Scientific Discoveries, Theism, and Atheism: Reply to Wintery Knight

I’m going to offer some comments on a recent post by Wintery Knight. He writes:

When people ask me whether the progress of science is more compatible with theism or atheism, I offer the follow four basic pieces of scientific evidence that are more compatible with theism than atheism. [italics are mine]

The following point is nitpicky, but it’s worth mentioning just because so many non-philosophers, including both theists and nontheists, misuse words like “compatible” and “consistent.” Compatibility is like pregnancy: a person is either pregnant or not. There is no in-between. Likewise, evidence is either compatible with a hypothesis or it’s not. There is no such thing as “degrees of compatibility.” If you want to talk about evidence offering a greater degree of support for one hypothesis over another, then “compatible” is the wrong word to use. You can instead use words like “expected,” “surprising,” or “favors.” For example, “There are four basic pieces of scientific evidence which favor theism over atheism.”

Let’s move on.

Here are the four pieces of evidence best explained by a Creator/Designer:

  1. the kalam argument from the origin of the universe
  2. the cosmic fine-tuning (habitability) argument
  3. the biological information in the first replicator (origin of life)
  4. the sudden origin of all of the different body plans in the fossil record (Cambrian explosion)

I have one more nitpicky point and then a more substantial point. The nitpicky point is that WK has conflated “a piece of evidence” with “an argument about that piece of evidence.” The first two items in his list are not items of evidence, but arguments about items of evidence. The kalam argument is an argument about the finite age of the universe and the cosmic fine-tuning argument is an argument about the life-permitting physical constants. So if WK wants to present a list of evidence, he should correct his list so that the first item just is “the finite age of the universe” and the second item is something like “the life-permitting physical constants.”  (Okay, I said this was a nitpicky point.)

The more substantial point is this. Simply claiming that a Creator/Designer is the “best explanation” hardly amounts to showing that a Creator/Designer really is the “best explanation.” In my experience, many (but not all) people who invoke a Creator or Designer as the “best explanation” fail to show that it is the best explanation. Indeed, some (and this includes WK, at least in the linked post) don’t even try! Instead, they just assume that a Creator or Designer is an explanation.  If, however, the design hypothesis isn’t an explanation at all, then it cannot be the best explanation.

The creation/design hypothesis is, at best, an incomplete explanation.

Item of Evidence Explanation Name Explanation Description
Finite Age of the Universe Creation Unknown. The beginning of the universe is the result of a Creator using an unknown, theistic (directed) mechanism for an unknown purpose.
Life-Permitting Constants of the Universe Design Unknown. The life-permitting constants of the universe are the result of an unknown, theistic (directed) mechanism, designed for an unknown purpose.
Origin of Biological Information Design Unknown. Biological information in cells is the result of an unknown, theistic (directed) mechanism, designed for an unknown purpose.
Origin of Cambrian Animal Forms Design Unknown. Cambrian animal forms are the result of an unknown, theistic (directed) mechanism, designed for an unknown purpose.

In light of all the unknowns in these theistic “explanations,” one can hardly be blamed for concluding that “creation” and “design” are simply explanation names, not actual explanations. Compare to a naturalist saying, “X is the result an unknown, naturalistic (undirected) mechanism operating without a purpose.” It’s unclear why any of these unknown theistic explanations are supposed to be better than their unknown naturalistic counterparts.

But let’s put that to the side. WK summarizes what he calls typical atheist responses to those four arguments.

Atheists will typically reply to the recent scientific discoveries that overtured their speculations like this:

  1. Maybe the Big Bang cosmology will be overturned by the Big Crunch/Bounce so that the universe is eternal and has no cause
  2. Maybe there is a multiverse: an infinite number of unobservable, untestable universes which makes our finely-tuned one more probable
  3. Maybe the origin of life could be the result of chance and natural processes
  4. Maybe we will find a seamless chain of fossils that explain how the Cambrian explosion occurred slowly, over a long period time

I have three replies.

First, I agree with WK that ad hoc, “just so” stories invented to “explain away” the evidence are no substitute for the best explanation. If one hypothesis clearly explains an item of evidence but the second hypothesis doesn’t (and has to invent an arbitrary, extra theory to explain it away), that item of evidence clearly favors the first hypothesis over the second hypothesis. This point applies equally to arbitrary, extra theories postulated by atheists and theists.

Second, there are atheists and then there are atheists. WK may be right that atheist layman typically do make such replies. What is more interesting is what atheist scholars, especially atheist philosophers of religion, have to say in response to these four lines of evidence. WK provides no evidence that each of these responses are typical of atheist philosophers of religion, however. While the multiverse hypothesis has some support among atheist philosophers of religion, I doubt that the majority of atheist philosophers of religion support the Big Crunch/Big Bounce hypothesis. For example, in my experience, atheist philosophers of religion do NOT typically respond to Big Bang cosmology with the response listed by WK. Instead, they argue that the universe is uncaused.

Third, like many other apologists, WK seems to be understating the evidence. Let’s assume, but only for the sake of argument, that each of WK’s four items of evidence favor theism over naturalism. WK fails to mention other more specific facts, facts that, given those four items of evidence, favor naturalism over theism.

General Fact More Specific Fact(s)
Finite Age of the Universe The universe began to exist with time, not in time.
Life-Permitting Constants of the Universe So much of the universe is hostile to life.
The Origin of Biological Information Excluding examples of so-called “complex specified information” allegedly related to intelligent design, all other examples of complex specified information involve a mind dependent on a physical brain.
The Origin of Cambrian Animal Forms 1. The Cambrian era did not include animal forms much more impressive than known Cambrian animal forms.

2. All living animals are the gradually modified descendants of Cambrian animals.

Again, it appears that WK has understated the evidence. And it is only by understating the evidence that he can give the illusion of having justified statements such as the following.

The data we have today says no to naturalism. The only way to affirm naturalistic explanations for the evidence we have is by faith. We need to minimize our leaps of faith, though, and go with the simplest and most reasonable explanation – an intelligence is the best explanation responsible for rapid generation of biological information.

In addition to understating the evidence (or perhaps because of it), WK has also oversimplified the evidential situation. Again, even if we grant that WK’s theistic facts say “no to naturalism,” other, more specific facts say “no to theism.” Once the relevant scientific evidence is fully stated, it’s far from obvious that the general theistic facts outweigh the more specific naturalistic facts.