Atheist philosopher and scientist Daniel Dennett is one of the “four horsemen” of the new atheist movement. Dennett is one of the more popular atheist writers of our day, and unlike Richard Dawkins, is trained in philosophy and is supposed to know how to structure an argument. A Youtube clip has a recording of Dennett speaking against Christian apologist and philosopher William Lane Craig. In the recording, Dennett says:
Let us suppose for the sake of argument that one of the cosmological arguments that he presents does favor the conclusion that the cause of the universe is a timeless, changeless, abstract, immatterial…..whatever. At that point we have no idea what that might be. But whatever it is, it’s the cause of the universe. Maybe it’s the idea of an apple. Maybe its the square root of seven. But no, he says, it’s nothing like that, because abstract things can’t cause things. Who says? Who says abstract things can’t cause things? My favorite example of an abstract thing causing things is the principle of triangulation so that when you want to keep your house from [moving], you put a triangular piece on and tack it down and thanks to the rigity of triangles you create a rigid structure. It seems causal. It’s quite wonderful the effect of tacking that extra piece on and making the triangle and now we have got a rigid figure. It’s euclidian geometry, an abstract principle being invoked in a causal way. But you say ‘that’s not really causation.’ Okay, it’s something like causation.
Now Daniel Dennett is a very bright man. I suspect much brighter than his arguments here show, for surely he himself would not stand for such poor responses if they were invoked by someone with which he disagreed. First, if we indeed grant, even for the sake of argument, that the cause of the universe is timeless, changeless, and immaterial — and the other properties that Craig puts after his Kalam Cosmological argument — then we do indeed know some things. If we assume this was Craig’s argument, then Dennett knows full well that Craig includes personal and volitional in his list of attributes, and neither concepts of apples nor square roots fit this position. Portraying Craig’s argument as possibly including abstract ideas is not a fair representation of Craig’s position, a rather large and obvious straw man.
Second, Dennett proposes the idea of the concept of a triangle, but then includes a carpenter building a triangle to support a house, and holds that the concept of the triangle “seems causal.” A man as trained as Dennett has no excuse in missing this one, for inserting an agent (the carpenter) into the argument is much different than what Craig describes. In fact, desptite Dennett’s assertion, the concept of a triangle does not ‘seem causal.’ What seems causal is the carpenter deciding to build a house. The concept of a triangle does not cause the house to be rigid; rather, the boards do. Further, the Kalam argument is with things beginning to exist, not something being rearranged into a shape. Dennett has not demonstrated that an abstract is a causal agent, nor has he shown that Craig’s argument ends in an abstract in the first place.
One can only conclude that Dennett’s passion to avoid the obvious cause of the universe, God, has clouded his judgment.
NOTE: (added 10/19/12): What Dennett does not mention at all is the classical concept of distinction between causes. In his house example, the wood is a material cause of the house, the triangular design is the exemplar cause of the house, and the carpenter is the efficient cause of the house. The carpenter’s tools are the instrumental cause of the house. Of all people, a philosopher should know this, for it is standard causal theory going all the way back to Aristotle, and used periodically throughout philosophy to explain things just such as this. In Craig’s Kalam Cosmological argument, he is looking for the efficient cause of the universe. But even if we distinguish between the exemplar cause of the universe, it would still lead us to God, unless, I suppose, one was a strict Platonist, and believed there was a form of the universe that existed prior to the actual creation of the universe, which would generate more problems than it solved.