The Craig-Pigliucci Debate:
Does God Exist?

Dr. Pigliucci's Opening Speech

Thank you. First of all, let me thank a few people: the Issues Committee for inviting me here to carry out this enviable task, and the Rationalists of East Tennessee which are scattered around the room and over there at one of the tables, providing me with great support, and, of course, Dr. Craig, who has offered very valuable arguments on his count, and to all of you for coming. I realize that this is a minority position that I will explain in the next few minutes. I hope that my statements tonight and my suggestions will help you in your personal intellectual journey a little as they helped me in the past.

Let me start first of all with a disclaimer of some sort. This is a disclaimer by a philosopher named Baruch Spinoza; he used to say: "I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them." This is my position tonight. I'm not here to make fun of anybody. I'm not here to ridicule anybody. I'm simply here to state what I think is a logically self-consistent and incredibly enlightening position. I would like also to make clear tonight that my positions are actually provisional. I'm not married to any particular faith. I'm going to be married in a couple of months to a wonderful woman, but that's a different matter!

Clarification of the Term "God"

So let me start by clarifying what is it that we are actually talking about tonight and what my position is, and therefore we need to talk about the ways of science and its limits. About the limits of science: science cannot investigate negative statements, and you cannot prove negative statements, so no matter what whoever will tell you. There is no way you can prove the inexistence of something, unless you define that something by positive statements. So, for example, you can't ask me to come up with a proof of the inexistence of God without clarifying what you mean by God--it's completely impossible. That is why the atheistic position is not a position--the extreme atheistic position if you want--it's not the position that I am supporting . If you read the program, I'm defined here as a non-theistic naturalist, which, I hope , it will be clear in a minute what that means.

So what kind of God can we talk about? First of all, there are three kinds of Gods I can think of. There is a metaphysical kind of God. That's the kind of God that doesn't have any attributes, that doesn't interfere with the regular everyday life of the world. He may have created the world, but then after that he retired. That kind of God is completely unfalsifiable; science doesn't have anything to do with it, and rationalism doesn't have anything to do with it. There is no way to deny that kind of God. On the other hand, I'm pretty sure that not many people here actually believe in that kind God because it's not particularly satisfying. It doesn't do anything for us.

A second kind of God is called the imperfect anthropomorphic God. He is a God that has human attributes, or human-like attributes, but is he imperfect; he makes mistakes. The ancient Greeks were the first ones to describe this kind of God, and they even didn't believe that much about this kind of entity, simply because again if he is fallible, then he is not much better than a human being. You can think of him as a very powerful human being, but he is still a person. So we will set aside that kind of God also.

What we are talking about tonight is what we call a perfect anthropomorphic God, that is, a God that does have something to do with the everyday working of the universe, but he is perfect, he doesn't make mistakes, he's always good, he's all over the place. That is the kind of God that I think can in fact be falsified to some extent. In other words, if you believe in that kind of God, you are making positive statements about what should happen in the universe; and if you make positive statements about what could happen in the universe, then science and rational thinking can have something say about it.

Argument from Design

Let's start with the argument from intelligent design, which Dr. Craig raised at the beginning of his talk. The argument from intelligent design says that the universe is so complex that it must have had a designer; that is, if you find a watch somewhere, you know that there was a watchmaker. What science is telling you is that, well, no, that may be true for the watch, but seeing a design doesn't mean that there is a conscious, intelligent designer. Notice here that I am acknowledging that the world had been "designed." Natural selection, for example, in the case of biological evolution is definitely a designer. But it is an unconscious designer, a designer that works mechanically. It doesn't work pursuing any higher goals. So we do agree that there is a designer. The question is who is the designer or what is the designer.

One of Darwin's best arguments against the theistic position was that if you really look closely at the universe--and you don't even have to look that closely--, you'll find out that it is not perfect at all, and therefore you can question to what extent it actually reflects a designer. For example, the so called perfection of human beings has been called into question: you might know that human beings have a bizarre structure in their eye. The eye used to be a favorite example of theists. It's the kind of structure that you really cannot explain except by design. Well, it is pretty badly designed because, for example, we have blood vessels right in front of our retina, which means that under certain light conditions especially some among us see these funny little things flying all over the place across the visual field. Well, that's not a good design. Not only that, but there are organisms that are better designed. Squids, for example, have their blood vessels in the back of their eyes, so they actually see much better than we do, even though otherwise the two kinds of eyes are very similar. So my question to you is: are we better designed because God liked squids more than human beings? That seems to be the message.

Another source of bad design is the fact that most chemical reactions that occur inside everybody's bodies--humans, animals, and plants--are actually pretty inefficient, and if you ask a physicist or a chemist to do some calculations, it's pretty easy, and they will show you that the metabolism of most plants and animals, including humans, is really badly designed. It doesn't work very well, it's wasteful, it produces a lot of waste products. So if there is a designer, he's not a good designer.

Furthermore, there are other questions that a theist that believes in perfect design really has a hard time explaining. Have you ever wondered why people get hemorrhoids? Well, the reason for that is because we have this tendency to walk upright, but we are not very well designed for it, and we paid for that with several consequences, including hemorrhoids and varicose veins. So this ought to lead to the point that if there is a designer it wasn't a good one.

The general point that some scientists at least make, and I agree with them, is that the more we know about nature, the more we realize that in fact the world is the result of two things: chance, which is sometimes called historical contingency, and necessity, which is usually associated with natural selection. Therefore my position is not that we are the result of chance because chance alone, Dr. Craig is right, has no way to create such a complex structure as an ecosystem. But chance and natural selection is a different matter. Natural selection can work very effectively over longer periods of time.

God and Nature

Furthermore, it seems to me that the more we know about the mechanisms of the world, that is, the more we understand the world, the more the realm of God is being pushed back. The reason for that is, if you think about it, that in ancient times people used to evoke God as an explanation for almost everything. There was a thunder or lightning striking--well, that was Zeus that got upset with someone. That's because they didn't know where lightning was coming from. Now we know better, and we don't fault God for that kind of thing. We can now seclude him and confine him to only those things that we don't understand, the big questions that we are still answering in science, like the origin of the universe or the origin of life. But otherwise we understand better and better how things are going. After all, science has been around only a couple of hundred years. Give us some time! The more we understand, the less room there seems to be for God to exist. Now if you extrapolate just a little bit, you'll see that you have no reason for God.

In fact, this argument was presented more than a century ago by the astronomer Laplace, who was the first to present a complete theory for the origin and evolution of the solar system, a theory, by the way, that it is still considered pretty much correct. He presented his theory to the National Academy of France, and Napoleon was there. At the end of his presentation, Napoleon asked Laplace, "Monsieur Laplace, what about God?" And Laplace looked at Napoleon, and he said, "I don't need that hypothesis anymore." And there lies the key. God is a hypothesis that we formulate, that we could come up with, when we don't understand what is really going on.

Argument from Fine-Tuning

Now the current frontier of the design argument is, as Dr. Craig mentioned, the idea that the physical universe is highly improbable. The current physical universe, the one that supports life as we know it, is highly improbable. I will get into the specifics of Dr. Craig's argument probably during the my rebuttal because I want to make a few other points; but some of the main points that come to mind in responding to that kind of argument is: first of all, the fact that we don't know how something works, like we don't know how physical constants originated, is by no means a positive evidence for the existence of God. There is a non sequitur here; there is a leap in logic. The fact that we acknowledge that there are some things we don't understand does not imply at all that there was a creator. It just means that we don't know, and that's the position that any honest scientist should actually maintain.

Furthermore, how likely is the universe? Well, we don't know because this is the only universe that we have. We can speculate, it's very hard to come up with numbers--actually, it's very easy to come up with numbers, but it's hard to come up with reasonable numbers. We don't have experiments; we can't experiment with different kinds of universes that easily. So, for example, I made some calculations: I'm assuming that there are a little more than a thousand people here tonight, and I made some calculation on what was the probability that each one of these persons was going to be here tonight. Since there are about five billion people on Earth at this point, the probability is 1 in 10 raised to 1000 raised to 5 billion. That's a humongous number! So by that reasoning either somebody really conspired from the origin of our lives to get us here tonight or this event is so improbable that, I'm sorry, you have the illusion that we're here, but we're not. You see where I'm going with this.

Problems with Theism

In general what we are discussing here tonight is the difference between theism and naturalism, and I think the theist has a lot of problems which need to be addressed. One of these problems is that theism makes an unfounded and difficult-to-defend assumption: it assumes that something else exists beyond matter and energy. That might be a reasonable assumption to some people in the audience, in fact I'm sure, to most people in the audience, but think about it. You know that matter and energy exist. You don't know that something else exists beyond that, and therefore the burden of proof is not on me to demonstrate that that something does not exist; it's on Dr. Craig to demonstrate that something else exists, because we all know the matter and energy are here. If you need something else, then we need some evidence for that.

Also, answering whatever question about the origin of the universe, the origin of life, or anything else, "God did it" really is not an answer. It doesn't provide any answer whatsoever; it doesn't have any explanatory power whatsoever. Well, how did God do it, how did it work , why does it work one way and not another? Science is about not just giving an answer. I'm not going tell you that humans evolve, period. I'm going to tell you how, in what times, and what sequence of events actually is involved. There's much more detailed explanation; in fact, it is an explanation. It may not be a perfect explanation, but it is an explanation.

Another problem is what I call the infinite regression problem. Let's even assume that we do need a God or some kind of supernatural entity in order to explain the universe; well, then, the obvious following question is: where does God come from? I never could get an answer to that. And if the answer is that he was always there, that is exactly the same as saying that matter and energy were always there. There is no difference there.

Furthermore, we have already talked about the problem of negative evidence. There is a tendency on the theistic side to pick up on anything that science cannot resolve or cannot explain, at the least at the moment, as a positive evidence for the alternative explanation. That is not the way things work in rational thinking and logical thinking. You have to have your own arguments, positive arguments, to come out with an explanation. You can't just pick on anything that the other party is unable to explain, especially since part on the process of the other side is exactly to come up with explanations one at a time, and some of these explanations might fall because they're not good.

The Case for Naturalism

Furthermore, I'd like to go on to say that there are very good reasons to trust naturalism. That is the positive side of my argument. First, naturalism has predictive power. There are a lot of things that work. For example, you can switch on the lights, and the lights do come on. The reason for that is because electrons move around and exchange energy. All these things physics has explained very well, so it does work. Can you come up with a similar example of predictive power on the other side? I don't think so.

Furthermore, it works in practice. The reason you guys were able to get a car, for example, to get up here tonight is because technology works. And technology is based on naturalism. If the assumptions of naturalism were not consistent, you wouldn't have a car, you wouldn't have a TV, you wouldn't have a VCR, and all these other amenities of life. Now you might argue that we might be better off without that, but that's a different question.

Problem of Evil

There also are some serious philosophical problems with the theistic position that I really have a hard time thinking how Dr. Craig can solve them. The main problem that I see is the problem of evil. The philosopher Bertrand Russell put it very nicely, and I can hardly do better than he did , so I'm going to read pretty much verbatim his quote. "If I had ten billion years and this is all I could come up with, the universe as it is, I should be ashamed of myself." Everybody in this room can think of a much better universe with no earthquakes for one thing and no snow storms, no murders, no rapists, and so on and so forth. It's very easy to come up with one. So if this God is supposed to be all powerful and all good, why do we have this mess down here? And please don't answer that question with "The devil did it!" because the devil also was a creation of God, and so it's still his fault anyway. And I really don't see a way out of that one, unless you want to argue that creation has unintended consequences, there are things that happen in the world that God really didn't want; but then we're pulling back into the category of the personal, failing God that nobody here probably believes in.

Problems with Christianity

There's also some specific problems about Christianity. What I've said up to this point really applies to any positive definition of God. As I said, I'm not here to deny the existence of every single possible God. There are some Gods that are simply beyond any kind of speculative or scientific argument. But, for one thing, can you give me a good reason to believe in the Christian God in particular, as opposed to many other ones of the Gods that have been proposed so far? You've got ample choice there: you can believe in Zeus, you can believe in Baal, you can believe in Zoroaster--there's plenty of them! Well, why one over the other? I really can't see any particular reason for it.

Also Christianity makes some specific statements about the world and about humans. If you believe, for example, literally in the Bible (which I'm guessing Dr. Craig does not), if you really believe in the Bible, of course, you get in a bunch of problems. Science can answer that there wasn't such a thing as Noah's flood and certainly not as a world-wide event. Other things are: well, the sun never stopped anywhere in the sky because the sun doesn't move at all. It's the Earth that rotates around the sun, and so on and so forth. So there's a lot of specific statements in the Bible that simply cannot be taken literally. But even if you don't take it literally and you get some kind of general meaning, well, generally speaking, man is supposed to have fallen from somewhere, from grace supposedly. Well, evolutionary biology tells us that in fact man evolved in a positive way and is one of the most complex creatures in the world today. It's the end product of a very long process of evolution, I really see those two things in direct contradiction.

Finally, as far as Christianity in particular is concerned, there's plenty of archaeological, anthropological, and sociological evidence that Christianity is just one of several mythologies that evolved and changed throughout human history. It is a part of human culture; it can clearly be traced back to Hebrew traditions, to Babylonian traditions in Mesopotamia. A lot of the myths of Christianity are borrowed all over the place, as are other myths that we see today as to religions. Religions rise, they fall, they change, depending on their culture and social background of the populations that adopt them, and eventually they die, and then something will come up and replace them. That is the historical sequence that has happened over and over again, and I can really hardly see how anybody would look at that sequence and say, "Well, this particular sequence over here is an exception. This is not just not like another religion. It's different." Well, why, on what grounds?

The Problem of Morality

Finally, the problem of morality, which I'm sure we'll have more to say about--oh yeah, I agree with Dr. Craig when he cited Dr. Ruse, a philosopher of science. There is no such a thing as objective morality. We got that straightened out. Morality in human cultures has evolved and is still evolving, and what is moral for you might not be moral for the guy next door and certainly is not moral for the guy across the ocean, the Atlantic or the Pacific Ocean, and so on. And what makes you think that your personal morality is the one and everybody else is wrong? Now a better way of putting this is that it is not the same as to say that anything goes; it is not at all the same. What goes is anything that works; there are things that work. Morality has to work. For example, one of the very good reasons we don't go around killing each other is because otherwise the entire society as we know it would collapse and we'd become a bunch of simple isolated animals. There are animals like those.

Thank you.

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