Yet Another Atheist Misrepresents a Theistic Argument (the Leibnizian Cosmological Argument)

Yet Another Atheist Misrepresents a Theistic Argument (the Leibnizian Cosmological Argument) February 4, 2016

The title of this blog post is hardly shocking, but it should be. When a philosopher explicitly lays out their argument with numbered premises and a conclusion, we should expect nothing less from critics than representing the argument by quoting the author’s formulation. As we will soon see, however, yet another atheist has failed to do this.

As I’ve mentioned before, William Lane Craig defended eight (8) argument for God’s existence in his debate with Alex Rosenberg. Craig apparently (?) published those eight (8) arguments in the journal Philosophy Now (see here). I use the word “apparently” because the article is behind a paywall and I do not have access.

Meanwhile, Coel Hellier, a Professor of Astrophysics at Keele University in the UK, has blogged about these arguments in a post with the dismissive title, “William Lane Craig’s Eight Special-Pleading Arguments for God’s Existence.” What I want to do is to compare Hellier’s summary of Craig’s arguments to what we know about Craig’s arguments themselves.

 

Argument # Craig’s Formulation Hellier’s Summary
1 God is the best explanation why anything at all exists
1. Every contingent thing has an explanation of its existence.
2. If the universe has an explanation of its existence, that explanation is a transcendent, personal being.
3. The universe is a contingent thing.
4. Therefore, the universe has an explanation of its existence.
5. Therefore, the explanation of the universe is a transcendent, personal being.
– which is what everybody means by ‘God’.
God is the best explanation why anything at all exists
1. Everything needs an explanation of its existence.
2. Except God, of course, which doesn’t.
3. Therefore God created everything else.

This argument is the Leibnizian cosmological argument, based upon the distinction between necessary and contingent existence. Hellier, however, is apparently not familiar with either this distinction or the argument. He begins his critique as follows:

(I) God is the best explanation why anything at all exists

Right, so in order to “explain why anything at all exists” you start off with something unexplained, namely God. Anyone can “explain” why something exists if you’re allowed to start off with something!

This reply is just embarrassing, for it shows Hellier doesn’t understand what he is talking about. Craig’s position is that God exists necessarily, whereas the universe does not. You can disagree with that position, but you cannot honestly dismiss it as the view that God exists and is “something unexplained.”  Indeed, one could be just as snarky as Hellier and say, “Anyone can make an argument look stupid by tearing down a straw man!”

Hellier then mentions the necessary-vs.-contingent distinction:

Admittedly, even Craig can see that flaw, so he uses special pleading. While claiming that everything needs an explanation, he then exempts his god, which of course doesn’t need explaining. He does this by claiming a distinction between “contingent” things (which need explanation) and a “transcendent personal being” (which doesn’t). Thus his argument becomes:

1. Everything needs an explanation of its existence.
2. Except God, of course, which doesn’t.
3. Therefore God created everything else.

Hellier’s failure to quote Craig’s formulation of the argument combined with the expression, “Thus his argument becomes…”, should immediately make one suspicious that we’re about to get is a less-than-accurate representation of the argument. And that is exactly what we find. It is as if Hellier had never heard of the distinction between contingent and necessary things. (At least, that is the only way I can make sense of Hellier dismissing Craig’s reasoning as “special pleading.”) If he was familiar with the distinction, he gives no explanation as to why Craig’s usage of that distinction is wrong. More important, Hellier doesn’t clearly identify which premise(s) of Craig’s argument he rejects or why he rejects it (them).

Let’s review what “special pleading” means. To commit the fallacy of special pleading, a reasoner must fail to apply his or her own principles consistently. Hellier’s straw man does indeed commit the fallacy of special pleading. Why? Premise 1 states a principle or general rule:

1. Everything needs an explanation of its existence.

But then the very next premise states that God is an exception to that rule:

2. Except God, of course, which doesn’t.

This is, indeed, a textbook example of the fallacy of special pleading.

Now compare Hellier’s straw man with Craig’s actual formulation of the Leibnizian cosmological argument. The relevant rule or principle is stated in premise 1:

1. Every contingent thing has an explanation of its existence.

Now if Craig’s argument did commit the fallacy of special pleading, it would also contain a premise like this.

2′. God is a contingent thing that does not require an explanation of His existence.

But, as should be obvious from Craig’s formulation of the argument, his argument does not contain 2′ or anything which implies 2′. In fact, anyone who is familiar with Craig’s work in the philosophy of religion knows that Craig rejects 2′. Craig does not claim that God doesn’t have a cause because he believes 2′ to be true. Rather, Craig claim that God exists necessarily, which entails that 2′ is false.

Readers who are interested in a critique of the Leibnizian cosmological argument which is both fair and competent should consult the work of Ex-Apologist and Angra Mainyu. See here, here, herehere, here, here, here,

I worry that the remainder of Hellier’s discussion (of Craig’s other arguments) contains equally appalling errors, but I’ve lost interest in combing through his piece. I’ll leave the evaluation of the remainder of his article as an exercise for the reader to complete in the combox.

"Bottom line - context matters.I agree."

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