My first objection was that Jim’s use of explanatory criteria was non-standard, to say the least.
My second objection was that Jim never explained why he thought Christianity was a good explanation for things according to his own explanatory criteria.
My third objection was that there are many reasons to think that theism is a terrible explanation. As explanations go, theism has many qualities in common with other really bad explanations from pseudoscience and superstition, and almost nothing in common with our most successful explanations from the physical sciences. So it’s very hard to see how theism is a “good explanation” for anything, whether it be fine-tuning or cosmogenesis or the existence of moral facts.
But Jim’s article was very short, and Jim has now pointed me toward an older article of his that I will call The Christian Worldview is the Best Explanation (full version).
So let’s see if Jim’s position is improved with the extra words…
What of my first objection? Alas, Jim’s longer article uses the same strange explanatory criteria as in his shorter article. Luckily, Jim’s comment on my original post is more helpful. Here is my attempt to translate Jim’s criteria to those more successfully defended in the philosophical literature on inference to the best explanation:
- What Jim calls “feasibility” or “explanatory viability” might be a small part of a criterion sometimes called “testability” (specifically, the crucial “passing the test” part of testability). Let us say we’re investigating a murder in Beijing. Someone proposes that Noam Chomsky did it. But Noam Chomsky was in Maine at the time. So the Noam Chomsky theory predicts that the murder happened in Maine, not Beijing. So the Noam Chomsky theory is testable, but it fails the test defined by its own predictions.
- What Jim calls “simplicity” fits neatly with the usual criterion of “simplicity,” except that he also refers to the same criterion as “explanatory power,” which in the literature on explanatory virtues is an entirely different criterion than simplicity.
- What Jim calls “exhaustiveness” or “explanatory scope” matches nicely with the usual criterion of “explanatory scope.”
- What Jim calls “logical” or “explanatory consistency” matches what is usually an unspoken assumption of explanatory virtues. Obviously, a good explanation must be internally coherent. ‘Nuff said.
- What Jim calls “explanatory superiority” seems to be similar to the usual criterion of “explanatory precision.”
So it turns out that with a bit of work, we can translate Jim’s criteria into criteria that actually are agreed to by most defenders of the “explanatory virtues” account of inference to the best explanation.
But this leads us right into my third objection that when using standard explanatory criteria like these, theism turns out rather terribly. Not surprisingly, Jim’s earlier article does not address the specifics of this objection, since it was written before my rebuttal, and perhaps even before Gregory Dawes’ Theism and Explanation (which lays out this objection in more detail) was published. As far as I can tell, theism as an explanation has many features of what we know to be really bad explanations, and none of the features associated with our most successful explanations. So it’s very unlikely that theism is a good explanation according to any usual set of features that constitute a “good explanation.”
To be more specific, Jim’s article does not explain how theism or Christianity as an explanatory theory (1) is simple, (2) is testable and test-passing, (3) has good explanatory scope, (4) is logically coherent, or has (5) explanatory precision.
Jim’s longer article does address my second objection. Specifically, Jim says that Christianity offers a better explanation than philosophical naturalism does for:
- The origins of our universe.
- Cosmic fine-tuning for life.
- The origins of life.
- Artifacts of “intelligent design.”
- Human consciousness.
- Contra-causal free will.
- The dignity and contemptibleness of humans.
- The existence of transcendent moral truths.
- Human belief that human life is precious.
- Why suffering exists.
But Jim’s (brief and interesting) accounts of why Christianity offers a better explanation than philosophical features for these (supposed) features of our world does not overcome my third and most important objection to his article.
As I see it, there are three ways the theist can defend against objection #3 (that theism is a very poor explanation according to the usual criteria of good explanations):
- The theist can show that theism is, in fact, a good explanation for things given standard criteria for what constitutes a good explanation.
- The theist can show that theism is a good explanation for things according to some other set of criteria, and justify why these criteria should be used.
- The theist can show that theism is a good explanation for things according by a different means, for example Bayesian confirmation theory rather than the ‘explanatory virtues’ approach.
- The theist can admit that theism is a poor explanation for things, but argue that theism is probably true for other reasons.
As far as I can tell, option #3 is the most promising, but it is not one that Jim Wallace has taken, as far as I can tell.
Still, I suspect that Jim Wallace has not previously encountered my central objection as stated. Perhaps he has a good response to it. If so, I would sincerely love to hear it!
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