Does the Universe Have a Purpose? A Review of the Panel Debate with Craig and Dawkins

On November 13, the Festival Internacional de Mentes Brillantes (“International Festival of Great Minds”) in Mexico hosted a panel debate between several atheists and theists to discuss the question “Does the universe have a purpose? Matt Ridley, Michael Shermer, and Richard Dawkins defended the atheist perspective while Rabbi David Wolpe, William Lane Craig, and R. Douglas Geivett fronted for the theistic worldview. The debate was notable for several reasons – for one, it was held, of all places, in a boxing ring, but more importantly, it represented the first occasion that William Lane Craig and Richard Dawkins have publicly crossed swords (in the past, Dawkins has refused to debate Craig).

The video of the panel has been uploaded onto YouTube, which you can watch below.

For those interested, here are my own thoughts on the opening arguments of the debate. I have dealt only with the opening arguments of the debates speakers because going into any more depth would, I think be inconsiderate.

Matt Ridley was the first to speak. He hashed out two key points:

1. Darwin had shown us that what looked like “design” could be achieved through a bottom up process without resorting to postulating a designer.

2. The problem of evil. Unlike more philosophically sophisticated forms of the so called “problem of evil” Ridley drew on Voltaire’s novel “Candide” where he criticized Leibniz’ claim that this was the best of all worlds.

Bill Craig was the next to speak. He completely side stepped the issue of biological design (as Dawkins later noted but failed to address himself) and presented his standard arguments i.e. the origin and fine tuning of the universe as well as a thoroughly abbreviated form of the moral argument. In an argument rarely used by theistic philosophers, Craig responded to Ridley’s “problem” of evil by arguing that the presence of evil actually furnishes evidence FOR rather than against the existence of God. He stated “I maintain that evil is a departure from the way things ought to be, I can think of no more reasonable definition of evil that captures our shared intuitions. But, if we agree that there is evil in the world, and that evil is a departure from the way things ought to be, then we have to agree that there is a way things ought to be. But if there is a way things ought to be, then there must be some transcendent design plan or purpose that determines how things ought to be. And so, there must be some transcendent designer, a Creator in fact, whose will is the basis for how things ought to be, and hence evil is actually evidence that God does exist“. Now the latter half of Craig’s comments, i.e. the inference that if evil exists then God exists was not strictly necessary to the debate. After all, the debate was not about whether or not God exists (as it happened to turn out) but whether or not there is a purpose in the universe. Strictly speaking it was going beyond the burden of proof required by the moot of the debate to explain how that purpose is instantiated (achieved), it could (for all we know) be instantiated by abstract objects locked in Plato’s heaven. On that count, there needn’t have been any dispute between the theists and the atheists (unless the term “atheist” is implausibly restricted to “naturalists”). For the purposes of the debate, Craig could simply have pointed out that if his definition of evil is correct, then there is a way in which things ought to be and that would have been sufficient to show that some objective purpose existed. He didn’t need to explain out how that “ought” came to be instantiated. As it happened though, Craig’s argument here became relevant because Ridley had stated that evil was a problem for theism and as we discovered with the debate between Matt Flannagan and Ray Bradley, letting irrelevant comments go is sometimes not the best tactic if winning the audience is your goal (note that that’s not a dig against you Matt, but the fickle nature of audiences and their tendency to believe that things are relevant when they’re not).

Michael Shermer (the editor of Skeptic Magazine) was the next to speak. He basically started with a series of appalling straw men. He stated “once you believe that the universe somehow has a designed purpose for us and us alone, that I can have anything I want, alls I have to do is wish for it, ask for it, that it will appear, the Mercedes in my driveway, the healing of my aunts cancer, for miracles to appear upon my wish, that’s just pure nonsense“. Well sure! It’s nonsense! But whoever said that miracles occur upon my wish? Whoever said that I can have whatever I want? So far as I know, Christian monotheism says no such thing! In-fact, Christian monotheism predicts that most times, in-fact 99% of the time, I won’t get what I want. The miracles and healings that do occur are by God’s wish alone, they are part of HIS providential plan, not our whim. Hence on that front Shermer’s arguments tackle straw men. But even if we grant that Christian monotheism does predict that we can have anything we want, Shermer’s arguments in this respect would still fail on two counts: 1) it would be irrelevant to the debate. The moot of the debate is “does the universe have a purpose?”, but Shermer confuses this for the question “how is that purpose instantiated?” Suppose we were to claim that some vague deity that does not interfere in the universe was its designer. In such a possible world, the universe would still have a purpose! So on that count, Shermer’s argument is logically invalid. The implied conclusion “the universe has no purpose” would not follow. What’s worse for Shermer is that it isn’t self evident that without God there would be no purpose. Suppose we were atheistic Platonists. Atheistic Platonism holds that the order and purpose in the Universe is instantiated by abstract objects, locked in Plato’s heaven, imposing themselves on uncreated matter. In such a possible world we might still say that the universe had a purpose! So again, Shermer’s argument is logically invalid. Now I don’t hold to atheistic Platonism, in-fact I hold that purpose without God is metaphysically (that is de re) impossible. But all we need to grant is the mere logical possibility of atheistic Platonism and we’ve still won the debate. Sadly, this was not a point raised by any of the theists, they instead stuck to their modus tollens argument that if God does not exist then there is no objective purpose to the universe. This in my view was a strategic error on the theists behalf since it placed a far heavier burden of proof on them than was required of them by the wording of the moot.

Ignoring this and Craig’s points on the issue, Shermer’s next complaint re-hashed the problem of evil, complaining that if God exists then God could create new limbs for the victims of land mines in the Iraq war. Again, this argument is not strictly relevant to the debate since the moot isn’t “Does God exist?”, but “Is there a purpose to the Universe”. We might grant that Shermer’s point here does mitigate God’s existence (although ultimately it’s a complete non sequitur) but still hold that there’s purpose in the universe. After all, if Craig’s definition of evil is correct (which I think it is), and evil is a departure from the way things ought to be, then the presence of evil (in this case the suffering of limbless soldiers) would actually show that there is objective purpose in the universe! But I think more fatally is that this suffers from the sort of fallacious reasoning that I find many popularisers of atheism use with almost uniform regularity. They make some statement like “well why doesn’t God just do x? And then claim that if God did x then they’d believe in Him. For example, in the 1998 debate between Eddie Tabash and William Lane Craig, Tabash asked Craig why Jesus didn’t come to earth to die for our sins in the modern era when we have the benefits of modern technology. In Shermer’s case it was to ask why it is that God doesn’t re-grow the limbs of soldiers that have lost those appendages in battle. The problem is that these sort of arguments suffer from something very much like the anachronistic fallacy. I have begun calling such fallacies the “angelic fallacy” wherein one is so presumptuous as to suppose that he knows how a perfectly good God with omnipotence and foreknowledge would act. One decidedly memorable instance of this was when an atheist got up and asked “why wasn’t Jesus a woman?!?!?!” and then proceeded to determine that Jesus wasn’t the Christ by virtue of the fact that he was a man rather than a woman! There was no engagement with the evidence presented, merely an emotionalist appeal to how the Church is responsible for so much of history’s chauvinism all because Jesus was a man! I hope you are sufficiently intelligent to see the abject failure of relevance in such “arguments”. Nonetheless, supposing that this weren’t so abjectly fallacious in the sense defined, it would still be a failure of relevance insofar as it betrays the faulty assumption that God merely wants us to believe in Him. Note the claim “if God did x then I’d believe in him”, well sure! You may believe in Him, but how do you know that if God did x that it would bring you into a saving, loving relationship with Him? Given the scriptural data on the issue, it’s immediately clear that God’s purpose is not so much to have us believe in Him, but to be in a saving relationship with Him.

Shermer’s last complaint was to bash the theists (Craig, Wolpe and Geivett) and complain that they immorally discriminate against homosexuality. Now this argument is just flagrantly fallacious, it has nothing to do with the moot of the debate and instead attacks something of the character of the theists. This kind of fallacy is more technically known as a circumstantial ad hominem fallacy. But furthermore, it betrays the assumption that there is a purpose to the universe (the moot of the debate). As I’ve repeatedly stated, if evil is a departure from the way things ought to be and (in this case) to discriminate against homosexuality is evil, then it would follow that a) there is an objective purpose to the universe and b) that the wrongness of discriminating against homosexuals is part of that purpose.

The next to speak was the Rabbi David Wolpe. Now I confess that before this debate, I’d never heard of Wolpe and to be honest I wasn’t entirely impressed with him. He struck as ultimately more bombast than solid reasoning (unlike Craig and Geivett). Nevertheless, he did make two interesting points: The first was that experiment is not the only way of knowing things and second with respect to the problem of evil. With respect to the first, I must concede that he is right, unfortunately he only asserted it rather than giving any examples of knowledge we have that doesn’t come through experimentation. With respect to the second point, he argued that the theist is not committed to Leibniz’ claim that this was the best of all possible worlds. He didn’t really offer a great deal of argument on this point, but for the sake of charity we might bring in a point I made earlier which is that both Judaism and Christianity both predict that this is not the best of all possible worlds, after all, the best kind of world would have been one where Adam and Eve never ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Now there are bigger issues at play here, and it may turn out that this point folds on closer scrutiny, but it nonetheless was an interesting point.

The last on the atheist side to speak was the infamous Richard Dawkins. Dawkins began by saying “it seems perfectly natural when presented with an object to say “whats it for?”, it starts in childhood. The psychologist Deborah Kellerman has investigated this very interestingly with children, offering them a question like “why do you think these rocks are pointy?”, is it because of some geological explanation or cause? or is it so that animals can scratch on them when they get itchy?” and below a certain age…I think it’s about 6…most children answer with the teleological answer…children then (mostly) grow out of that purposive way of looking at the world, not apparently everybody”. Aside from the implicit ad hominem attack at the end of Dawkins argument here, there are some much deeper problems associated with this claim. The problem is, is that it’s far too broad to be of any use to Dawkins! Dawkins rejects teleological reasoning in natural theology as “immature” and as such rejects such reasoning a priori. But if we a priori reject teleological reasoning in natural theology, then on what grounds can we accept teleological reasoning for the supposition that a book is written by an intentional, purposive human mind? That is to say, if we are to reject the teleological argument for Gods existence because such reasoning is (as Dawkins seems to suggest) “immature”, then on what grounds can we accept the obvious appearances of design in Dawkins’ own book “The God Delusion”? It may turn out a posteriori that there are perfectly good naturalistic explanations for the apparent design in the physical universe, but, contra Dawkins, teleological reasoning cannot be ruled out a priori.

Dawkins’ second point was to re-hash the Darwinian argument against theism. That the greatest achievement of modern science was to show that the impulse we have to see purpose in anything doesn’t work. Now hold on a second! Earlier Bill Craig made the point that an argument for the existence of God can be made from the origin and fine tuning of the universe. Now as far as I know (which isn’t very much), Darwin dealt with biological organisms. But cosmology and biological organisms are clearly not the same thing. A Darwinian attack on Cosmological arguments against the existence of God would simply be a category mistake! As Dinesh D’Souza stated in his debated with John Loftus, arguments from cosmological evidence are completely immune to Darwinian attack. Thankfully, Dawkins seemed to recognize this and argued that the theists have been “forced back” into explaining things like the origin of the cosmos and the apparent fine tuning of the universe. He said, that theists like to say “well science can’t explain things like the big bang therefore God did it“. There are two points to be made: 1. in actual fact we have not been “forced back”, theologians and theistic philosophers have for eons been making arguments from cosmology, take for example the Islamic, Medieval philosopher and mystic “Al Ghazali” or perhaps the Jewish philosopher Moses Nachmanides. Theologians and philosophers have by no means been “forced back” into anything. Dawkins claim that we used to stay away from astronomy in our teleological arguments (as Paley suggested) is simply false. 2. His argument here is simply a straw man. Theologians and theistic philosophers that use the cosmological argument (because there are those that don’t (e.g. Peter van Inwagen) don’t merely conclude that “Goddunit” just because we can’t explain the big bang. Actually, they draw on the causal principle i.e. that everything which begins to exist has a cause and conclude that because modern cosmology predicts that the universe began to exist that it must therefore have a cause. They then try to show that the best possible explanation of that cause is a prime mover with the ability to act such as to bring into existence a temporal effect. This is hardly the God of the gaps hypothesis that Dawkins wants to make the cosmological argument out to be. Still unimpressed by this, Dawkins reverts to his age old saying “well scientists are working on it!” and even better, that “one day physics will answer those questions”. Well sure! one day physics might answer those question and one day that might answer turn out to be God! who’s to say that the answer can’t be God? alternatively, one day physics might show us that there is a good naturalistic explanation of the universe. If there is, that’s fine, but at least on the present evidence it seems that there isn’t. On the present evidence (which points to the beginning of the universe in a massive flash of light) our best explanation is that a transcendent, timeless, changeless, immaterial person exists that brought our universe into existence. Now, that explanation may change as the evidence changes, but it’s a fantastic bit of warped logic (which fundamentally destroys the precepts of the scientific method) to conclude that the present hypothesis is false merely because the evidence may one day change. After all, the evidence for evolution may possibly one change one day, but does that possibility mean we should reject evolution? I highly doubt that Dawkins would accept such reasoning from Creationists! Still unimpressed by this, Dawkins ends his speech with the question “even if science can’t explain these things, what on earth makes you think that religion can?” Well again, this is strictly irrelevant to the moot of the debate since the debate only concerns whether or not there is a purpose to the universe. Nevertheless, the theist might respond as I did earlier, which is that anything capable of bringing a temporal effect, in this case the universe, into existence is necessarily (de re) an entity capable of free action.

The last to speak was Douglas Geivett who re-emphasized Craig’s earlier point that if God does not exist then personal meaning is merely what we make of it artificially. Given atheism, any belief that life has purpose rests upon an arbitrary existential choice at best. After this point, he attempted to develop something that sounds much like the argument from consciousness which, I confess, is not something I understand. The basic gist of his argument though, was that naturalism cannot take seriously the experience of human freedom and volition, nor can it make sense of any perception of intention or purpose.

With 3,000 attending the debate and 2 million people viewing it on Mexican television, it is really encouraging to have such a large audience exposed to this important question. It was unfortunate that the debaters had to break their speeches down into 6 minute sound bites, as such a format doesn’t lend itself to a substantive and meaningful debate. Nonetheless, it was fascinating exchange and, in my uneducated opinion, the atheists got thrashed.

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