Monday, June 21, 2010

What Exactly Does Theism Explain?

[Upon closer inspection, flaws emerge]

This blog post will get a "masochism" tag. Against all good sense I followed a link to a new collection of essays: Evidence for God: 50 Arguments for Faith from the Bible, History, Philosophy, and Science, edited by William Dembski and Michael Licona. Why do I follow such links? I don't know: I always think that maybe this time I'll read a really good argument. Invariably, I'm disappointed.

I glanced through the book's table of contents using Amazon's "Look Inside" tool, and some of the titles seemed promising. Then I read a bit of David Wood's piece, "God, Suffering, and Santa Claus: An Examination of the Explanatory Power of Theism and Atheism." From what I read, it's a deceptive piece grounded in horrible thinking. Read, for example, how Wood sets the stage for the essay:
In the previous chapter, we considered three approaches theists can take when responding to the argument from evil. The present chapter addresses a related issue--the claim that theism should be rejected because it doesn't explain or account for the presence of suffering in our world.
Wood doesn't say who makes this claim, and it's good he doesn't because the claim is quite stupid. Of course theism explains and accounts for the presence of suffering. We all know that theism has its accounting fors and explanations.

The real problem is that theism doesn't do a very good job of accounting for and explaining--and, and, and it doesn't provide evidence of sufficient quantity and quality!

Theism stinks as an answer because it explains everything all the time. The answer is always "God did it." It's as simple and definitive you can get without getting into the actual complicated details.
  • Why is there something instead of nothing? God did it.
  • Why does our world have just the right combination of conditions (i.e., fine-tuning) for life? God did it.
  • How did life on Earth begin and how did so many different and various species of animal emerge on our planet? Why, God did it!
  • How is it that people developed consciousness. Hey-na, Hey-na, God did it.
  • What about morality? Yep, God did that.
  • How do we explain miracles, smarty pants? Uh-huh, God. Checkmate.
However, "God did it" never makes a satisfactory answer and simply is not viable as an explanation. To illustrate, let's look at Wood's very first argument about the explanatory power of theism:
[T]heism explains why we have a world at all: God has the power to create, and he exercised this power in creating the world. We know scientifically that the universe had a beginning, and we know philosophically that whatever begins to exist must have a cause. Theism posits a cause powerful enough to create the universe.
I have to admit that this three-sentence argument stuns me, not only because it's woefully inadequate but also because there must be people who will find it persuasive! Let's break it down a bit:

(1a) Theism explains why we have a world at all. Big deal. On its face, this statement blandly asserts that we have a world because some god exists who preceded the world and caused it to come into being at some point in time through some means. We could replace the word "god" with "alien," "physical event" or "something" and the statement would be just as true. Just because theism makes an explanation does not mean the explanation is good or that it's accurate.

(1b) God has the power to create. Sorry to repeat myself, but big deal. I was skimming Ovid's Metamorphoses over the weekend, and his gods also had the power to create worlds. How do we know that Wood's God or Ovid's God(s) can create? What are the bases for knowing this?

(1c) And he exercised this power in creating the world. This is according to a book that's thousands of years old, a book with an oral history that precedes it for centuries and with contemporaneous analogues in neighboring cultures. But going beyond the dubious authority of the Bible, the questions of the nature of the creative power and what/how we know anything at all about it are insurmountable. It seems to me that at some point every power that we ascribe to God becomes indistinguishable from the unfolding workings of a vast natural universe operating according to laws of physics.

(2a) We know scientifically that the universe had a beginning. OK, but so what? How does this knowledge unambiguously point to one or more immortal beings preceding and causing this beginning? And what's the connection between having a beginning and being created? It's one thing to say the universe begun, but that doesn't help us figure out whether it was created, whatever "created" means.

(2b) And we know philosophically that whatever begins to exist must have a cause. This statement sounds very much like the first premise of the Kalam Cosmological Argument, championed most notably by arch-apologist William Lane Craig. The KCA purports to provide a virtually iron-clad philosophical argument for the existence of God. But consider this question: when exactly does something begin to exist? What is the defining instance--that ultra-small fraction of a fraction of a nanosecond--that constitutes the very first instance of something having begun to exist? Now I'm no philosopher, I don't pretend to be, but it seems to me that "the beginning" is a human convention rather than a natural one. Or it's at least some part conventional and some part natural. Thus, we don't know philosophically that whatever begins to exist must have a cause. We think it or we speculate about it, but we don't know it. The KCA's first premise is to me an intellectually squishy thing and surely not something upon which to base one's whole life.

(3) Theism posits a cause powerful enough to create the universe. This essentially re-states (1a), which means we've come full circle. I don't care, and neither should you, that theism posits cause A or cause B. What's the evidence for each? What's the strength of the evidence for each? How do we determine the better one?

Wood argues that "Atheists maintain that theism is a poor hypothesis because it fails to account for suffering." He further asserts that "theism accounts for a number of significant facts about our world." I have just shown that theism does not at all account for much of anything. Indeed, theism hardly accounts for itself. Theism's explanatory power stops at the first level of accounting: something caused something else to happen. Forget about accounting for suffering, theism is a poor hypothesis because it fails to account for the specifics of what it's trying to explain.

Wood also tries, deceptively, to pit theism against Atheism as two different modes of explaining facts in/about the world. This is a misrepresentation of Atheism. As a theist, Wood may see theism as attempting to explain the world. However, as an Atheist I don't ask Atheism to explain the world, and I don't use it that way. How do I "use" Atheism? I once wrote:
Atheism has something important to say about the world, our assumptions about the world, and the institutions we use to teach us about the world (including religion and science).
Atheism is commentary. What it says is not an explanation of the world but rather a determination of what makes some explanations better or worse than others. Theism and Atheism, then, are not at the same level; they are not trying to do the same things.

Atheism most decidedly is not an answer. it's rather a commitment to continue pursuing answers at their source. To me, theism's claims to have answers are very much overstated. Those of us who identify as Atheists are committed to scrutinizing theism's claims as we do all other claims, and when we find overstatement we call it out.

This, therefore, is what theists really must understand about Atheists and Atheism:

We Atheists are looking very closely at the explanations theism provides. We take theism's statements seriously. We consider these statements and want to understand them. We can and often do approach them without malice and without prejudice. But we're not going to lie and say that theism provides answers when it really doesn't. And we're not going to wink and call theism's explanations "good enough." They aren't.

I don't want to be called hostile or unfair to religion. I don't want to be thought of as someone who is blindly or heedlessly contemptuous of religion and religious beliefs. The fact is that I'm considering theism's arguments earnestly, and these arguments fail badly every time. They just don't work.

What's an honest and good person to do?


  1. Edited by Dembski, eh? You might be interested to read Dembski's account of the course he teaches under the title "Critical Thinking" at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (quotation from the course syllabus, which is available as a PDF file here):

    Course Description:

    How do we get people to believe things? This course examines the means by which we convince ourselves and others that something is true. Of special interest here are the pitfalls to logical thinking that prevent us from coming to the truth.

    Course Objective:

    The goal of this course is to help students become adept at making a persuasive case for the truth of the Christian worldview.

    "Critical thinking" as understood by Dembski is the art of inducing, in oneself and in others, belief in Christian doctrines. Anything that impedes such belief is a "pitfall to logical thinking." In other words, Dembski uses the term "critical thinking" as a deceptive label for indoctrination.

    The dishonesty of Dembski's approach does not end there. One of the three books required for the course is called The 48 Laws of Power. The description of the book on includes the first four laws:

    Law 1 - Never outshine the master. Law 2 - Never put too much trust in friends; learn how to use enemies. Law 3 - Conceal your intentions. Law 4 - Always say less than necessary.

    So Dembski gives the name of "critical thinking" to an art of persuasion in the service of predetermined conclusions and uses a book on the acquisition of power through manipulation and concealment as a text in his course on the subject. In this light, the fact that the one piece that you sampled from his collection turns out to be "a deceptive piece grounded in horrible thinking" is hardly surprising.

  2. MKR -

    That is very interesting. What if we changed the course objective a bit?

    The goal of this course is to help students become adept at making a persuasive case for the truth of the socialist worldview.

    The goal of this course is to help students become adept at making a persuasive case for the truth of the Islamic worldview.

    The goal of this course is to help students become adept at making a persuasive case for the truth of the Mormon worldview.

    The goal of this course is to help students become adept at making a persuasive case for the truth of the Vegan worldview.

    Believe me, I'm not surprised at the deception and bad reasoning of Wood's article. I'm not shocked that a book edited by Dembski would contain such tripe.

    I realize I used a small sample from Wood's essay, but I also tried (1) to give proper context and (2) to focus on an item that Wood would consider a strength. For example, his "something from nothing" argument is the very first one he gives, so I assume he thinks it's a slam-dunk case for him. And Wood gets two chapters in this book--so someone must think highly of him.

    What I am surprised about is that these people seem incapable of conducting an honest debate. And what I cannot determine is whether they do it to make money, to protect their pride, or to accomplish some other goal.

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