Redated from Jan. 13, 2010.
Today I want to kill one of atheism’s sacred cows. I want to kill one of atheism’s most popular and resilient retorts.
One of atheism’s sacred cows is the “Who designed the designer?” response. Here’s how it works:
THEIST: “There is so much complexity in the world, it must have been designed by an Intelligent Designer. The best explanation for our world is an Intelligent Designer.”
ATHEIST: “But then who designed the Designer?”
THEIST: “Nobody.” (Or perhaps: “I don’t know.”)
ATHEIST: “Well then you have explained nothing.”
This is a highly popular objection. For example, here’s Christopher Hitchens:
…the postulate of a designer or creator only raises the unanswerable question of who designed the designer or created the creator. Religion and theology… have consistently failed to overcome this objection.1
Or, philosopher Rebecca Goldstein:
Who caused God? [Theists offer] a prime example of the Fallacy of Passing the Buck: invoking God to solve some problem, but then leaving unanswered that very same problem when applied to God himself.
So this is fatal to theism, right?
No. Wrong. The atheist has not offered a strong objection.
Let me be clear. I agree that “God did it” is generally a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad “explanation” for complexity or, well, pretty much anything. “God did it” does generally fail as an explanation.2
But it does not fail merely because the theist has no explanation for his explanation (God). That is not the problem with offering “God did it” as an explanation.
The problem with offering “God did it” as an explanation is that such an explanation has low plausibility, is not testable, has poor consistency with background knowledge, comes from a tradition (supernaturalism) with extreme explanatory failure, lacks simplicity, offers no predictive novelty, and has poor explanatory scope. It fails to provide almost everything philosophers and scientists look for in a successful explanation. That is why “God did it” is generally a horrible explanation, not because it leaves the explanation itself (God) unexplained.
Let us ask ourselves what would happen if we required that a successful explanation must itself be explained.
This would lead immediately to an infinite regress of explanations. We would need to have an explanation of the explanation, and an explanation of the explanation of the explanation, and an explanation of the explanation of the explanation of the explanation… on into infinity. And thus, we would never be able to explain anything.3
Moreover, this is not how science works. Examples from physics are the most obvious. In order to explain certain quantum phenomena, scientists have posited the existence of dozens of invisible particles with very particular properties that yield predictable results. These have been some of the most successful explanations in all of scientific history, yielding the most accurate experimental results we have ever achieved. And yet we have no explanations whatsoever for the particles that we have offered as explanations for the quantum phenomena.
The reason that the details of the Standard Model of Particle Physics are accepted as good explanations for quantum phenomena is because these explanations are plausible, they are extremely testable, they have strong consistency with background knowledge, they come from a tradition (natural science) with great explanatory success, they are relatively simple, they offer much predictive novelty, and they have strong explanatory scope. It doesn’t matter that we have no explanation whatsoever for the explanations themselves.
One more example. Ludwig Boltzmann explained heat by positing tiny, unobserved particles (which we now call atoms). Boltzmann’s theory was superior to earlier phenomenological theories of heat, even though his explanation (a mess of tiny particles) was itself totally unexplained.
So the problem with the atheist sacred cow of “Who designed the designer?” is that it misses the point. “God did it” is a horrible explanation, but not because theists can’t tell us what the explanation for the designer is. There are other reasons why “God did it” is generally a horrible explanation, and that is what atheists should be trying to communicate.
Despite repeated attempts to explain all this to my atheist readers, many still insist that successful explanations must themselves be explained. At this point, I don’t know what else to do except to quote some scholars in an attempt to bludgeon my fellow atheists into accepting this basic principle in philosophy of science. :)
Here’s atheist philosopher of science Peter Lipton:
The why-regress is a feature of the logic of explanation that many of us discovered as children, to our parents’ cost. I vividly recall the moment it dawned on me that, whatever my mother’s answer to my latest why-question, I could simply retort by asking ‘Why?’ of the answer itself, until my mother ran out of answers or patience…
[But] explanations need not themselves be understood. A drought may explain a poor crop, even if we don’t understand why there was a drought; I understand why you didn’t come to the party if you explain you had a bad headache, even if I have no idea why you had a headache; the big bang explains the background radiation, even if the big bang is itself inexplicable, and so on…
…the [why-regress] argument brings out the important facts that explanations can be chained, and that what explains need not itself be understood…4
Or consider atheist philosopher of science Michael Friedman. Notice that he assumes our explanations may not themselves be explained, but that explanations succeed in increasing our understanding of the world:
[Consider] the old argument that science is incapable of explaining anything because the basic phenomena to which others are reduced are themselves neither explained nor understood. According to this argument, science merely transfers our puzzlement from one phenomenon to another… The answer, as I see it, is that.. we don’t simply replace one phenomenon with another. We replace one phenomenon with amore comprehensive phenomenon, and thereby… genuinely increase our understanding of the world.5
And here’s atheist philosopher of religion Gregory Dawes:
Richard Dawkins, for instance, writes that to explain the machinery of life “by invoking a supernatural Designer is to explain precisely nothing.” Why? Because it “leaves unexplained the origin of the designer.”
…[Dawkins' idea is] that religious explanations are unacceptable because they leave unexplained the existence of their explanans (God). Dawkins apparently assumes that every successful explanation should also explain its own explanans. But this is an unreasonable demand. Many of our most successful explanations raise new puzzles and present us with new questions to be answered.6
Finally, atheist philosopher of metaphysics John Post:
…there cannot be an infinite regress of explanations… Again the reasons are not practical, such as the finiteness of our faculties, but logic or conceptual, entailed by the very notions of explanations involved. Even for an infinite intellect, regresses of such explanations must end.7
Why do I want to kill this sacred cow of atheism?
First, because I am not loyal to atheism per se, but to truth and reason.
Second, because I want atheists to stop giving arguments and objections that are so easily rebutted.
Third, because I want atheists to focus on objections that really matter. When a believer offers “God did it” as the best explanation for something, our question should not be “Well then who designed the designer?” but instead “Why is God the best explanation for that? Will you explain, please?”
The theist has a good answer to the first question. He won’t have a good answer for the second one. Not if you’re prepared:
- God is not Great, page 71. [↩]
- I am not saying I have an ‘in principle’ objection to theistic explanations. The merits of theistic explanation must be assessed on a case-by-case basis. But I do think it’s quite unlikely that theistic explanations will succeed in our universe. [↩]
- Actually, there is a healthy debate over whether an infinite regress of explanations is a vicious regress or a benign regress. A good survey article with a great bibliography on the subject is Scott Aikin, “Who is afraid of epistemology’s regress problem?” (2005). But this does not change the fact that we regularly offer excellent explanations that are not themselves explained, especially in physics, where our most successful explanations are given. [↩]
- Inference to the Best Explanation, page 24. [↩]
- “Explanation and Scientific Understanding,” pages 18-19. [↩]
- Theism and Explanation, pages 15-16. [↩]
- “Infinite Regresses of Justification and Explanation,” page 32. [↩]