Questions I Can’t Answer are So Unfair!

boy_child_119488After arguing against the all-too-common straw man of “the theistic hypothesis”, Mackie takes an interesting turn in his argument against design in the universe. He continues his discussion of Hume’s Dialoges, claiming that alternate explanations of apparent design are more valid and, of all things, accusing theists of taking an unfair approach.

Of course, theists often do take an unfair approach, but the idea he criticizes seems to me to be perfectly fair. Mackie points out that there are any number of explanations for the appearance of design in the universe. The regularity of the solar system, the biological features of this or that species, etc. can all be explained without reference to God.

So long as we’re discussing science, I completely agree. However, Mackie eventually gets to the idea that the initial conditions of the universe must have allowed for the regularities on which these things depend, and begins to struggle to offer a plausible alternative.

Failing to present an alternative, he relies instead on criticizing the argument itself. He doesn’t challenge any premise on any argument regarding the fine-tuning of the universe. Instead, he claims that the whole idea requires that the cause of the universe envisaged current designs–rather than simply causing them.

Surely, these arguments lead eventually to that conclusion, but Mackie is claiming that the arguments simply demand this from the beginning. I’ve read a great deal on fine-tuning arguments, and have never encountered one that requires any such thing. Rather, they tend to present design as the best explanation for the fine-tuning, but there is nothing about the premises of the arguments that require orderly systems to be envisaged. And I have no idea why Mackie thinks otherwise.

But he also makes a more interesting objection. That is, he claims that, since the initial conditions of the universe (whatever they end up being) will explain why life and other orderly systems can exist, then it is too much to wonder why those conditions, and not others, were the case. That is, these conditions explain the state we’re in, and we’d be overloading the explanation to ask why the potential for this state was in those conditions. As such, Mackie insists that we simply not ask this question.

Indeed. We would be overloading that explanation for the very simple reason that it isn’t good enough.

The fact that the conditions of early Earth explain why it is hospitable to life does not answer the question “what caused those conditions to be what they are?”. I think Mackie would agree that replying with “they caused life, and it’s unfair to want an explanation as to how they might have come to be such that they could cause life” as a valid response.

But this is precisely his argument with respect to the universe.

And this fits into what seems to be a larger pattern. The origin of the universe is the single most obvious (to materialists) problem with materialism. When issues surrounding it are raised, the materialist’s response always seems to be a variation on “let’s not answer that question”.

But, so long as one is allowed to dismiss the questions that one’s worldview can’t answer, then there is never any real consideration going on. The only thing left to do is drop the pretense that we’re giving theism a fair hearing.

But Mackie has more to say about the argument for design. I’ll continue with that next.

9 responses to “Questions I Can’t Answer are So Unfair!

  • Arkenaten

    The fact that the conditions of early Earth explain why it is hospitable to life does not answer the question “what caused those conditions to be what they are?”

    the materialist’s response always seems to be a variation on “let’s not answer that question”.

    Well, I cannot speak for other atheists, but I will try to answer and my response is this:

    Neither the atheist or the theist can answer this question.
    This is fact.
    The difference in position is this:

    The atheist states, “We’ll continue to investigate. Science has done okay so far.”

    The theist states. “God did it.”

    I cannot demonstrate a god didn’t and have no proof – yet.

    All the atheist asks of the theist is: You seem so certain or at least consider you have enough evidence to state god did it. Please, let us see the evidence. Are you willing to demonstrate ?

    I for one will consider anything you have.

    • Debilis

      I’m not sure how this is different from another variation on “let’s not answer that question”.

      No, the theist doesn’t state “God did it”, there are a host of inquiries and answers that could be offered by theists (and have been).

      And that is the problem. The theists have offered answers, and it is no good simply to dismiss these answers by saying “We’ll continue to investigate”. Continuing to investigate means addressing the answers that are already on the table.

    • Frank Morris

      Ark, you say you can’t demonstrate anything “…yet”.

      What you are demonstrating here is known as “promissory materialism”, which is just another excuse to avoid science by claiming that someday somebody will think of something that validates their religious beliefs in atheism. So, they say, we should reject everything science says until it DOES align with their religious views.

      That entire approach is just another refusal to accept science as it is. The facts are what they are… now. The idea of something else coming along later to change things, is entirely in your wishful thinking, not reality. We are open minded to possible future findings, but to imagine that they already are a reality is denial of reality.

      Take the word “yet” off of your statement, and you get a better picture of where New Atheists stand on this issue (and many others): You can’t demonstrate anything and have no proof of anything.

      You are merely asking that science be rejected in favor of your religious beliefs.

      • Arkenaten

        Are you trolling my comments, Frank?

        What are you taking about or attempting to demonstrate.

        I reject religion and accept science.

        If one considers all previous scientific unknowns that were attributed to some form of religious cause /intervention then ”yet” is perfectly acceptable,

        The argument Goddidit is a steaming pile of horse apples.

        At least ”I don’t know” is honest.

        You are merely asking that science be rejected in favor of your religious beliefs.

        I have no religious beliefs.

  • Arkenaten

    I’m not sure how this is different from another variation on “let’s not answer that question”.

    Well, firstly, what you have written in speech marks is not a direct quote and as far as I am aware this not the position of any atheist. [Off-topic personal remark removed]

    That no atheist ( I have ever heard or read) will concede there is 100% certainty that there is no god/creator should be enough [personal comment removed] to realise your statement is false. We merely say the evidence (answers) presented so far does not justify the theist’s claim.

    [Off-topic comments, demands, and perusal remarks removed]

    In conclusion. Science never stops inquiring. Be grateful for that, otherwise we would be conducting this conversation by ”snail mail” and both of us might well have died of old age already.

    [Off-topic comments removed]

    • Debilis

      I’ve trimmed this down to the on-topic comments.

      The others were both irrelevant and betrayed a terrible understanding of what theists actually believe.

      But, getting to the point, this isn’t about 100% certainty. I’m not claiming to be that certain, either. Rather, I’m claiming that we should give the best answer we can to the question; this is what those who advance inquiry (including scientists) do all the time.

      In most contexts, the New Atheists are willing to accept an uncertain answer as probably true. But here the demand isn’t that we accept the reasonable claim, but keep in mind that it isn’t 100% certain. That would be fine. The demand is that we simply not accept any answer at all–and therefore avoid answering the question.

      Hence, while they don’t tend to use that phrase “let’s not answer the question” is exactly what the group is doing. I don’t see an answer to it (other than my own) in the comments, as a case in point.

      I am grateful that science doesn’t stop inquiring. But I simply don’t know what that is supposed to mean (I nearly deleted it as off-topic but decided to give you the benefit of the doubt). Does that somehow refute the idea that we accept the most reasonable answer until a more reasonable one comes along?

      That definitely runs counter to how science has always operated.

      • Arkenaten

        Your continual use of the term New Atheists is beginning to sound like a pejorative. Is it necessary?

        I have never said it is about 100% certainty either, but where we differ is you ( as a theist) consider it is reasonable to assume a creator is behind the universe.

        I disagree, and no theist has ever offered reasonable evidence for this beyond the Creation – therefore Creator argument. Though it has been proffered over the centuries in a myriad of different philosophical terms.

        Theists consider this reasonable enough to defend their position, and a Christian such as yourself will then go on to state that this Creator is Jesus of Nazareth, citing a similar “plausible argument” for the resurrection.
        Even if I were to accept this plausible argument how is it possible to jump from a resurrected human being to a god/creator of the universe?

        This transcends every scientific boundary.

        And if not for faith how do arrive at the conclusion this is even plausible, let alone fact?

        • Debilis

          Apologies if that term sounds pejorative. I really only meant to distinguish the group from all atheists. Is there a term for the fans of Professor Dawkins that you’d prefer?

          I don’t know that I consider it reasonable to assume a creator, but I definitely think that theism is a reasonable conclusion (given certain arguments, of course).

          But I’m aware that you disagree, and that you cite the lack of reasonable evidence. I’ve been rounds with many people trying to get a definition of “reasonable evidence”, and have never been given one.

          As such, I thought it best to see what reasonable evidence there is for your view. That would give me an idea of what you consider to be reasonable evidence.

          So far, I’ve not seen anything that goes beyond what has been presented for theism. Obviously, I suspect that there might be a double standard as to what is being accepted as evidence (this is the only reason I can think why people won’t simply give me their definition).

          But I’m willing to be corrected. This is why I keep asking for evidence.

          You ask a good question about the resurrection, though. I’ll have to remember to answer that on the topic there (please remind me if I forget).

          But you’re right to say that theism transcends science. That is rather the point. It isn’t science, as such quite a bit of it will be about things that aren’t what science studies.

          So, how does one get there without faith? That would require some philosophy. If one insists on sticking just with science, it’s hardly surprising that one will only ever find the scientific.

          But there are good reasons to think that there is more to inquiry than the scientific (wonderful as science is). Once one starts thinking logically about whether or not that is true, or (if it’s true) what that more might be, one is doing philosophy.

  • Arkenaten

    I don’t know that I consider it reasonable to assume a creator, but I definitely think that theism is a reasonable conclusion (given certain arguments, of course).

    Your theism is based on acceptance that the physical resurrection of the character Jesus of Nazareth is a real Historical event.

    The evidence does not support this and there has never been an argument presented that demonstrates this viewpoint beyond a reasonable doubt.

    Hence faith.

    Take everything else biblical into consideration and it can reasonably be rejected.

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