Response to a Debate at Southeastern Bible College

Just saw a debate last Friday on the campus of Southeastern Bible College between Christian philosopher Doug Geivett (Talbot Theological Seminary) and atheist philosopher Bruce Russell (Wayne State University) over the existence of God. It was a very interesting debate, I feel like it was conducted with a good, gracious spirit by both sides and that it was fairly evenly matched.

Geivett’s strongest part of the debate was the exchange over the Problem of Evil.

Russell attempted to argue that there is an excessive amount of evil in the world, suggesting that God does not exist. Geivett replied with the typical rejoinder that it is beyond our ability to know whether or not there is an excessive amount of evil and thus this is unintelligible claim.

I think that reply is persuasive. I will note, however, that there was an interesting point in the discussion in which they agreed that the persuasiveness of the argument rested on the likelihood in other terms of God’s existence. If we are convinced that there are good reasons to think that God exists, then we are likely to accept Geivett’s claim that we cannot know whether or not their is excessive evil. On the other hand, if we are not convinced that there are good reasons to believe in God’s existence, then the amount of evil in the world is more likely to seem excessive for a world in which God might exist.

The most interesting part of the debate was the exchange over the cosmological argument.  I think Russell won this part of the debate quite solidly.

The cosmological argument for God’s existence runs like this: The universe has a beginning. This event, like all other events, has to have a cause. However, for it to have a spatial-temporal cause would only require another cause, and so on, for an infinite chain. Therefore, it must have a cause that is atemporal and aspatial and yet still capable of causing a temporal and spatial event. We infer from this the existence of a creator.

I have long been suspicious of this argument for two main reasons:

First, I’m not sure (and the way I’ve sketched this argument I hope demonstrates this) that this argument really describes anything resembling the Christian God. There is certainly nothing in this argument that demands an intelligent or personal being (though some have claimed such, I think mistakenly). There is nothing that even requires that the creator to be a living being. So I think that frequently more is drawn from this argument than is actually implied.

My second reason for being suspicious of this argument is that it assumes (like many similar arguments for God) a particular scientific/metaphysical paradigm that is not universally accepted. The success of this argument depends on both sides of the argument sharing the presupposition that the universe has a temporal and spatial beginning. However, many physicists no longer hold to a big-bang model of the universe’s existence, instead advocating belief in an eternal universe. Once this difference in presupposition exists, the argument becomes worthless without another argument demonstrating that the scientific/metaphysical paradigm this argument depends on is accurate.

Neither of these critiques were brought up by Russell. Instead, Russell used the concept of an atemporal being to critique the argument and I believe show it to be self-defeating.

His response is basically this: an atemporal being is one that has no experience of time, it simply exists. Thus, there can be no change in the existence of an atemporal being. So if there is an atemporal being that wills to be (and is) a creator, then this being is constantly and always willing to create and is constantly/always creating. This would then seem to indicate that there is no time boundary to this beings creation because it is perpetually or eternally being created (these words aren’t quite adequate because they are themselves temporal words). Which means that there seems to be a contradiction in the cosmological argument: the beginning of the universe requires an atemporal creator. But an atemporal creator creates a universe with no beginning!

I think it is open to Christians (such as myself) to respond to this one of two ways:

First, we can agree with what Russell is saying and claim that the universe indeed has no beginning. I honestly don’t see this as especially problematic, but its certainly not the traditional Christian view.

Or, second, we agree that this shows that there is a significant problem with the argument, but we claim the problem can be solved by making a different claim- the creator does not have to be atemporal, it can be a temporal being (though this potentially introduces the new difficulty of having to explain an infinite chain of causes). Again, this is not a traditional Christian view, and again, its not one I have any discomfort with (though this approach will have larger ramifications on our theology because of the implications it has for questions such as divine immutability or knowledge).

Either way, I think Russell has shut down the traditional cosmological argument, a realization that unfortunately for Geivett did not occur during the course of the debate.


What do you think? I would love to hear from you, please share your thoughts. Just remember to be respectful of others.

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