Vox Day is a Christian blogger and author of The Irrational Atheist. We have agreed to a friendly dialogue about the reasons for our beliefs, though we’ll try to avoid regurgitating all the usual arguments for and against the existence of God. See our previous letters.
I’m glad your letter was delayed due to getting so many interview invitations about your book. That is a high-quality “problem” to have. Also, allow me to note that although I am not a libertarian, we agree on the general merits of the Austrian School. Keynesian economics will not fix what Keynesian economics created! I also appreciate your attention to research in The Return of the Great Depression.
We are embarking on a debate over which worldview offers the best explanation of:
(S) Humans often take pleasure in the involuntary and undeserved suffering of others.
S might as well stand for sadism or, perhaps better, schadenfreude.
You are correct that for this debate I would like to contrast the explanatory merits of metaphysical naturalism with Christianity, not Christianity with other theistic theories.
I still think that even if theism were proved true that other theistic theories would have a better explanation for S than Christianity does.1 That question certainly would make for an interesting debate! But it’s not the one I want to consider right now. I will probably refer to competing theistic explanations in order to illustrate some principles of explanation, but my case will hang on whether I can show that metaphysical naturalism is a better explanation for S than Christianity is.
Also, it’s important to recognize the scope of our debate. Necessarily, the scope is narrow. The victor will not have shown that his theory is true. Instead, he will have shown that his theory has a better explanation of one very tiny feature of our universe, that humans often take pleasure in the involuntary and undeserved suffering of others.
Actually, the victor will not have shown even that. The victor will only have shown that his theory has a better explanation of S as far as we can tell given the limited knowledge, talents, and time of the two interlocutors in this debate.
Vox, you presented three “hurdles” facing the naturalist who wishes to explain S. Unfortunately, I will not be able to address them unless we first come to some agreement on what it means to have a successful explanation of something. For example, is the best explanation the one that “sounds” better? But different explanations sound better to different people. Why should “a triune god with supernatural powers did it” be a better explanation for some x than “an alien operating from the fifth and sixth dimensions of spacetime did it”? By what criteria is one a better explanation than the other?
As I said in my last letter, philosophers are still trying to figure out what makes an explanatory hypothesis the “best explanation” of something. There are many competing models of explanation available, each with its own merits.
I prefer a model of explanation called explanationism that is intuitive to most people. Here is version of explanationism that Tom Gilson of Thinking Christian and I agreed on:
x is the best explanation of y if it is the case that:
(A) if x were true, then by knowing x we would better understand y’s causal background than by not knowing x [i.e. x is a potential explanation of y],
and if it is also the case that
(B) x possesses the following explanatory virtues to a greater degree than any other known potential explanations of y: testability, consistency with background knowledge, past explanatory success, simplicity, ontological economy, informativeness, predictive novelty, explanatory scope, and explanatory power.
And here is what each of the explanatory virtues refers to:
- Testability – a good explanatory hypothesis should be testable.
- Consistency with background knowledge – a good explanatory hypothesis should not contradict our background knowledge.
- Past explanatory success – a good explanatory hypothesis should fit within a tradition with much past explanatory success.
- Simplicity – a good explanatory hypothesis should be simple, not making lots of ad-hoc assumptions.
- Ontological economy – a good explanatory hypothesis should not add more previously unknown things to our ontology than necessary.
- Informativeness – a good explanatory hypothesis should allow us to deduce precise details of its effects.
- Predictive novelty – a good explanatory hypothesis should be able to predict not just known facts, but previously unknown facts.2
- Explanatory scope – a good explanatory hypothesis should explain a wide range of data.
- Explanatory power – a good explanatory hypothesis should make the evidence we observe highly probable, not just slightly probable.
Tom and I also agreed that in order for an explanation to be considered the best explanation, we need not have an explanation of the explanation. Such a principle would lead to an infinite regress of “why” questions, and we would never have explained anything.
Of course, the best explanation of S need not have all these explanatory virtues. But it should have more of them than its competitors. And some explanatory virtues are more impressive than others. For example, predictive novelty may be impressive than explanatory power. But we can discuss those issues as they come up.
Vox, I hope you can appreciate the need for some rigor when assessing what the “best” explanation of S is. Otherwise our debate will degenerate into cycling claims of “My story sounds better and more plausible” and “No, my story sounds better and more plausible!”
I will respond to your “hurdles” for metaphysical naturalism at the right time. But first we need to come to some agreement on what makes an explanation a good or best explanation.
Though the above account of explanation was previously agreed upon by both a theist and an atheist (Tom Gilson and myself), I don’t expect you to accept it whole. On how much of this do we agree, Vox?
Once we have some criteria by which we agree to assess potential explanations, then we can proceed to assess the explanatory merits of our competing theories with regard to S.
I look forward to our discussion!
- In saying that “I am ill-prepared to defend the explanatory virtues of supernatural worldviews I do not actually defend,” I did not mean to imply that I am also, as you say, “not sufficiently prepared to adjudicate between them either.” I just don’t want my whole case to rest on a defense of the explanatory merits of a non-Christian theistic theory. But I can still adjudicate between theistic theories using standard criteria. For example, I think Buddhism’s explanation of S scores better on one explanatory virtue – simplicity – than does Christianity’s explanation. Why? Because Buddhism explains S without postulating as many unproven entities as Christianity does. [↩]
- For example, Einstein’s theory of gravity predicted as-yet unobserved phenomena that Eddington later observed to be true. [↩]