The Splinter of Naturalism: A Commentary on the Craig vs. Carroll Debate

Dear Readers, 

Last Friday evening, Dr. William Lane Craig debated Dr. Sean Carroll on the topic of “The Existence of God in Modern Cosmology.” Several apologetics websites have offered comprehensive summaries and judgments on the debate, but I wanted Science, Reason, & Faith to make a more philosophical, reflective contribution to the accumulating post-debate analyses. This post, from guest writer Ken Mann, fits the bill perfectly. Enjoy! 


The Splinter of Naturalism

by Ken Mann

I had a horrible dream last night. I was sitting on a leather chair in a dimly lit room. I felt confused and bewildered, and I had no idea why I was there. I barely knew my own name. Then Morpheus from The Matrix sauntered into the room and slowly sat down across from me. As if he read my mind, he began to answer my question.

“Let me tell you why you are here. You have come because you know something. What you know you can’t explain but you feel it. You’ve felt it your whole life, felt that something is wrong with the worldview of many scientists. You don’t know what, but it’s there like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad. It is this feeling that brought you to me. Do you know what I’m talking about?”

Almost as if someone else were speaking, I responded, “philosophical naturalism.”[1]

Forgive my brief foray into writing fiction, but I did have a dream about the debate between William Lane Craig and Sean Carroll, “God and Cosmology: The Existence of God in Modern Cosmology.” When I awoke this morning I could not shake that “splinter” left from trying to see a coherent picture of reality from Dr. Carroll’s presentation.

What I want to offer here is not an analysis of the debate but an assessment of the philosophical dynamics that were at work. As someone interested in philosophy of science and apologetics, I am familiar with some of the topics and material that were covered in the debate. The working familiarity I have with big bang cosmology, which goes a little deeper than a popular understanding, was useless in


the onslaught of terms like “de sitter space” and “Boltzmann brains.” It would be fair to say that in terms of arguing cosmological theories and esoteric mathematics, Carroll and Craig talked completely past each other and over the heads of the most audience.

All that being said, I was not alarmed or even slightly concerned about anything Dr. Carroll had to say. Dr. Craig may have completely misrepresented Dr. Carroll’s work (although I very much doubt that to be the case). In terms of the debate’s topic, “Does modern cosmology support the existence of God?” Dr. Carroll had nothing to say. Rather he sought to use this influential forum to dismiss theism as a viable approach to reality. What I want to share for the remainder of this post are three reasons why Christian theism has nothing to fear in what Dr. Carroll had to say.

The limits of philosophical naturalism. First, we need to remind ourselves of the limits of philosophical naturalism. This view, also known as materialism, claims that the physical universe or cosmos, regardless of how it began, is in the words of Carl Sagan, “… all that is, or ever was, or ever will be.” Scientism, a necessary bedfellow of naturalism, claims that the physical sciences are an exhaustive source of knowledge. Science, despite the assertions of naturalists like Dr. Carroll, cannot explain all aspects of reality. There are huge swaths of human experience that are outside the reach of the physical sciences. This is what one learns from studying metaphysics and the philosophy of science.

 However there is an even deeper problem with scientism that I would like to explain. When considering a discipline like physics, naturalism is more deeply entrenched by way of mathematics. Physics is almost entirely an exercise in abstract, sometimes very abstract, higher mathematics that takes years of college and graduate education to grasp, let alone master. The “miracle” of modern science is that the physical world can be understood via mathematics. Fields like quantum mechanics and general relativity have been empirically verified to an astounding level of precision.

The success of many such fields of science has fostered a worldview, within physics especially, that the equations of physics do more than describe physical reality. They are reality. In other words, mathematical equations are no longer the tools of a physical theory; they take on a metaphysical significance of their own. What is real? Whatever the equations say is real.

This becomes problematic when discussing cosmology because the two most verified theories in physics, quantum mechanics and general relativity, cannot as yet be reconciled. Quantum theory focuses on the very small, while general relativity focuses on the very large and fast. In the earliest moments[2] of the universe, there is no theory that can reconcile quantum mechanics and general relativity. It is believed that some new theory, which has not been invented, is needed to explain both theories or the transition between their respective domains.

It seems reasonable to ask the question: how can two different descriptions of reality both be true? Isn’t therefore possible, that quantum mechanics and general relativity are merely useful descriptions of reality in their respective domains, but not literal descriptions. In other words, perhaps science, by its own standards of success and outstanding problems, cannot completely describe reality.

Another significant point needs to be made about the metaphysical significance physicists attach to equations and the overall project of physics itself. Sciences in their purest form seek explanations of reality that correspond with the data that can be observed. The best theories not only explain existing data, but also make predictions for phenomena not yet observed. What happens when the phenomena in question, in principle, cannot be observed? Many of the bleeding edge theories of cosmology are impossible to measure or observe, multiverses and string theory being two examples.[3]

Yet despite his admission that cosmologists are still searching for better theories of the origin of the universe, Dr. Carroll still believes that whatever equations they come up will correctly and exhaustively describe the universe. Given the limits of experimental verification, one can only assume that Dr. Carroll’s confidence is in the empirical track record of physics. A track record that is threatened by the very field he studies.

An Inability to Grasp Distinctions. A second observation that undermined Dr. Carroll’s varied attacks on theism is that he seemed unable (or unwilling) to see important distinctions between theology, science and philosophy. For example, he claimed that there are “thousands” of definitions of theism (a claim he did not justify). Yet he claimed that theism makes specific predictions about the nature of reality. How can something that is not defined make specific predictions that naturalism can refute? Further, the predictions he attributed to the “thousands” of definitions to theism had nothing to do with any theistic view of the world I have ever heard. In this vein he put forward several sophomoric straw-men views of Christian theism. For example, humanity is insignificant because of our size relative to the universe. Another is that the universe is not perfect (as naturalist define perfect), therefore God could not created it.

Dr. Carroll dismissed the Bible and the cosmological argument because they do not offer any specific scientific information. This category error goes along with his avoidance of the debate’s central question. Theism (found in the Bible) and the cosmological argument (philosophy) are not science. They are simply domains of knowledge that are consistent with modern cosmology in terms of the origins of the universe (it began, it had a cause, the cause transcended nature, etc.).

Credibility. My third point refers to credibility. Even if you haven’t completely followed what I have said above, I can assure you that outside of the science of cosmology, you don’t have to worry about anything Dr. Carroll has to say. How, you may ask, can I make such a bold statement? Because he lacks credibility in theology, philosophy and worldview analysis, as I have attempted to explain in this post. Further, one can establish this lack of credibility by simply looking at curriculum vitae. He is obviously an eminent astronomer and physicist, but he does not appear to have ever studied philosophy or theology. Finally, one must simply recognize that his assessment of those disciplines is forever veiled by his commitment to naturalism.


[2] Sometimes referred to as Planck time or 10-43 seconds.

[3] Brian Greene in The Elegant Universe, commenting on the difficulty associated with making observations within string theory wrote, “As the Planck length is some 17 orders of magnitude smaller than what we can currently access, using today’s technology we would need an accelerator the size of the galaxy to see individual strings.” (p. 215)