological Argument from Contingency:

1. Everything that exists has an explanation of its existence (either in the necessity of its own nature or in an external cause).)

So, did Schopenhauer first frame the “Taxi-Cab Fallacy”?

The short answer is “no”.  Part of the reason it is not easy to find a direct reference to Schopenhauer’s “Taxi-Cab Fallacy” is because it’s generally known as “Schopenhauer’s taxi-cab objection”.  Fortunately, Alexander Pruss mentions it a couple of times, in a paper in Religious Studies:

II. Schopenhauer’s taxi-cab objection.  The taxi-cab objection says that once the existence of the First Cause is inferred, the PSR (Principle of Sufficient Reason - ed) is dismissed, like a taxi after it has brought us to our destination, instead of being applied to the First Cause or its creative act.

and in a philosophy dissertation (note that while Dr Pruss seems to be a theist, his blog and papers indicate that he is probably not an apologist):

First of all, if one brings God in as a first cause, as an explanation of all things other than himself, then to avoid Schopenhauer’s “taxi cab” objection to the cosmological argument (Schopenhauer charged that the causal principle behind the cosmological argument was dismissed once the existence of God was proved, like a cab that is no longer needed once one is at the destination, and not applied to God himself) one must affirm that God is the explanation of his own existence, perhaps by there being a sound ontological argument, though possibly outside of our grasp, for his existence or by his existence being implicated by his essence.

Note the use of the objection.  It’s an objection to the use of God as a first cause.  In other words, it’s specifically an objection to an argument that God made the universe.  So, it’s a counter to the very argument of Cosmological Contingency that Craig is defending when he invokes the “fallacy”!

This is intellectual dishonesty of staggering proportions.


Schopenhauer was an atheist.  Surprisingly, Craig quotes a number of atheists during the debate.  There’s Schopenhauer himself, Michael Ruse, Alan Guth (together with Alexander Vilenkin and Arvind Borde whose positions are less clear), Carl Sagan and Sam Harris.  During the Q&A, he also refers to Steven Hawking and Roger Penrose.

I was particularly annoyed by Craig’s indirect quoting of Carl Sagan (note that the novel version of the film Contact was written by Sagan):

So maybe the fine-tuning is due to chance. After all, highly improbable events happen every day! But what serves to distinguish purely chance events from design is not simply high improbability but also the presence of an independently given pattern to which the event conforms. For example, in the movie Contact scientists are able to distinguish a signal from outer space from random noise, not simply due to its improbability but because of its conforming to the pattern of the prime numbers. The fine-tuning of the universe for intelligent agents exhibits just that combination of incomprehensible improbability and an independently given pattern that are the earmarks of design.

The misuse of Carl Sagan’s work, given that Sagan was a committed, vocal atheist and sceptic, and given that he is no longer able to defend himself is appalling (although there is a comparison of Sagan and Craig which indicates that perhaps Sagan has nothing much to defend himself again).

I was more bemused by Craig’s appeal to Sam Harris:

Harris says that if there is “only one person in the world [who] held down a struggling, screaming little girl, cut off her genitals with a septic blade, and sewed her back up, . . . the only question would be how severely [he] should be punished.”  It would not be a question that he had done something horribly, objectively wrong. And yet on Dr. Krauss’s view, you cannot affirm that because everything is working according to the clockwork universe. Ought implies can, and you can’t do other than what you do.

Interestingly here, Craig is using Sam Harris to argue against Krauss’s argument that there isn’t free will.  This is despite the fact that Sam Harris wrote clearly in the book from which Craig is quoting that he too (Sam Harris) does not reckon that free will exists.

Again, this is intellectual dishonesty of staggering proportions.


Craig also references the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin theorem.  This is quite nicely handled by the DebunkingWLC blog.  In brief, the authors of the theorem do not indicate that it supports the God hypothesis and Vilenkin’s book, which Craig exclusively quotes, includes, on page 176, the following:

Theologians have often welcomed any evidence for the beginning of the universe, regarding it as evidence for the existence of God … So what do we make of a proof that the beginning is unavoidable? Is it a proof of the existence of God? This view would be far too simplistic. Anyone who attempts to understand the origin of the universe should be prepared to address its logical paradoxes. In this regard, the theorem that I proved with my colleagues does not give much of an advantage to the theologian over the scientist.

Being too simplistic has never been a barrier to Craig.

The agnostic and atheist Michael Ruse is quoted, although the quote seems quite unnecessary and counterproductive for Craig:

The man who says it is morally acceptable to rape little children is just as mistaken as the man who says 2+2=5.

In context, it seems that Craig is using this quote to indicate that even atheists have some sort of commitment to an absolute morality.  However, the quote doesn’t support Craig’s case, since “moral acceptability” can be established without any need to appeal to absolute morality and, as Krauss excitedly pointed out, two plus two can equal five – for sufficiently large values of two.

(If you include all the rounded decimal values which are rounded to an integer, then you can arrive at 2 + 2 = 3, 2 + 2 = 4 and 2 + 2 = 5.  The correct answer depends on the circumstances.) 

If Ruse means something akin to “totally, absolutely wrong under all circumstances”, he could have said “The man who says it is morally acceptable to rape little children is just as mistaken as the man who says 2+2=17”.  But he doesn’t.  At least Ruse is still alive so perhaps someone should ask him whether he meant something as strong as "as wrong as 2+2=17" or something as ambiguous as "as wrong as 2+2=5".

Craig does mention three theists in the debate; one is the Quaker, Templeton Prize winner and cosmologist, George Ellis and the other is the Catholic priest and Philosopher of Science, Ernan McMullin.  The third, James Sinclair, is disguised as a “cosmologist”.  James Sinclair is the co-author of Craig’s book about the Kalam Cosmological Argument.  I found no indication that he is an actual cosmologist, but rather his day job is as an air-to-air combat specialist in warfare analysis for the USN.  His claim to being a “cosmologist” derives from his Masters of Physics study and his involvement with “cosmology” seems to be limited to within the realm of Christian apologetics.  So, the claim that James Sinclair is a “cosmologist” is what we atheists call “a lie”.

Moreover, the quotation attributed to Sinclair is:

This approach still does not solve the problem of creation. Rather it has moved the question back one step to the initial, tiny, closed, and meta-stable universe. This universe state can have existed for only a finite time. Where did it come from?

This quotation is taken, word for word, from an essay that was co-authored by Craig himself.  So, in other words, Craig is quoting himself, but attributing the words to someone who he thinks he can get away with describing as a “cosmologist”.  Shame, Dr Craig, shame!

In debating terms, Craig is also cheating with his use of the McMullin quotation, because he introduces new material in his closing statements.  McMullin’s quote was the most questionable one of the lot and the one that Krauss was most likely to have issue with, which is probably why Craig used it at the point he did – leaving Krauss with the option of addressing that quote at the expense of his concluding remarks or not addressing the quote at all:

It is highly improbable that this fine-tuning is going to go away. Ernan McMullin of the University of Notre Dame says, “It seems safe to say that later theory, no matter how different, will turn up approximately the same . . . numbers. And the numerous constraints that have to be imposed upon these numbers . . . are too specific and too numerous to evaporate entirely.” So fine-tuning is a physical feature of the universe, and I think it’s better explained by God.

I’ve already addressed the Fine-Tuning argument at length, so there’s little point in going into detail on why Craig and McMullin are wrong here.

The George Ellis quote is:

And lest you think that this is not reasoning that impresses contemporary scientists, (let) me quote from George Ellis, a great cosmologist, when he asks, “Can there be an infinite set of really existing universes?” He says “We suggest that, on the basis of well-known philosophical arguments, the answer is No.” And therefore they reject a realized past infinity in time.

Hang on, buddy.  Scientists don’t tend to reject results on philosophical grounds.  All Craig is doing here is exposing the fact that scientists who are also theists – such as Ellis – can be tempted to do science badly (while creation scientists/intelligent design advocates are tempted to do science very badly).  Well thanks for the heads-up, but I think we all knew that already.


So what we have in this debate is, totally aside from his shockingly dishonest logic, as addressed in The Logic of an Apologist and a number of follow-on articles, a number of blatant displays of either dishonesty or stupidity.  I won’t try to convince you how likely either option is but rather, in the immortal words of William Lane Craig:

“I’ll leave it up to you to assess that probability”


  1. Oops! This morning I accidentally posted an article which should follow this one. If anyone is looking for the "WLC as Optimus Prime" article, don't despair! It will appear in a couple of days or so.

  2. James Sinclair studied comsology and supersymmetry when he did his masters in physics

    1. Yep, he may well have done so, but he is not a "cosmologist". A couple of courses does not an expert make.

    2. > A couple of courses does not an expert make.

      Craig never said he was an expert or a leader in his field of study. Even if he isn't a cosmologist proper, he nonetheless received training as a cosmologist. You are not giving a charitable reading.


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