Craig, Carroll and the Limits of Cosmology

by David Glass and Graham Veale

There’s much to admire about Sean Carroll. Obviously, he has an extraordinary intellect. His remarkable communication skills, and his infectious enthusiasm for physics, were clearly evidenced in his debate with William Lane Craig. Carroll has graciously, yet carefully, distanced himself from New Atheists. He does not regard theists as “the enemy” and acknowledges that he might learn something from religious traditions. Yet he remains firm in his atheism. After his debate with Craig he wrote:

“I think I mostly reached my primary goal of explaining why many of us think theism is undermined by modern science, and in particular why there is no support to be found for it in modern cosmology.”

It is true that Carroll did a wonderful job of explaining why many scientists think that theism is undermined by modern science; unfortunately, while his arguments give some substance to the prejudices of the Western academy, they remain unpersuasive.

By his own account, one of Carroll’s central arguments was that:

[T]heism is not taken seriously in professional cosmological circles because it is hopelessly ill-defined (no matter what happens in the universe, you can argue that God would have wanted it that way).

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Now anyone who has waded through articles in analytical philosophy of religion will be surprised at Carroll’s claim that theism is “hopelessly ill defined”. A great deal of effort has been expended to clarify the meaning of God and exploring the precise nature of properties like omniscience.

However, Carroll’s point seems to be that theism lacks the mathematical precision of a cosmological model. If so, he has made a significant, and rather obvious, mistake: we are comparing the rationality of naturalism and theism, neither of which is a scientific model. Naturalism and theism are worldviews. Each has a scope much wider and deeper than any scientific model or theory. For example, each asks questions like: “why does the observable world behave with such law-like regularity?”; “why can we describe the world using mathematical models?”; “is there more to the world than the quantifiable and observable?” Simply asking these questions reveals that they cannot be answered with a mathematical model.

Indeed, naturalism is notoriously difficult to define. At its roots it contends that “nature” is all that exists. Beyond that, things get murkier. What exactly do we mean by “nature”? Can a naturalist believe that consciousness is an emergent state, radically unlike anything that exists in physics or biology? Can naturalism allow that moral and aesthetic values exist in some Platonic realm? The jury is out…

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