I recently watched the debate/dialogue between William Lane Craig and Jeff Hester at Holy Cross. You can watch the event here. It was titled "Is theistic belief rational in a scientific age?" What follows are some reflections on the debate. My aim here is not to critique the entire debate. Rather, I will merely seek to address some aspects that stood out to me as interesting or important.
Both men gave opening statements and sketched their main arguments. As usual, Craig's speech was very crisp and clear; straight to the point with strong argumentation. Nothing he has not defended at length in other places. I was impressed by the list of specific theist astrophysicists and astronomers that Craig cited. By contrast, Hester's opening was more casual and seemed disjointed. He made some basic points to his position, most of which were standard atheist talking tracks, though said in a congenial manner. Hester provided his own deconversion story, where we hear about a scientifically inquisitive youth who found answers outside of theism. If there was anything noteworthy in Hester's opening, it was the broad range of scientific fields in which he has a strong knowledge base. That Hester can credibly speak about evolution and morality in a scientifically informed way while also falling back into his field in astrophysics is a great credit to him.
From the start of their moderated exchange, Craig repeatedly emphasized Hester’s committing the genetic fallacy. In a strict sense, this happens when the truth value of a belief is thrown into question by how a person came to hold the belief. How A came to believe X has no bearing on the truth of X. I might believe that God exists because my father told me so, but that does not mean it is false that God exists. In a similar vein, Hester cited the evolutionary origin of theistic belief as a means of dismissing its contemporary rationality for the scientifically informed. As I understood it, the argument seemed to be that because theistic belief is an evolutionary outcome (adaptive, it seems on Hester’s view), one cannot be rational in holding the belief once one is scientifically informed about evolution. Since evolution gets us to where we are, once we are here we can reflect on the process and see what kind of dross accumulated along the way and shave it off.
From the standpoint of this dialogue, the epistemic basis for theistic belief was at issue. Returning to the prior example, A believes X because A’s culture or family provides this information to him. Some critics will argue that X might be true, but A is not rational to believe X because of some deficiency in the belief-forming mechanism, violation of epistemic duty, lack of potential to falsify, or some other related criteria. Regarding theism, the argument typically comes from the non-theist to the effect that the theist holds these beliefs because of his family or culture. If you were born in India, you would be a Hindu. If you were born into a Muslim family, you would be a Muslim. Hester argues that tribalism, as an evolutionary outcome, is what drives people to hold to the beliefs of their tribe or people group. Based on Hester’s arguments, certain tribal beliefs are not necessarily rational but are held anyway, presumably because of evolutionary pressures. The existence of God would be one of these beliefs. This is where Craig holds Hester to commit the genetic fallacy. The fact of whether God exists is not false simply because a person believes it based on their tribal affirmations or evolutionary pressure. I think this issue was worth raising but was not as significant as the time allotment to it dictated.
The question at issue was whether or not believing in the existence God is rational in our scientific age. The question was not whether God exists. Hester was offering a critique of theistic belief from a very narrow epistemological perspective. He argued that adaptive tribal beliefs may have/have had a place in the evolutionary process, but these might not obtain to truth. The reason people believe in God is evolutionarily determined, where most of the tribe will believe and a select few will not and/or will be inclined toward questioning the status quo of the tribe. Hester and many of his scientific sympathizers fit into this latter camp. And this camp is important to balance the overall well-being of the tribe. Or so Hester argues.
Hester thinks that theistic belief is not rational because it is largely due to evolutionary processes within a population of a tribe. And the majority of this population group may not ever even be able to ‘break out’ of this belief based on evolutionary pressures and factors.
Set in this context, the genetic fallacy does not seem as relevant. It is the belief-forming process itself that Hester is calling into question. So it seems that how a person came to believe something could be a relevant factor in his presentation. One might understand Hester as not arguing against the truth or falsity of theism per se, but that theistic belief is not rational for the aforementioned evolutionary reasons. The extent this actually commits as strong of a genetic fallacy appears may be questionable.
To his credit, Craig did seize upon the problematic set of conflated arguments made by Hester. First, the epistemic elitism was rightly attacked. What is to say that the religiously skeptical tribal sub-group has not selected for irrationality? Given that Hester later argues for a type of projection theater of the brain, where the brain predisposes us to experience and perceive certain things, by what basis does he make the claim that his beliefs have evolutionarily adapted to attain truth as opposed to falsehoods that aided in survival? Hester cites testability and falsifiability, but these are philosophical positions brought to bear on science itself, thus not escaping the dilemma. I think Craig missed the opportunity to raise some solid evolutionary debunking arguments (EDAs), which he has helpfully raised elsewhere (cf. Reasonable Faith). EDAs do not purport to debunk evolution as a scientific paradigm. Rather, these arguments demonstrate the incompatibility of naturalism and evolution (e.g. Alvin Plantinga) or the inconsistency in things like moral realism and evolution (e.g. Sharon Street).
We can briefly see where EDAs might come into play in this aspect of the Hester-Craig dialog. To do so, we can break Hester’s leading argument down as follows:
6 clearly does not follow at all from 1-5. So what Hester needs to inject between 5 and 6 are the following:
- Everything in physical reality is subject to evolutionary forces
- Beliefs and belief-forming mechanisms in humans are part of physical reality (by implication of Hester’s reductionism)
- Beliefs and belief-forming mechanisms in humans are the product of evolution (from 1 and 2)
- Some humans believe in God
- That some humans believe in God is a product of evolution (from 3 and 4)
- Belief in God is not rational
- 5a. Some evolution-delivered beliefs are not rational
- 5b. Science shows us which beliefs are rational and which are not
- 6 (modified). Science shows us that belief in God is not rational
What is worrying about this is that “Science” in 5b would fall under the auspices of 3. Science would be a set of beliefs and belief-forming mechanisms that are the product of evolution. What Hester then seems to argue is that some evolutionarily delivered beliefs allow us to adjudicate other evolutionarily delivered beliefs. Further, it is taken for granted that some evolutionary beliefs selected for truth (science-like beliefs). But the weight of these claims cannot be borne by a reductionist evolutionary theory which can only reply to the self-defeat issue and maintain realism about itself by answering in an ad hoc way or by special pleading.
It could have been due to scope and time constraint issues that Craig chose to not to press Hester further on the former's epistemology. Hester referred to the term often but was very vague on how far he leaned on deontological versus externalist versus internalist theories (or some other). Not that he referred to these views in name, but at various times he clearly inferred them in his statements. For example, the scientistic notion he relied upon seemed deontological, whereas the tribal notion seemed more externalist. He later argued for a projection-based perceptual subjectivity that had some internalist overtones. This underdeveloped eclecticism undermined his claims to the rationality of his version of non-theism. Without setting forth a clear epistemic standard and showing how it is right and how theism does not meet it, Hester continually set new bars in various areas and then seemed to move the bars when it suited him. For example, in reference to his deontological epistemic bar - the duty to abandon certain beliefs in light of scientific consensus - seemed to have a great deal relativity. When exactly would it be irrational to maintain against consensus? On Hester’s view, Einstein was irrational to reject quantum indeterminacy in light of consensus, but at what point did Einstein shuck his duty? Was it when 51% of scientist affirmed it? Was it when only the most notable scientists did? Was it when a certain volume of research was published? Without a clear answer on this, it seems like there is not any good way to claim a perfectly sane man, one of the most genius in the history of physics, was irrational in rejecting quantum indeterminacy. And if this is the case, one of Hester’s own criteria for rationality is demonstrably wrong. Moreover, I am sure Hester would not want to maintain a hard line that going against scientific consensus as Einstein did in the indeterminacy case was irrational because the idea of breakthroughs and revolutions in science has always been situated in the context of going against consensus.
What was particularly striking in this dialog was not the genetic fallacy, but the ‘god of the gaps’ argument. Hester seized upon Craig’s phraseology of ‘best explanation’ in the latter’s theistic arguments and took this as a competing claim against physical science. Thus, one of Hester’s main points was that positing God as an explanation has failed as science has advanced. As physical science has progressed, explanations of phenomena that were once thought to be only within divine providence have been explained in a purely physical, mechanistic, way. This something akin to a pessimistic ‘meta-induction’, where the theist is allegedly irrational because physical science has repeatedly shown that it can succeed in narrowing down the phenomena within God’s providence, and will likely one day provide an exhaustive explanation of all physical reality and “God as an explanation for X” will be meaningless to the scientifically informed. Hester seems to argue that science continually explains in a more satisfactory way what theists assert God to explain.
Hester’s argument on the 'gaps' betrays a deep misunderstanding of any reflective theistic position; especially as argued by Craig. For instance, the theist is not saying that physics has not yet come up with a satisfactory explanation for the beginning of the universe. Rather, the theist argues that physics cannot in principle explain the coming to be of the cosmos. The unreflective physicist sees this position as anti-science because it allegedly squashes inquiry. But the theist is not squashing inquiry, he is liberating and setting the logically consistent bounds for inquiry. The theist actually saves physics from absurdity by self-contradiction and overstepping the bounds of what it can actually demonstrate, a warning which certain physicists (cough...Krauss...cough) tend to ignore.
Physics can describe the Big Bang singularity looking backward, what happened afterward, and perhaps much more. But what physics cannot do is appeal to itself to explain the fact of its own subject of study. If physical reality demonstrably came into existence, then physics cannot appeal to itself to explain its own existence on pain of contradiction and doing extreme violence to the principle of sufficient reason. Arguing the contrary would equate to a denial of P1 of the Kalam (anything that begins to exist has a cause), and would be a defacto affirmation of an eternal universe - one with no finite past.
If the totality of physical reality is what physics studies and this reality came into existence, then it cannot be within the realm of physics to explain how it came into existence. Physics cannot study what is not there, and if Big Bang cosmology is correct, there was no physical reality (e.g. nothing physical existed prior to the Big Bang, or multi-verse origin) prior to the singularity. This is the point at which the Kalam argument infers the metaphysical and why I believe Craig goes the route of abduction in his argumentation.
Per Craig, the best explanation of the coming to be of physical reality is an unimaginably powerful, uncaused (by logical implication) non-physical reality, a reality that is spaceless, timeless, and so forth. I am sure Craig would concede that there could be other explanations for the beginning of the universe. However, if the beginning of physical reality is, in fact, the case, the cause of its existence cannot be anything physical (again, on pain of contradiction). Craig argues that theism, understood as the existence of a being with certain attributes and properties, is the best explanation. It is only by gross misunderstanding or purposeful caricature of the theistic position that one can attribute ‘god of the gaps’ to the theistic arguments offered by Craig.
The non-theist of Hester’s persuasion should simply make the more logical and intellectually honest claim that the universe - or multiverse - is eternal. This is at least a consistent view, and one that some prominent non-theists have explicitly taken (e.g. Bertrand Russell). One problem with this position is the compelling evidence, which Craig and defenders of the Kalam argument show with vigor, that the research from within physical science itself points to an absolute beginning of physical reality. And by ‘absolute beginning’, the non-theist cannot punt to quantum vacuum fluctuations, a la Krauss and Hester, because the quantum vacuum is clearly not nothing. Moreover, the quantum vacuum is an implicit argument for a past eternal universe; a universe that did not come into being but has always been. What these non-theists argue in effect is the quantum vacuum just was until there was a random fluctuation that resulted in a restructured physical reality and setting us on the path to our current universe. On this view, it was never the case that something was not present. Thus, in philosophical and religious dialogue, the universe should simply be argued as eternal. An eternal universe might be scientifically problematic in light of consensus, but the position itself is much more defensible than denying P1 of the Kalam.
One thing that is very evident from Hester’s arguments is implicit scientism that avoids any metaphysical discussion. There exists in his dialogue a tacit assumption that testable, quantifiable physical reality is all that exists (or is all that is interesting or meaningful). When the theist makes metaphysical arguments, which is what theistic arguments are by definition, the scientist like Hester will not interact with them except on the plane of physics. He will only discuss them from the standpoint of quantifiable science. This type of scientist can and will only play within the bounds of what physical science alone (presently) allows. On this view, if a proposition is not reducible to quantification and testable physical hypothesis, the proposition is useless. Hester goes so far as to make this notion part of his criteria for rationality when early in the dialog he essentially defines rationality as the acceptance of a claim that is testable and successfully passes the experimental gauntlets of science. Irrationality for Hester is denial or agnosticism about something that has reached scientific consensus. Thus, he argues Einstein was irrational in rejecting quantum indeterminacy. Such a position advocated by Hester is reminiscent of Ayer and Carnap. The philosophical world has largely abandoned this type of positivism for many reasons, including futility, but it remains alive and well in some contemporary scientists like Hester and Peter Atkins.
By way of rebuttal, one might say that Hester has not explicitly stated the scientistic, positivist view and it is, therefore, uncharitable to ascribe it to him. This would be reasonable pushback if Hester had not repeatedly gone to the well of physical reductionism at every turn. It did not matter whether the subject was biological evolution (including mutation/selection algorithms), physics, or neuroscience, every aspect of his arguments was predicated on such reductionism. Without the reductionist foundation, Hester’s arguments make no sense against theism. His focus on the ultimate explanatory power of these scientific fields in eradicating theistic explanations was thorough. For Hester, whatever needs an answer will be answered by a branch of science, with physics providing the backdrop.
It is worth noting that Craig uses scientific research in support of P2 of the Kalam, and this is perhaps methodologically problematic because it might convey a flat-plane of discussion (e.g. the physical only as opposed to using the physical to lead to the metaphysical) to the scientist. It seems to allow for the scientist to assume the theist is trying to argue in an identical context as when the theist argues for a metaphysical reality which underwrites the physical reality. The theist makes an argument that there must be something metaphysically ultimate to account for physical reality.
Hester also begs the question in his own favor by framing rationality within the confines of physical science. On his view, the theist can never be rational because the theist is not making his decision about the existence of God based on anything within the physical scientific realm. The theist is not making quantifiable predictions and testing it with mathematical models so it cannot be rational. What Hester fails to realize or acknowledge is that his definition of rationality is itself pre-scientific. He foists a burden on his opponent that his own position cannot bear. It is, in fact, a philosophical position about science, how one should approach science, etc. as opposed to an output from science.
Overall, this was a very beneficial dialogue between two very bright minds in their field. It will be instructive for both sides of the debate to watch and learn from these scholars. Those hoping for a more scientifically-focused debate will probably be more pleased than those (like me) who lean heavily toward the philosophical side. I hope we see a "Part 2' of this debate in the near future. Thanks to both men for their efforts and time.