The Kalam – On time: Craig’s inconsistent appeals to science

The Kalam – On time: Craig’s inconsistent appeals to science June 3, 2018

As many of you will know, I have recently written a new book concerning the Kalam Cosmological Argument (Did God Create the Universe from Nothing? Countering William Lane Craig’s Kalam Cosmological Argument), which has had some cracking reviews. This post is an extract from the book that deals with time and William Lane Craig’s treatment of science in this regard. It is part of the contribution to the book from Counter Apologist and I will post the rest of it in due course.DidGodCreatetheUniverse

The Kalam, as most commonly formulated is:

  • Everything that begins to exist has a cause for its existence
  • The universe began to exist
  • Therefore, the universe has a cause for its existence

So, over to the book, and Counter Apologist:

Unlike most of the arguments for the existence of a god, the Kalam’s main appeal is that it purports to show that modern science points to the existence of a god.

This is a bit of a shock to most cosmologists and physicists, since if you were ever to attend one of the many cosmology conferences around the world, you’ll hardly find any reference to a god as an explanation. In fact, two of the scientists Dr. Craig likes to reference in his presentation of the Kalam—Alexander Vilenkin and Alan Guth—expressly do not believe in any kind of a personal creator god.

It’s a bit curious when we see a theologian start talking about modern cosmology as evidence for the existence of a god, when some of our most prominent physicists who produced that knowledge are themselves atheists.

This isn’t proof that the Kalam is false, but it is something that should cause us to be skeptical of the argument. My goal in this section is to show exactly why this disparity exists between the physicists who study cosmology and the theologians who co-opt it for use in modern apologetics.

One of the key differences between physicists and theologians getting wildly different conclusions from the same set of data boils down to how each group thinks about time.

In contemporary philosophy, there are three positions on how we think about time:

  • The A-Theory of Time—A “tensed” theory of time. A tensed statement would be something like “It is cold today”, because it depends on the temporal perspective of the person who says it.[i]
  • The B-Theory of Time—A “tenseless” theory of time. A tenseless statement would be something like “It is cold on December 16 2015”.[ii]
  • Time is not real or fundamental—The idea that time itself isn’t a fundamental component of reality, but emerges from a more basic set of laws.

A detailed discussion of the different views of time is well beyond the scope of this book, however for readers looking for more detailed information would be served by checking out the fantastic entry on time in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.[iii]

For our purposes here, it is enough to say that the Kalam Cosmological Argument is entirely predicated on the A-Theory of time. This is admitted as much by William Lane Craig[iv]:

From start to finish, the kalam cosmological argument is predicated upon the A-Theory of time. On a B-Theory of time, the universe does not in fact come into being or become actual at the Big Bang; it just exists tenselessly as a four-dimensional space-time block that is finitely extended in the earlier than direction. If time is tenseless, then the universe never really comes into being, and, therefore, the quest for a cause of its coming into being is misconceived.

As Dr. Craig alludes to, if we reject the A-Theory and accept the B-Theory of time then the Kalam loses its force. Elsewhere in his work, Dr. Craig admits that the A-Theory is rejected by a majority of physicists. This explains why we see so much of a difference between the two camps in their interpretation of modern cosmology.

The interesting question that follows from this is to ask why do physicists reject the A-Theory, and why do theologians like Craig accept it?

The main problem for the A-Theory of time is that it is largely considered to be incompatible with Einstein’s Special and General Relativity (STR and GTR). In order to work around this issue, Dr. Craig advocates for what is known as a “Neo-Lorentzian interpretation” of Special Relativity.

My contention here is that if we follow the methods of science, it tells us that the Neo-Lorentzian interpretation, and hence the A-Theory, is most likely false.

Dr. Craig thinks he can work through this problem by rejecting the conclusions of what science tells us by instead relying on purely philosophical, metaphysical arguments for the A-Theory. For what it’s worth, I think those metaphysical arguments fail, which I will cover later in the section, but for now my point is to expose a key flaw in Dr. Craig’s appeal to science in the Kalam.

Dr. Craig is as free as he wishes to reject the conclusions of science, and to rely on purely philosophical arguments for whatever conclusion he wants to establish.

What he is not free to do however, is to reject the conclusions of science in one context, but then appeal to them in another context when it is convenient. The best you could say about that is that it is cherry picking. We can see the evidence of this here in his debate with Sean Carroll[v]:

 “The evidence of contemporary cosmology actually renders God’s existence considerably more probable than it would have been without it. […] I’m saying that contemporary cosmology provides significant evidence in support of premises in philosophical arguments for conclusions having theological significance. For example, the key premise in the ancient Kalam Cosmological Argument that the universe began to exist is a religiously neutral statement which can be found in virtually any textbook on astronomy and astrophysics. It is obviously susceptible to scientific confirmation or disconfirmation on the basis of the evidence. So to repeat, one is not employing the evidence of contemporary cosmology to prove the proposition that God exists, but to support theologically neutral premises in philosophical arguments for conclusions that have theistic significance.”

To paraphrase Craig, he is using the evidence of contemporary cosmology to support theologically neutral premises in philosophical arguments that have theistic significance.

The problem for him is that if we follow the evidence of contemporary cosmology (which follows the methods of science), the A-Theory of time is most likely false, and so his key premise in the Kalam argument is undermined.

To put this into a syllogism:

  1. The evidence of contemporary cosmology renders the A-Theory of time most likely false
  2. The evidence of contemporary cosmology is true (an assumption Craig makes).
  3. Therefore, A-Theory is most likely false.
  4. “The universe began to exist” is true if and only if A-Theory is true.
  5. Therefore, “the universe began to exist” is most likely false.

Before getting to the meaty first premise, allow me to quickly explain why the fourth premise is true.

To understand premise four, we need to look to Dr. Craig’s own definition for the phrase “beings to exist”[vi]:

An entity e comes into being at time t if and only if

(i)     e exists at t,

(ii)    t is the first time at which e exists,

(iii)   There is no state of affairs in the actual world in which e exists timelessly

(iv)   e’s existing at t is a tensed fact

It’s that fourth part that’s the key here, since “tensed facts” only exist on the A-Theory of time. In fact that entire part is there to explicitly draw out that the Kalam is predicated on the A-Theory of time.

So according to the methods of science, the philosophical premise “the universe began to exist” is simply false, even if the universe had a beginning. This is because even in that case, the “beginning” is like the front edge of a ruler. The ruler is always there, even if there is a “first inch” marked on it. Basically, time doesn’t work in the way Craig needs it to in order to argue for the existence of a god.

It is very important to note that this does not mean that science proves god does not exist. It simply shows that the impetus Craig is trying to use to argue for the existence of a god is false.

But does science really show that the A-Theory of time is most likely false?

At this point, critics might acknowledge my fourth premise, but take issue with the first.

For reference, you can substitute “the evidence of contemporary cosmology” for “science” in the argument; it works either way. This is because the evidence of contemporary cosmology is predicated on Einstein’s relativity, which is the very theory that shows us that the A-Theory is most likely false.

Since I intend this to also be a bit of a science lesson, let me define my terms a little: a privileged reference frame in terms of relativity in physics is essentially a physical place where the laws of physics work differently. Back in Einstein’s day in the early 1900’s this was known as the Aether, today you’d hear it called something of a place of “absolute rest” or the “absolute reference frame”.

Now what Craig and other A-Theorists would have you believe is that when it comes to Relativity, and Special Relativity in particular, it is “simply a matter of taste” when it comes to whether you use the orthodox interpretation where there is no privileged reference frame or the Neo-Lorentzian interpretation where there is an undetectable privileged reference frame.

The truth of the matter is that science is not silent on this, and for good reasons.

Contrary to what Dr. Craig alleges, this isn’t simply because all physicists and philosophers of science are holding to some outmoded form of logical positivism or verificationism (simply put, the idea that only things verified by empirically observable features are meaningful; the reader is welcome to look further into this elsewhere). Dr. Craig likes to make a lot of noise about the fact that the reason the Neo-Lorentzian view was discarded back in Einstein’s time was for this simple reason. This is because, at the time, Einstein and other scientists actually did hold to verificationism or positivism, which has shown itself to be untenable in modern times. When criticism comes up he invariably brings this card out and accuses his critics of unwittingly being a positivist. What he doesn’t talk much about is why in light of the failure of positivism modern science still holds to the standard interpretation of relativity and still disregards the Neo-Lorentzian view that Craig needs in order for the Kalam to work.

This is where science and philosophy of science come together to provide us with ways to decide between the sorts of interpretations on a set of empirical data that is at issue when it comes to relativity in this context. In modern science it is not enough for a theory to simply be consistent with the data. We can come up with myriad theories to simply “fit the data” to get whatever conclusion we want—including that the moon is made of green cheese.

Before getting into why modern science rejects the Neo-Lorentzian interpretation, let’s do a very quick overview of what the evidence for relativity is, and then contrast what Neo-Lorentzian view entails compared to the standard interpretation of relativity.

The Evidence

I’ve spoken elsewhere[vii] about some strong observational evidence we have for relativity: Time Dilation and Length Contraction. In short, the standard interpretation says that as we approach the speed of light, clocks of all types slow down uniformly and measuring rods contract in length. This sounds pretty crazy at first, but the fact is that we have a vast amount of experimental evidence for this. Our modern GPS systems are based on this very principle. The difference between the two views discussed comes down to what it means for “time to slow down” or for “measuring rods to contract”.

The Standard/Einstein Interpretation

Einstein’s relativity is based on two assumptions:

  1. The speed of light in a vacuum is constant.
  2. The laws of physics are the same in all reference frames (i.e., everywhere in the universe)

That second assumption is the key point of contention; it is often referred to as “Lorentz Invariance” or “the principle of relativity”. In technical terms, it means that for any experiment we conduct, the results will be the same, regardless of: how we are oriented (rotation); translation between reference frames (i.e., different points of view observing the experiment); or how fast we are moving.

The Neo-Lorentzian Interpretation

Eventually, the “Neo-Loretnzian” interpretation has been derived down to two assumptions:

  1. There is a (undetectable) privileged reference frame with respect to which the speed of light in a vacuum is constant in all directions.
  2. The rates of electromagnetic clocks moving with constant speed v relative to the privileged reference frame all vary with v in the same manner.

I say “eventually” since the original Lorentzian approach to relativity was considered ad hoc since Lorentz first postulated that the ticking of “electromagnetic clocks” varied with velocity relative to the privileged frame. Then the theory had added to it the assumption that mass varied with velocity relative to the privileged frame to account for gravitational clocks slowing in the exact same way. And then the same modification with the weak nuclear force was necessary to account for meson decay experiments, and so on. It was finally in the 1950s that H.E. Ives was able to use the laws of conservation of energy along with these assumptions to derive an observationally equivalent set of equations to Einstein’s.

For reference, the assumptions I’m quoting here are from S.J. Prokhovnik’s derivation of the equations since I’ve been unable to locate a copy of Ives’s derivation; however, Craig claims in his published work that Ives was able to use only two assumptions along these lines and so I take him at his word on this.

Accuracy

The first criteria we can use to decide between these two interpretations is accuracy. Clearly, science is justified in favoring a particular theory if that theory is more accurate than its competitors. Unfortunately for the context of our debate, both interpretations are on equal footing here.

Thanks to the work of Ives, for any experiment we conduct, the observational results will be the same regardless of which interpretation we hold.

The difference is that the Neo-Lorentzian view assumes that instead of the laws of physics being the same in all reference frames, there is a special “privileged” reference frame where physics behaves differently. In both interpretations the equations describing what we actually observe work out exactly the same way, and those equations end up being “Lorentz Invariant” for everywhere in the universe except for the supposed privileged reference frame assumed by the Neo-Lorentzian view.

This privileged frame is undetectable because it is our changing velocity relative to this privileged frame that causes us to observe the phenomenon of time dilation and length contraction.

[i] Wikipedia entry for “A-Series and B-series”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A-series_and_B-series (Accessed 06/12/2015)

[ii] ibid.

[iii] Markosian (2014)

[iv] Craig & Moreland (2009: 183-184)

[v] William Lane Craig in debate with Sean Carroll, “God and Cosmology” 2014 Greer-Heard Forum – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=07QUPuZg05I (Accessed 07/12/2015)

[vi] Craig (2010)

[vii] For example, see Counter Apologist’s series “Countering the Kalam”, of which parts 3 and 4 are particularly relevant. For example, “Countering the Kalam (3) – No Scientific Evidence”, Counter Apologist, January 10th, 2013, https://counterapologist.blogspot.co.uk/2013/01/countering-kalam-no-scientific-evidence.html (Accessed 10/08/2014)

 

To read the rest of the book, please grab yourself a copy!

 

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