20 Loaded Questions

Peter Saunders has compiled a list of 20 questions for atheists. “He says he did not post these claiming atheists do not have an answer to these questions, but that there have not been any decent responses to them in the past 40yrs” (italics mine). It’s one thing to say the responses were not persuasive; it’s another thing to say that none of the answers are decent. Based on this description, Saunders sounds like a highly partisan apologist, not someone worth trying to convince.

On the other hand, it is interesting to read a list like the one he put together.I want to put them into an explanatory context. There are certain items of evidence to be explained. An explanatory hypothesis is a proposition which tries to explain the evidence. Theism is one popular explanatory hypothesis; naturalism is another. (There are are obviously other alternatives, but in order to keep this manageable I will focus on just those two.)

Since we are trying to compare two competing explanations, we want to know which hypothesis provides the best explanation. (In mathematical terms, we want to know the ratio of the probability of the evidence conditional upon theism to the probability of the evidence conditional upon naturalism.) Simply saying that an item of evidence is improbable on one hypothesis does not show that the evidence favors the other hypothesis. It may be the case that the evidence is equally improbable on both hypotheses. Or, perhaps, the evidence is improbable on both hypotheses, but ‘less improbable’ on one than the other. This is why we need comparative arguments, arguments which compare the probability of a fact on theism to the probability of that same fact on naturalism.

In this context, each of the questions can be interpreted as the implied (?) argument that some fact is improbable on atheism (or, more broadly, naturalism). But since no attempt is made to defend a theistic answer to the questions, much less the sort of comparative argument I described earlier, the atheist could answer, “I have no idea; so what?”, and Peter Saunders would have failed to to show that the fact is evidence favoring theism over naturalism. In fact, I believe this is exactly the case for all 20 questions.