Tag Archives: apologetics

Forget the Experts; What do the Most Ignorant People Think?

bad-teacher-filmI’ll continue to clarify the difference between a transcendent God and the basically physical god that many atheists think Christianity teaches (or try my best to clarify, anyway).

In the mean time, I’d like to move on to another very common misunderstanding among the New Atheists:

If you’re dismissing a more academic version of theism by claiming that “most” Christians see God the way you do, you aren’t talking about Christianity.

There are essentially three reasons for this.

First, it isn’t true.

It may be true that “most” Christians don’t see God in exactly the way I do. In fact, I expect that each of us has our own unique perspective. But I’m not sure how the atheist knows that his/her view is any better a representation of what the average theist believes.

I’ve never heard a theist affirm the idea that God is flying around in space somewhere, that he’s a complex arrangement of physical parts (as Richard Dawkins assumes without giving a reason), that he’s humanoid, or most any of the descriptors that New Atheists delight in mocking.

Really what “most Christians” seems to mean here isn’t actually most Christians. It isn’t even “Jerry Falwell” (bad as that would be), but “what Jerry Falwell’s opponents take him to be saying”.

Yes, if you ask the typical Christian “do you believe in a literal God, heaven, hell, angels, etc?”, she’s likely to answer in the affirmative. But this doesn’t contradict anything I’ve said.

To do that, you’d have to follow up with an “And by ‘literal’, I mean ‘physical’. Do you believe that God, heaven, etc. are all physical parts of the universe, made out of sub-atomic particles?”. The idea that most Christians would agree to that is highly questionable, to say the least.

And, getting to the second reason, it’s irrelevant what most Christians think.

In any field of study, most people are going to be largely ignorant, and have some strange ideas. To demand that we judge a view based on the popular idea of it is completely strange.

No one, for instance, would argue that, while some biologists might have a pretty defensible view of evolution, what’s really important is what “most evolutionists” believe. If you ask the average person who believes in evolution if people evolved from the Cro-Magnon, she’ll probably agree that we did.

That is a fairly easy view to discredit, but it doesn’t refute evolution. And it wouldn’t make any sense to simply assert that all biologists do is, in spite of denying that they believe it, come up with more elaborate excuses for believing that humans evolved from the Cro-Magnon.

The same is true for theism. Of course the average person is going to have a less well-thought-out position than an expert. This doesn’t mean that the expert view can be ignored, or is “really” just a rationale for the average view.

This is why Dawkins, who has confessed to being ignorant of theology, is forced to interact with the lay-level view. He simply doesn’t know enough to engage actual experts. And that would be fine, if he were willing to admit that it is only the crudest forms of theism that he’s refuted. It is when he starts boldly declaring that “religion”, in a much broader sense, should be dismissed that he’s making ignorant proclamations.

That being the case, demanding that theists offer proof of the God that “most Christians” believe in is no better than demanding that Dawkins, as a biologist, should prove that people evolved from the Cro-Magnon because “most evolutionists” believe it.

But for the third, and most important, reason: the New Atheist caricature is not the view being defended. The form of theism I’ve defended simply isn’t the view being attacked.

That leads to the very simple conclusion that the attacks of the New Atheists are simply talking past my actual beliefs, and are therefore irrelevant. In general, I get a lot of arguments being made against things that I’ve never actually believed, let alone said.

And, if that is what it takes in order to have one’s argument work, then it was never a good argument in the first place.


These Goal Posts are Heavy!

football_players_moving_the_goalpost_450In attempting to use the problem of evil as an argument against theism, you’ll recall, Mackie agreed that he has no basis for saying that evil actually exists. Rather, he’s (purportedly) pointing out a logical contradiction between the theists’ position. We believe that evil exists (in some form or another), and he means to show that this contradicts our belief in a good God.

And this is important to keep in mind, because Mackie frequently argues by requesting evidence for the theist’s position. Thus, he seems to be shifting his goal posts as the momentary need arises.

Similarly, he argues from his own inability to picture reasons why a claim might be true. He answers the claim that freedom, in the end, brings about more good than bad with “whatever the valuable, other, aspects or consequences of freedom may be, it is at least logically possible that they should exist without such variation, that is, without bad choices actually being made”.

This section is peppered with this kind of thinking, and it is (whether he realizes it or not) an abandonment of his argument. Simply saying that something is possible does not mean that the theist has contradicted herself.

There are answers that could be given (such as the idea that our having knowledge that our choices are of moral significance is deeply important to God). But the point isn’t whether the theist can show that these are, at the end of the day, good answers. To show a true logical contradiction, Mackie needs to show that they can’t possibly be correct.

He also thinks that the theist needs to prove that we need libertarian free will to make real choices. Some people (the compatiblists) are convinced that one can be said to have free will, even though one’s decisions are completely determined by one’s brain chemistry and the corresponding laws of science.

Most people don’t see that as free will at all. Mackie is allowed to disagree if he’d like, but he is not allowed, in “pointing out a contradiction within theism” to insist that the theist needs to offer evidence that compatibilism is wrong. Yet he does exactly that.

To be fair to Mackie, he does, after a couple of pages on this, admit that this argument is fallacious. But this leaves one wondering why he included these pages at all. Certainly, it serves no purpose but (whether intentionally or not) to act as a rhetorical flourish, leaving the reader feel that theism has other problems that aren’t being answered by the free will defense.

Of course, theists have answered those problems elsewhere, but Mackie includes no two-page digression on those answers.

Instead, he offers an incorrect view of what theists mean by free will.

I don’t think this is intentional, but it is a problem nonetheless. Mackie seems unable to envision any description of human choice other than determinism and randomness (a la Copenhagen quantum mechanics).

He goes on to say that none of these help the believer in libertarian free will. Indeed, they do not for the very simple reason that he has left the actual position of libertarian free will off his list of possibilities.

Essentially, he’s still thinking like a materialist. He’s left out the possibility that the mind could be something other than the interaction of neurons (as materialists envision the interaction of neurons). Of course this leaves him with only these options, but this is precisely what the libertarian denies.

Mackie continues on for a few more pages, ostensibly trying to figure out what is meant by “free will”, but arguing at every turn that such things need to be proved.

And this is, again, shifting goal posts. Mackie is claiming to have seen a logical contradiction in the theist’s position. He, therefore, needs to show us a contradiction, not merely request more proof of the sub-points within that position.

At this point Mackie returns to the main argument “confident that it is not logically impossible that men should be such that they always freely choose the good”. But this, itself, a misstatement of the argument. It was never about logical impossibility, but about the logical fit to the goals of God.

Nor do I see anywhere that Mackie has actually given a reason for the confidence anyway. What he has done is insist that the theist prove that his position is impossible–and completely misunderstood the arguments given.

But, Mackie isn’t quite finished; he then moves to Plantinga’s (well-known) version of the argument. I’ll discuss that in a later post.


The Hooked on Phonics Approach to Deities

fullContinuing on with the ways in which New Atheists misinterpret theism, we get to the argument from other religions. This is a popular meme within the group, and I think it touches on one of their most fundamental mistakes.

So, the topic for today:

If you think “God” and “god” mean the same thing, you aren’t talking about Christianity.

Simply because the words sound alike, are spelled (nearly) alike, and we could draw a few dubious parallels, does not make them the same. The idea that it does usually takes the form of “we’re both atheists with respect to every other god…” or “but, even if that showed that God exists, which god would it be?”.

Or, it simply comes in the form of someone repeatedly failing to capitalize the term “God” in writing. I suppose this is meant to squeeze in another insult to traditional theists, but it really only shows off one’s lack of understanding. And poor grammar doesn’t make for a good argument.

All this is to say that, asked by someone who’s genuinely interested in which particular religion might be true, the question of gods can be an important matter. As a reason to be an atheist, it’s completely worthless.

The only reason it isn’t instantly recognized as worthless is because there are many who simply don’t understand that gods are completely irrelevant to the arguments monotheists actually give for belief in God. Presumably, these same people understand that different proposed scientific theories, political philosophies, and ethical systems can be different–and that we can’t simply dismiss them all because most ideas will turn out to be false, but this same knowledge doesn’t seem to extend to deities.

Of course, I’m aware that it is often demanded that “there is as much evidence” for all gods. But, I’ve been over the “no evidence” argument. If there’s any point in bringing up ancient gods at all–that is, if it is supposed to be a legitimate point, and not just an emotional/rhetorical debate trick–it is to suggest that the reasons for rejecting God would be the same as the reasons to reject Thor or Apollo.

As such, it seems that anyone making this argument simply does not understand why the same reasons don’t apply.

The God of monotheism is transcendent–the ultimate explanation of all things. The gods of ancient temple religions were proposed physical entities, seen as immediate causes of physical events (and so overturned by science in a way that monotheism simply is not); God is an explanation as to why there are any physical events in the first place. The gods are (poor) explanations of the patterns in nature; God is an explanation as to why nature has patterns at all. The gods  (purportedly) exist within the universe, and depend on it for existence; but the universe exists in God, and depends on him for its existence. The gods are subject to moral judgement; God is the paradigm of the good.

And so on it goes. Anyone who can’t see why arguments for God don’t defend the gods, and that arguments against the gods don’t refute God, simply doesn’t understand the basic terms of the conversation.

Nor does it do to simply respond by claiming that these ancient deities aren’t actually scientific either–that they are invisible or otherwise beyond scientific test, as if this somehow defended the point that all deities are the same.

Many have given me exactly this response, and it is easy to answer. If one is simply going to change, step by step, what is meant by the word “Zeus” until it perfectly matches a monotheist view, then one has abandoned everything about Zeus that discredited the idea in the first place. One could, I suppose, alter the meaning of “Zeus” until it is exactly like gravitational theory, but this wouldn’t discredit gravity.

Likewise, this doesn’t discredit monotheism.

What it does instead is drill home how different monotheism actually is from the religions it displaced. The difference between magic and spirit is hard to overstate. Magic is failed science; spirit is another topic altogether.

Of course, I’ve encountered those who, hearing this, insist that I’m simply altering the definition of the monotheist God. And there are two very obvious answers to this:

First is the fact that it simply isn’t true; anyone making this retort is simply unaware of the history of theology.

Second is the fact that it doesn’t, in the end, matter. Even if this were some completely new understanding of God, all this response would be is an admission that I’ve hit upon an idea of God that, while remaining an explanation for everything I’ve said (here and elsewhere) that God explains, is immune to the objections of the New Atheists.

Of course, I can’t claim to be anywhere near that clever. I’m really just presenting the traditional view of God, and pointing out what geniuses of the past have said. But the point is that the “you’re changing definitions” retort is a tacit concession, not a rebuttal.

In the end, one can believe or disbelieve in transcendence. But, if one is going to be rational, one must avoid the sloppy, fallacious thinking that the existence of a monotheist God can be tested in the same way that Poseidon would be.


Blurring the Lines of Distinction

blurred_focusGetting back to the discussion of J.L. Mackie’s “Miracle of Theism”, we come to the famous problem of evil. Here, Mackie seems to alternate between a very reasonable and a very sloppy approach.

He begins with the reasonable, laying out the argument and agreeing that there is no explicit contradiction between the idea of a good God and the existence of evil. But there is, he claims, a contradiction when one adds the idea that a good and omnipotent God would be both able and willing to remove evil from the world.

This strikes me as already a bit sloppy, in that Mackie has endorsed a moral subjectivist position–and hasn’t otherwise presented a theory of objective morality to rival theistic explanations. As such, he cannot actually claim that evil exists in an objective sense, but only things that humans find personally distasteful.

As a non-human, God is not morally bound by human opinion, however.

But Mackie seems to understand this. Swinging back to a reasonable approach, he clarifies that he is arguing that there is an internal inconsistency in traditional theism. It doesn’t matter, then, whether or not evil actually exists. The point is that theism claims that it does, and this (purportedly) contradicts the notion of a loving God.

This is a key move, however, because it is only by shifting this goalpost that Mackie can make a case against theism.

First, however, he agrees with the theist that omnipotence doesn’t include the ability to do the logically impossible. I’ve met quite a few who demand otherwise–and have even insinuated that this “limit” on omnipotence is simply a retreat in the face of the problem of evil.

To those that know the history of theology, it is no such thing, but set that aside. The real point is that it isn’t needed to address the problem of evil. In fact, it is only because the theist agrees that God can’t to the logically impossible that there is any problem of evil at all.

Even if it could be shown that evil is a contradiction of a good God, all the theist would have to say is “sure, that’s a logical impossibility, but God can do  the logically impossible”.

The point isn’t that theistic philosophers say this (with the exception of Anslem, I can’t think of any who would). The point is that, for the problem of evil to even get off the ground, one has to assume that God is bound by what is logical possible.

And this is perfectly reasonable. Logical contradictions aren’t things–such as acts that simply can’t be done–they are meaningless arrangements of words.

Mackie does not dispute this, but he does throw out another straw man. I’ll not get into it here, as I’ve never heard anyone actually give the argument. But it is very significant that Mackie, after pointing out the silliness of the argument, also claims that (even if it were true) it would only defend necessary and minute amounts of evil.

This is important because Mackie is drifting away from the claim that there is a logical contradiction here, and into a different (though similar) argument. Generally called the “probabilistic problem of evil”, it is the claim that, while there’s no logical issue, there’s just too darn much evil in the world to believe in God.

I agree that this issue should be addressed, but Mackie doesn’t seem to be aware that it is a different issue. As such, he immediately begins confusing issues. Theists have offered many explanations, one of which is the pointing out how often good things come from evil.

But Mackie insists that this does not address the contradiction named earlier. Indeed it does not, because it is not addressed to that contradiction, but rather to the probabilistic argument he’s switched to making. And, while I hardly think it is a complete answer in itself, it is a significant point to raise in that discussion.

Mackie claims directly that all evil can’t be accounted for in this way, but neither offers a reason to think this, nor addresses the other reasons theists have given for the existence of evil.

And this last is important. Though he immediately goes on to discuss the free will defense, Mackie insists that it relies on the idea that absolutely all evil is the product of free will–and nothing else. This seems a sort of divide and conquer rhetorical trick that offers no real reason why these arguments can’t be taken together.

So, it is only because he has blurred the lines between the logical and the probabilistic versions of the argument, while simultaneously insisting that explanations which are typically given together must explain every case or be utterly rejected, that Mackie can dismiss the traditional answers to the problem of evil.

As to his discussion of the famous free will defense, I’ll get to that next.


The Theology of Scientism

If there comes a point when one’s view of an idea is so distorted that one can’t be said to really be talking about it anymore, then Dawkins and his fans have long since reached that point with respect to religion.

But I’m increasingly convinced that it is helpful to go over the reasons why their understanding of Christianity is wrong. The subject is well-worth considering.

The topic for today:

If you’re using the phrase “the God hypothesis” you aren’t talking about Christianity.

God is not a hypothesis for the very simple reason that questions about God are not empirical questions.

This is the most consistent mistake of Richard Dawkins: the unquestioned assumption that the issue of theology is, somehow, a question for science to answer pervades his writings.

It is currently popular, in some circles, to say that all questions are scientific questions. The reasons why this is false have been pointed out many times in the past. Still, there are many in our culture who are so used to thinking of science as the paradigm of all inquiry that they seem to find it difficult to understand the thinking behind logic, metaphysics, or ethics.

But to speak of a “God hypothesis” is no more accurate than to speak of a “Modis Ponens hypothesis”, a “the universe is not an illusion hypothesis”, or a “people shouldn’t be selfish hypothesis”.

God, like many of the things that Dawkins himself takes for granted, is simply not subject to the experiment-observation method employed by science. Rather, God is a transcendent entity who is the ultimate explanation of the universe, not a finite, measurable entity within the universe.

And it is for this reason that God is not a scientific theory. A theory is a general description of a causal chain stretching backward in in time up to the present moment. God, by contrast, is (among other things) an explanation as to why such chains can exist in the first place–why the universe has regular patterns so that it can be studied by science at all.

Nor, to address the tired memetic response, does this make the concept of God untestable or unprovable. It only means that the necessary tests are not lab experiments.

So, whether or not one believes in such an entity, it is no more reasonable to demand scientific evidence for God than to demand scientific evidence that an argument isn’t fallacious. It is the wrong category.

If one starts one’s search with the assumption that everything is scientific, it is no wonder that one only finds the scientific. It would be completely obtuse to conclude that this, somehow, discredits the idea of a transcendent God.

And this is where the New Atheists are often accused of a certain intellectual tone-deafness. They seem to believe that, because they cannot imagine anything other than the scientific (or a test other than scientific tests), there must be no such thing.


Debating Pseudo-Religions

ScarecrowAs far as I can tell, Richard Dawkins has never said anything about Christianity

This is not simply to say that he’s never said anything true about Christianity. Rather, it is that everything he’s tried to say about “religion” is so distorted, so obviously based on a caricature, that he’s not actually talking about Christianity at all.

Nor is this, I hasten to add, because he has not read some complex theological treatise (though he clearly hasn’t). It is because he gets even the most basic points about Christianity (and Islam, for that matter) flagrantly wrong.

I’ve noticed similar mistakes in his fans, as well as their confusion when they encounter actual theology. In fact I’ve recieved quite a few complaints that my views are not simple enough for some to understand.

I’ve long suspected that there are ulterior motives behind the demand that I state my view in a sentence. Still, I thought it might be good to write the occasional post on some of the things that the New Atheists get wrong about the Christianity they claim to have refuted. It is my hope that this will help to clarify, for theists and atheists alike, why the conversation needs to move past anything simple enough to fit on a demotivator.

There is a lot to say, but let’s start with an obvious one:

If you’re using the phrase “sky daddy” you aren’t talking about Christianity.

I want to be clear: it isn’t that this phrase is pointlessly rude (though it is). It is that it is wrong. As such, using it doesn’t prove that theism is silly. It shows us that the one using it is speaking out of ignorance.

How so? Let’s go through the words. (And, to those eager to debate, please keep in mind that I’m merely outlining Christian views, not making a case for them here.)

1. “Sky”

God isn’t in the sky any more than he is anywhere else. Those that use this term seem to be picturing some physical thing flying around space somewhere.

And this is completely unlike the Christian view of God.

That is, God doesn’t exist as part of the universe–or a thing inside the universe. This is part of what it means to be transcendent. While God is aware of, and causally active at, each point in the universe, this is not a physical interaction. It is for this reason that the ancient Romans charged Christians with atheism–Christianity doesn’t believe in gods in anything like the way that they did.

But it’s a bit late to be arguing that ancient Roman gods don’t exist. Monotheists believe in a completely different kind of God.

2. “Daddy”

Presumably, the physical thing flying around space is roughly humanoid. While the Bible does use the concept of fatherhood as analogous to one part of God’s relation to human beings, there is no implication here that God either has a body, or is a “daddy” in anything like the sense that it is used here.

The phrase suggests that theists think of God essentially the same way that very small children think of their fathers. Of course, the Christian view of God is not a glib picture of some divine caretaker or wish-granter, but a far more nuanced vision–as intellectually complex as it is emotionally potent. It would take quite a few books to explain that nuance, but the point is that is a far more sophisticated view than this silly phrase implies.

Again, the problem seems to be the failure to grasp transcendence. The New Atheist appears to think of God’s activity on the model of magic, reading this into all talk of spirit. But magic is physical; it is failed science. Spirit is non-physical, existing outside of the realm of science. It addresses deeper questions than efficient causes.

Of course, one is free to reject the idea–and even to boldly proclaim that there are no answers outside of science. The point is that, if one doesn’t understand the difference between this view and the “sky daddy”, one can’t claim to have understood Christianity well enough to have rejected it.

 


Hume Defects to Theism?

UnknownI’ve never been sure why modern materialists are so confident that David Hume has shown their position to be correct. And neither reading his work, nor explanations of him, has helped to explain it. In fact, it’s led me to the opposite conclusion.

Take, for instance, the claim that we can dismiss traditional notions of causation (and, therefore, dismiss theistic arguments like the Kalam) on the grounds that Hume “showed” that we can’t trust the common sense of causation. Of course, it’s always important to note that Hume himself didn’t take the position that he “showed”, but there is a bigger problem here.

What Hume actually showed is that, given materialism, there’s no explanation for the fact that inductive reasoning (and thereby science) actually works.

What is amazing is that so many have responded by soberly reporting that causation doesn’t exist. Clearly, causation does exist. What’s actually been proved here is that there are parts of reality that materialism cannot explain.

Surely, it is questioning materialism that is the reasonable response, and declaring “then causation must not exist” that is the appeal to magic.

And so it typically goes, so long as one isn’t deeply committed to defending materialism.

I think the same is the case for the argument that only properties exist–that there is no things that have properties. There is no cup, says Hume, only cylindricalness, solidity, height, width, and so forth.

Why does Hume think this? He gives an argument, but it is largely based in the idea that all information is received through the senses. By the time he’s done naming off all the properties of a thing, he’s exhausted the information of the senses, and so has nothing on which to claim that there is an actual object there, in addition to the properties.

And this applies to people as well as cups. But, anyone who believes that she (and not just a collection of properties) exists, will have to question Hume’s approach.

And the problem seems to be this idea that we only know what comes through our senses.

I find arguments like these excellent reductio ad absurdum arguments, which tell us a great deal about why materialism is false. That being the case, it seems to me that Hume’s name ought to be found on the lips of theists, pointing out the consequences of accepting this view.

I hope to develop these ideas further in the future. But, for now, I think it significant to point out that, as a theist, I simply don’t accept that things like causation are illusory.

And, if that is the cost of abandoning theism, I’d need a very good reason to do so.


Theism is False Because There is No Explanation?

378890256_640I was delighted to see that, even though he argues against theism, Mackie is not impressed by appeals to the anthropic principle. He sees clearly that, while it is not surprising that we don’t observe a universe that couldn’t have supported life, it is surprising that we do observe a universe that did.

A fairly common analogy goes as follows:

If one were to face a firing squad of fifty crack marksmen at point blank range, and all of them missed, it isn’t good enough to say “If I’d been shot, I wouldn’t be here to wonder why they all missed, so I shouldn’t wonder about that question now”.

This is the reason why those pressing the anthropic argument so often appeal to a multiverse. Of course, it must immediately be noted that a presumption of materialism is the only reason to consider the multiverse more likely than any other explanation. Outside of the fine-tuning itself, there is no evidence for it.

As such, Mackie dismisses the multiverse as a serious challenge to theism; he sees that it concedes the theists key points. (For those interested in that issue, I’ve written about it in the past.) Unfortunately, his alternative is no better. He insists that, the further one goes backward in time, explaining causes, the less there is to explain. Thus, he argues, something like a divine mind is far too much to deal with the little that would be left by the time one reaches the beginning of the universe.

Of course, this idea that there is less to explain as one moves into the past is more controversial than Mackie seems to think. In discussions over it, I’ve not seen it well defended. And it is definitely born out of a lack of appreciation for the actual numbers regarding the fine tuning; to call them astronomical is a wild understatement.

He also relies on the much less interesting, and much more obviously false, “what caused God” objection to insist that we stop our inquiry before getting to God. But, unlike most uses of this argument, he acknowledges the common response: that God is self explanatory in a way that the universe is not.

Unfortunately, he simply dismisses the idea without actually addressing the arguments in its favor. He references to his past discussion of the idea, which (as has already been noted) relied on an argumentum ad ignoratium fallacy and a shifting of goal posts in order to make its case.

Macke then closes with something that borders on the completely weird.  That is, he suggests that the design argument requires a reason to think that matter is contingent.

As is always the case with Mackie, I’m not sure if he’s claiming that this is so, or merely throwing out a possibility. If the former, he needs to defend it; if the latter, he hasn’t actually rebutted the argument.

To be fair, he takes this idea from Kant and Hume. Still, that doesn’t make it a good argument. There are many clear reasons why matter is contingent–not the least of which is the origin of the universe that Mackie has just been discussing. Anything which is not contingent must necessarily exist eternally. The fact that matter has an origin precludes the possibility of it being non-contingent.

The most significant thing this shows, then, is how determined Mackie is to come up with reasons to dismiss theism. I don’t take back my earlier compliments of him–I do find him far more reasonable than most.

Still, if defending his materialism leads him to suggest that matter is logically necessary, and to constantly throw out possibilities that he does not defend, theism seems a far more plausible view.


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.


Plug: The Confidence of Jerry Coyne

Ross Douthat has been involved in an interchange with Jerry Coyne. I thought this comment was a very good response to the New Atheist position in general.

I tend to agree that, so long as Coyne and others continue to do exactly the things that Douthat accuses him of doing, their movement will do more to foster interest in religion than destroy it.