Recently, a debate was held in London between theist philosopher Rabbi Daniel Rowe and atheist philosopher A.C. Grayling. The subject under dispute, unsurprisingly, was God’s existence. It’s a very interesting debate to watch. I’d never heard of Rowe before, but I was familiar with Grayling, who is sometimes referred to as the Fifth Horseman of New Atheism.
Generally speaking, the “New Atheists” haven’t shown any natural genius for philosophy. Grayling, though being a professional philosopher, does not prove to be the exception here. Instead, he shows that even when they have the benefit of philosophical training, it does them very little good when they engage in debates over God’s existence. I think it would be pretty uncontroversial to say that Rowe won the debate rather decisively. Grayling often seemed so far out of his depth that it was even making me uncomfortable. I can’t imagine how Grayling must have been feeling.
I have to admit to finding the prospect of an orthodox rabbi holding his own in a debate with Dr. Grayling on God’s existence rather disheartening, but I’m afraid that’s exactly what went down the other night in London.
If there’s anything inaccurate in this description of the debate it’s Coyne’s characterization of Rowe as merely “holding his own”. Anyone who watches the debate will see that Rowe did much more than that. What I want to comment on, however, is the argument that Coyne thinks he would have used were he in Grayling’s shoes, because it demonstrates that prominent figures within the New Atheism movement (or whatever you want to call it), for all their bluster about the failure of arguments for God’s existence, often don’t even understand the arguments.
The reason that Grayling didn’t crush Rowe was based on one thing: Anthony wasn’t up on the responses of physicists to the “fine tuning” and “first cause” arguments for God.
Ok, so presumably Coyne is up on these responses and Grayling would have “crushed” Rowe if only he’d known what Coyne knows. So what does Coyne know? He continues:
The rabbi made three arguments:
- 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.”
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.
Here we see a prime example of the New Atheists’ lack of familiarity with very basic philosophical concepts coming back to bite them. Coyne faults Rowe for not defining exactly what “nothing” is, apparently under the impression that theologians are using the word in some special sense (they aren’t). If “nothing” is not a quantum vacuum, asks Coyne, then what is it? This seems fit for a comedy routine, because the answer is so painfully obvious. You see, “nothing” is not anything. “Nothing” is the complete absence of anything at all. You can’t describe “nothing” and assign it particular characteristics or properties because it is the complete lack of characteristics or properties. It is non-being. No energy, no fields, no laws, no particles, virtual or otherwise. It’s absolutely nothing. That something cannot come from nothing is not a law of physics, per se, but of metaphysics. One cannot hope to legitimize the notion of a universe popping into existence from absolutely nothing by pointing to apparent cases of unpredictable probabilistic effects taking place within some existing physical medium and labeling those cases as ‘seemingly uncaused’. There is no relevant connection between these propositions. To suggest that something might simply arise uncaused out of absolutely nothing at all is to not only court absurdity but to settle down and have kids with it.
Furthermore, Coyne seems to misunderstand what it means to say that God created the universe “out of nothing”. He claims to have realized that “by ‘nothing,’ theologians mean ‘that from which only God could have produced something.’” Here he seems to think that theologians mean God somehow fashioned creation using something called “nothing”. Of course, this is not at all what is meant. The concept of creatio ex nihilo (creation out of nothing) means that God did not fashion creation out of some already existing material substance. Instead, God brought an entirely new material creation into existence through an exertion of power.
All that having been said, Coyne’s inability to grasp what is meant by “nothing” is really just the first part of the problem, because he fails to understand the overall First-Cause argument itself and how the concept of “nothing” fits into it. Coyne says:
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?
The two comments in italics show Coyne’s fundamental misunderstanding of the logic of the argument (not to mention his misunderstanding of the very concept of God).
What Rowe is arguing is that all things that are extensional (which includes spacetime itself) are finite and cannot ever transition from being finite to being infinite, which means that they cannot occupy an infinite amount of space and they cannot exist for an actually infinite amount of time. This means that, as a matter of logical necessity, they cannot have existed eternally into the past, and so at some time in the deep past we must necessarily come to a hard beginning point where there was not anything extensional in existence at all.
Now, this is the point at which atheists like Coyne go wrong in their understanding of the argument, because they evidently think the argument asserts that, at this point, there really was absolutely nothing at all in existence. But that’s not correct.
The argument can be more properly understood as presenting two options here. It says that at the point that no extensional things existed, either:
A) There was a complete absence of being and so actually nothing at all, or
B) There was something else in existence that was not extensional.
We can then consider the implications of these two options.
If Option A were true, and there were nothing at all in existence then, there would still be nothing at all in existence now. This implication is necessarily true, because from nothing, nothing comes. Option A, therefore, must be false.
This leaves us with Option B. We can know then, as a matter of logical necessity, that something non-extensional was in existence even at the point that there was nothing extensional in existence. This something, then, would exist necessarily and would be spaceless, timeless and immaterial, and the ground and cause of all extensional material things that subsequently came into existence, which would require that it be capable of exerting a significant amount of power.
Further arguments could be made (and quite often have been made) for the conclusion that this something must have also been personal and intelligent, but even without those further arguments we arrive at a First Cause of extensional reality that exists necessarily and is spaceless, timeless, immaterial, uncaused, necessary, and incredibly powerful, which are all qualities classically attributed to God.
When one properly understands the argument, it is easy to see that there was no need for Rowe to answer the questions that Coyne poses. There is no need to explain “how one can get a god from nothing”, because nobody is asserting such a thing ever happened. And to ask if God was “hanging around eternally, bored out of his mind” prior to creation is to fail to understand that time cannot have existed eternally into the past and so God would not have existed through an infinite number of past seconds. When one says that God has existed eternally, they mean that, at least prior to creation, God existed in the absence of time. They do not mean that God is just some really old guy who has been occupying himself by playing infinitely many hands of solitaire.
Coyne’s responses to the Fine-Tuning argument are no more compelling than his attempted rebuttal of the First-Cause argument and they have been answered in depth by others (see, for example, almost any debate with William Lane Craig). Coyne tries to downplay what we do know scientifically about the physical requirements for life in an attempt to weaken the force of the argument, wrongly identifies it as an argument from ignorance when it is actually a positive argument for design based on our universal experience of cause and effect and the principles by which we all consistently infer design, and he finally makes appeal to the possibility of a multiverse, but all of these are merely attempts to block a conclusion of theistic design that can be held with 100% certainty. Even if they were successful (and there’s no good reason to think they are), they would do nothing to change the fact that, based on what we do know at this point in time, theistic design is currently the best explanation of the fine-tuning of the universe for complex intelligent life, and by a large margin at that.