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Common Sense on Ultimate Explanations

Luke, the wunderkind over at Common Sense Atheism, continues to be a tremendously salutary voice in the online conversation about God. Recently, Luke set out to kill a sacred cow, “one of atheism’s most popular and resilient retorts”, namely: “Who designed the designer?”. This, he argues, simply is not a defeater to theistic arguments. I should add, what he offers with one hand, he takes with the other. “The problem with offering ‘God did it’ as an explanation is that such an explanation has low plausibility, is not testable, has poor consistency with background knowledge, comes from a tradition (supernaturalism) with extreme explanatory failure, lacks simplicity, offers no predictive novelty, and has poor explanatory scope.” But returning to the more common objection, Luke points out 1) that we accept unexplained explanations in science, and 2) that if every explanation must be explained to count as an explanation, we end in an infinite regress and nothing is ever explained. It is the nature of the case that some explanations must be ultimate explanations. Both of Luke’s points are well taken, and echo the responses offered by William Lane Craig and other theists to this common rejoinder. However, throughout, Luke characterizes the supposed conclusions to the natural theologian’s premises as simply: “God did it”. Luke undoubtedly knows that this is an oversimplification of such arguments when they are carefully articulated, that much like postulates in physics, their conclusions are of the form: some entity x exists with property p. We’ll give it the name y. I do not mean to nitpick, and I understand the use of shorthand, but this distinction is critical in evaluating the appropriateness of a given explanation, the very subject matter of the post. My attempt at a constructive response follows.

A great post, Luke. I have a bone to pick, but first agreement. It’s true and often frustrating, in scientific and philosophical endeavors alike, that the efforts to find ultimate explanations turn up all manner of primitives, brutes, givens, and postulates that defy further analysis. In some cases, these may be considered stop signs, in others, merely a yield. But, it cannot be elephants all the way down. Or, as Lewis pointed out, seeing through every veil is equivalent to seeing nothing. So, it is right, in principle, to allow ultimate explanations, though we should not be too hasty in conferring that status.

That being said, I think your shorthand use of “God did it” as the supposed conclusion of the arguments of natural theology is an unfortunate mischaracterization, especially considering the question at hand of appropriate explanation. These arguments, when carefully articulated, are indeed closely analogous to the forms of reasoning in theoretical physics: because of e, some entity x must exist with property p; we’ll give it the name y. The unseen postulate in such an argument is ascribed only the property or properties implicated by e, say a charge of -1. Likewise, as far as the argument goes, the careful theist will be content with stipulating only the properties that follow. That is why we have all those terms of art like “an uncaused cause”, “an unmoved mover”, “a designer”, “a necessary being”, etc.

If the theist has been appropriately modest in their conclusion, the question that you suggest should be asked instead — “Why is God the best explanation for that?” — will be answered by a return to the argument to see if it is valid sound. For, in that case, “God” is just y, the name he gave for x with property p, and the argument is supposed to have shown that such an entity must exist to explain e. “God” is a freighted term, and I don’t mean to deny that calling y “God” is bound to conjure up more than the argument is purported to demonstrate. But at least in academic philosophy of religion, I find that as a rule, care is taken to proscribe the entailments of a given argument. (Of course, if it needs to be said, if x is taken to be the God of Abraham, additional legwork will be required.)

By the way, if the slaughterhouse is still open, it may be time to give your tagline from Roberts another look (bit.ly/aIAtRG). Luke, you are a much appreciated voice in the conversation about ultimate reality from both sides of the aisle. No small feat. Thanks, and keep up the good work.


Luke responds …

The question “Why is God the best explanation for that” comes in at
one or another premise of the argument. For example, Craig’s version of
the teleological argument:

  1. The fine-tuning of the universe to support life is either due to law, chance or design.
  2. It is not due to law or chance.
  3. Therefore, the fine-tuning is due to design.

Here, the “Why is design the best explanation?” comes in to cast doubt on premise #2.

In the Kalam argument, this question comes into play on premise 4,
which seeks to establish that God is the cause of the universe. Or,
here is Craig’s moral argument:

  1. If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist.
  2. Objective moral values do exist.
  3. Therefore, God exists.

Here, our best explanation question comes into play on premise 1.

(I use Craig’s versions because they are short and syllogistic.)

Also, re: [Roberts’] quote at the top of my page, see here


A Further Comment

Luke, you’re quite right that in the abbreviated form of Craig’s moral argument, the move to “God” begs questions. In Craig’s case, unless he’s debating Shelly Kagan, he will be ready to provide the supplementary premises. For many others, including myself (who concedes the force of Euthyphro), it will be a struggle. Nonetheless, I think the arguments of natural theology more often conform to the outline I suggested above. For example, Craig’s version of the Kalam leads to some entity x with the property of personhood or agency.

Thanks for the link to your take on the Stephen Henry Roberts’ quote. Your principled objection to epistemic double standards is a bracing and worthy challenge. And, I might add (as you do), that no view is immune, as when belief in God is psychologized or located in the brain without noting the self-referential implications for not believing. I’ll be adding some engagement with your thoughts in my own essay on the “one less god” idea. Regards.