Today I was over having a friendly chat at Debunking Chistianity when andreas_schueler asked me:
“why are there innumerable examples of naturalistic explanations replacing theistic ones but no example of theistic explanations replacing naturalistic ones ?”
Given that I have heard this question (in varying forms) many times, and given that I could not unpack it and address it adequately in a thread, I thought I’d take it on here.
Natural explanations vs. Naturalism explanations
I begin with a really important conflation in Andreas’ question between explanations supporting the natural and explanations supporting naturalism. It is crucial that we tease these two apart very carefully or we will be very confused on what does, and does not, count as evidence for the truth of naturalism.
Let me illustrate what I mean. I am sitting on my porch when suddenly I see a flash of light and moments later hear a deafening crashing sound. In order to explain it, I invoke an explanation that supports the natural. (I’m deliberately refraining from defining the natural since the prior concept we all hold of “an explanation pertaining to nature” should suffice. Wait a minute, I did define it! Doh!)
But does that explanation support naturalism? Of course not. Explaining a bolt of lightning with a natural explanation completely underdetermines whether naturalism or theism is true or more likely to be true since it is fully consistent with both theories that the world contain events which are fittingly categorized as “natural”.
Okay, but what if somebody points out that some people used to explain bolts of lightning theistically, and they understood the occurrence of bolts of lightning to constitute direct support for theism. Is it somehow problematic for the theist that bolts of lightning are no longer invoked as support for theism?
Well consider this. Haeckel’s embryos used to be considered great evidence for evolution based on the premise that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. We no longer think that this provides data which is properly explained by evolution. But does that fact harm evolution? No more than a water gun harms the Hoover Dam. The same relationship obtains between lightning strikes and theism. To sum up:
the fact that evolution is now defunct as an explanation of embryological development is not an argument against evolution
the fact that theism is now defunct as an explanation of lightning strikes is not an argument against theism
So natural explanations do not provide prima facie support for naturalism, unless the “naturalism” they are supporting is one consistent with theism, in which case we’re merely playing with terms.
The redundant hypothesis?
But perhaps Andreas might restate the objection like this: “The fact is that fewer and fewer phenomena require a God to explain them. So the God-hypothesis is simply superfluous.”
That is really what I suspect this is about. It is the spirit of Pierre-Simon Laplace declaring we have no need for that hypothesis.
At this point I simply have to say that each of us has to speak for ourselves. If Andreas presently believes God does not exist then Andreas presumably does not believe the God-hypothesis is required to provide a satisfactory account of the world. But many highly intelligent people disagree with Andreas. And other not-so-highly-intelligent people like myself disagree with this view as well. We’ve carefuly considered the evidence from multiple sources — the origin and ongoing existence of the universe, free will, consciousness, moral value, teleology, beauty, justice, et cetera — and we’ve come to the conclusion that theism of one or another type is the most intellectually satisfying account of the world.
Now if the naturalist wants to argue a force majeure obliges every thinking person to take a naturalist position they must do two things. First, they must explain what naturalism is exactly. And then they must explain why they think the evidence best supports naturalism.