This video, a recent debate in London between philosopher Anthony Grayling and Rabbi Daniel Rowe, was sent to me by reader Mark, who made this comment:
I have to admit to finding the prospect of an orthodox rabbi holding his own in a debate with Dr. Grayling on God’s existence rather disheartening, but I’m afraid that’s exactly what went down the other night in London.
Knowing Anthony, I was dubious, but I have to say that having watched the debate, I see that Mark is right.
First, a bit about the debate from the YouTube description:
J-TV: The Global Jewish Channel hosted its very first live event with a debate on the existence of God between Professor AC Grayling and Rabbi Daniel Rowe. AC Grayling is known as the “fifth horseman of atheism”, having written many books and articles on the atheism. Rabbi Daniel Rowe completed a postgraduate in the philosophy of mathematics. The two went head-to-head amidst a packed hall.
And here it is. The Q&A from the audience begins about 55 minutes in, so you can skip the last 20 minutes if you’re pressed for time.
The reason that Grayling didn’t crush Rowe was based on one thing: Anthony wasn’t up on the responses of physicists to the “fine tuning” and “first cause” arguments for God. The rabbi made three arguments:
- You can’t get a universe from nothing; there is a “law” that everything that begins has a cause. Ergo, God. In response to Krauss’s book about how you can get a universe from a quantum vacuum, Rowe responded, as do many theologians, that “nothing” is not a quantum vacuum—it’s just “nothing.”
I’ve heard this many times, and what strikes me is that theologians never define what they mean by “nothing”. Empty space, the quantum vacuum, isn’t nothing, they say so what is? In the end, I’ve realized that by “nothing,” theologians mean “that from which only God could have produced something.” At any rate, the “law of causation” doesn’t appear to hold in modern physics, and is not even part of modern physics, which has no such law. Some events really do seem uncaused.
Also, Rowe didn’t explain how one can get a god from nothing. Theologians like him always punt at this point, saying that God is the Cause that Didn’t Require a Cause, because He Made Everything. But that is bogus. What was God doing before he made something? Hanging around eternally, bored out of his mind?
The next two contentions of Rowe are basically appeals to ignorance: God of the gaps arguments. Grayling did note this, but should have given a fuller response. Rowe:
- We don’t understand why the Universe is orderly and why the laws of physics are the same everywhere. Clearly the only answer is that those laws were made by God to create a designed universe in which life could exist.
- The “fine-tuning” argument shows that the parameters of the Universe are such that only slight deviations from some of the constants of physics would have made the existence of life impossible. Therefore the Creator was the Fine Tuner.
In response to the third argument, Grayling’s response is weak: the chances that his grandparents would have met, calculated a priori, were also very low. But it happened, and he is here.
That’s not a great response because it’s not addressing the fine-tuning argument but asserting the Weak Anthropic Principle. The former argument asks the harder question: why are the parameters of physics such that only a slight alteration of some of them would make life impossible? And why are the physical constants as they are?
We don’t know the answer to this, though religionists, taking advantage of scientific ignorance, say, “See, there must have been a God!” But physicists have grappled with this problem, and I discuss their responses in Faith versus Fact. One response is that the physical constants may not, if varied, be as rigid as we think in permitting life: we just don’t know. Another may be that there is a deeper reason for these physical constants to take their values, and we don’t know that deeper reason. Finally, the constants may vary in different universes if there is a multiverse system, and we live in one of those lucky universes.
It’s useful for everyone who encounters these arguments—and they are now the default argument of the Sophisticated Theologians™ because they sound so daunting—to know how physicists respond to them. If you don’t have FvF on hand, I suggest Sean Carrolls’ fine essay, “Does the Universe need God?“, also published in The Blackwell Companion to Science and Christianity.
Near the end of the debate, Grayling asks the important question: “If there was a creator, how do you know that it was the creator described by the Abrahamic religions?” I’d add, “How do you know that your creator was beneficent rather than malicious?” “And how do you know that God, after making the laws of physics, didn’t abscond and become a deistic god rather than a theistic one who still interacts with his creation?” The rabbi has no answer.
The Q&A session had one interesting question: when Rabbi Rowe is asked, at 1:05:00, how he knows that his religion, Judaism, is the “correct” religion. His answer is lame, in fact, he ducks answering completely (to be fair, he had only 90 seconds to answer). But his response is basically this: “Well, I’ve proved that there was a creator, and it would be stupid to think it was a rabbit, wouldn’t it?” But how one goes from Not a Rabbit to Yahweh and Moses defies me!
At any rate, it’s time to bone up on the fine tuning argument, and the argument for God from the constancy of the “laws” of physics.