Can Theistic Explanations Succeed? (part 3)

by Luke Muehlhauser on August 17, 2010 in Guest Post

Guest blogger John D of Philosophical Disquisitions summarizes contemporary articles in philosophy of religion in plain talk so that you can be up to speed on the God debate as it ensues at the highest levels of thought. This series was previously posted to John’s blog.


This post is part of my discussion of Chapter 5 of Gregory Dawes’s book Theism and Explanation.

Dawes’s basic goal is to show that there are no good in principle objections to theistic explanations. They can be genuine intentional explanations. It just so happens that they aren’t very good explanations.

Chapter 5 of Dawes’s book deals with some of the in principle objections. Since the argument is that divine explanations are types of intentional explanation, the proponent must posit a specific divine intention as the explanation of a given state of affairs.

The theological sceptic thinks this is untenable: we cannot know the mind of God. So we cannot offer divine intentional explanations. We saw this last time when looking at Elliot Sober’s objection to intelligent design.

Dawes responded to Sober by claiming that we can put some constraints on theistic explanations. We do so by employing the rationality and optimality principles. The optimality principle states that God, because of his divine nature, would always choose the most optimal means to an end.

Dawes thinks this helps to constrain potential theistic explanations. If the theist wants to claim God (G) is the best explanation for something (X), then they have a double burden: (i) they must posit a specific divine goal that would require X; and (ii) they must show that X is the most optimal means to achieving the divine goal.

This is potentially devastating for the theist since it seems obvious to many that the world is imbued with sub-optimality. This would seem to imply that God could not be a good explanation for what we observe.

Thus, some will be inclined to object to this optimality principle. Dawes considers four such objections.

1. God is not Obliged to act Optimally

The first objection derives from certain assumptions about God’s agency. It is argued that since God is omnipotent and perfectly free, he is under no obligation to act in an optimal way.

Dawes argues that this objection is misplaced. The optimality principle places a constraint on potential theistic explanations; it does not place a constraint on God. It is an epistemological claim; not a metaphysical or theological claim.

If theism wants to enter the explanatory market, then it has to play by the rules. It has to offer itself up for rational scrutiny along with other explanations. If the response to that scrutiny is that God can do whatever he likes, then theism is inscrutable and cannot be a explanatory thesis.

2. There is no Optimal Action

The second objection begins with some parallels between the idea of the best possible world and the optimal realization of a divine intention. Surely if we are to claim that X is optimal, we are implying that X is a feature of the best possible world?

The problem with this parallel, according to the objectors, is that the concept of the best possible world is incoherent. Two reasons are offered for this (i) there is no single scale of value and (ii) value is potentially infinite.

These are problems with which utilitarians have long contended. For instance, classical hedonic utilitarians argued that conscious pleasure was the sole measure of value. “Piffle!” replied John Stuart Mill. There is a range of higher pleasures that are not commensurable with the lower pleasures. But if there is no single scale of value, then we cannot establish which is the best possible world.

Likewise, if value comes in units (e.g. utiles) then it is something that you can repeatedly add to (like an infinite set). And if it is infinite, there is no best possible world.

Dawes agrees that these are forceful criticisms but identifies three possible responses.

First, this objection may simply prove the incoherence of theism. After all, the optimality principle seems plausible: if God is omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent, then it seems right to expect him to act optimally. So maybe the problem is not with the acceptability of the optimality principle, but with the very idea of God. Perhaps to speak of perfect goodness is to land ourselves in a conceptual muddle.

Second, Dawes thinks it is possible to reject the parallel between the optimal realisation and the best possible world. The idea here is that optimal realisation is only concerned with specific features of the actual world and not with general features of all possible worlds.

Third, it may be that a comparative judgement is all that is required. In other words, even if we cannot talk about a best possible world, we can talk about a better world. This line of thought is attributed to William Rowe. If Rowe is right, then comparing the merit of different realisations of a divine plan should be a doddle.

3. We Cannot Make Such Judgements

The third objection to the optimality principle stems from modal scepticism. This is something I alluded to in the first post on Dawes’s book. The idea is that in proposing an intentional explanation, we assume knowledge of the options that were available to the intentional agent.

So in explaining why you chose chocolate ice-cream, I can imagine the options that were open to you and make certain guesses about why you chose as you did. The problem is that we can’t do this when considering God as an intentional agent. We have no idea what options were available to him.

This type of modal scepticism is promoted by Peter van Inwagen, who uses it in responding to the problem of evil. (He rejects the idea that God explains anything; we do not come to know of God’s existence through evidence and observation.)

Dawes has a couple of responses to this. First, he argues that a complete modal scepticism is unwarranted. We may not be able to comment on all the options available to God, but we may be able to make some decent comparative assessments.

Second, modal scepticism has devastating implications for the doctrine of divine omnipotence. Omnipotence is usually defined in terms of being able to do what is logically possible. But modal scepticisms implies that we cannot even know what is logically possible. Hence we cannot appeal to divine omnipotence.

4. Intelligent Design is not Optimal Design

The final objection comes from the intelligent design theorist William Dembski. The official ID-position is that the designer is intelligent, not necessarily divine. So ID is not committed to optimality. Of course, Dembski is a theist, but he thinks that sub-optimality arguments must be dealt with from a theological perspective not a scientific one.

Suppose the theist is challenged by an atheist claiming that the wasteful suffering in the natural world provides evidence against the existence of a theistic designer. Dembski would respond by trying to reconcile God’s nature with what we observe. In other words, by constructing a theodicy. This would still not affect our ability to infer design simpliciter.

Dawes thinks that this underestimates the problem. Sure, it is possible to reconcile God’s existence with wasteful suffering, but this only works on the presupposition of God. It is not possible to infer the existence of God from a sub-optimal natural world.

In other words, unless we specify the divine intention and adopt the optimality constraint, we must concede that theism is not in the explanatory game.

- John Danaher

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

ShaneSteinhauser August 17, 2010 at 11:30 am

I have a nice dilemma for the Theist who tries to argue that God is the best explaination for X. It is 300 B.C. nobody knows what causes lightning. The best *and only* explaination the Greeks can come up with is “Zeus is angry”.

Are the Greeks justified in believing in Zeus by inference to the best *and only* explaination?

If yes then non-scientific inferences to the best explaination can lead us astray. And the theist’s argument fails.

If no then non-scientific inferences to the best explaination do not justify anything. And the theist’s explaination fails.

And when I say scientific explaination I mean an explaination that can be put to the test. I do not mean a soley naturalistic explaination. Theists will claim that science cannot test the supernatural. But if that’s true then supernatural explainations are only possible explainations that can never be shown to be true or false.


Hendy August 17, 2010 at 12:29 pm

Whenever the discussion of “optimal” comes up, WL Craig always responds that optimal action is only required by those who have limited time and/or resources and thus that god is not subject to either constraint.

You mostly answered this in your #1 about god’s obligation, but I see Craig’s response as slightly different in that it discusses the circumstances under which optimal behavior is required and then says that god does not meet those binding constraints.

Though you do say:

The optimality principle places a constraint on potential theistic explanations; it does not place a constraint on God.

Thus are you saying that no one is stating that god has to be optimal, only explanations where god is used? Could you clarify or present two examples, one in which god is subject to the principle of optimality and one in which only the explanation is? I’m not sure I quite get how a theistic explanation could be optimal if god wasn’t or vice versa.


Matt August 17, 2010 at 12:53 pm

This reminds me of the conversations and debates Dawes and I used to have a few years ago when we were both writing PhD dissertations

If theism wants to enter the explanatory market, then it has to play by the rules. It has to offer itself up for rational scrutiny along with other explanations. If the response to that scrutiny is that God can do whatever he likes, then theism is inscrutable and cannot be a explanatory thesis.

This appears a non sequitur, the claim that God is not required ( morally or logically in virtue of having certain attributes)to act optimally, does not entail he can do anything at all. There presumably would be states of affairs a rational good being would not brining about, even if there is no optimal state of affairs he must bring about.


John D August 17, 2010 at 1:34 pm

Let’s bear in mind that I’m not really saying anything, I’m just trying to summarise what Gregory Dawes is saying. But since I don’t expect Dawes to show up and defend his argument, I will say something (and since I pretty much agree with him).

1. God and Optimality
God would be subject to the principle of optimality if his omnipotence were restricted by his other properties, particularly his moral goodness. In other words, if God only had as much power as was possible for a morally perfect being to have.

Some theists (e.g. Swinburne, although with different properties) seem to accept this relativised conception of omnipotence. Indeed, this would appear to make sense given the traditional understanding of God. Would Craig do so? I don’t know. But this type of issue goes to the heart of the internal coherence of the classical conception of God.

2. Optimality and Explanations
Obviously, if God is himself constrained by the principle of optimality, then any potential explanation is similarly constrained. But what if you accept that God can do anything, even things that are not consistent with his goodness? What would this entail if you were offering God as an explanation for something? There are two possibilities.

First, it could mean something potentially devastating. For an explanation to work, it must not be consistent with every possible state of affairs (this is addressed later in the series on Dawes). It must rule some things in and some things out. This is what allows it to be falsifiable/verifiable. A God who could be expected to do anything at all (at least, anything logically possible) does not satisfy this basic explanatory requirement. It would have no empirical content.

Alternatively, even if you accept the bare possibility of God doing anything, you could still accept the optimality principle as a constraint on explanations. How so? Well since you need to be able to rule some things in and out, it might be a start to rule out things that are incompatible with God’s other properties, such as his moral goodness and omniscience (i.e. all those besides his omnipotence). So you could start from our understanding of morally optimal states of affairs and work from there. This would be warranted on the grounds that our understanding is, even if limited, in some way representative of what is actually optimal.

I can imagine a skeptical theist being deeply upset about what I have just said. They would say that we can’t make inferences from our understanding of optimality to optimality as applied to God. This is God’s wholly other nature places him beyond our ordinary experience.

This response has its own problems, but the main one is that it really does rule theism out of the explanatory game. Indeed, one of the leading skeptical theists, Michael Bergmann, has conceded as much in a recent article. He says:

“If the order one sees in the natural world or the joy one witnesses in people’s lives is identified as a reason to think that there is a good being who is the cause of such things, one is failing to take into account the lesson of [skeptical theism]. Given our cognitive limitations, we simply don’t know what evils may be entailed by those good things and this prevents us from being able to conclude that they are all-things-considered goods that an omnibenevolent being would bring about”

(From, Bergmann, M “Skeptical Theism and the Problem of Evil” in Thomas and Rea (eds) The Oxford Companion to Philosophical Theology, OUP 2009, p. 389)

So, bearing all this in mind, I think the optimality principle stands as a reasonable constraint on potential theistic explanations.

Wow! That ended up being much longer than I intended. A sub-optimal use of words, no doubt.


lukeprog August 17, 2010 at 6:41 pm


The Zeus example is my standard reply as well. :)


Hermes August 17, 2010 at 8:12 pm

I’ll make sure He knows. :-P


ShaneSteinhauser August 18, 2010 at 10:06 am


That’s awesome. xD


Chris K August 18, 2010 at 2:43 pm

I wonder if the optimality argument works for fine-tuning arguments, or if it is only intended for biological design arguments. Presumably physicists would say that this universe is optimally fine tuned for life and God could reasonably be posited as a good explanation for the universe.

Now, does this – God having been admitted as a reasonable explanation for the universe – impact the explanatory power of God as an explanation for biological life? In think so. I think it affects the Dawes’ rebuttal under the bit about intelligent design not being optimal design, especially this quote: “It is not possible to infer the existence of God from a sub-optimal natural world.” If I understand it correctly, this is a hugely contentious claim. But even if we grant it, we’re not smuggling in the concept of God as explanation by presupposing what we’re trying to prove in the realm of the natural world. God as explanation has already been something we’ve seen as plausible from physics. Thus, God as explanation in the natural world has already traction before we apply the optimality principle to it and doesn’t need to satisfy the optimality principle in order to be a satisfactory explanation.


John D August 18, 2010 at 3:15 pm

Chris K,

Maybe I’m being uncharitable in my interpretation, but it seems like you’ve just said that the optimality constraint can be employed at one stage — when arguing that the fine-tuning of the universe is the optimal way for God to achieve the goal of generating (intelligent) life — but can be discarded at a later point — when evidence of sub-optimal biological design shows up.

I think there’s something pretty fishy about that. Either the optimality constraint is a legitimate tool for theory-selection or it isn’t. If it is, then why is it not legitimate at all times? Discarding it at a later moment so as save your preferred theory seems arbitrary to me. At the very least, evidence of a sub-optimal natural world would have to lower the probability of your original explanation.

Bear in mind, also, the context in which Dawes brings up the optimality constraint. He’s trying to be charitable to theistic explanations, to save them from the objections of Sober (and ors). These objections stated that because theism is unconstrained it can’t be an explanation.

If you think there are other ways in which theistic explanations could be constrained, then that’s great (from Dawes’s perspective). It’s just that he thinks the optimality constraint is a plausible one, given the way in which God is classically conceived (omniscient, omnibenevolent, omnipotent etc.).


Chris K August 19, 2010 at 2:33 am

John D,

Hmm, yes, that does look like what I said. I began by musing about how one wouldn’t have any problems with optimality at the fine-tuning level, then turned to say that we don’t need to appeal to it for biological design. However, my thought was that though one could employ the optimality principle at the level of fine-tuning, one doesn’t need to appeal to it there. The God-explanation seems to stand in that field without it.

I do on the other hand, think that the optimality principle is a plausible constraint, but given other aspects of how God is classically conceived (wholly other), it is an essentially limited constraint. I wonder if any such constraint would have to be limited in this way. So I do share the typical skeptical theist concerns about this, but I agree that complete or extreme forms of skeptical theism such as Bergmann’s are unwarranted. My claim would be that we have enough knowledge in the realm of optimality to be able to make accurate judgments in this field, but not enough to know in every scenario what God could be expected to do.

By the way, I don’t think I understand Dawes’ second objection to modal skepticism. If we don’t know what is logically possible, then what does that do to the concept of omnipotence? I tend to be of the sort who thinks that omnipotence should be defined through revelation rather than through abstract reasoning. If we define omnipotence in this way, what does Dawes’ objection mean?


John D August 19, 2010 at 9:31 am

I presume you are referring to statistical arguments (Bayesian/Likelihoodist/Significance Testing) from fine-tuning to the existence of God. Obviously, those arguments have their own problems. I think they would deserve more sustained treatment in a separate post. I might explore them on my blog eventually. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if something like the optimality principle still operates when trying to decide what is and is not probable.

As for omnipotence, my summary of Dawes’s discussion is a bit too brief. His real point (p. 96) seems to be that Van Inwagen’s objection leads not just to epistemic skepticism about the logically possible but to the stronger metaphysical claim that there is no such thing as the logically possible. He backs this up with a reference (in footnote) to Van Inwagen. If this stronger claim is accepted, then it would seem to be meaningless to make any reference to God’s ability to do everything that is logically possible. Which is the most popular way of understanding omnipotence.

I would agree that Dawes’s objection here is not as strong as it could be. It’s really phrased more as a series of rhetorical questions. It would be nice if he spelled out what he thinks the troubling implications really are.

As for defining omnipotence through revelation, I have no idea what you mean. Do you mean that God’s powers as revealed to us through scripture/experience? In either case, it would seem like you would have to make some sort of inference from the experience/scripture to the best explanation of the experience/scripture. This would land us back in the explanatory territory Dawes is trying to map out. In other words, we would need to look for some way to support the inferences you are making. Hence, I think abstract analyses might be better.

There is a tendency in these debates to slide back and forth between the Biblical conceptions of God and the neo-Platonic-ideal-being conception liked by philosophers. I tend to think the former has more explanatory content (although likely to be falsified), whereas the latter is more ambiguous. Dawes seems to be focusing solely on the latter.


Chris K August 20, 2010 at 12:36 pm

Perhaps fine-tuning arguments will use something like the optimality principle. I’m not opposed to the principle per se, but I don’t know that it presents a big problem for theistic explanations when combined with a moderate skeptical theism. Of course I’d probably need to work out that position more fully.

I don’t see how working out a biblical hermeneutic of attributes of God such as power, which is what I was thinking of when I mentioned revelation, falls into the camp of explanations that Dawes is talking about. I guess I’d have to read more on what territory he means to cover. The point, though, is that even if we were to abandon knowledge of logical possibility, we would still be able to think about what God’s omnipotence means.


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