Letter to Vox Day VII

by Luke Muehlhauser on December 12, 2009 in Letters

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:

  1. Testability – a good explanatory hypothesis should be testable.
  2. Consistency with background knowledge – a good explanatory hypothesis should not contradict our background knowledge.
  3. Past explanatory success – a good explanatory hypothesis should fit within a tradition with much past explanatory success.
  4. Simplicity – a good explanatory hypothesis should be simple, not making lots of ad-hoc assumptions.
  5. Ontological economy – a good explanatory hypothesis should not add more previously unknown things to our ontology than necessary.
  6. Informativeness – a good explanatory hypothesis should allow us to deduce precise details of its effects.
  7. Predictive novelty – a good explanatory hypothesis should be able to predict not just known facts, but previously unknown facts.2
  8. Explanatory scope – a good explanatory hypothesis should explain a wide range of data.
  9. 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!



  1. 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. []
  2. For example, Einstein’s theory of gravity predicted as-yet unobserved phenomena that Eddington later observed to be true. []

Previous post:

Next post:

{ 29 comments… read them below or add one }

John D December 12, 2009 at 8:37 am

I admire the effort to come to agreement about the nature of a successful explanation. I wonder if agreement will be reached.

Is that list taken from Dawes? (I don’t have his book, but I’m guessing it is pretty close)


Jason Finney December 12, 2009 at 9:07 am

Why are you debating Vox? There are far more intriguing and intellectual theist chaps out there, and you will find they have more depth than “These days atheism is, like the atheist’s ultimate destination, hot indeed” (compliments of Vox in his book). Vox is at best a weak opponent–let alone a worthy anti-Hitchens.

If you’re going to go ad hominem at least have the brass to go all the way like this guy http://www.commonsensetheism.com!!


lukeprog December 12, 2009 at 9:28 am

No, this isn’t Dawes’ list. Dawes’ list is much shorter. This is more like a compilation of lists from Lipton and McCullagh other major theorists of explanation.

By the way John D, I love what you’re doing with your blog so far!


John D December 12, 2009 at 12:08 pm

It’s more of an online notes collection than anything else. But thank you.


Haukur December 12, 2009 at 2:56 pm

With every post this series seems to get further and further from getting off the ground :)


Ryan December 12, 2009 at 3:52 pm

Just out of curiousity, how long are you and Vox gonna keep this up?


rhys December 12, 2009 at 5:12 pm

Hey Luke, great effort with the letter. It will definetly be interesting to see Vox’s response.

Just wondering, have you read the The Cambridge Companion To Atheism by Michael Martin?


lukeprog December 12, 2009 at 5:32 pm


Yes, I’ve read it.


Conversational Atheist December 12, 2009 at 10:01 pm

“(A) if x were true, then by knowing x we would better understand x’s causal background than by not knowing x [i.e. x is a potential explanation of y],”

I think there’s a typo — I think it should read: (A) if x were true, then by knowing x we would better understand y’s causal background…

Or I’m missing something crucial.


lukeprog December 12, 2009 at 10:27 pm

Nope, typo, thanks!


Beelzebub December 13, 2009 at 2:09 am

I like the approach, actually. After a false start or two I think this one is going to do the trick. The crucial step now is that you both MUST completely agree on the conditions of explanatory adjudication — because from reading the comments at VD’s site I can already tell that they’re working themselves up into thinking this is a trap. It might be worth it to reiterate to Vox that he’d better consider those points long and hard before committing — as well as considering the merit of the entire approach. If both sides can become satisfied with the conditions of the debate, I think some productive dialog could be had. At the very least, I will be illuminating to hear his objections to the “best explanation” approach.
Personally, I think this is an excellent turn of events! Keep up the good work!


crazyivan498 December 13, 2009 at 8:43 am

A is A. Knowledge is the non-contradictionary identification of what something is.


JustMakingItUp December 14, 2009 at 9:33 am

Luke:8. Explanatory scope – a good explanatory hypothesis should explain a wide range of data.

In fact, this is not a very good criteria. We can explain a “wide range of data” by stating that “the Great Spaghetti Monster created everything, including our memories, two seconds ago.” Unfortunately, such an explanation is effectively useless.I would state, rather, that a hypothesis should explain a sufficient majority of the data under its purview; that is, if we have a hypothesis that explains [S] via karmic progression, then karma should explain related phenomena, e.g. “luck” (bad and good) as a result of karmic necessity.The scope of the data explained need not be wide, but the data within scope should be fully explained. The spot where this becomes an issue lies in the determination of just what phenomena fall within the scope of the explanation.


lukeprog December 14, 2009 at 1:22 pm


Explanatory power can also be abused by FSM theory, or Christian theory. Its usefulness only comes into play when considering the other criteria, also.


Mrs. Ward December 14, 2009 at 6:16 pm

Mr. Luke,
After having read each of your and Mr. Day’s letters, back and forth, I don’t understand why you two are still writing to each other. You asked why he was a Christian, and he said that it was because he had seen/committed evil in his life and Christianity had the best explanation for evil. Then I expected you to ask him more about this, but instead you’ve gone off on the most boring tangents.

Why have you spent so many letters trying to define ‘evil’ and ‘explanation’? You know what those words mean. We all know what they mean. You may have a different idea in your head of whether a specific action is evil, but when you hear the word on tv or read it in a book, you know what it is referring to. Why belabor it? And defining ‘explanation’? Come on, this is getting stupid. Algebraic expressions culminating in nine specific points!?

I’ve been waiting for a good conversation between you two; for what your first letter promised: a discussion of his (and your) beliefs. But you really don’t care why Mr. Day is a Christian, do you? If you did care, you would be *discussing* each others beliefs, not droning on endlessly about dictionary/philosophical definitions of ordinary words.

Please, go back to the original topic and just take it for granted that when Mr. Day says something, he is using the normal/everyday meaning of a word. That stuff about evil could have been fascinating if you had asked him what specific evil event led him to investigate theism. I can’t believe you just let it hang there for this long without any curiosity. I’ve been dying to know what happened to him or what did he do to someone else that was so powerful that it led him away from atheism–atheism that he had embraced since childhood. The suspense is killing me!


tz December 14, 2009 at 6:41 pm

On rigor, I’m not sure that your assertion about Buddhism is accurate – if you know less about something, you might miss assumptions or requirements.

But I don’t think your definitions of a “good explanation” match. There are many things which are simple but wrong, traditional but wrong, etc.

Einstein’s equations are more complicated that Newton’s. And Einstein himself didn’t accept the uncertainty principle – but the EPR paradox turned out to be experimentally verifiable.

Though if “simplicity” is a virtue, your large number of complex rules for something to be a good explanation is internally inconsistent.

Let me try something simpler – perhaps it could be a base for a better rule or two:

First, we must demonstrate or assume S is true.

Given the world view, the axioms, the “program” if you would like, the truth of S follows quickly, easily, obviously, naturally from W. W implies S and/or shows not(S) to be clearly illogical or impossible.

Further quibbles (sorry, but when we are striving for semantic precision…):

Schadenfreude need not, but is often used in a context which would violate the “unjust” requirement of S. It would be more likely to be applied to a financial loss to a miser instead of a philanthropist. Sort of like Karma – the balancing evil which visits you is the same magnitude but can differ in kind.

Something similar could be said of a sadist. They get pleasure from suffering, deserved or not.

But within S I would also note the “involuntary” part should be clarified in that there aren’t alternatives, e.g. that someone chooses to suffer themselves to prevent the suffering of another.

Which creates a paradox. If someone who qualifies for the definition of S seeks a victim, and the intended victim tries to escape or find a substitute – wouldn’t the suffering not be unjust?


Terry L. Burr December 14, 2009 at 7:55 pm



Beau December 14, 2009 at 10:21 pm


Over the course of seven letters you’ve said exactly what? Do you have any substance or are you planning on talking Vox’s ear off with sweet nothings?


lukeprog December 14, 2009 at 10:29 pm


I’ve said a great deal about my views as Vox has asked about them, but we haven’t really even gotten around to talking about my atheism. What, do you think, Vox has said that has substance?


Beau December 14, 2009 at 11:49 pm


Glad you asked. I found his analysis of your Desirism in his Letter IV discerning.

It appears that the only substantive difference between your desirism and the desirism of Mao Tse-Tung is that your moral code is, ironically enough, more collective than the infamous communist leader’s.

Did it occur to your prior to this debate how closely you espoused the philosophy of a mass murderer?


lukeprog December 15, 2009 at 7:45 am


I’m not familiar with the meta-ethics of Mao Tse-Tung. I very much doubt desirism is the same as Mao Tse-Tung. For one thing, desirism condemns the actions of Mao. This is a straw man.


ayer December 15, 2009 at 10:20 am

I agree with the general point Mrs. Ward is making. Shouldn’t this exchange be conducted on a less formal basis than analytical philosophy (as fond of that as I am)? If it ends up reading like something on Prosblogion (as I fear it will with your letter delineating “explanation” in excruciating detail) it will not be helpful or interesting to the average blog reader.


G. Hankins December 15, 2009 at 10:42 am

I just discovered this site from Vox’s site. I belong here more, but I prefer upsetting the opposition on their own turf. Plus I get an annoying Not Responding browser error with every page opening here for some reason. Anyway, here’s my two cents on this debate which I’ll just copy & paste from Vox’s thread:

Having gone back and read the previous letters, I see now that Luke is anything but a timid debater or overly meticulous and I take back what I said about him not being all that smart (based on his one nonsensical remark about Keynesian economics). He obviously is really smart. His ability to score all the points I had in mind plus about 3x as many more (I’ve never studied any religion nor see any need to) was quite satisfying and impressive — especially in the second and third letters. What a trouncing! And to keep perfectly in control like that without resorting to any ad hominems (which I personally have no problem with if they’re entertaining and substantiated, but they admittedly don’t help) was equally impressive.

In fact, the only way I could’ve enjoyed it more was if Luke actually had some worthy competition. VD’s contribution was disappointing for reasons such as Luke already pointed out — obscurantism and dismismissiveness and the sheer number of untruths such as, “the theory of evolution does not rest on a scientific foundation, but a logical one” and “the predictive models evolutionary theory produces are reliably incorrect.” Luke refuted these claims and VD indeed “weaseled out” (as I speculated earlier) by trying to say evolution was off-topic when it wasn’t because Luke put it on the table in the first letter when he said, “My second question is about evolution and the age of the earth.”

I saw also that Luke wasn’t always so meticulous, but indeed just started to be in order to rein in VD and his naked attempts at elusiveness such as his odd claim that an agreed upon definition of evil between them somehow wasn’t important and using the term “football” as an analogy. Yeah, no chance of talking past each other doing it that way. *shakes head*


“Football is the best sport ever!”
“Hell yeah!”
“Hey, I got a new, big screen, hi-def TV. You oughtta come over this weekend and we’ll watch the game on it. My wife’s having her eleventh toe removed, so she’ll be out of the house.”
“Sure, that sounds good. Wait, so she has one extra toe or had at least eleven extra toes?”
“Uh, actually she started with fifteen but wants four.”
“Oh, uhhh…”
“No, I’m kidding, she has eleven and wants ten.”
“Oh, okay.”
“Yeah, this TV’s awesome. And I just finished programming all the channels out of it I don’t like, like that stupid Telemundo crap.”
“What? How’re we going to watch the game then?”
“Yeah, I can’t stand their jibber-jabbering. We need to deport their greasy asses like pronto.”
“What are you talking about? I’m Mexican.”
“What?! Noooo. You’re white as I am and you’ve got blue eyes.”
“Some of us do, dickweed.”
“Hey, who’re you calling a dickweed, dickweed!?”
“You, you eleven-toe-wife-havin’, redneck dickweed!”
“Yeah? Well, I got your dickweed right here! You want to see it!?
(five second pause)
“Look, could you just go now?”
“Yeah, let’s see… that’s an extra large pepperoni with extra cheese… comes to $13.02.
“Here’s fifteen, keep the change.”
“Thanks, man. Hey, I didn’t mean you’re greasy or anything…”
“Just go.”
“Yeah, and football sucks. Futbol rules.”
(shuts door)
“That’s soccer, not football! Learn to speak American already!”


Beau December 15, 2009 at 5:06 pm


I’ll take that as a “No.” You weren’t aware, fine. Vox noticed it, I quoted it, you haven’t refuted it. Ignorance of a similarity doesn’t negate the same. Neither does labeling with the straw man epithet exorcise it either. Neither does just changing the subject via reboot.

Of course, you’re free to discuss whatever you please. Just know it’s noted you haven’t put to rest the similarity of your desirism and Mao’s murderous mental process.


lukeprog December 15, 2009 at 9:16 pm


I have posts on this site at many different levels. I’m quite aware that the more technical stuff hurts my readership count.


lukeprog December 15, 2009 at 9:20 pm

G. Hankins,

Thanks for the kind words. I’m not sure why you’re getting server errors on this site. Enjoy your VD upsettings.


lukeprog December 15, 2009 at 9:31 pm


I don’t even know where to begin. What is similar about Mao’s theory of morality and desirism? I think you must not understand desirism. Please explain what you think Mao’s theory of morality is, and I’ll explain what is crucially different about desirism.


Taranu January 9, 2010 at 10:13 am

Luke, what do you mean by background knowledge? In case of a historical hypothesis does background knowledge mean the historical context or does it encompass a wider range? For instance that we don’t see people who died crucified walking around with their wounds healed after three days. Or that no supernatural explanation has ever been shown to work, but there is a large number of naturalistic explanations for things that were once thought of as supernatural.


lukeprog January 9, 2010 at 11:28 am


There are many accounts of what types of ‘background knowledge’ are relevant to successful explanation, but I think I mean something more like your first proposal about dead men not walking around.


Leave a Comment