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Dr. Washington’s Opening Arguments


About seven o’clock, I finished typing in my notes and looked at the clock and realized I was running late. I hopped in my car and started speeding down the street, and I thought, “I should calm down. It won’t look too good if I get in a car crash on the way to this. It might make my position look bad.” So then I turned on the radio, and you know what comes on? REM’s “Losing My Religion.” [laughter]

I want to begin by making a few comments before I give my arguments against the existence of God, and respond to every single one of Dr. Craig’s arguments for God’s existence. I want to take some time out to thank you tonight for coming out here. There’s a lot of other things you could be doing. When I pulled into the parking lot down at Montlake, I saw thousands of car and got very excited, but then I found out there was a basketball game on. But I think the fact that people come out tonight, shows that people are really very interested. They’re interested in the intellectual and spiritual issues surrounding this issue, which I think all of us can readily admit are very important, no matter which side we’re on. So again I want to thank all of you for coming out. I also wanted to thank Campus Crusade for Christ. I think they did a wonderful job. I especially want to thank Duncan Parlett, wherever Duncan is. Where’s Duncan? There’s Duncan over there. Give Duncan a hand, he’s basically responsible for this.

And of course I want to thank my opponent, Dr. Craig. I think I really couldn’t have asked for a more distinguishged opponent to discuss these things with tonight. And it’s really a honor and privlege to discuss it with him. I don’t know if any of you saw The Daily yesterday, but there’s a letter in The Daily, and I think the letter in that Daily really summed up my feelings. It asked all of you to bring a lunch for me tonight because my lunch would be eaten by Dr. Craig. I have to admit there’s no one I’d rather have my lunch eaten by, than Dr. Craig.

So now just before we turn to the arguments, I want to make two points. I want to say a couple things about atheism and about the kind of evidence that I think one has to give in support of that, or theism. Tonight I’m going to be defending atheism, the view that God doesn’t exist. I’m going to try to give you good reasonable, rational arguments for atheism. At the same time, I’m going to give you what I take to be good, solid arguments against the thesis that God exists.

I think it’s important to emphasize the kind of evidence we have here. It’s the sort of evidence that we have for any empirical claim or any philosophical claim. It may involve logical reasons. It may involve facts we know to obtain in the world. But it’s got to be a convincing case. It’s the sort of evidence that you might think under certain circumstances could be admitted into a court of law. The evidence that can be observed by different people and can be confirmed, perhaps, under certain circumstances, reproduced.[1]

I think this is very important to point out because classically, at least, these are not the sort of arguments people have given for God’s existence. I assume this that for all here tonight in discussing the issue, that we’re going to agree that this is the sort of evidence that counts. And we all, if we’re going to enter into this debate in good faith, have to recognize that whichever position we hold, we want to be open-minded about it.[2 ] At least I want to say that if Dr. Craig could produce arguments tonight that at least showed to a very good extent that God exists or that Christianity is right about the nature of the Deity, and if he can show me that my arguments against God’s existence are wrong, I would honestly change my views. If he could produce some sort of evidence that would really be convincing to an independent observer, I personally would change my views. And I assumed that since Dr. Craig is here tonight, that he would agree to change his views too, if I could produce those type of arguments. If I could show that on balance the evidence pointed away from the existence of God.

This is what I assumed until I came across this passage in one of Dr. Craig’s books that was given to me by a friend, and this passage gave me pause. I would like to read it to you, briefly. It’s from Knowing the Truth About the Resurrection. [3] Dr. Craig writes,

“We can know that Jesus rose from the dead, wholly apart from a consideration of historical evidence. We can know Jesus rose because Jesus is alive today and by God’s spirit He is an living reality to those who follow him. The simplest Christian who has neither the oppurtunity nor wherewithal to conduct an historical investigation of Jesus’ resurrection can know with assurance that Jesus has risen simply because God’s spirit bears unmistakable witness to Him that this is so. This means that no one is justified in rejecting the Christian faith simply because the evidence isn’t good enough. If were no historical resurrection, then there then today there would be no encounter with the risen Lord and no witness of the Spirit. From the fact that there is such an encounter and witness, it follows logically that there was historical resurrection, even if in certain situations historical evidence concerning the resurrection, which is available at that time and place, is slim, ambiguous, or even deleterious.”

Now this confuses me because I assume that we’re here to debate this issue seriously. And I assume that we are going to come in a spirit of honesty and a sense of philosophical open-mindedness.

This issue was really brought back to me very directly a few days ago. I got an email from a woman who asked me about the debate. And I hope she’s here tonight. She asked me an interesting question. She asked me if I really believed the position I’m going to be arguing. And she said she had been mulling these things over in her head, and really wanted to come to the debate to try find out what was right. She wanted to know if I was doing this because I believed it, or just because it was a kind of a philosophical game. You know philosophers have this reputation for liking to argue for argument’s sake, and in a lot of ways, it’s true. But I assured her that I really do believe the position I’m arguing. I hoped she would come because I was going to try to give honest and direct arguments for my position. And I told her that she should consider Dr. Craig’s arguments. Whichever way the evidence points, she should believe that. And I hope that all of us will agree with these basic precepts. I hope at some point in the next round or so Dr. Craig can respond and explan what his views on the nature of this debate is.

I have another thing I want to say briefly before I turn to the arguments. Both of us can cite different people who agree with us, people who are very eminent, and people who have a lot of very sophisticated abbreviations after their names, Ph.D. and things like that, but the fact is the issues tonight are going to be turned on the arguments given here. It doesn’t matter what anybody outside here believes, what arguments they hold, what they think is right. We have to look at the arguments given here both by us, and the questions you raise in the audience, to figure out whether, on balance, we can reason. We should never believe in a position because somebody famous holds it. I think it would be good to focus the debate on the arguments and not worry about other people who may have opinions on the matter.[4]

I’m going to give two arguments against the existence of God. The first I call the argument from harm.[5] I think it’s a fairly simple argument, although you could write it out as a set of premises and a conclusion.[6] Here we’re not just arguing about the existence of god, that is any god, we’re arguing about the existence of a particular god, or at least a particular conception of God, the Christian conception. This is a fairly specific notion of God. It’s defined by a number of principles. The idea is that God is all-knowing, or as I’ll say sometimes omniscient. God is all-powerful, or as I’ll say omnipotent. God is morally perfect or all-good, or as I’ll say omnibenevolent. We’re also assuming that God is personal. And we believe this God can causally interact with the world. Now we have to look very carefully at the arguments given to see whether they’re actually arguing for this conception of God. An argument to the effect that some or other god exists, isn’t going to help us tonight. That isn’t what we’re arguing about. We’re talking about the classical Christian concpetion of God.[7]

What my first argument draws attention to is that given God’s, given God’s omnibenevolence, God should desire to have a world in which there is as little suffering as possible, perhaps none.[ 8] Okay, this should be a desire of any good person, and we think that goodness will generalize. We think individuals around here are good because they want to minimize suffering in the world, among other reasons, and if we apply the same standard to God, we assume this is true of God, too. So assume that since God is infinitely good, He desires to minimize suffering in this world.

One quick aside, I’m going to refer to God as “He,” more or less out of deference to tradition. I don’t want to suggest that God has a gender, because that’s not part of standard Christian doctrine. I also do it swallowing kind of hard implicit sexism, but please bear with me over that.

Secondly, God is omniscient, so God’s supposed to figure out how to design a world that has basically no harm at all.[9] If you’re omniscient, you’re really smart, and you can figure these things out. And lastly, God is omnipotent, so any design that God brings into being, God can actually implement. For all these facts, we should be led to believe that there’s basically no suffering in the world, or that there’s very, very, very little. I think that a quick look at the evening news any night would show you this is not the case. You’re going to have murder after murder, maybe sandwiched between a rape or two, maybe cut to a war here or there. You’re going to see suffering from the beginning of the hour to the end of the hour, and the kind of evil that exists in this world, the kind of suffering just doesn’t seem to be consistent with what we should be led to expect from our suppositions about the nature of God. Again, I could write this out as a set of premises, but I don’t think that’s necessary. Anyone who I think grasps the nature of the Christian God should be led to believe that these sort of things just shouldn’t happen, and the fact they do shows God doesn’t exist.

The second argument I want to give against God’s existence draws attention to the fact that the definition of God in classical Christianity is, I think, contradictory. As far I know, it’s common to think of God as an abstract object, the kind of abstract object that Professor Craig talked about. God is said to be timeless, and the only timeless things around are abstract objects. At the same time, it’s believed that God is causally efficacious, that is that God can affect material objects. God brought the universe into existence, we’re told, and God can influence the events of the world on a day-to-day, hour-to-hour, and second-to-second basis.

The problems is that abstracts objects, as standardly understood, have no causal properties. Just think about this for a moment. Think about the classical examples of abstract objects. Dr. Craig mentioned a few. Numbers are abstract objects. Other examples may be sets. These are contrasted with material objects: things like tables, chairs, and people. We can interact causally with tables and chairs. We can sit in them, bump into them. But I ask you, When’s the last time you bumped into the number one? When’s the last time you slipped on the concept of truth? Or saw a justice sitting by the side of the road? The fact is that, it’s almost part of the definition of abstract objects that they cannot have causal properties. Let me just cite the Harper Collins Dictionary of Philosophy, which defines material objects as “an object that causally interacts or inter-relates with other independently existing things.” An abstract object is defined as “an object that is not a material object,” so an abstract object is an object that does not causally interact with other indepedently existing things. We’re told that God is both abstract and has causal properties. This is a contradiction. Nothing with a contradictory nature exists, so God doesn’t exist. Those are my arguments against the existence of God.

Now I want to move on to discuss the arguments, Dr. Craig’s arguments. And you have to bear with me, I’m not used to doing this, I have to read a little bit more than I would like. I want to look at Dr. Craig’s argument about the cause of the universe. This is often called a cosmological argument, or an argument from first cause. In short, the argument is that God must exist because the universe had a beginning. In fact the universe had a beginning is the first premise. The second premise is everything that exists must have had a cause. We rapidly draw the conclusion that this universe had a cause. Dr. Craig identified this cause as God. That’s the nature of this argument.

I want to say right off that I’m going to grant both of Dr. Craig’s premises, that the universe had a beginning, and that every event has a cause. Although I think there may be reasons to question them, I’m going to grant them right away.[10] I’m going to grant the immediate conclusion, that there was a cause to the universe. But, even if you grant this conclusion, you have no reason to believe this is God. We have no reason to believe this thing has any of the properties that God has.

Let me give you a quick analogy here, okay. [holds up a sparkplug] Every morning, I, a lot of you, get up and we go to our car, and we put the key in the ignition, turn it over, and the car starts up. You can think of the ignition of the gasoline as somewhat of a big bang. There’s this explosion of gasoline igniting. What’s the cause of the gasoline igniting? The sparkplug.[11] It’s a spark off this sparkplug, which causes the gasoline to ignite, that causes the small big bang that gets you to school every day. What Professor Craig has given us is that there is some sort of cosmological sparkplug. Maybe there is. But if there is, we’ve no reason to believe it’s omniscient, no reason to believe it’s omnibenevolent, and no reason to believe that it’s omnipotent. From the fact that the universe was created, all we have some reason to believe is that it is slightly more powerful than its effects. So maybe it’s a little stronger or more poweful than the nature of the universe as it exists. But the universe is finite, as Dr. Craig has argued. So we don’t have any reason to conclude this thing is infinite. It may be strong but finite. We don’t have any reason to believe its omniscient or even sentient at all. It could be a spark plug of some kind, maybe a timeless sparkplug, but a sparkplug nevertheless. And of course goodness never enters into this.

From this argument, grant basically everything in it, and realize that it’s not going to give you the conclusion you want. The arguments for the existence of God have to prove that the Christian god exists, it’s got to prove that there is something which is omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent, personal, and intervenes. This argument doesn’t do it.

Let’s look at another one of Dr. Craig’s arguments. This is the argument that it’s extraordinary improbable that the world turned out the way it did. This is often called the argument based on the Anthropic Principle. It’s really a modern version of what’s called the argument from design. Basically the idea behind the argument from design, is that God must exist, because only his existence could explain the nature of the universe as it is. The claim is, that out of the vast number of possible forms our universe could have taken, it in fact took a very special form. It took a form which allowed human and animal life to grow and thrive. Dr. Craig argued the odds on the universe turning out the way we needed it to, in order for us to exist, are vanishingly small. He gives a number, ten to the hundred twenty-fourth, or something like that. The claim is the result, the event that we see today, the existence of the universe could not have resulted by chance, it must have had some sort of divine intervention. What makes this argument different from earlier versions of the argument from design is its reference to sort of the nature of physics. The claim is that our universe is the way it is because of the nature of the physical laws. In particular, some constants that if you set them certain ways you can determine how the universe will play out, and this determines the nature of the universe.

This argument is what we often call an argument from the best explanation. Arguments from the best explanation work in a certain way. They argue for something by pointing to a phenomenon, or pointing to something that occurs, and saying, “Look, you can’t explain the occurrence of this, without postulating this.” Dr. Craig is claiming you can’t explain the existence of the universe without postulating God. God is either the explanation or is at least the very best explanation for this event.

Well I think that even if you grant almost all of Dr. Craig’s argument; grant that the probabilities are infinitesimally small or very, very small; grant the phenomena that he wants to explain, you really don’t have to draw this conclusion.[12] I think this argument is sort of apparent to anybody.

Today I bought a lottery ticket. The Lotto wasn’t won last night. It’s up to seven million. A lot of people are playing this right now. The fact is, it’s extraordinary unlikely that I’m going to win this. In fact, the drawing has already taken place. (I think it takes place around six o’clock.) I probably didn’t win. But let’s suppose I did win. Suppose I won this lottery. It’s extremely unlikely event that just might have come true. From the fact that I won this lottery, that this extremely improbable event happened, do I have any right to assume that somebody arranged this? Either the lottery manager, my friends in high places, or God? No, no you don’t. [13]


[1] This paragraph is muddled. I meant to say that we should bring the same standards of proof to discussions of God’s existence as we bring to discussions of ordinary matters of fact. Specifically, the kind of evidence that is cited in the arguments should meet reasonable empirical standards. This point bears emphasizing, I believe, becuase people (and I do not exclude myself from this category) sometimes adopt lower standards for debate when it comes to topics like religion or politics. (This may be because we have a natural tendency to hold views for which we have emotional sympatheties to a lower burden of proof — and the emotional pull of religion is particularly strong — or because we do not believe that there is a fact of the matter. The latter motivation is most clearly expressed in the idea that religion is only a matter of opinion, that there are no true or false positions. If this is the case, then any opinion is as good as any other.) If we think there is a fact of the matter, then it goes without saying that we should resist bias. If we think there is no fact of the matter, then it is clear that we are not really arguing or weighing evidence, but are only pretending to do so, in which case it doesn’t matter how we treat the evidence.

The point about the court of law is simply that we should allow only respectable empirical claims (not that we should abide by legalistic strictures on admissability). Citing a direct experience of God, as Dr. Craig does below, as evidence for his existence violates reasonable standards.

[2] In order to be fair minded we must not ask more from one side than the other. We should not ask that one side demonstrate their position with mathematical certaintly, while the other is held to a lower standards of proof. It is certain that neither atheists’ nor theists’ arguments will have the strength of mathematical proofs. All we can do is to weigh both sides and see which is stronger. In some of his remarks, Dr. Craig seems to grant this, but in other he seems to place a higher burden of proof on atheists. He says in his opening remarks that “Atheist philosophers have tried for centuries to disprove the existence of god, but no one has come up with a convincing argument.” He then goes on to say “I’m not claiming that I can prove that God exists with some sort of mathematical certainty…” Now, what does Dr. Craig mean when he says that atheists have not been able to come up with a convincing argument against God existence? If he means that they have not come up with a mathematical proof, I would agree. But then atheists are no different than theists in this regard. (If he means they have not come up with an argument that has convinced theists, it is also obvious, but also not very interesting). Again the point is not whether the arguments are convincing or not by themselves, but whether they are stronger than the arguments on the other side.

[3] Craig, William Lane. Knowing the Truth About the Resurrection (Ann Arbor, MI: Servant Books, 1988).

[4] I ignore this suggestion in one of my comments below and make a naked appeal to authority.

[5] This argument is patterned after what is generally known as the argument from evil. In fact you would get the argument from evil if you systematically inserted the word “evil” wherever I use the word “harm”. My reasons for preferring the present formulation are purely rhetorical. The phrasing in terms of harm is useful because it does not bring to mind an objection that often occurs when one puts forward a version of the argument from evil. It may be argued that in order for there to be good in the world, there must be evil. This assumption, if accepted, undermines any argument to the effect that there should be no evil in the world, if God exists. Now I do not think this is a very serious objection, but I really wanted to avoid having to discuss it. By speaking of “harm” rather than “evil” one gets to the same place without the objection arising (at least, immediately). Harm works as good as evil because people generally view it as being intrinsically bad, something that any good person would want to minimize (see third note following). However, it does not bring to mind the objection, since one does not immediately think that harm is necessary for there to be good. (Looking back, I have to admit that this subtlety was, in all likelihood, totally unnecessary.)

[6] This sentence should have continued “…, it really isn’t necessary”

[7] The point here is that the claims of atheism and theism are only well-defined to the extent that the conception of god that is under discussion is well-defined. All of my arguments are directed at what I am calling “the classical Christian conception” of God. Though Christians may differ on precisely what God is, it seems that the view that god is an individual who is omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent is central to Christianity. Also it seems essential to Christianity that God is capable of setting and realizing goals and interacting with the world on an on-going basis. I would go so far as to say that anyone who did not believe that God has these properties does not subscribe to the Christian conception. In my arguments I am denying that there exists an entity which has all of these properties.

[8] Well is the claim that there should be no harm or merely as little harm as possible? Both, sort of. I should have made it clear that I planned to give two arguments, the first of which would set the stage for the second. In the first argument, which I give in this section, I maintain that, given God’s properties, there should be no harm in the world. The argument is simple, direct, and wrong. I gave it fully expecting Prof. Craig to offer the objections that he did. The first argument and the criticisms to it motivate the second which maintains that God’s properties imply that our world should be the best possible — that there should be as little harm as possible, compatible with God’s greater designs. Since this is not the case, we should conclude that God does not exist. I believe that this argument is correct and, when fleshed out and with compelling examples, decisive against God’s existence.

[9] The argument here is a reductio ad absurdum. The assumption that God exists leads the patently false conclusion that there is no harm in the world. Hence, the assumption should be rejected.

[10] I grant that the universe had a cause only for the purpose of argument. The fact is that it is not really clear whether the claim is meaningful. For it is not clear that the ordinary conception of effect is applicable to the event of the universe’s coming into existence. The problem is that on the ordinary conception of cause, a cause must preceed its effect in time. But, by hypothesis, time began with the Big Bang. Before the Big Bang there was no time — no “before” in any meaningful sense. Hence, if something brought about the universe, it could not be a cause in the ordinary sense. So we cannot rely on assumptions about causes (for example, that every event must have a cause) to justify the claim that the universe had one. The claim that the universe had a cause is, therefore, totally ungrounded.

[11] To be more accurate, it is a salient cause and one of the more immediate. In point of fact, an indefinite number of events play a causal role in bringing about the ignition of the car. These events stretch in time from the moment of ignition back to the beginning of the universe. No one of them can be identified as the cause simpliciter of the ignition. The choice of an event as the cause in the context of a given discussion will be determined largely by pragmatic factors: what one hopes to emphasize or illuminate.

[12] I grant the assumption that the probabilities are very small only for the purpose of argument, but I do not really believe that it is correct. Here is where I am going to make a naked appeal to authority. A few days before the debate I ran this argument by a friend of mine, Stephen Hsu, who is currently an assistent professor of physics at Yale specializing in theoretical particle physics. I mentioned that theists often cite big numbers when emphasizing how unlikely our current universe is (1 out of 10^123 in Craig’s case). Hsu’s response: “This stuff is non-sense. The numbers these people cite are pulled out of thin air. Really, we don’t have the slightest idea how likely or unlikely the universe is, for simple reason that we don’t know what the range of possible values of the basic constants are (even assuming that we know what all of the constants are and how they help to determine the nature of the universe). Until you know what the possibilities, you don’t know how special the actual universe is.”

[13] I should have continued “And if you don’t have to assume this for the lottery, you don’t have to assume it for the universe. Hence this argument provides no reason for believing that the universe had a designer or that God’s exists.”

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