John Loftus on Arguments for God’s Existence (Why I became an Atheist Ch. 4)

The Kalam Cosmological Argument

  • Everything that begins to exist has a cause.
  • The universe began to exist.
  • Therefore the universe has a cause.

Loftus contends: “It simply is not an obvious intuition to conceive of an event prior to the first event in time. It seems a better intuition would be that the universe has always existed because time exists, for there would be no “time” at which the universe began to exist independently of the time that originates with the universe.”[i]

You don’t need to conceive of an event prior to the existence of the universe to say that God created the universe. This is a typical atheist response and it is simply not required. Take a look at this Q&A where Craig responds to this type of argument. There does not need to be a time the universe began to exist in order for it to begin to exist either, and apparently most physicists agree with this since most of them believe in the Big Bang. It is strange that Loftus here goes against the scientific consensus – that the universe began to exist.

Loftus appeals to Wes Morriston’s response to the argument by defending the idea that the universe could have just suddenly started existing for no particular reason. According to Loftus, Morriston says that we don’t have experience of the beginning of the universe so cannot know that it cannot occur ( for universes to come into being without a cause).[ii] First of all, this presupposes a very radical empiricism – it presumes that we must have direct experience of something in order to know it is true, but empiricism is self-defeating and there are many things we believe for which we have no empirical reason. Also, this empiricism is so radical that it would invalidate many established scientific theories including the Big Bang and Evolution. We have no experience of the beginning of the universe or the millions of years since then. So, according to Morriston’s principle, we should not know either of those things. Thirdly, just because we don’t have any experience of the universe coming into being doesn’t mean we can’t say that something so absurd as it starting to exist uncaused cannot happen. Say you were from some group of people  who has never witnessed any animal giving birth. You witness a horse giving birth. Then you see an elephant and a baby elephant next to it. So you assume that the elephant must also have given birth. But your friend ( representing Loftus and Wes Morritson) tells you that you can’t assume that the little elephant couldn’t just have popped into existence. After all, you never saw the elephant giving birth. You only saw a horse giving birth. Just because we don’t have direct experience of the beginning of the universe, doesn’t mean that our knowledge of the way things work do not apply to it. Fourthly and most importantly, to say that the universe could come into being for no reason and without a cause is literally to say that the universe as a whole is unintelligible. You have said that there is no reason the universe came into being. Notice how far some atheists have gone here. In order to avoid the explanation of theism, the atheist has denied that explanation applies to the beginning of the universe. Talk about a desperate strategy! We won’t say that we have a better explanation. We will say that there is no explanation at all! There is no rhyme or reason to it. It just happened. The existence of the universe is absurd. Notice also how anti-scientific this view is. It is predicated on the notion that there can be things in the natural world for which there is no explanation.

Even worse, Loftus quotes Morriston as saying that creation from nothing is just as absurd as coming into being without a cause.[iii] God causing the beginning of the universe is just as irrational as the universe coming into being for no reason without a cause? This is clearly irrational. If God causes the universe from nothing, there is in fact something that the universe is being created from ( namely God). God is creating the universe. But on atheism, the universe comes into being out of absolutely nothing. Do these two options really strike you as equally absurd? The one obeys our intuitions about what is metaphysically possible and the other most certainly does not.

Regarding the second premise of the Kalam argument, Loftus quotes Graham Oppy and Richard Carrier to say that William Lane Craig makes use of a theory of space and time that is not believed by contemporary physicists.  Loftus makes some general comments here that Craig does not take some parts of contemporary science seriously but does not elaborate. He does not give specific details which makes it difficult to respond substantially.[iv] In short, he simply makes assertions here without properly supporting them. Loftus then echoes the common atheist response to the Kalam argument that quantum mechanics shows that things can come into existence without a cause.[v] However, as is constantly pointed out, these things do not come from nothing but from a quantum vacuum and so this cannot be what happens at the beginning of the universe. Also,  it is one thing for particles to come into and out of existence within a particular context. It is completely a different matter for an entire universe to come into being with no physical context whatsoever. Also, it is only on some interpretations of quantum mechanics that things truly come into being without causes.

Loftus goes on to address Craig’s philosophical arguments against an actual infinite. He addresses Craig’s argument that it would be impossible to traverse an infinite through successive addition because it would be impossible to count to an “infinitieth” number. Any infinite must therefore be potential not actual. Loftus responds that this does not apply to someone who has always been counting.[vi] But this response makes no sense. Loftus is responding to the claim that  there cannot be any infinity into the future by saying that there is an infinity of the past. If an infinity cannot be formed into the future, it certainly cannot already have occurred. An infinity in the past is not possible, because if the past were infinite we would never reach this moment or any moment whatsoever. The universe cannot be infinite in the past, because then nothing whatsoever would happen. If the past of the universe is infinite, then you must traverse an infinite time in order to reach the present moment, or the beginning of the earth, or any specific moment. But if you have to traverse an infinite in order to get to these moments, you will by definition never reach any of these moments.

Loftus says that actual infinities do exist in our world. “Just take the length of a quarter-mile drag strip and divide it in half, then again and again, ad infinitum.[vii] But this misses the point of Craig’s argument. Just because there are things which might be divided into infinite numbers of things, doesn’t mean you could actually do it. In other words, the infinity is potential, not actual. You cannot divide it ad infinitum because you will always be busy doing it without ever reaching the goal. Loftus goes on: “Craig’s basic problem is that he conflates counting an infinite number of events with counting all of them…Craig offers us no reason to think that if an infinite number of events have taken place out of the beginningless past that the immortal being stopped counting, or that time stopped. Time could simply march onward after an infinite number of events took place.”[viii] Loftus seems to be reiterating his misunderstanding of Craig’s argument with a different concept. Time cannot march on after completing an infinite number of events, because you would never reach the end of the infinite number of things. There is no such thing as “after” an infinite time. There is no such thing as “after” forever. That’s a contradiction in terms.

Loftus goes on to attack Craig’s claim that the cause of the universe must be personal. According to Loftus, Craig claims that an impersonal cause would have produced the universe from eternity past, because the conditions that would have caused an impersonal cause to generate a universe must always have been there.[ix] I wonder about this rendition of Craig’s view. Loftus doesn’t give us a citation of where Craig says this. He then quotes Wes Morriston as responding that there can be no time when God decides to create the universe, because he exists timelessly before the universe, which means that he must always have reached that decision or had that will to create the universe.[x] This means it runs into the same problem. First of all, this is not the only reason that Craig has for supposing the first cause of the universe to be personal. Take a look at my treatment of the Kalam Cosmological argument to see this. Also, this is only a problem if you suppose that God’s existence before the beginning of the universe was timeless.

Moreover, a non-personal cause cannot have caused the universe because an impersonal cause, unlike a mind or a personal cause, does not have the reason for its action within itself. A non-personal cause cannot “set up” itself. A personal cause can think and intend to do something. That is, it can have its reason for action within itself. This being the case, a non-personal cause cannot be metaphysically necessary because it requires something else to start it or “wind it up” or determine it’s action. This would either be another impersonal cause or a person. If you only posit impersonal causes, you will be left with an infinite regress of impersonal causes, which can never be traversed. You must therefore posit a personal cause.

Leibniz’s Cosmological Argument

Loftus first responds that the universe is a brute fact. “We deny the PSR when applied to the existence of the universe”.[xi] The existence of the universe cannot be a brute fact because it is not metaphysically necessary – it could have failed to exist ( it is contingent). That means there must be a reason why it is there. “Contingent” just means there are other conditions or things on which something’s existence depends, and it wouldn’t have existed if it were not for those conditions or things. Explaining something’s existence is just a matter of pointing out those conditions or things on which it’s existence depends. Obvious right? So to say that the universe is a brute fact while simultaneously recognizing that the universe is contingent is to affirm a contradiction. A brute fact is a fact which does not depend for it’s truth on any other fact. But we know that the universe, because it could have failed to exist, is a fact which must depend on some other fact. A contingent brute fact is therefore a contradiction in terms. But once again notice how desperate a move this is on the part of the atheist. This atheistic response is a massive compliment to the Leibnizian Cosmological Argument. The atheist is forced to say, when confronted with the argument, that the existence of the universe is unintelligible. It cannot be explained. This is also very anti-scientific as it denies that the universe can ultimately be understood rationally. Moreover, there are many aspects of the universe which suggests that it is not merely metaphysically contingent but also finite. The universe is physical and all our experience about physical things say that it is destructible. Also, modern science tells us that the universe both began to exist and will cease to exist in the distant future. In short, the existence of the universe is a very poor candidate for a brute fact.

Loftus then embarks on some intrepid adventures in redefining nothing, like some thoughtless atheists have done before him. “All we need to get a universe is equilibrium of positive and negative energy, something physicists call “nothing”, along with the laws of physics. Theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss said in a debate he had with William Lane Craig that rather than adopting philosophical notions of “nothing” “we need to let the universe tell us how it behaves.” This assumes a whole lot less than the Trinitarian God of the Bible.”[xii] First of all, we don’t need to say that the argument implies the Trinitarian nature of God in order for it to be the correct conclusion that God caused the existence of the universe. Loftus and other atheists like to straw- man theistic arguments in this way. They seem to allege that each theistic argument purports to independently show the reality of the Biblical God. This is not how these arguments are typically defended today nor how they are defended historically, nor does each argument need to independently show the reality of the Biblical God. Theistic arguments show the reality of a general monotheistic God, compatible with but not identical to, the God of the Bible. The specific identity of that monotheistic God can be shown through different arguments called “Christian evidences”.

Loftus engages in the same bizarre redefinition of nothing that Lawrence Krauss engages in. The problem is that Krauss starts out with the normal definition of nothing and then changes it ( he equivocates between different definitions of nothing – the conventional definition and his own strange redefinition of it). Nothing means no thing, including no energy. If you want to introduce an operational definition of nothing as the equilibrium between positive and negative energy, you are perfectly at liberty to do that ( although it is rather pointless and only likely to create confusion). But you cannot then pretend that this answers the question “Why is there something instead of nothing?” The “nothing” in this question is the conventional notion of nothing. What Krauss is really explaining is how the universe proceeded from that equilibrium or that gravitational field. The question then simply becomes why there is a gravitational field or an equilibrium of positive and negative energy, rather than nothing. Trying to settle a debate by some sort of definition fiat is irrational. Also, Loftus said that we need an equilibrium of energy along with the laws of nature. Neither of those things are nothing.

Loftus then says that the argument commits the fallacy of composition.[xiii] Take a look at my response to this objection in my article on the Leibnizian Cosmological Argument.

The Teleological Argument

Here Loftus addresses the Fine-Tuning argument. The Fine-Tuning argument appeals to the fact that there many physical constants in the universe that had to be “tuned” to very particular values in order for a life-permitting universe, or in some cases, even just a universe to exist. If those values are off by very small amounts, the universe or life-permitting conditions, fail to obtain. See my summary of this argument for a more in-depth treatment.

Loftus alleges that “even if this is an unlikely result of chance, some form of life could still be a likely result. It is like arguing that a particular card hand is so improbable that it must have been preordained.”[xiv] Not really. Cards are played all the time, so it is not surprising that some of those hands will be great and improbable hands. For it to be a more correct analogy to the universe’s fine-tuning, imagine that you are playing the only poker hand that has ever been played and that will ever be played against one other person, and the person you’re playing against gets a royal flush. You would be justified in your suspicion that there is cheating going on. Remember that there is only one universe and one chance for all the sensitive constants to be tuned to the correct degree. It is more akin to the chance that you are dealt only one hand and it is a royal flush, and  there is only one ticket for one lottery draw and it is a winner, and there is only one couple who gives birth in the entire world, and only one try at having a baby, and it is you. Many of the analogies that respond to the fine-tuning argument illicitly appeal to improbable scenarios in the world without considering that the many chances that things have to turn out a certain way make those seemingly improbable scenarios actually quite probable. Sure, a particular hand is improbable for you. But there are many people playing many hands of poker. A correct analogy would be if only one hand is ever dealt in the world and this hand is excellent. Sure, it is unlikely that you specifically would be born, but there are many many many people having children and having romantic meetups and the like. It is likely, given all those people, that someone with your genetic makeup will eventually be born. A correct analogy would be that there is only one couple in the entire universe and there is a very high likelihood that either or both of them are infertile ( this corresponds with the highly sensitive constants), and they have only one chance to try for children. But then, you are born anyway. And it is true that every lottery hand is unlikely. But there are many tickets being bought with many different combinations of numbers. A correct analogy would be if only one ticket is bought with only one draw at the lottery. There is only one universe and only one chance for all constants to be tuned to the correct degree. Any analogy must reflect this.

Next, Loftus appeals to the anthropic principle. “Atheists also object that there is nothing surprising at all about the fact that we find order in the universe, for if there wasn’t then we wouldn’t be around to comment on it – we could not possibly find anything else.”[xv] But this isn’t true. We can find that we exist and that our existence isn’t improbable given initial conditions. But this is not what we find. We in fact find that our existence is highly improbable given initial conditions. The mere fact that we wouldn’t be around to comment if we did not exist doesn’t make the improbability of our existence any less in need of explanation. For a more in-depth response to this idea, see my response to the objection in my summary of the Fine-Tuning Argument.

Loftus alleges, quoting Richard Carrier, that positing God has the same problem, because it was also a matter of chance that we have a certain type of God over a different type of God.[xvii] Carrier says “Who rolled the dice that gave us our god, rather than some other god or no god at all? Basically theism posits an extremely orderly being that just ‘exists’ for no reason at all.”[xviii] But this does not make sense as a response. The existence of that God is posited for the reasons of the premises of the argument, for the reasons which the argument appeals to. To say that it is being posited for no reason at all is to assume that the reason of the argument is not right, which is to presuppose the argument is false in giving a response to it ( which is circular). So the reason of the argument does tell us that a certain type of God had to exist. Even if “dice” needed to be “rolled” to determine the type of God, the conclusion that some type of God exists would still go through. Also, the conclusion of other arguments, such as the Leibnizian cosmological argument, shows that this God is a necessary being which means that no dice can be rolled to determine which God it is. If God is a metaphysically necessary being, then his nature cannot be a matter of chance but is a matter of necessity. Loftus quotes Carrier again to explain to us how order comes from chaos. He says that if you roll the dice many times, the odds become very good that you will roll an exact sequence. But what is determining that the dice are rolled? The fact that there are all these chances at the sequence being formed already presupposes order, because something that is constantly “rolling dice” would also be an example of order. Where does that order come from?

Loftus quotes another thinker who questions that nonexistence is the default view. This is not relevant to the teleological argument but to the Leibnizian cosmological argument. Anyway, Loftus quotes David Ramsay Steele as questioning why non-existence is the default view. He alleges that there is not good theory, physical or metaphysical, which would tell us to expect nothing.” Nothing doesn’t require explanation. If nothing exists, that doesn’t require explanation unless we would expect something to exist for some reason. He quotes another writer as saying that something had to exist because nothing is unstable. Nothing is nothing! It has no properties. It is neither stable nor unstable. He quotes Victor Stenger as saying that the probability of something existing is 60%.[xix] It is irrational to say that there can be a probability that something exists given that nothing has no properties. Based on what is that probability calculated if there are no conditions based on which to calculate it?

Loftus repeats the common atheist rejoinder that there are also many examples of “unintelligent design.”[xx] This is like saying that a book of very sophisticated mathematics doesn’t require an author because there are mistakes in it.

[i] John Loftus, Why I Became An Atheist, Kindle Edition (Amherst: Prometheus Books) p. 86

[ii] Ibid., 87

[iii] Ibid., 87

[iv] Ibid., 87

[v] Ibid., 87

[vi] Ibid., 88

[vii] Ibid., 88

[viii] Ibid., 89

[ix] Ibid., 90

[x] Ibid., 89

[xi] Ibid., 90

[xii] Ibid., 90

[xiii] Ibid., 90

[xiv] Ibid., 92

[xv] Ibid., 92

[xvi] Ibid.,  92

[xvii] Ibid., 92

[xviii] Ibid, 92.

[xix] Ibid., 93

[xx] Ibid., 96

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