Critique of William Lane Craig's Argument in Debate with Alex Malpass

Here I critique a debate on 3/24/2020 between William Lane Craig and Alex Malpass  on the validity of Craig’s version of the Kalam Cosmological Argument, although Craig succeeds in bogging down the discussion in diversionary examples of metaphysical conundrums. The debate can be seen here:

Craig’s enterprise is to defend a primitive religion by means of 13th Century Scholastic metaphysics. In light of what humanity has learned in the ensuing centuries, especially in the areas of physics, neuroscience and the progress of philosophical thought, this is an enterprise that cannot be honestly accomplished. Thirteenth century speculations are no match for 21st century knowledge and discovery, and for that reason Christian apologists routinely resort to rhetorical tricks and sophistry. William Lane Craig is preeminent among them in his rhetorical skill and, sadly, intellectual dishonesty.

At the 5:30 mark of the video, Craig slips in his major sleight of hand and manages to steer the rest of the debate into the murkiness of metaphysical contradictions in an attempt to justify the contention of the impossibility of an eternal past based on impossibility of infinite regress. I will focus solely on this move because once it is seen in the light of analysis the rest of the debate becomes tedious and unimportant.

He starts by presenting a brief history of the argument of prime mover but suddenly ends it with a superficial and inaccurate account of Kant’s First Antinomy in The Critique of Pure Reason. The Critique of Pure Reason was a critique of metaphysics itself and sought to ground knowledge of the world solely in the empirical realm of objects of perception. He demonstrates that reason, which underlies our objectification and ordering of random sense data, loses any ability to provide knowledge when it operates purely rationally with no sense data content, i.e. metaphysically. Craig can usually get away with these tricks because he knows few of his followers have ever read Kant, and even fewer are able to understand him.

The First Antinomy

For reasons that will become clear, at the 5:30 mark Craig focuses on the First Antinomy in Kant’s Critique. He begins with this description of the antinomy:

 “The question of the finitude of the past has decisive rationally compelling arguments for opposite conclusions, and that therefore it shows the bankruptcy of reason in giving us knowledge of reality.”

He then glibly dismisses Kant’s critique by claiming that the argument concerning infinite regress has come roaring back largely as the result of modern physics and cosmology pointing to the finitude of the universe “leaving people more open to the idea that the universe began to exist.”

We will examine both statements in detail, but first let’s set forth Kant’s position in the Critique.

1. Kant begins with the sections: Transcendental Aesthetic and Transcendental Analytic. These set forth our innate capabilities of intuition and thought and demonstrate how we construct objective representations from sense data. In the Aesthetic he shows time and space to be a priori subjective sensibilities through which reason constructs representations of the external world. Accordingly, time and space are not part of the world external to our understanding but faculties for constructing a representation of the external. We will later compare this to Einstein’s concept of spacetime.

 In the Analytic he sets forth our innate a priori categories of understanding under the guide of reason which order these intuitions in our spatial and temporal imagination. While we can never know the thing-in-itself as it exists outside our subjective representations, we can gain knowledge of the world through these representations because the thing-in-itself does condition the sense data which enables a degree of correspondence. When we venture to speculate in the absence of sense data, however, we lose our ability to gain any knowledge but instead venture off into transcendental illusions. Kant writes:

“For if no intuition could be given corresponding to the concept, the concept would still be a thought, so far as its form is concerned, but would be without any object, and no knowledge of anything would be possible by means of it. So far as I could know, there would be nothing, and could be nothing, to which my thought could be applied.” B146

Through this he declares the premises of metaphysical arguments invalid and limits validity solely to empirical objective knowledge while stating that “concepts without intuitions are empty” (A52/B76). Those who persist in the Medieval Scholastic tradition of metaphysics have never really overcome this insight, which is why Craig resorts to misconstruing and simply dismissing it.

In the later section on Transcendental Dialectic, Kant explores the fallacies of empty metaphysical argumentation and presents four antinomies, which are expositions of inherent contradictions in metaphysical argument. An antinomy presents a dialectical occurrence of two seemingly justifiable yet contradictory metaphysical conclusions. They all share the basic fallacy of the ambiguous middle:

If the conditioned is given, then the whole series of conditions, a series which is therefore itself absolutely unconditioned, is also given

Objects of the senses are given as conditioned

Consequently, the entire series of all conditions of objects of the senses is already given. (cf. A497/B525).

Kant demonstrates the term “conditioned” changes meaning from P1 to P2. P1 uses conditioned in the transcendental (metaphysical) sense of pure concept void of content. It assumes to know the noumenal world of thing-in-itself which it could never possibly conceive. In P2 it refers to objects of the senses, which are objectively conditioned. The error is applying the necessity of conditioned in the phenomenal world to the unknowable noumenal. We cannot know that there exists anything unconditioned at all there. All we have access to is the world of appearance, where there is only a matter of known conditions and the yet to be discovered conditions. Subjective knowledge is limited and the entirety of series of conditions could never be grasped. In effect, the metaphysical argument projects the necessity of conditions inherent in understanding the world of appearances onto things in themselves and assumes an unconditioned condition:

 “[They] take a subjective necessity of a connection of our concepts…for an objective necessity in the determination of things in themselves” (A297/B354). 

The antimonies are apagogic, which means they cannot themselves be directly proven but rather rely on the indirect approach of disproving the other. This arises from the false choice given in the dialectic. The First Antinomy is apt for discussion of the Kalam:

  • Thesis:

The world has a beginning in time, and is also limited as regards space.

  • Anti-thesis:

The world has no beginning, and no limits in space; it is infinite as regards both time and space.

This is an example of reason and the a priori sensations of space and time misapplied to pure and empty ideas. The world as it is in itself is neither finite nor infinite as space and time have absolutely no meaning outside our subjectivity. The world in itself exists in a state we literally cannot conceive, and we simply create transcendental illusion when we attempt to project our modes of understanding onto it.  

A couple centuries later, contemporary neuroscience gives support to Kant’s basic epistemology. For Craig, this is an argument he cannot overcome, so let’s take a closer look at how he tries to evade it.

If you remember, he characterized the First Antinomy as:

“The question of the finitude of the past has decisive rationally compelling arguments for opposite conclusions, and that therefore it shows the bankruptcy of reason in giving us knowledge of reality.”

Here we see the habitual apologist move of creating a strawman. I have no doubt at all that Craig correctly understands Kant, therefore I can only conclude he is willfully misconstruing the argument. First of all, the Antinomy is apagogic, meaning that neither side of the dialectic can provide a rationally compelling argument, but can only disprove its opposite. Why might Craig make this misrepresentation? Because to deny the Kalam, or any syllogism, we need only show that the premise is not one that we are reasonably compelled to accept, and by acknowledging the apagogic nature he would lose right at the start. Second, notice the characterization of reason as bankrupt and incapable of giving us knowledge of reality. As I mentioned, Craig can rely on the ignorance of his followers in these matters, but at this point it should be obvious to us that Kant showed no such thing. Reason is not bankrupt for Kant, but rather enables understanding of sense data from the external world – the only reality to which we have access. It is neither bankrupt nor incapable of providing knowledge. It would be correct to say that reason devoid of sense data provides no knowledge, but that is the exact point Craig is desperate to conceal.

As we see, Craig has no honest rebuttal to Kant, so let’s now look again at his mere dismissal by claiming that the argument concerning infinite regress has come roaring back largely as the result of modern physics and cosmology pointing to the finitude of the universe “leaving people more open to the idea that the universe began to exist.”

Again, I trust that Craig knows better and is once again misconstruing the issue. Many (not all) physicists do posit a beginning of our universe, but the frame of reference has changed. For Medieval metaphysicists our universe was the totality of the physical world. We now know that our universe resulted from an instantaneous and massive inflation, but that something existed before that big bang. While we can know nothing of the state of existence before the big bang, it seems very likely that the laws of physics and what we perceive as time and space originated with that initial inflation, leaving us in the same position as Kant describes when we try to grasp what existed beyond our ability to perceive and with no attributes of space or time. Of course, without space and time there is no sense in considering eternity of finite existence, but rather we would be imposing the conditioned of the empirical world onto something quite inappropriate and unknowable.

Finally, Craig acknowledged that he bases his argument on a tensed theory of time. As we will see, there is no compelling reason to accept that theory and good reason to doubt it, which again allows us to reasonably reject his premises, defeating him once again right at the start.

This hinges on the somewhat crude dichotomy of A Theory and B Theory of time, although in reality there are much more subtle distinctions at work. A Theory of time posits that time is not subjective, but an inherent property of the physical world. Craig’s tensed theory of time would fall under A Theory and posits that only the present is real. B Theory is usually described as time being a subjective experience of flow while in reality past, present and future are equally real and present, and time is tenseless. I believe it is more accurate, however, to say time does not exist outside the subjective mind and therefore tenseless is a misused concept since there is no time to tense.

B theory is more prominent today, especially among neuroscientists and a large number of physicists. An essential element of Einstein’s Relativity is that time is merely the subjective experience of relative motion, and at the speed of light that experience disappears altogether and we would experience the essential timelessness of the universe. That is how Einstein explains all the counterintuitive temporal occurrences that relativity describes. The experience of time is always relative to any individual observer, and his time is not the time of another. For Einstein, everything past, present and future in the physical universe exists outside our consciousness in a static state of timelessness. Again, this precludes the question of eternity or finite existence of the universe as inappropriate projections of subjective understanding where it cannot possibly apply. By the way, the same applies to space as the combined spacetime, but is less counterintuitive. When we look at objects in space we are used to the changes in apparent dimensions as we move about, such as distant objects appearing smaller than closer objects. We automatically adjust our understanding of space relativistically, but lack that capability for time, which relativity has proven works in the same way. This might be because as we evolved our mental capabilities on the African Savannah small changes in spatial relativity were meaningful for our survival, while meaningful temporal relativity becomes apparent only at a much larger frame of reference.

There are physicists who are proponents of A Theory of time, but not in a way helpful to Craig. Typically, they consider time and space to be actual physical aspects of the universe, but not necessarily of everything before or outside our universe. For them time and space are effects of increasing entropy which drives time forward and creates space. Before the Big Bang, however, which initiated the increasing entropy, time and space didn’t exist which again precludes the dialectic of eternal vs. finite.

Having succeeded in his sleight of hand at the 5:30 mark, Craig then managed to mire the debate in the minutia of meaningless metaphysical speculation that brings to mind counting the number of angels on the head of a pin.

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