Jerry Coyne Criticizes A.C. Grayling’s Handling of God Arguments, But Coyne Gets It Wrong Himself

Jerry Coyne Criticizes A.C. Grayling’s Handling of God Arguments, But Coyne Gets It Wrong Himself June 28, 2016

Jerry Coyne is a Harvard-educated, brilliant professor of biology who is an expert on biological evolution. His book, Why Evolution Is True, is a “must-read” for anyone interested in, well, why evolution is true.

He also likes to write about topics outside of his area of expertise, including the philosophy of religion. As I’ve explained before, non-experts have the right to write about topics outside their area of expertise, but they owe it to themselves and their readers to make sure they know what they are talking about. So, yes, Jerry Coyne has the right to publish criticisms of philosophical arguments. Furthermore, as I’ve written before, yes, Jerry, you have the right to criticize the entire discipline of the philosophy of religion.

It’s sad, however, that an atheist intellectual as influential as Coyne keeps making the same mistakes when writing about arguments for God’s existence. I’ve criticized his botched responses to various arguments for God’s existence before, including an argument from moral ontology (see here) and an evidential argument from moral agency (see here). (When I tried to submit a comment on Coyne’s website linking to the latter, Coyne blocked me from commenting on his website, lest I be allowed to present my side of the story to Coyne’s readers.)

We can now add cosmological arguments to the list bungled by Coyne. Allow me to set the context. Atheist philosopher Anthony Grayling recently debated Rabbi Daniel Rowe on God’s existence. I haven’t watched the video, but Coyne has watched it and was disappointed in Grayling’s performance. According to Coyne, Grayling made many mistakes, including the way he objected to Rowe’s cosmological argument.

First, here’s Coyne’s summary (or quotation?) of Rowe’s argument.

  • You can’t get a universe from nothing; there is a “law” that everything that begins has a cause. Ergo, God. In response to Krauss’s book about how you can get a universe from a quantum vacuum, Rowe responded, as do many theologians, that “nothing” is not a quantum vacuum—it’s just “nothing.”

Commenting on this argument, Coyne writes:

I’ve heard this many times, and what strikes me is that theologians never define what they mean by “nothing”. Empty space, the quantum vacuum, isn’t nothing, they say so what is? In the end, I’ve realized that by “nothing,” theologians mean “that from which only God could have produced something.” At any rate, the “law of causation” doesn’t appear to hold in modern physics, and is not even part of modern physics, which has no such law. Some events really do seem uncaused.

Also, Rowe didn’t explain how one can get a god from nothing. Theologians like him always punt at this point, saying that God is the Cause that Didn’t Require a Cause, because He Made Everything. But that is bogus. What was God doing before he made something? Hanging around eternally, bored out of his mind?

These two paragraphs are simply embarrassing and unworthy of someone of Coyne’s intellectual stature. Let me be clear. I respect Jerry Coyne. He is undoubtedly far smarter than I am. I can only conclude that he could make such objections because he doesn’t take the topic seriously; if he bothered to take the topic more seriously, he’d have done a much better job. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Why are these objections so bad?

Let’s go through them in detail.

I’ve heard this many times, and what strikes me is that theologians never define what they mean by “nothing”. Empty space, the quantum vacuum, isn’t nothing, they say so what is? In the end, I’ve realized that by “nothing,” theologians mean “that from which only God could have produced something.”

Coyne’s first mistake is his erroneous portrayal of the debate as if it were only ‘theologians’ who point out that, in the context of cosmological arguments for God’s existence, “nothing” means absolute nothingness (more on that in a moment). But that’s false. Atheist philosophers David Albert, Brian Leiter, Massimo Pigliucci, and Bede Rundle have also pointed this out. (I could be mistaken, but I think I can also add to this list atheist philosophers Paul Draper, Quentin Smith, and our very own Keith Parsons.) In fairness to Coyne, it should be noted that he never explicitly writes the words, “ONLY theologians disagree with Lawrence Krauss’s idea that a quantum vacuum is ‘nothing.'” But the fact remains that a reader who read nothing about cosmological arguments except Jerry Coyne’s website would get the false impression that it is ‘theologians’ vs. everybody else when it comes to the definition of “nothing.”

But his second mistake is the claim that defenders of cosmological arguments “never define what they mean by ‘nothing.'” Really? To cite just one example, William Lane Craig has clearly defined it. Commenting on a similar objection about the meaning of “nothing” made by Lawrence Krauss, Craig said in 2012:

Well, this is an incredible segment that you just played, Kevin, because here he accuses others of constantly redefining the word nothing, when that’s the project in which he is engaged. People like Leibniz and others who posed the question ‘why is there something rather than nothing?’ knew what they meant by nothing. Nothing is a term of universal negation—it means, not anything. It’s Dr. Krauss who wants to redefine the word nothing to mean something, like the quantum vacuum or a state of affairs in which classical time and space do not exist. It is he who is engaged in the project of redefinition of nothing. So this is, I think, just completely wrong, and it illustrates, again, that he’s not answering the same question that Leibniz asked when he said ‘why is there something rather than nothing?’ Dr. Krauss is redefining the terms. Now, it’s also very interesting when he says the potential for existence is different than existence. The point is that potentialities lodge only in things that exist. So, for example, the potential for having a child lodges in the fertility of that woman and his own fertility to impregnate her, but you can’t have potentiality in non-being. Non-being has no properties; it has no potentialities. So the very fact that he’s talking about the potential for the existence of a universe shows that he is talking about something. He’s not talking about nothing. He’s talking about something that has potentialities and powers. And therefore this just underlines, again, that fact that he’s not dealing with the fundamental metaphysical question ‘why is there something rather than nothing at all?’ (LINK, emphasis mine)

Ouch.

Let’s go back to Coyne. Here’s the rest of the first of his two paragraph rebuttal to cosmological arguments.

At any rate, the “law of causation” doesn’t appear to hold in modern physics, and is not even part of modern physics, which has no such law. Some events really do seem uncaused.

Although this response is a brilliant example of an ad hoc and uncharitable objection, it does not succeed. Let’s distinguish between (a) events which have a beginning in time; and (b) events which began with time, i.e., at t=0 (assuming that time did, in fact, have an absolute beginning). It seems to me that things which begin to exist in space and time — at least, those at the macro scale, i.e., excluding quantum particles — have a cause. To deny the previous sentence is equivalent to maintaining that it really is possible that cars, mountains, whales, or even planets could just pop into existence uncaused. I think that is not only false, but obviously false. So what, then, is the correct way to respond to the kalam cosmological argument, which says that “everything that begins to exist has a cause; the universe began to exist; therefore, the universe has a cause?”

One way might be to appeal to quantum indeterminacy: if events involving quantum particles can happen uncaused, then perhaps all of physical reality can begin to exist uncaused. To be charitable to Coyne, I’m assuming that is what he has in mind when he writes, “the ‘law of causation doesn’t appear to hold in modern physics, and is not even part of modern physics…” In response, I’m going to pull a Coyne: I’ve heard this objection many times, but no one has ever explained how quantum indeterminacy is supposed to be relevant to the question of whether all of physical reality needs a cause.

My own, preferred objection is to point out the distinction between (a) events which have a beginning in time; and (b) events which began with time. We do know that events of type (a) have a cause; we don’t know that events of type (b) have a cause. We know of only one event of type (b) and that is the beginning of physical reality itself. And there is good reason to doubt that time (and so the beginning of the universe) have a cause. It’s logically impossible for time itself to have a cause since causes always precede their effects in time. So to say that time itself had a cause is to say, “Before time existed, something happened and then at a later time, time began to exist,” which is self-contradictory. (For more on this objection, including replies to counter-objections, see here.)

Let’s move onto Coyne’s next paragraph:

Also, Rowe didn’t explain how one can get a god from nothing. Theologians like him always punt at this point, saying that God is the Cause that Didn’t Require a Cause, because He Made Everything. But that is bogus. What was God doing before he made something? Hanging around eternally, bored out of his mind?

What is bogus is Coyne’s rude and condescending tone as he tries to saddle his favorite boogeyman, ‘theologians,’ with a position they have never accepted and, in fact, have always explicitly rejected. Presumably Rowe didn’t explain it because Rowe didn’t claim it. No theist claims that God came from nothing; that is a straw man of Coyne’s creation and an appallingly bad one at that. (In my opinion, Coyne’s objection to cosmological arguments is as bad as the creationist objection to evolution, “If humans evolved from monkeys, then why are there still monkeys?” Both questions display a profound misunderstanding of the theory the objector seeks to discredit.) It’s as if Coyne has confused the definition of God (the triple-o, capital ‘G’ God of the philosophers) with gods (the lower-case ‘g’ gods of mythology, such as the Greek gods).

To avoid any misunderstandings, let me be clear: theism says that God (the triple-O, capital ‘G’ kind) exists and God did not ‘come from’ anything. Theists either claim that God is timeless (and so does not stand in temporal relations) or that God is eternal (and so God has existed for an infinite duration of time). Both options are incompatible with God ‘coming from nothing.’ So Coyne’s question, asking “How can God come from nothing?” is a category mistake, akin to the questions, “How much does the color lavender weigh?”, “What is the electric charge of the number 3?”, or “Why don’t mathematicians ever explain how it is possible to calculate the square root of 2 and get a rational number as the answer?”

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