Rescuing Dawkins’ Case Against God (part 1)

by Luke Muehlhauser on January 6, 2010 in Criticism of Atheists,General Atheism

See the index.

richard dawkins

Let us consider Richard Dawkins’ main argument against the existence of God.

But first: I wrote recently about The Courtier’s Reply to Dawkins and other atheists. Dawkins gave an argument for why no Creator God exists, and instead of addressing his argument, many believers instead complained that Dawkins hasn’t read what theologians have to say about grace or salvation. This is like a villager pointing out that the Emperor has no clothes, and the Emperor’s courtier replying that the villager hasn’t read sophisticated books about the colors and textures of the Emperor’s imaginary fabrics. Such a reply misses the point that the whole subject of colors and textures for the Emperor’s clothes is irrelevant because the Emperor has no clothes. This is The Courtier’s Reply.

So to reply to Dawkins’ argument against the existence of a Creator God, one must address his argument directly.

Still, Dawkins does write about the particulars of Christian theology on occasion, so one may complain that Dawkins does not rebut the most sophisticated theological accounts of grace or salvation available.

But Dawkins wasn’t trying to engage the particulars of sophisticated theologies defended by a few hundred scholars. He wrote against the popular theologies believed by millions of people. And of course, if his case against theism succeeds, then all theologies – popular or sophisticated – fail.

Many educated Christians are happy to acknowledge that the average Christian does not have a coherent theology about salvation or grace, and that atheistic (and theistic) critiques of naive theologies succeed.

But then, isn’t it true that most atheists probably don’t have well-considered reasons for not believing in any gods? Aeiluindae wrote:

I think the same thing can apply to atheism, in many respects. There are plenty of people, perhaps a majority, who don’t believe in a god or gods [and] hold their views because of arguments [for atheism] that are discredited… Should I then only address them when I talk about atheism?

I think it’s true that most atheists don’t have well-considered reasons for disbelieving in gods. Most people just don’t put that much effort into ensuring the truth of their worldview, atheist and theist alike.

So what of Aeilunidae’s question? Should theists only address naive atheism when they argue against atheism?

It is up to the theist to choose his own battles. I think there is a great deal of naive atheism that is worth debunking. We can begin, for example, with Dawkins’ central argument against theism, found in chapter four of The God Delusion.

We will examine Dawkins’ argument not by offering an irrelevant Courtier’s Reply, but by engaging his argument directly.

One of Dawkins’ central points seems to be that to offer God as an explanation for our complex world does nothing, because it leaves the explanation itself – God – totally unexplained:

To explain [something] by invoking a supernatural Designer is to explain precisely nothing, for it leaves unexplained the origin of the Designer.1

Or, as Dawkins put it on the Colbert Report, which is surely the source for his most well-formed arguments:

COLBERT: “See, if I just think that [clap!] God did it, that I can understand.”

DAWKINS: “And who just did God then?”

I’ll let William Lane Craig explain the problem with this kind of argument:

Dawkins says that you cannot infer a Designer of the universe [from] the complexity of the universe because this raises a further question: namely, “Who designed the Designer?” [But] this argument is quite inept, because philosophers of science recognize that in order to recognize an explanation as the best explanation, you don’t have to have an explanation of the explanation…

Let me give you an example. Suppose archaeologists digging in the earth were to come across artifacts looking like arrowheads and pottery shards… it would obviously be justifiable to infer that these artifacts were the products of some lost tribe of people, even if the archaeologists had no idea whatsoever who these people were or how they came to be there.

Similarly, if astronauts were to discover a pile of machinery on the back side of the moon, they would be justified in inferring that these were the products of intelligent design, even if they had no idea whatsoever where this machinery came from or who put it there…

In fact… if in order to recognize an explanation as the best you have to have an explanation of the explanation, that leads immediately to an infinite regress. You’d need to have an explanation of the explanation of the explanation and so on… to infinity. You would never have an explanation of anything, which would destroy science. [So] Dawkins’ principle, if adopted, would actually be completely destructive of science. That’s how inept this argument is.

I think it is worthwhile for theists and atheists alike to debunk such naive arguments so that we can focus instead on the merits of good arguments for and against theism.

So I think it’s worthwhile for theists like Aeilunidae to critique naive atheism. But of course I am welcome to reply, “Yes, I agree, but those are not my reasons for accepting atheism. You have not debunked my reasons for being an atheist.” This is akin to the Not My Theology reply from theists, which I said could be legitimate.

So it is up to each believer whether he wants to challenge naive forms of atheism or sophisticated forms of atheism. Both are worthwhile pursuits, I think, as long as we try to avoid ignorance and dishonesty.

  1. The Blind Watchmaker, page 141. []

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{ 101 comments… read them below or add one }

AG January 6, 2010 at 10:46 am

Luke, just in case you didn’t know, Vox replied to your last letter a while ago. I hope you intend to keep your exchange going.

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John D January 6, 2010 at 10:50 am

I don’t really think that is fair representation of Dawkins’s argument. It has been a while since I read his book so maybe my memory is overly favourable but as far as I recall his objection is not based on the premise that “the explanation needs an explanation”.

Rather, he argued that God was being invoked to explain an improbable amount of complexity, but that this was a lousy explanation since God himself would be highly complex. in other words, if complexity is what is in need of an explanation, then complexity cannot be invoked to explain it.

Now this raises some issues about divine simplicity (which Dawkins acknowledges in some of his public talks — check out the Q & A in his Berkeley talk on atheism, available on his youtube channel). Dawkins would say, in line with your point above, that most people don’t hold to such an abstract concept of God.

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lukeprog January 6, 2010 at 10:50 am

AG,

I replied to his most recent letter here. I’m waiting on him.

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lukeprog January 6, 2010 at 10:54 am

John D,

Here’s Dawkins on page 114 of The God Delusion:

To explain [something] by invoking a supernatural Designer is to explain precisely nothing, for it leaves unexplained the origin of the Designer.

As for Dawkins’ complexity argument, there are many other problems with it which I won’t address here. In this post I only rebutted his point, quoted from page 114, about an explanation requiring an explanation.

I’ll add this quote to the post to make sure people know I’m not misrepresenting Dawkins.

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elribla January 6, 2010 at 10:54 am

WLC’s reply is too simple. It was the same reply that Lennox gave to Dawkins in one debate. The example of the arrowheads is inaccurate because the designers have an explanation, namely evolution. The central point here is that “complexity” can create simpler things, but “complexity” itself must have a simpler origin.

In other words, God could create simpler things (a universe).It could even fine tuned the universe. But what about God’s complexity. Who fine tuned God?

Craig here says that god is timeless and casuality doesn’t apply to him. But that’s not causality. You still need an explanation for God (no matter if he is outside time).

Craig’s last resort to this argument is that minds are very simple and they produce complex things (theorems and so on).

Well, minds (simple things?) are a byproduct of the brain (amazingly complex) (remember that complexity can create simpler things) but the brain has an explanation in terms of evolution by gradual degrees.

I don’t think that mind ideas are complex. They are abstract objects like morality. They have no energy so, strictly, they are simpler than the brain.

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lukeprog January 6, 2010 at 10:57 am

elribla,

The purpose of my post, and that one small part of Craig’s rebuttal, is to show not that Dawkins’ entire argument fails, but that the point about explanations requiring an explanation is nonsense.

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AG January 6, 2010 at 10:58 am

Ah, thanks.

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Josh January 6, 2010 at 11:30 am

I think that both you and Craig are misrepresenting Dawkin’s argument. Dawkins is definitely NOT saying that an explanation requires an explanation, and Craig’s argument (like pretty much every single argument he has ever made) is complete hogwash.

Dawkins argument is inextricably linked to his (let’s call it) “argument from complexity” that explaining the existence of a complex thing (say the world) by the existence of another complex thing (say god) is not entirely convincing. This is why Craig completely misses Dawkins point, and it seems like you are too. In fact, Craig’s example of an arrowhead is perfect, because in this case we have an apparently complex object (the arrowhead) and we need to explain it. So we posit that it was created by some people.

“AHA!” Craig says, “you have just posited a complex thing to explain a complex thing and you have no problem with that!”

But, as mentioned earlier, this is a complete disanalogy. We DO have an explanation for the designer of the arrowhead (namely evolution). We have an explanation for evolution (namely differential survival of offspring due to heritable variation). etc. Now, I might run into Craig’s infinite regress, but this is an OBVIOUS problem with any attempt to explain anything. You eventually get to a point where you have to make some sort of “axiomatic” statement, for want of a better term. But that’s a completely different issue and MUCH bigger issue.

But that’s precisely the disanalogy. Dawkins is saying that any being that could have created the world would have been extremely complex and you might as well as have just posited that the universe always existed, or that the potential energy well to create the universe always existed, or something. And don’t give me divine simplicity nonsense, because I’ll just throw it right back with “universe simplicity” and then we’ve gone nowhere.

The gist of Dawkins, as I have read it and as I think Dawkins means it, is “In most cases, we don’t need a god to explain anything. In the small fraction of cases where a god could ‘explain’ something, the same reason we need god to explain that feature of the universe necessitates an explanation for god. Therefore it’s at best wishful thinking and at worst downright foolish to put a god there.”

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kennethos January 6, 2010 at 11:45 am

Luke:

Good post. Some salient points and reasons. I’ll disagree with you elsewhere on other matters, but here I agree. Thanks.

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lukeprog January 6, 2010 at 11:49 am

Josh,

I can’t figure out which part of my post you disagree with. I said nothing at all about the overall merits of Dawkins’ argument, only that “There are other problems with it as well…” which I did not discuss here at all.

Instead, I quoted Dawkins as saying that explaining design with a Designer doesn’t work because it leaves the Designer unexplained. And then I showed why that kind of reasoning doesn’t work.

Your misunderstand Craig. Craig does not give the arrowhead or moon junk analogy as an analogy for Dawkins’ argument, but as an illustration of why it is nonsense to require that explanations have for themselves an explanation.

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Bradm January 6, 2010 at 11:51 am

There seems to be a misunderstanding here as to what the Courtier’s reply is and why using it against theists is wrong.

If you read he Courtier’s reply, you see that the courtier is in fact an atheist (“Personally, I suspect that perhaps the Emperor might not be fully clothed…”). This makes sense since in Anderson’s original tale, the emperor and everybody else saw that there were no clothes but they were afraid to admit that they saw none. Everybody in the original story (and Myers’ addendum) are atheists. Anderson’s story would make no sense if the Emperor actually was wearing clothes or if some people actually did see clothes.

So the Courtier’s reply can’t be uttered from the mouth’s of theists, only atheists. Once a theist says “You haven’t considered such and such …” it changes the entire scenario and Anderson and Myers’ stories no longer apply to the situation.

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lukeprog January 6, 2010 at 11:59 am

Bradm,

What Myers called The Courtier’s Reply is very specific, and does change Anderson’s tale just a bit. But it’s still a useful analogy.

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elribla January 6, 2010 at 12:03 pm

Ok forget the “explanation of the explanation” issue and let’s summarize:

- Complex things come from simpler things.

- Complex things may create other complex things.

- Ultimately, complexity arises through a gradual process or, by another complex being which arised from a gradual process.

The question for theists is: How complex is God? Because I’m confused with the terms “timeless” and “changeless” which are often said to be attributes of God.

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lukeprog January 6, 2010 at 12:14 pm

elribla,

Different theists give very different answers to that question. I’ll write more about this topic in the future.

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Bradm January 6, 2010 at 12:17 pm

Luke,

Yeah, it’s very specific. And I’m not even sure if Myers understood what he wrote. Myer’s doesn’t change the tale so that either 1) the emperor actually has clothes or 2) that anybody actually sees the clothes. He couldn’t because if he changed either of those, the story would make no sense.

The only thing that I think it might be useful reply for is atheists who, as Dennett would say, “believe in belief.”

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Scott Scheule January 6, 2010 at 12:17 pm

¨Dawkins has replied that he isn’t trying to debunk sophisticated theologies. He’s trying to debunk the notions of grace and salvation that are accepted by millions and millions of common believers. Sophisticated theology just isn’t the subject of Dawkins’ criticism. It’s popular theology he wrote to debunk.¨

Do you have a source for this? I don’t ask to be rude; I’m honestly curious, as Orr’s review in the New York Review of Books seems to state the opposite:

“Dawkins explicitly stated that he was targeting all forms of the God Hypothesis, including deism, and insisted that all were victims of his arguments.”

Alternatively Orr refers merely to the Ultimate Boeing 747 gambit as being ambitious, while on other topics–salvation and grace–Dawkins is only aiming at the multitude. It’s been a while since I’ve read his book.

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Aeiluindae January 6, 2010 at 12:26 pm

Didn’t think I’d spark a post with that comment. I largely agree with your criticism of Dawkins’s argument. Honestly, he’d probably pretty much ignored because his arguments don’t hold water if it weren’t for his grandstanding about religion being a plague on society and such. His is rather less rational than he claims to be, much of the time.

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eric January 6, 2010 at 12:37 pm

i don’t understand at all how WLC’s example is analogous.

archaeologists pull from their own experiences and proven data to induce that, once again, uncovered arrowheads and pottery shards were likely products of a lost tribe of people. they posit nothing more complex than themselves and their own societies and technologies.

the analogous scenario, it seems to me, is for the archaeologists to determine that the arrowheads were fashioned by gods, or by some other immaterial force which they have no direct experience with.

as soon as we go completely beyond the scope of our knowledge and experience, as we do when we presume to explain the origin of space and time, any guess seems as good as any other.

can you explain to me how WLC gets away with claiming that archaeologists’ conclusions of human origin when they dig up human garbage is the same as theists’ concluding the existence of god from the existence of everything?

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lukeprog January 6, 2010 at 12:37 pm

Scott,

See my footnote re: Dawkins targeting all forms of the God hypothesis.

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lukeprog January 6, 2010 at 12:40 pm

eric,

I repeat: Craig is not giving an analogy to Dawkins’ argument. He is giving an illustration of why one cannot require that explanations themselves have an explanation.

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eric January 6, 2010 at 1:16 pm

i guess…
but it seems like a disingenuous way of implying that god making the universe is as apparent as tribal humans making arrowheads.

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lukeprog January 6, 2010 at 1:19 pm

eric,

I didn’t see Craig implying even that. He was merely illustrating how it was possible to offer a successful explanation that wasn’t itself well-explained.

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Anthony January 6, 2010 at 1:25 pm

I fail to see a problem with Dawkins’ argument. Dawkins is not criticizing a simple explanation, as in, “Where did the universe come from?”. To posit that this is God is as reasonable as any other explanation we can surmise, because we frankly have no idea. The force of Dawkins’ argument is that God is often the answer to the question, “How can a universe, or existence in general,have come into existence?”, to which the answer from a theist would be that God created it. To answer the question like that demands that we understand how a God able to create our existence came into existence. To be unable to answer “Who designed the designer?” renders your answer a non-answer, because it doesn’t explain existence; it just adds a new layer of existence that needs explaining.

Beyond that, for every explanation that man has ever come up with, he’s always understood that the explanation he came up with had an explanation. For example, if we found moon junk, we may presume that aliens designed it (which isn’t immediately necessary), but we would likewise presume that the aliens had an explanation. It’s the baggage of scientific inquiry. There should never be an end. There should always be more to explain. But with the God hypothesis, we are asked to accept that the explanation doesn’t have an explanation, and can’t have an explanation. But this is an unacceptable answer, since all answers that posit that god is timeless and changeless are baseless speculation and have done nothing to increase our knowledge. So, I will continue to avail myself of Dawkins’ argument, since it really does create a quandary for the person trying to just offer God as the final answer to the question of where it all came from.

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Paul January 6, 2010 at 1:29 pm

Luke -

You wrote “I think it’s true that most atheists don’t have well-considered reasons for disbelieving in gods. Most people just don’t put that much effort into ensuring the truth of their worldview, atheist and theist alike.”

I agree with the second sentence but I think the first one may not be relevant. It may probably be true but it is ultimately a meaningless statement.

Why should there be a requirement of atheists to have a well considered reason for disbelieving. More specifically (and silly analogy) why should atheists need to have more thought put into their disbelief in the existence of God than to rejecting the idea that toys come to life when one falls asleep.

Not being philosopher perhaps I am out of my league but I think the analogies provided by Dr. Craig fail.

Quoting Dr. Craig -

“because philosophers of science recognize that in order to recognize an explanation as the best explanation, you don’t have to have an explanation of the explanation…”

Seems reasonable enough. But what makes God, an entity we have no evidence exists beyond human imagination, be a best explanation? Or a better explanation than saying that we exist in a matrix like machine. So in some sense, in this case, the explanation does require an explanation. At least an explanation why it is better than the matrix or other like hypothesis.

As to the analogies -

“Let me give you an example. Suppose archaeologists digging in the earth were to come across artifacts looking like arrowheads and pottery shards… it would obviously be justifiable to infer that these artifacts were the products of some lost tribe of people, even if the archaeologists had no idea whatsoever who these people were or how they came to be there.

Similarly, if astronauts were to discover a pile of machinery on the back side of the moon, they would be justified in inferring that these were the products of intelligent design, even if they had no idea whatsoever where this machinery came from or who put it there”

These comparisons seems like a fallacy of equivocation to me. To compare this scenario to that of God being an explanatory power for our existence.

The reason the implied conclusions are obvious is because both have, at least, the appearance of being something that is artificially created.

If we had no idea what an arrow or pottery shard looked like would there be an obvious conclusion that they were created artificially. I think nature provides great many examples of the appearance of design that have legitimate natural explanations for it.

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Kristinn January 6, 2010 at 1:55 pm

Luke

How is WCL’s argument about the arrowheads an answer to anyone claiming that explanations themselves need to have an explanation?

A tribe having made the arrowheads is very reasonable, as we know how tribes come to exist. Technojunk on a distant planet also may come from a “tribe” as we understand that such life can evolve and leave technology behind. So those answers are legitimate answers that can be traced back pretty far, – in regression – at least in plausable theoory, not going in to complete fantasy/theism.

“But god did it…” on the other hand is a complete copout, as he (god) is supposed to simultaniously be: to complex to comprehend and a simple force of infinite kindness – or something like that. God really is an un-explained answer, while tribes and even alien “tribes” are not – as we have evolution and abiogenesis theories.

I don’t see WCL having gotten anywhere with his argument.

Do you think it makes sense?

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lukeprog January 6, 2010 at 1:59 pm

Anthony,

You wrote

To answer the question like that demands that we understand how a God able to create our existence came into existence. To be unable to answer “Who designed the designer?” renders your answer a non-answer, because it doesn’t explain existence; it just adds a new layer of existence that needs explaining.

But here you are merely repeating Dawkins’ mistake. Consider the machines found on the far side of the moon. We offer the explanation “Some kind of intelligent being or beings designed them.” But then, how did the intelligent beings get to the far side of the moon? To be unable to answer this question does not mean that our explanation about intelligent beings fails.

Again, such a requirement would lead to an infinite regress of explanations.

So you say the problem is that theists say God doesn’t have an explanation. But this is irrelevant to the issue at hand. Whether or not God has an explanation is another matter, and much has been written about it.

Even if theists cannot give an explanation for God, that does not mean Dawkins’ reasoning is sound. God doesn’t need to himself be explained in order for God to be the best explanation for something.

I’m not saying God IS the best explanation for anything, I’m just saying that even if God himself was unexplained, that wouldn’t mean he couldn’t be the best explanation for some phenomenon.

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lukeprog January 6, 2010 at 2:07 pm

Paul,

You wrote:

“Why should there be a requirement of atheists to have a well considered reason for disbelieving? More specifically (and silly analogy) why should atheists need to have more thought put into their disbelief in the existence of God than to rejecting the idea that toys come to life when one falls asleep.”

Agreed. I never said people should have reasons for NOT believing in something.

Craig’s analogies about arrowheads and machines on the moon were not meant to establish that God IS the best explanation for something. They were only meant to show that in order for something to be the best explanation, it need not itself have an explanation.

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lukeprog January 6, 2010 at 2:14 pm

Kristinn,

Please offer an explanation for the beings that created the machines on the backside of the moon. I don’t think you have a successful one.

In any case, these are only illustrations. The argument that philosophers of science (like Peter Lipton) give against the requirement that successful explanations must themselves be explained is that such a requirement leads to infinite regress, and would leave us without any explanations for anything.

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Anthony January 6, 2010 at 2:21 pm

Thanks for the reply.
I see your point, luke, and I quite agree that God just may be the best expalanation, and we would not need to expalin the explanation for that to be the case. I believe the confusion is in my explanation of how I view Dawkins’ argument, which may be quite distant from how Dawkins’ himself sees it.

Let me rephrase the question. “How is it possible that our universe came into existence, as opposed to nothing?” The questions is asking for more than just a physical/non-physical process. To posit that God created the universe is simply to beg the question, “How is it possible that God exists, as opposed to nothing?” Or, as Dawkins’ argues, “Who designed the designer?”

Now my question might be fundamentally different than Dawkins’, and for that, I would possibly adivse Dawkins to rephrase his question, but the force of Dawkins’ argument is still present. To invoke an unexplainable, unverifiable, supernatural explanation is a non-explanation. It is an uneducated guess. It also doesn’t explain the improbability of the universe either, because it immediately invokes the improbability of a deity, far more complex and imcomprehensible than our universe.

While God may be the ultimate answer, we have no way to say it is, with our extemely limited understanding.

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lukeprog January 6, 2010 at 2:28 pm

Anthony,

The best book on why God is a terrible explanation for anything is Theism and Explanation.

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Ryan January 6, 2010 at 2:36 pm

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Reginald Selkirk January 6, 2010 at 2:38 pm

Lukeprog: Craig’s response is the same steaming pile of BS which constitutes much of Intelligent Design Creationism. I am disappointed that you find it the least bit convincing.

Why do archaeologists know that arrowheads and pottery shards are evidence of human design? Because they have known examples to which they can compare them. If you are familiar with the archaeological literature, you will know that there are articles discussing whether a piece of rock is just a rock, or was shaped by humans for use as a tool. You will know that there are articles discussing bones with cuts on them, and describing actual experiments about what sorts of cuts on bone might be caused by butchery and what sorts of cuts might be caused by posthumous weathering.To make this analogy work, Craig has to show us at least one Universe which we know is the product of divine design. There are no such examples.

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Kristinn January 6, 2010 at 2:42 pm

Luke,

I suppose that somekind of intelligent lifeform, perhaps much like ourselves, or perhaps rather different, placed the machinery on the moon sometime. There can then be numerous ideas of how and when, but the mechanics of it are not so very distant or incomprehensible – asuming various plausable spacetraveling techniques already proposed by scientists.

The regress leads to the big bang, asuming evolution and abiogenesis, so it leads to the same question in the end. And _that_ question can not be answered by saying “god did it”, because that answer is based on no knowledge or testable fact of any kind – only belief.

If some of the mechanics are known, the most likely answer based on them is the best, until no answer is available, only speculation, where, again any speculation based on fact is better than pure fantasy.

The key being testable knowledge. The difference being that the one answer truly has no explanation, while the other does have an explanation.

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Sharkey January 6, 2010 at 2:44 pm

Luke, I think WLC and you are still not understanding Dawkin’s position. Explanations in science _are_ posited on a set of other explanations; scientific explanations must be described in terms of the fundamental assumptions (which, admittedly, may not be entirely accurate due to errors in the theoretical framework). Each level of science is explained in the language of the ‘layer’ underneath1: evolution built upon biology, biology built upon microbiology, microbiology built upon organic chemistry, ad nauseam to fundamental physics.

Scientific explanations absolutely require additional explanations to be taken seriously. For example, cellular signaling must be explained in terms of chemical reactions; these reactions are explained by atomic models, atomic models are explained by quantum mechanics. This is why homeopathy, ESP, dualist minds, etc do not engender serious study: the positive explanations for their negligible effects contradict fundamental assumptions of the ‘supporting layer’, while the negative explanations are consistent with our knowledge of reality (explainable by experimental error, statistical noise, etc).

Now, a major research topic is working towards the “Theory of Everything”, a search for the fundamental premises of the universe, and the expectation2 is that the final explanation will be self-contained (zero assumptions required). I’m pretty sure Dawkins is confident that a closed explanation for the universe and its origins will be found, which is why WLC’s argument is faulty (I can’t cite chapter and verse, but I don’t think I’m incorrect). Dawkins is expecting the explanation regress to terminate at a base case (the ToE), while a proponent of the “complexity argument” has no terminating case due to the very structure of the argument (as described by Dawkins).

At this point, theists are quick to jump in and say “God is the fundamental premise, that’s where the regression stops”. Fine, but this hypothetical theist has just agreed that God is now a scientific problem, and therefore scientific evidence is required before that explanation can be accepted.

- Sharkey

(1) Not exactly true, science is more of a web, but the hierarchical layer metaphor is close enough.

(2) This may not occur if a closed fundamental explanation is forever unknown, resulting in the victory of the agnostics. We’ll know science works pretty good, but we’ll never know the reason, and we’ll never know if someday reality will just stop working. In that case, Dawkins is in the same boat as the theist: either an infinite regress of explanations, or arbitrarily-chosen assumptions.

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Paul Wright January 6, 2010 at 2:45 pm

Perhaps we can rescue Dawkins: the problem with the theistic argument is not that its explanation requires a further explanation, but that it is an argument which proves too much, including things which theists wouldn’t want to sign up to. That is, if the theist argument is that “the universe requires a creator, and we call that God”, the atheist might reply “OK, so the universe is explained by God. Well then, God requires a creator, so what do we call that?” The theist must then abandon the principle that things require creators (or whatever principles their argument does rest on), or modify it to distinguish between Gods and universes (as Craig does with the Kalam), or accept that God has a creator.

Are you planning to blog about the paper the ex-apologist mentioned? Did you see Alex Byrne’s piece about Hume and Dawkins a while back?

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Scott Scheule January 6, 2010 at 2:57 pm

Luke,

Thank you, but I was rather looking for support for the claim that:

“Dawkins has replied that he isn’t trying to debunk sophisticated theologies.”

What I meant to ask is: Where did Dawkins reply that he isn’t trying to debunk sophisticated theologies?

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Paul January 6, 2010 at 2:58 pm

Luke,

You responded to me -

lukeprog: Craig’s analogies about arrowheads and machines on the moon were not meant to establish that God IS the best explanation for something. They were only meant to show that in order for something to be the best explanation, it need not itself have an explanation.

I concede, in part. If one is going to claim A is the best explanation for B then I think it is legitimate to explain why A is the best explanation. I don’t think the origins of A need to be explained.

Do you agree with this?

From Craig –
“Dawkins says that you cannot infer a Designer of the universe [from] the complexity of the universe because this raises a further question: namely, “Who designed the Designer?””

Perhaps Dawkins should have stated something along the lines of – “One cannot infer a designer of the universe without first explaining why designer is the best explanation.”

So it becomes less about explaining how God came to be and rather about explaining the reasons why God is the best explanation.

I think it possible that as part of explaining why God is the best explanation the origins of God might come up.

So perhaps Dawkins took a short cut when writing his book (which I haven’t yet read).

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lukeprog January 6, 2010 at 3:05 pm

Paul,

“One cannot infer a designer of the universe without first explaining why the designer is the best explanation” is basically a tautology of logic. Of course an inference is unwarranted until someone explains why it is warranted. Unfortunately, theists keep forgetting this, and assume that “God did it” is all they need to say. This should be the first question atheists ask in response to almost every theistic argument ever given: WHY is God the best explanation for apparent design? WHY is God the best explanation for consciousness? WHY is God the best explanation for morality?

But really, everyone should just read Theism and Explanation. John D is also doing a useful series on this.

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lukeprog January 6, 2010 at 3:06 pm

Scott,

Dawkins IS trying to debunk sophisticated theologies, but not by debunking the particulars of sophisticated theologies. He tries to make sophisticated theologies irrelevant by debunking theism altogether. That’s what my footnote says.

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Bill Maher January 6, 2010 at 3:12 pm

In Dawkin’s defense, his books on evolution really are enjoyable and informative. He should have just stuck with those. By doing so, he is making Bill Craig’s intelligent design notions easy for people to articulate against.

Also, for those who have not seen The Genius of Charles Darwin, I think you should watch it it. It is a superb documentary that covers an absolute ton of topics on evolution.

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lukeprog January 6, 2010 at 3:18 pm

John D,

Oops, that quote is from page 141 of The Blind Watchmaker, in the middle of his exposition of the same argument he gives in The God Delusion using different words.

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Scott Scheule January 6, 2010 at 3:26 pm

I take it then, that, contrary to what you said, Dawkins hasn’t “replied he isn’t trying to debunk sophisticated theologies,” since your only source seems to be a citation to yourself arguing that he is indeed trying to do what in the text you say he has replied he isn’t trying to do.

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lukeprog January 6, 2010 at 3:38 pm

Reginald,

You are about the 10th person to misunderstand Craig. Craig was NOT arguing by analogy that God is the best explanation for anything. He was only illustrating that we cannot require that good explanations themselves be fully explained.

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John D January 6, 2010 at 3:42 pm

lukeprog: Oops, that quote is from page 141 of The Blind Watchmaker, in the middle of his exposition of the same argument he gives in The God Delusion using different words.  

Fair enough. I tend to remember arguments in terms of what I wish the person had said as opposed to what they actually said. I just thought the problem of complexity was what Dawkins was concerned with, as opposed to the more general problem of explanation.

It may be telling that the God Delusion and the Blind Watchmaker are the only two Dawkins books that I do not own.

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Paul January 6, 2010 at 3:43 pm

I reread the post and now have a different question -

“I think the same thing can apply to atheism, in many respects. There are plenty of people, perhaps a majority, who don’t believe in a god or gods [and] hold their views because of arguments [for atheism] that are discredited… Should I then only address them when I talk about atheism?”

It seems to me that most atheists are atheists not because of some argument for atheism but rather because arguments for theism are not convincing. Or that arguments against theism are convincing.

Am I wrong in thinking this?

If categories for arguments were to be defined, is the following list a decent approximation?

1. Arguments for deism.
2. Arguments for specific type of deism (theism)
3. Arguments against deism.
4. Arguments against specific type of deism (theism)
5. Arguments for atheism
6. Arguments against atheism.
7. other ??

Are #3, #4 and #5 actually separate categories or are they one and the same?

I am inclined to keep them separate although I am hard pressed to think of an argument in #5 off the top of my head.

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lukeprog January 6, 2010 at 3:52 pm

Scott,

I see it as a qualification, you see it as a contradiction. That’s fine.

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lukeprog January 6, 2010 at 4:12 pm

Paul,

I didn’t assert that atheists should have good reasons for their nonbelief, no.

Depends what you mean by arguments for atheism. Does that mean arguments against classical tri-omni theism? In that case, the problem of evil would be the clearest example, as would arguments from design hiddenness and others.

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majinrevan666 January 6, 2010 at 4:14 pm

I’ve never understood Dawkin’s argument.
Why should simplicity be the starting point? Why is it somehow easier to explain?

I think the whole matter is resolved by a simple argument.

1)That which has the hallmark of intelligent design can be inferred to have been intelligently design if it is conceivable for it to have had an intelligent designer.

2)God, by definition, cannot have had an intelligent designer.

3)Therefore, god was not intelligently designed.

As for ultimate explanations, I think that a necessary intelligence, no matter how complex, is the best explanation.
Comparing contingent and necessary complexity isn’t a very good comparison.

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Bebok January 6, 2010 at 4:40 pm

Luke,

I think you (and Craig) are confusing one mere inference with the best explanation.
Suppose you find a coin on a street. To say “There must be a mint that minted it” is not to explain your discovery.
Archaeologists who say “Arrowheads we found must have been produced by some lost tribe” are not giving the whole explanation of the discovery of arrowheads, they are just beginning their enquiry.
To give the best explanation is to provide relatively many links to the statements that are already widely regarded as true (sometimes this involves re-evaluating some statements). There is no risk of an infinite regress. Explaining is not linear, like Craig suggests.

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Scott Scheule January 6, 2010 at 4:44 pm

Luke,

All I was after was a simple citation, nothing requiring controversial categorization. You said Dawkins gave a specific reply: “I’m not trying to debunk sophisticated theologies.” I asked where he said this. You said see your footnote, but the footnote doesn’t give an answer to that question.

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lukeprog January 6, 2010 at 5:15 pm

Scott,

My footnote explains that Dawkins does not try to engage the particularities of sophisticated theologies, at least not anywhere that I’ve read. Instead, Dawkins tries to make sophisticated theology irrelevant altogether by debunking theism. Do I need to cite where Dawkins tries to debunk theism?

Oh, and as for where Dawkins offered that reply, I can’t remember, but I think he’s said in many interviews that he isn’t trying to debunk theologians but instead the Christianity believed in by millions of people.

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Charles January 6, 2010 at 5:24 pm

Paul,

I can’t speak for all atheists. I can only explain what happened to me.

I didn’t leave the Faith for emotional reasons or, because something happened. My de-conversion was gradual. It took about 15 years.

The biggest eye-opener for me was probably the other Christians I met in college. In high school, I thought evolution was false, women couldn’t teach men, and Democrats were evil (or close enough). But in college, I met Christians who believed the opposite of all these things. It forced me to search for reasons for the views I held. Along the way, I learned there was no way the Flood could have happened how the Bible said, because if there was evidence we would have found it, and that quantum mechanics, when properly understood, meant that perhaps everything I thought I knew about the nature of reality was wrong.

Then, in grad school, I played a lot of D&D. I got to see what things would really look like if there was a God. I got to see evil thwarted, prayers answered, mountains moved. Then I looked around at my own life, and I saw the difference.

Then I had a son. I studied human development, because I wanted to be a good Dad, and I decided the sin nature of man, as taught in the Bible, just didn’t add up.

But, the nail in the coffin was when I accepted evolution. I just didn’t see how the God I knew and loved could use such a horrifying means to bring about his creation.

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lukeprog January 6, 2010 at 5:33 pm

Bebok,

I’m not sure what you mean by saying that explaining is not linear. Do you mean that biology is explained by chemistry, which is explained by physics, which ultimately may be explainable by psychology, which in turn is explained by biology again? What account of explanation would allow you to get away with an infinite regress of explanations required for each explanation?

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Torgo January 6, 2010 at 5:51 pm

Perhaps someone already made this point (but I don’t have time to read 53 comments): I’ve heard this reply from Craig before, but his analogy is flawed. The problem here isn’t having an explanation of the explanation, but of having a meaningful and coherent explanation to begin with. When we find arrowheads and infer they were made by intelligent humans, implied in this explanation is a limited range of means, materials, and intentions that were possibly employed in making the artifacts. As such, inferring human creators of these artifacts is meaningful, even if we can’t specify the precise means, materials, etc. used. We have a “ballpark” understanding of how these artifacts came about.

On the other hand, when one invokes a Designer or God, such ideas are so underdetermined (hopefully I’m using that word correctly) that they provide no real explanation, and especially not a scientific one. For instance, invoking a Designer or God tells us nothing about HOW such a being created life or the universe. It tells us little about the attributes of such a being, and nothing about his intentions, ends, etc.

In terms of what information and understanding it conveys, how does saying, “A Designer did it,” differ from saying, “It was magic”?

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Bebok January 6, 2010 at 6:48 pm

Luke,

I didn’t mean explaining whole disciplines, I don’t even think I understand what means “to explain biology”.
I meant single facts. In science, a single statement is never well explained by another single statement. It’s silly to say that the existence of a lost tribe is a good explanation of the discovery of arrowheads. This doesn’t explain much. In order to explain this discovery, we need to make a cohesive number of hypotheses (there was a tribe, there was a source of metal, the tribe used arches and so on) and search for the evidence of those hypotheses – namely, try to logically link those hypotheses to the statements we already regard as true. When we have relatively large number of such links, we say we have a good explanation. Sometimes those true statements we try to link to are connected more directly to one another (they belong to the same discipline), and sometimes not, sometimes we don’t even know those connections, sometimes there are only few statements we can think of linking to (the discipline is young), sometimes there is only one plausible hypothesis and sometimes dozens of plausible, but contradictory ones. But explaining is always like making a web, not like making a chain. We don’t need to search for all the links there are and all the statements that are missing to provide a good explanation.
Craig assumes that one statement can be explained by one statement at most, and our job is to find the right one.

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Jeffrey January 6, 2010 at 7:27 pm

I’m quite surprised that you think so little of the “who designed the designer” argument. To phrase it slightly differently, weaknesses in atheism are evidence for God only to the extent that theism doesn’t have the same weaknesses.

That’s how I set up my argument in Why I am an Atheist. Before my blog kinda died, this was the post that your top 10 blog list linked to as your favorite.

So what gives? I wrote it a couple weeks after finishing The God Delusion, and I thought I was making Dawkins’ argument.

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RedKing January 6, 2010 at 7:31 pm

Torgo,

I think your sentiments most closely echo mine. Normally, an explanation bridges a gap between what is unknown to what is known. For example, we “explain” magic tricks (the unknown) by appealing to mechanisms (false tops in boxes, mirrors) or other things that are already familiar. In the WLC reply, the reason the “lost tribe of people” is an explanation is valid, in part, because we have familiarity with some aspects of the explanation: we know what people are, and we would recognize the arrowheads as such due to their resemblance to other human-made chisel markings.

In the case of God, we are bridging an unknown (the origin of the Universe) with another unknown (God himself).

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drj January 6, 2010 at 7:31 pm

In contrast to Craig, I always viewed the potency of Dawkins’ argument coming from the complexity aspect, not the ‘one explanation demands another’ aspect. So in that sense, it sounds like Craig is knocking down a straw-man. Perhaps Dawkins simply wasn’t precise enough, but I seem to remember in the God Delusion, Dawkins spent a lot of time arguing that God would have to be more complex than the universe.

Since so many theological arguments go on-and-on about how we must be incredulous towards the possibility that the complexity in the universe or the complexity of life could arise without design, it seriously poses a problem for the theistic explanation if God himself seems as much, or more complex than the complexity that He is needed to explain. The belief that God could just exist becomes as deserving of our incredulity as the notion that the complexity in the universe could just exist, and therefore not a satisfying or good explanation. In other words, there is a double standard. Some complexity needs explaining, and for no good reason, some other type of complexity doesn’t.

It may be right to say that most theists don’t think of God as complex. But lets face it, divine simplicity really on works on deism. If we look at the purported powers of the Christian God, its incredibly absurd to suggest that such a being is simple.

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Beelzebub January 6, 2010 at 7:35 pm

I think the same thing can apply to atheism, in many respects. There are plenty of people, perhaps a majority, who don’t believe in a god or gods [and] hold their views because of arguments [for atheism] that are discredited… Should I then only address them when I talk about atheism?

I’m not sure the same standard can apply to atheism since it doesn’t have the general antecedent of God belief, or any belief, unless you want to equivocate about atheism being a “belief” in no belief. Since theists have no recourse in destroying an underlying premise, they are stuck trying to refute the most sophisticated of atheist arguments, while atheists always have the option of attacking the basic premise of “God.”

[But] this argument is quite inept, because philosophers of science recognize that in order to recognize an explanation as the best explanation, you don’t have to have an explanation of the explanation…

True, but “best explanation” must include plausibility, or else I can say that the arrowhead just materialized yesterday due to my new theory X, which says that macroscopic things pop into existence now and then. I have discovered a wonderful proof of this, but this text box is too small to contain it.

in fact… if in order to recognize an explanation as the best you have to have an explanation of the explanation, that leads immediately to an infinite regress. You’d need to have an explanation of the explanation of the explanation and so on… to infinity. You would never have an explanation of anything, which would destroy science.

Usually when science is bogged down in the regress of “explanation of explanation of explanation…” it means a problem is not being addressed correctly. Nature doesn’t lend itself well to sequential analysis, but fortunately it doesn’t have to. Most of the time complex systems settle into stable equilibrium states that would never be understood through sequential analysis. I am still allowed to make a specific statement about a quantity or event, even though deriving it through sequential causality would lead to infinite regress. For instance, without the concept of equilibrium, it would be exceedingly difficult or impossible determine concentrations in a chemical reaction, it would be impossible (or very hard) to find optimal strategies in games, and so on.

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Beelzebub January 6, 2010 at 7:41 pm

drj: It may be right to say that most theists don’t think of God as complex. But lets face it, divine simplicity really on works on deism. If we look at the purported powers of the Christian God, its incredibly absurd to suggest that such a being is simple.  

I seem to recall that Craig thinks God would only need to manifest conscious will, or something like that, and hence would be incredibly simple. This of course assumes non-material consciousness as a monolithic entity. For my part, I think omniscience itself would require one hell of a large hard drive.

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lukeprog January 6, 2010 at 7:44 pm

Jeffrey,

“Weaknesses in atheism are evidence for God only to the extent that theism doesn’t have the same weaknesses.”

Yup, I agree. The problem with offering God as an explanation is NOT that God himself remains unexplained. The problem with offering theism as an explanation is that it has very poor explanatory scope, ontological economy, simplicity, and so on. See Dawes’ Theism and Explanation.

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Paul January 6, 2010 at 8:51 pm

Charles: Then I had a son. I studied human development, because I wanted to be a good Dad, and I decided the sin nature of man, as taught in the Bible, just didn’t add up.

Charles -

Thanks for giving me a glimpse as to your process.

As to sin – I’ve commented at different occasions that I find sin, the biblical concept, entirely non-sensical. At least I haven’t come across a valid argument for it.

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oliver January 7, 2010 at 12:23 am

Luke,

I disagree with your assessment of the strength of Craig’s rebuttal to Dawkins’ argument about explanations.

In my view, Craig’s argument is aptly demolished here:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UGYQyWKCeDs

Perhaps you’ve overrated Craig’s response, Luke. I am truly surprised that you found it convincing at all.

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Ajay January 7, 2010 at 12:25 am

Luke,

I dont think i read Dawkins statement the same way as you or Craig does and i support his statement. Here is my explanation.

I dont think the Supernatural designer and the arrowhead designer example can be compared. We need to use “common sense” here to understand and appreciate Dawkins assessment of:

“To explain [something] by invoking a supernatural Designer is to explain precisely nothing, for it leaves unexplained the origin of the Designer”

In the case of arrow heads and pottery shards, we know that they are designed as we have experience of designing them and the uses.

But in the case of the universe and life, we know nothing except the big bang and the evolution but not necessarily the origin of it. We are in awe of it because of the complexities that led to it and we have no explanation. We can only just stay frustrated right now that we dont know how such complexity came about and how the universe and life maybe got created or came about.

If we speculate and try to satisfy ourselves that we have solved the problem by saying that it must have been created by a God, then we are in a much bigger problem because we then have the frustration to try to explain how the God has come about and therefore it doesnt solve anything.

It is maybe like a guy who is accused of stealing is trying to get away from that charge by saying that he was not in that place at that time stealing as he was busy somewhere else murdering someone. He may be acquitted of that stealing charge but he will now be charged with murder. So, this tactic of his doesnt solve his problems. He just created a bigger mess to solve his earlier mess.

The only reason we have invoked God is to get away from the problem of trying to explain the origin of Universe. There is no other reason or evidence to support it. But in the case of arrow heads and pottery shards, we have tons of evidence to support it as we know what arrow heads are or what potter shards are and what their purpose is. But in the case of Universe, we have no knowledge or evidence of any purpose of it unless you believe in the Bible etc.

Does my explanation above make sense or do you still think that Dawkins argument has no merit.

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oliver January 7, 2010 at 1:29 am

The key word is “BEST”. Once Craig says BEST explanation, it means that for a given question there are more than 2 candidates for that title, out of which one qualifies as the BEST. Best is a comparative term.

When faced with a number of possible explanations that are in competition, one would have to offer justifications for each of the proposed exlaplanations in order to see which one is best supported by evidence. The explanation best supported with evidence is usually declared the ‘best’ explanation.

Offering justifications or evidence in support of an explanation is an attempt at EXPLAINING THAT EXPLANATION. Thus, Craig’s claim that “Dawkins’ principle, if adopted, would actually be completely destructive of science.” is complete and utter nonsense. Explaining explanations is very esence of science, Luke.

So Craig fails on this one. Big time.

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Reginald Selkirk January 7, 2010 at 6:06 am

WLC: Similarly, if astronauts were to discover a pile of machinery on the back side of the moon, they would be justified in inferring that these were the products of intelligent design, even if they had no idea whatsoever where this machinery came from or who put it there…
/blockquote>
This again is a moronic rendition of the Intelligent Design eliminative filter which you should be ashamed to repeat uncritically. WLC’s science fictional example fails on multiple counts.

The example is science fictional. That indicates that WLC couild not come up with a real world archaelogical explanation that was more convincing. It also means WLC cannot rule out science fictional explanations, or he is revealed to be arbitrary and capricious (rule A). So, let’s consider some example explanations:

1) The “machinery” is actually natural substances of geological or physical explanation. Without a description of the scale and make up of the “machinery,” this cannot be ruled out. I.e. the elimination of this possibility is not so easy as Craig has made it out to be. The list of archaeological discoveries whose alleged designed origin was questionable, or even incorrect, is fairly lengthy.

2) The “machinery” is actually due to plant origins. Perhaps the cogs are actually pollen grains. Does this sound silly? Remember rule A.

3) Craig’s explanation of “intelligent design” is actually multiple explanations rolled into one. They would have to be considered separately, and the evidence for and against each would have to be weighed. Such as:
a) The reports of moon machinery are fraudulent.
b) The machinery was placed there by a modern Earth government, most likely the USA or Soviet Union.
c) The machinery was placed there by a modern Earth non-governmental organization, perhaps an evil megalomaniac set on taking over the universe (rule A again).
d) The machinery was built and placed on the moon by an ancient Earth civilization, such as Atlantis or Lemuria. Rule A.
e) The machinery was built by a moon civilization, past or present.
f) The machinery was placed by a civilization from elsewhere in our solar system.
g) The machinery was placed by a civilization from outside our solar system.

It certainly would matter what the origin of the machinery was and who had put it there. Is the composition of the machinery consistent with an origin on the moon, or did it likely come from elsewhere? Is the composition consistent with natural geological or physical origin, or is it likely the result of some technological origin like smelting? The level of technology implicated by the composition would matter a great deal, and would weigh in deciding on its origin.

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Reginald Selkirk January 7, 2010 at 6:17 am

Alleged 40,000-year-old human footprints in Mexico much, much older than thought

Craig – and you – make the simplistic argument that an object is assigned a “design” origin with evidence unstated. And yet the evidence that might lead to a design conclusion is crucial, and would include any indications as to origin, including age, composition, toolmarks, etc. The above-linked article concerns some impression in volcanic rock discovered in Mexico. Some researchers proposed that these impressions were human footprints. But when dating methods revealed the rock formation to be much older than previously thought, that hypothesis was abandoned by all reputable parties concerned, on the grounds that humans were not present in Mexico at the time of the rock formation. The questions of who and when are not separate from the question of what, they are intimately linked.

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lukeprog January 7, 2010 at 8:09 am

oliver,

Nope. DasAmericanAtheist asks “Wouldn’t supporting an explanation with argument and evidence BE explaining an explanation?” The answer is “no.” An explanation can have superior Bayesian probability or score better on the explanatory virtues with respect to a given explanans without itself being explained. Read… I dunno, any book on philosophy of science. I referenced Lipton’s book in the footnote; that’s a good one.

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lukeprog January 7, 2010 at 8:11 am

Ajay,

How many times do I have to repeat that the arrowhead and moon junk examples are NOT NOT NOT analogies for a supernatural designer? They are merely illustrations of a basic principle in philosophy of science – that in order for something to be the best explanation, you don’t need an explanation of the explanation. I swear I’ve repeated that about 10 times by now…

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lukeprog January 7, 2010 at 8:17 am

Reginald,

Re: footprints in Mexico.

You keep missing the point. I did not say that intelligent design would necessarily be the best explanation arrowheads. I said that IF intelligent design was the best explanation for arrowheads, we would not first have to have an explanation of our explanation.

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Reginald Selkirk January 7, 2010 at 8:34 am

lukeprog: Reginald,Re: footprints in Mexico.You keep missing the point. I did not say that intelligent design would necessarily be the best explanation arrowheads. I said that IF intelligent design was the best explanation for arrowheads, we would not first have to have an explanation of our explanation.  

No, I am not missing your point, your point is incorrect. The decision over whether the arrowheads are designed (or whether, those rocks are actually arrowheads at all) is NOT made independent of who might have made them and when.

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cbranch January 7, 2010 at 10:00 am

In my view, to call oneself an atheist is to expect that there will eventually be a scientific explanation for everything. So Dawkins’ argument makes perfect sense to me: if I ask “Where did the universe come from?” and the answer is God, then I must have asked the wrong question. What I really want to know then is where God came from. In other words, I could theoretically accept that the universe may have been created by God – if it turns out there is a scientific explanation for His existence. And of course a God for which there is a scientific explanation is not really God at all.

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Tony Hoffman January 7, 2010 at 10:26 am

What Dawkins wrote, as quoted in the OP, is “To explain [something] by invoking a supernatural Designer is to explain precisely nothing, for it leaves unexplained the origin of the Designer.”

I think that Craig misunderstands Dawkins’ point, or has chosen to mischaracterize Dawkins’ complaint. (I, too, am surprised that Luke would perpetuate this misunderstanding.)

It seems clear to me that all Dawkins is saying is that the theist is simply replacing one question with another. How does gravity work? The theist answer is that gravity works in the way that God has devised. But this does nothing to further explain gravity. And that’s all that Dawkins is saying — the theist is replacing one metaphysical question (the origin of the universe) with another (the origin of God). The increase in knowledge appears to be exactly none.

I’ve never understood why this complaint is considered so naive.

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Bebok January 7, 2010 at 10:37 am

Luke,

Maybe instead on invoking abstract and sophisticated theories of science you should find out how you explain things in an everyday life?
Suppose there’s an unusual crowd on the street that you see from your window and you want to find the best explanation of that unusual crowd. When I say “There are many people there, because they left the building where they normally are”, you are probably not satisfied with that answer, you need a further regression. But when I say “They left the building, because there was a bomb alert”, I think we can stop the regression, as we already have a plausible hypothesis, and now start to search for the evidence of that hypothesis. You don’t have to know who caused the alert to explain the crowd. You stop the regression when the hypothesis provides some relevant information and then search for the evidence, because there may be other plausible hypotheses (there was an accident on the street, or something). When you find a good evidence, you have a good explanation.
Craig, apart from mentioning that there are usually many statements (often not closely related to each other) that set up a good explanation, confuses a mere obvious implication (there was a lost tribe, people left the building) with a good hypothesis and with the best explanation, to suggest something like “in order to get a good explanation, we may choose either one simple statement or an infinite regress of statements, and as the latter is ineffective, we should pick the former.

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Bebok January 7, 2010 at 10:43 am

I mean, “Craig, apart from not mentioning”, of course.

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eric January 7, 2010 at 11:32 am

luke,
it seems like there’s enough confusion about this to do a whole Intro to Logic post on this concept alone. i’ve not studied logic at all, and must confess that i’m still confused.
if an explanation for something requires no explanation for itself how can we determine that it actually is the best explanation?
take for example:

person X claims:
A is the best explanation for C
person Y claims:
B is the best explanation for C
person X can explain A
person Y cannot explain B

is person X’s explanation better? why or why not? where does an argument go from here if neither explanation needs to explain itself.
this feels like a logic dead end, but it must just be the beginning.
perhaps i’m mixing up explanation and proof. certainly if person X can prove A and disprove B her argument wins. no?
sigh… i’m staying out of these logic conversations from now on.

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lukeprog January 7, 2010 at 2:29 pm

Reginald,

But I never said that, so I don’t understand your objection.

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lukeprog January 7, 2010 at 2:34 pm

Tony Hoffman,

Physicists do that all the time. We explained molecules in terms of atoms, but this left atoms completely unexplained. We explained atoms in terms of quarks, but this left quarks unexplained.

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lukeprog January 7, 2010 at 3:08 pm

eric,

One way of selecting a “best” explanation from among many options is to choose the one that has the most plausibility, explanatory power, explanatory scope, simplicity, and ontological economy. Notice that “is the best explained itself” is not one of the criteria.

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Tony Hoffman January 7, 2010 at 6:29 pm

We explained molecules in terms of atoms, but this left atoms completely unexplained. We explained atoms in terms of quarks, but this left quarks unexplained.

Yes, I see your point, but I think it misses what Dawkins is actually criticizing. Dawkins isn’t saying that a scientific explanation like the kind you refer to is a non-explanation because the end of the regression is ultimately unexplained; he’s saying that a metaphysical explanation that leaves the question unanswered is not an explanation.

The question that Dawkins seems to have been addressing is one of origins – Why is there something instead of nothing? For many, the universe is the ultimate something. (For others it’s God. Whatever.) But saying that the universe exists because God exists doesn’t answer the actual question “Why is there something (God, the Universe, whatever) instead of nothing?” And there I think Dawkins point is perfectly valid.

Look at it this way: Why do molecules behave the way they do? Because they’re made up of atoms. The second sentence answers the question. But what happens if we ask what Dawkins was getting at — why is there something instead of nothing? Because there’s God. That’s not really an answer to the question, nor is it an explanation.

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Jorg January 7, 2010 at 8:31 pm

I am sorry, Lane’s rebuttal is leaking all over. The primary problem with it is that in assuming other people who ahve created said arrowheads, we do not need to stray from the realm of the natural. The assumption of a supernatural God is much less warranted since we cannot, even in principle, imagine the kind of an entity/.force that would be responsible for the creation of the Universe (unless it was a prankster hacker doing her sophomore coding project and getting ready to pull the plug on us: but it would not be “God” in the sense Lane means, I assume). So, it seems that it is Lane’s rebuttal that is inept, and not Dawkins’ initial assertion. But we are used to that from Lane, of course.

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lukeprog January 7, 2010 at 8:40 pm

Jorg,

You’re about the 20th commenter to make this confusion. Craig’s analogy is NOT an argument to show that God is the best explanation for something. Rather, it merely illustrates that something can be the best explanation without itself being explained.

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Ajay January 7, 2010 at 11:28 pm

lukeprog: Ajay

Luke,

Just hear me out below and there is no need to respond if you feel u are repeating yourself.

I never meant to imply that the arrow head example is an analogy for super designer. I meant to just compare the “explanation requires an explanation” principle behind the examples.

Regarding the statement…. in order for something to be the best explanation, you don’t need an explanation of the explanation…..

I am not sure i entirely agree with that and i hope i am not taking on the entire philosophy of science when i say that.

I think that explanations themselves need to be explained and in the case of the arrow heads, they have been explained.

Let me elaborate…

The explanation is as follows…. from our own idea of the civilization, we know what arrow heads are used for and therefore we know that they must have been developed by humans or neanderthals as based on our knowledge so far only humans or neanderthals are capable of it.

So as Craig says, it must have been done by some lost tribe. I think that explanation is enough for now and satisfies everyone as no one is asking for the name of the person who developed that arrow head or his family name or the name of his pet etc etc.

In the case of the design of the universe, we have no such comparison… i.e. “lost tribe”. We just have no basic idea as we have nothing to compare it. All roads stop there the moment we come to the issue of the origin or the design of the universe.

Here i think we definitely need an explanation of its explantion or we just need to shut up and say we dont know. We cant suddenly say that God did it without an iota of explanation of how God could have come about.

If instead of an arrow head, we see a metal object which is shaped liked a shape we have never seen or know of any use from it, then we cant explain it by saying that it must have been created by a shape making machine which is shapeless etc etc. And you cant get away by saying that i dont need to explain that shape making machine as explanation dont need explanations. A better explanation could be that it may be a piece of meteor that hit us or that it is some scrap from a bigger metal object and since we know meteors exist or that metal making humans exist, that explanation is enough for now and we dont need more explanation.

So, my point is that some degree of explanation is required for an explanation and we cant say that no explanation is required for an explanation. Therefore, i dont think what Dawkin argues is naive.

Thanks for your patience and time to read the above.

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Torgo January 8, 2010 at 12:10 pm

lukeprog: Jorg,You’re about the 20th commenter to make this confusion. Craig’s analogy is NOT an argument to show that God is the best explanation for something. Rather, it merely illustrates that something can be the best explanation without itself being explained.  

Craig’s general point is fine, but he does in the video you linked to bring this point up in order to address Dawkins’ criticisms of invoking a Designer to explain life. And later in the video, Craig goes on to talk about God being this Designer. So, while Craig’s general point is, perhaps, uncontroversial, is it not fair to criticize his attempts to argue that God is the best explanation for the origins of life (or the Resurrection, etc.)?

I’ll also repeat an earlier point I made: The problem with invoking God or a Designer is that such a concept is so underdetermined as to be useless and uninformative. This Designer God could be anything, anyone, have any number of attributes, etc. Thus, it doesn’t tell us much. In contrast, saying that some tribe of humans made the arrowheads is limited in the possible attributes of the creators, and their specific identity is comparatively easy to narrow down to a short list of candidates.

Thus, having an explanation for the explanation is not the issue. Having a meaningful and intelligible explanation is, and an anonymous Designer or God does not fit the bill.

Would love to hear your thoughts on this.

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lukeprog January 8, 2010 at 12:59 pm

Torgo,

Yes, you are free to criticize Craig’s attempt to argue that God is a good explanation for the world. In fact, God’s failure to explain anything is one of the main reasons I’m an atheist. But that doesn’t make Dawkins right about successful explanations requiring that they themselves be explained.

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Torgo January 8, 2010 at 2:41 pm

Fair enough. Thanks.

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Eric January 8, 2010 at 2:59 pm

Hi Luke

Here’s a post to read to keep your spirits up as you try to point out for the umpteenth time the distinction between an argument by analogy and an illustration. ;)

See point (4) especially!

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lukeprog January 8, 2010 at 3:53 pm

Eric,

Oooooh… good post.

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josef johann January 9, 2010 at 12:16 am

lukeprog: John D,Here’s Dawkins on page 114 of The God Delusion:

Luke, I think you meant The Blind Watchmaker and page 141, not pg 114 of The God Delusion.

Dawkins himself is arguing against the notion that an explanation requires a further explanation, and showing that when you take the assumption away there is no motivation for positing a designer in the first place. Far from endorsing this requirement, he is using it to show how, in the context of an argument from improbability, the introduction of a designer is self-defeating.

For more evidence Dawkins does not believe explanations require explanations, we have the fact that Dawkins is willing to accept that self-replicating molecules were precursors to life, despite the origin of those molecules not being explained. He says in the same chapter:

[...] how long would we have to wait before random chemical events on the planet, random thermal jostling of atoms and molecules, resulted in a self-replicating molecule?

Chemists don’t know the answer to this question. Most modern chemists would probably say that we’d have to wait a long time by the standards of a human lifetime, but perhaps not all that long by the standards of cosmological time. The fossil history of earth suggests that we have about a billion years – one ‘aeon’, to use a convenient modern definition – to play with, for this is roughly the time that elapsed between the origin of the Earth about 4.5 billion years ago and the era of the first fossil organisms. But the point of our ‘numbers of planets’ argument is that, even if the chemist said that we’d have to wait for a ‘miracle’, have to wait a billion billion years – far longer than the universe has existed, we can still accept this verdict with equanimity. There are probably more than a billion billion available planets in the universe. If each of them lasts as long as Earth, that gives us about a billion billion billion planet-years to play with. That will do nicely!

Side note: it looks like you did have The God Delusion in mind, despite quoting TBW. After all, you say in your post that you were rebutting ch. 4 of TGD, and then in a comment said the quote came from TGD. But if the quote were from page 114 of TGD, it would indeed be located ch. 4, the very chapter you said you were addressing in your post. What’s up with that?

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josef johann January 9, 2010 at 12:39 am

In anticipation of a confusion, there is a sense in which a self-replicating molecule is ‘explained’, in that the mechanism we would have to postulate is defined in terms of other materialistic stuff we know about.

And there is a sense in which it is ‘unexplained’, in that it asks us to make a probabilistic rather than evidentiary inference.

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lukeprog January 9, 2010 at 12:56 am

josef,

I corrected myself down below. I meant page 141 of TBW. But he repeats the same idea in the last page of chapter 3 and throughout chapter 4 of TGD.

I dunno… I read the same passages and see something different than you do, apparently.

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josef johann January 9, 2010 at 2:54 am

Take the statement “X is the origin of life”. X can be either “creator” or “self-replicating molecule”.

1. Does Dawkins believe the self-replicating molecule has itself been fully explained?

2. Does Dawkins believe the self-replicating molecule is just as plausible as a creator?

If the answer to both is no, then Dawkins doesn’t believe all explanations must be coupled with an explanation of themselves in order to be accepted as plausible.

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Rhys January 17, 2010 at 2:38 am

Hey Luke,

Ill raise a point that I don’t think anyone has raised here yet.

In the God Delusion, Dawkins makes reference to 2 kinds of explanations, “crane” explanations and “skyhook” explanations. It is a concept originally proposed by Daniel Dennet in Breaking the Spell. Anyway the key proposition was that skyhook explanations are the explanations scientists loathe and go to great pains to avoid, since they explain one mystery with another mystery (witches, wizards, warlocks, anti-semitic lesbian fairies high on angel dust living in my ass etc), and if one is attempting to show that God does not exist by inference the argument from design, such an explanation falls under the skyhook label and should be treated with the contempt it deserves.

I agree 100% Dawkins has not disproved the existence of God, he has just shown, albeit kinda sloppily (I’m not saying I am smarter then he is, actually I am definetly not) that God cannot qualify as an explanation for the diversity and complexity of life due to it’s resounding skyhookery (since the Argument from Design is probably the most popular reason aside from faith that most people do believe).

The whole skyhook vs crane thing is actually something I am genuinely curious about, as myself having just finished Dennet’s book Consciousness Explained, I have become a fan of his work.

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Robert Oerter January 17, 2010 at 2:00 pm

Luke, I think your answer is correct as regards Dawkins’s argument. However, I think Dawkins misapplied this argument – it isn’t supposed to be a counterargument to the argument from design, it’s supposed to answer the cosmological argument.

Suppose someone argues that the universe must have a cause, and that therefore God must exist so that there is a cause for the universe. In this context, it seems to me, it is a valid counterargument to reply, “What is the cause for God?” Because if something can exist but be uncaused then there is no sense in arguing that the universe must have a cause.

(I have heard this counterargument attributed to Russell, but I don’t know if this attribution is correct.)

I wonder what you think of the response in this context.

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Chuck February 23, 2010 at 4:29 pm

Ummm,

I’m sorry Luke. I respect your intellect but Craig’s refutation of Dawkins infinite regress to the designer argument is not perfectly okay. We infer people when we see products we can infer people make because we are people and can know first-hand an agent capable of making the objects we see. His answer is naive and demands a big break-down in logic and a heaping load of bull-shit. Now, to infer a designer based on the universe demands we can infer a being capable of making a star but, the theologies that ponder god do so in embracing his existence outside of our grasp. I think Dawkins response is a perfect response to the designer bullshit. And the designer argument is indicative of the lack of awareness narcissistic theists have of their own narcissism.

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ThriceGreatMe March 1, 2010 at 4:45 pm

“Dawkins says that you cannot infer a Designer of the universe [from] the complexity of the universe because this raises a further question: namely, “Who designed the Designer?” [But] this argument is quite inept, because philosophers of science recognize that in order to recognize an explanation as the best explanation, you don’t have to have an explanation of the explanation…”

It’s my understanding that Dawkins’ uses this argument only to counter a very specific claim forwarded by theists.

If a theist can provide evidence a, evidence b, and evidence c to indicate that a God exists and created the universe, then, yes, an explanation of where God came from is not needed.

This is no different than saying if biologists can provide evidence a, evidence b, and evidence c that life evolves, then an explanation of life’s origin is not necessary to accept that evolution occurs.

However, I very often hear theists arguing that God must exist because “nothing can come from nothing” and “anything as complex as the universe requires a designer”.

It seems to me (and I’m assuming this is Dawkins viewpoint as well) that the whole point of these arguments is that it is impossible for any complex structure, such as the universe, to arise without intelligent intervention.

In this case we are totally justified in asking how and why God, a rather complex structure himself, is somehow exempt from this fundamental law of reality.

“In a system, a process that occurs will tend to increase the total entropy of the universe.”

Okay, sure.

“In a system, a process that occurs will tend to increase the total entropy of the universe…except when it’s Gary.”

Um…now I have a question.

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Gregory Abucks March 5, 2010 at 10:20 pm

To the author:

Your William Lane Craig quote is simply wrong.

“… philosophers of science recognize that in order to recognize an explanation as the best explanation, you don’t have to have an explanation of the explanation…”

Of course the explanation has an explanation! We may not know it, and any good man of science would readily admit when there wasn’t enough information to know an explanation, but EVERY explanation has an explanation, in an infinite regress.

That’s right, scientific inquiry is an infinite regress. In fact, science is always in need of explanations. Physics, quantum in particular, explains NOTHING. All it does is provide equations which make predictions that have worked so far. Why these equations work we do not know, and in fact if we were to find out it would only raise more questions.

And, to counter the argument head on:

“Similarly, if astronauts were to discover a pile of machinery on the back side of the moon, they would be justified in inferring that these were the products of intelligent design, even if they had no idea whatsoever where this machinery came from or who put it there…”

Correct, they would deduce that there was an intelligent designer. But do you honestly think that a single scientist would be content not to try and find out more?

You see, your argument hinges on the fallacy that simply because we do not know why something works, means that it does not work. Guess what? We don’t even know why gravity works. Are you going to deny that too?

The one exception to this would be a first cause, if one exists (and there is no reason to positively infer that one does or does not exist). If a first cause exists, there are a whole slew of reasons why it wouldn’t be intelligent. Chiefly that intelligence, or at least consciousness, implies a relation between antecedent and consequent thoughts. A first cause, by definition, has no antecedent.

Finally, as to how this ties into Dawkin’s point, and the argument he was trying to make were it not for his ridiculous tendency to assume his arguments were self-explanatory, if God himself needs an explanation, and there is no evidence to assume he is necessary, then isn’t he just extraneous? Can’t we reach all the same conclusions, with a whole lot fewer paradoxes, without him?

P.S. Dawkins is an idiot that’s guilty of most of the fallacies that he so rabidly criticizes. The man has no grasp of logic. All he does is take other peoples arguments, which were actually constructed properly, and rephrase them more elegantly. However, because he does not actually understand the argument or at the very least properly appreciate the importance of logical progression, he just comes off like a fool and becomes an easy target for theists and critics. It’s a shame really.

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lukeprog March 6, 2010 at 5:46 am

Gregory,

I’m not going to repeat myself on this isssue. Please see ‘Who Designed the Designer’. If you still disagree, we’ll agree to disagree. :)

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roll April 9, 2010 at 12:33 pm

This one nailes it for me: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jRZWyq5QGio

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BorisG June 12, 2010 at 12:24 am

I think ThriceGreatMe hit the nail on the head with his post, and that you are not understanding what Dawkins was trying to do, luke.

He was not attempting to disprove the existence of God through is argument, but rather rebut the contradictory claim made by theists that complex things require even more complex creators. The failure in logic here is on the theist, not Dawkins.

I also don’t think the Craig analogies work well enough to make the philosophical point that “explanations don’t require explanations.” The problem with his cases are that unspoken explanations are inherently built into the explanations he provides. For the arrowheads and shards, for instance, the explanation that an ancient tribe must have made them and caused them to be there has numerous explanations behind it. Ask such an archaeologist why he would surmise such a thing, he can explain it by drawing on previous experience with such artifacts, the knowledge that primitive humans made such things, and so on. He doesn’t have to SAY those things, either–they’re built into the hypothesis.

But the God assumption is a different creature, because it is entirely ungrounded in human knowledge or experience. There are no implied explanations for “God did it” outside of the statement itself. It is the ultimate form of begging the question.

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Christopher July 20, 2010 at 7:49 pm

Isn’t the problem of infinite regress both necessary and unsolvable? It doesn’t threaten science, since it’s only a problem where the trail disappears. If we can say A was created by B, which was created by C, and we keep going, then we have explanations for A,B, C, and however far back we can go. The fact that we can never get to the end of this trail just means that time itself defies our explanations. It doesn’t mean that science can’t go on discovering things.

Dawkins is merely saying that God isn’t a sound answer to the problem of infinite regress–isn’t a better answer than saying the Universe created itself–though possibly not a worse answer either. I don’t see how this reasoning is destructive of science.

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