Victor Stenger on William Lane Craig

A few months ago, I received a review copy of Victor Stenger’s God and the Folly of Faith. I meant to review it, but with other things I was working on it slipped through the cracks, and I never found time to read the thing all the way through. (Apologies to Dr. Stenger and Prometheus Books for that.) But I’ve read parts of it, and some are definitely useful. Here’s Stenger on Kalam:

The more recent theological claim that Borde, Guth, and Vilenkin have proved that the universe had to have a beginning is also in error. Again, this theorem was derived from general relativity and so is inapplicable to the issue of origins. Furthermore, it is disputed by other authors.44 I asked Vilenkin personally if his theorem required a beginning. His e-mail reply: “No. But it proves that the expansion of the universe must have had a beginning. You can evade the theorem by postulating that the universe was contracting prior to some time.” This is exactly what a number of existing models for the uncreated origin of our universe do.

  • mnb0

    Physics is so nice; a pity that way too few philosophers and theologians pay attention to it.
    We do know that there was a Big Bang (it follows from relativity plus the observation of an expanding universe) but we don’t know what is was or how it went. The different models have different philosophical consequences. That’s why cosmological arguments don’t make sense.

  • BrooksPhD

    I thoroughly enjoyed “God & the Folly of Faith”. I’m a biologist by training – reading solid arguments against theism from a physics perspective was fascinating and also helped my understanding of some of the fundamental processes I find hard to grasp (inflation etc.)

  • Marcus Ranum

    Craig is such a mountebank. :( He’s so busy with the “watch my hands as I throw out Kalam” that he ‘forgets’ to explain how he gets from the first cause to the christian god. “Huh? That little leap of faith over there? Kalam!”

  • Kevin K

    Dear Dr. Craig:

    1. If the universe had a beginning, then you have precisely and exactly zero information to tell you how that beginning happened.

    2. Positing a sentient all-powerful, extra-universal creative force (ie, a god or gods) is a nice notion. But purely speculative.

    3. Unless you can provide some evidence or propose a scientific method why which your god hypothesis can be tested, please do not claim that your hypothesis has been proved.

    4. And most especially, please do not tell me that this creative force cares about my penis.


  • Marcus Ranum

    reading solid arguments against theism from a physics perspective

    Yeah, I enjoyed that, too. I think the creos avoid physics because it’s all mathy and stuff and has loads of actual observable evidence supporting it. It’s one thing to argue that “evolution is just a theory whine whine” but saying “gravity is just a theooooory!” doesn’t carry a lot of weight.

    I think the creos go after evolution because it’s at the limit of their comprehension, without getting a good enough education to lose their faith. That’s why they stay away from DNA and genetics – once you understand enough about genetics to know why there was no “Adam and Eve” (and for extra credit, ‘Adam’ made out with neandertals!) the whole “original sin” concept falls apart and takes down the redemption and jesus’ long bad day stories with it.

    • iknklast

      It is truly so much at the limit of their comprehension (evolution) that I would have to say their comprehension of it is limited. The problem with evolution is that it sounds simple enough for everyone to understand – and the basics are – but very few people (including some scientists I’ve known) acdtually understand it. That’s why we get such nonsensical arguments.

      Physics sounds harder, so they avoid it all together. Evolution looks like low hanging fruit to them, but they can’t understand it very well, so they make up sound bites, and that becomes evolution. “I’ve never seen a dog give birth to a cat”. No, and I wouldn’t expect to, but that’s the sum total of their understanding.

      I guess, to make a long story short (too late), evolution is actually past the limits of their understanding, but because someone has taken out the high-falutin’ sciency language for them, they don’t understand that it’s past the limits of their understanding.

  • mikespeir

    I have an enormous amount of respect for Craig’s intellect. Anybody who can massage facts the way he does has got to be bright.

  • Fergus Gallagher

    On his recent debate with Peter Millican:

    Craig says there’s a next part to Vilenkin’s answer – that any prior contracting states are unstable. (Starts ~ 53m)

    • Kevin K

      Does Craig even understand that he just posited an all-natural, no-god-needed origin of the Big Bang?

      Contracted states are unstable. Duh. Big Bang.

  • reasonbeing

    I very much enjoyed reading Stenger’s book. It is far more accessible to than some of his previous works for people who are not physicists. It is definitely worth a read.

  • redpanda

    My thinking on the cosmological argument has been basically this:

    Even if I grant the premise that the universe must have had a cause which is uncaused by definition, why not posit some sort of fundamental uncaused force rather than an intelligent and powerful deity? Could there not just as easily be some fundamental level of reality which can’t not exist, and which forms the basis for the rest of it? I feel like we don’t know enough about the nature of reality to unconditionally accept the premises of the cosmological arguments, but even if we did then that’s the problem I have with it.

    Is this a reasonable way to approach it or can I do better?

    • Iain Walker

      why not posit some sort of fundamental uncaused force rather than an intelligent and powerful deity?

      Part of Craig’s argument (as I recall it) is that the explanation for the beginning of the universe must be timeless, and so the only possible explanation is that an agent freely chose to create it. Never mind that even if you can perform the necessary mental gymnastics to believe in libertarian free will, choice and agency are still fundamentally temporal concepts.

      Another reason for going with agent-causation is the principle borrowed from Islamic theology that if there there are two equi-probable states of affairs (X and Not X), then the only thing that can decide the actual state of affairs that obtains is the free choice of an agent. As far as I’m aware, Craig never really bothers to justify this claim, which is pretty much falsified by even a cursory understanding of radioactive decay.

      So Craig has his reasons for going for a deity-as-explanation. They just happen to be crap ones.

  • Annatar

    indirectly related: When Dawkins and Krauss came to Phoenix to do one of their conversations, I asked Krauss at the post-convo book signing if he had read Stenger’s “Fallacy of Fine-Tuning.” His response:

    “I have, and I don’t agree with a lot of the things he says there. In fact, I don’t think he understands cosmology at all to be perfectly honest.”

    I’m a big fan of Stenger, so I ain’t putting him down, I just thought that was an interesting comment from Krauss. Perhaps a bit of professional jealousy?

    • Albert Bakker

      I think Krauss probably should have been a little more specific. Mention perhaps only the most egregious mistake or flawed argument in his opinion. As such it’s a useless comment and the petty remark demonstrably false.

    • KG

      I was rather disappointed in The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning, the only Stenger I’ve read. I don’t know enough physics to judge it on the level of Krauss’s dismissive comment, but it seemed to me rather rambling. The first several chapters did not address the subject of the title directly; perhaps they were necessary background, but in that case, this could have been made clear at the outset. More generally, I think on such a topic Stenger needed to abide by the old advice to (non-fiction) writers: say what you’re going to say, say it, then say what you’ve said. At one point a chapter on the newage misuse of “quantum” was included – irrelevant to the topic. At another, Stenger argued that the appearance of fine-tuning would actually be evidence against a creator: it would be much more impressive to bring about life in a universe hostile to life, than in one fine-tuned for it. Well, Professor Stenger, make up your mind!

      Irrespective of its purported relevance to theism (I actually don’t think it is relevant), the question of how different physics could be and still permit the appearance and evolution of life of some kind is an interesting one, and my impression is that there is no consensus on it. I think there’s still room for a good, sceptical book on that.

  • jhendrix

    I’ve been trying to write up a debunking on the scientific points of the Kalam, and for the BVG theorem, it’s shocking how twisted Craig uses it to try and support premise 2.

    First you have to look at how Craig defines “universe” which he has as “all of material existence” meaning matter, energy, and time.

    The BVG paper says nothing about the creation of energy and matter, at best it just points out that our space-time has either not always been expanding – or that our space-time had an origin, but not that the energy that makes up our space-time had an absolute beginning.

    In fact, the three scientists, especially Vilenkin, endorse the quantum nucleation theory, which effectively says that the energy that makes up the universe existed before our space-time universe did, and our space-time universe evolved out of a quantum nucleation event.

    I argue that this theory, which is one of many plausible scientific theories, carries more weight than the theist version of creation since it provides both a material and efficient cause for the universe, rather than just the Kalam’s Efficient without Material causation quasi-explanation of “God did it!”.

  • andyman409

    Personally, I find Habermas even creepier than Craig. Mostly because of shit like this:

    “As long as a key alternate theory remains unrefuted (in whole or in part), these facts which point to the resurrection cannot be accorded the full impact which they warrant. But the more the alternate theories are refuted, the more outstanding the facts favoring the disciples’ claims become, thus leaving the resurrection as still even more probable. Then it follows that the more completely such naturalistic theories are rejected, the higher the probability for the resurrection becomes as the facts which demonstrate the reality of this event are thereby shown to be valid. This is especially so when no other alternate theories are shown to be probable. Therefore we perceive the importance of complete refutations of three other views.”

    Basically, his entire argument is “we must debunk atheists arguments in order to prove that God exists”. Craig is wierd. Habermas is batshit.

    • eric

      Sounds like someone took the ‘contrived dualism’ error and turned it into a contrived n-ism error. But the error’s still there: for empirical and inductive ideas, disproof of idea A does not mean B is right, because there may always be a C you haven’t thought of.

  • Paul W., OM


    There are certainly leading cosmologists who take the fine-tuning issue seriously, notably Lee Smolin, who wrote a whole book titled The Life of the Universe. (Which is a very interesting read.)

    Smolin thinks fine tuning is likely real, but that it’s apparently the product of the evolution of universes, wiht universes being the insides of black holes in other universes.) If he’s right, it turns out that the fine-tuning that favors life also favors the creation of whole universes, by fostering the creation of black holes.

    Basically, the properties of carbon are crucial to both—carbon is “just right” for forming molecular chains. Dark clouds of interstellar carbon chain compounds shield blobs of (mostly hydrogen) gas from the stellar winds from existing stars, allowing them to contract and form new stars rather than getting blown apart.

    Several parameters of the standard model of physics seem to be fine-tuned so that the properties of carbon come out just right, and it can easily polymerize.

    (In the beginning was one word: plastics.)

    It also works out that the universe appears to be fine-tuned to optimize the production of stars in the right size range to maximize the number which will collapse into black holes.

    BTW, I asked Steven Weinberg about this, and he said he thought Smolin’s theory was “speculative, but not crazy.” Apparently Weinberg doesn’t think it’s goofy to worry about apparent fine-tuning.

    • Annatar

      Interesting stuff, maybe I’ll check it out once I get through my never-ending list of books to read (who says actual infinites can’t exist?). I’ll certainly look into them.

      My point wasn’t to blow off the idea of fine-tuning. Not being a physicist, but knowing that there are physicists on both sides of the fence, I am basically agnostic on whether or not the universe is fine-tuned.

      I was simply relating a comment that Krauss said to me regarding Stenger. Those two are the big physicists active in the atheist community right now, and it was fascinating to me to hear one put own the other like that. I wasn’t really relating my own opinion on it, it was just an interesting comment. I also agree with Albert Bakker that Krauss could have been more specific, but to be fair, it was at a book signing, he and Dawkins had already gone through over 100 people and there were at least a 100 behind us. I couldn’t exactly ask for a lecture. I mainly asked him because they had discussed fine-tuning briefly in the conversation, and Krauss could be expected to understand the stuff Stenger was talking about in TFOFT, where I couldn’t.

  • computerguy

    So does Craig explain how the timeless intelligence got there in the first place. Isn’t he just moving the I don’t know back one step further?

    • Chris Hallquist


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