Defeating Religion in One Easy Step, part 4

Part 4 — Explanatory Scope

Luke Muehlhauser, the proprietor of Common Sense Atheism, has proposed that we can defeat religions in one easy step.  To do so, he takes a broad look at different arguments for God and notices what they all have in common: They all posit God as the best explanation for something.

Luke identifies the following four criteria for a good explanation:

  1. It’s testable and it passes the tests we give it.
  2. It’s consistent with our background knowledge and experience.  (What philosopher Tom Morris called The Principle of Belief Conservation).
  3. It’s simpler than the alternatives.
  4. It has good explanatory scope — in other words, it explains a wide variety of data.

I’ve already argued that God creates a testable hypothesis and that this hypothesis passes that test.  I also argued that God doesn’t violate Morris’s Principle of Belief Conservation.  Yesterday, I argued that God’s own complexity doesn’t mean he isn’t a simple explanation.  Today, I will talk about the explanatory scope of God and make my concluding remarks.

What about explanatory scope? Does the God hypothesis have good explanatory scope? Again, no. I’ll give just one example. If you invoke God as the explanation for apparent design in the universe, you immediately run into the problem of all the incompetent and evil “design” in the universe.

There are two problems with this.  First, it begs the question.  Second, the terms “bad design” and “evil design” are left nebulous and we are given no arbiter to judge what designs are “good” and “bad.”

Why does a universe that is designed be necessarily free of “bad design”?  The argument is premised on a God-ordered universe would be perfect, that is, free of “bad design.”  But, since humans are made in the image of God, perhaps an example of the way humans design things would serve to illustrate why this is question-begging.

A human designer often makes “trade offs;” in other words, they sometimes sacrifice efficiency in order to include something else.  Therefore, God may have utilized a “bad” or “evil” design because he had a sufficient reason to do so.  That leaves us with no reason to think that a “bad” or “evil” design within the universe counts out a divine designer, any more than the manufacturing flaw in my recalled Suzuki should lead me to think it wasn’t designed by an engineer.

The second problem stems directly from the first: Who is the final arbiter of “bad” or “evil” design?  Bad design in anything — including nature — is a point of view.  Look at blogging software.  I swear by WordPress.  I can’t say enough nice things about WordPress.  I won’t blog with anything else.  But that’s my opinionThis guy has a different one — he doesn’t like WordPress.  Many of the things I like about WordPress are deal-breakers for him.

So which one of us is right?  Neither.  Efficiency in design depends on too many variables to count, and no two designers are going to do things in the same way.  So I chalk this up to personal taste; something that everyone is going to have an opinion about and there’s no way to arbitrate it.

Another example, more near-and-dear to my heart, would be storytelling.  I dislike the writing of authors Brad Thor and Daniel Suarez.  The stories they told were enough to keep me engaged for the entire book (and I’m still considering getting Suarez’s Freedom, the sequel to Daemon), but their writing was bad to mediocre.  Now that’s my opinion.  Both have made the New York Times Bestseller lists.  Both have publishing contracts and I do not.  Someone likes these guys!

Luke’s objection begs the question by assuming a designer automatically uses the best, most optimized design; but there’s no way to decide what constitutes the best possible design anyway.  Worse, it does nothing to limit the explanatory scope of God creating the universe — and that’s what Luke was supposed to do in the first place.  All he’s doing is complaining about the final product.


After all that groundwork, Luke tells us how to defeat religious argument in one easy step.  Unfortunately, I have (rather ironically) spent four steps answering it.  But, here it is:

How do you defeat all religious arguments in one easy step? You pick out the part of the argument that posits God as the best explanation for something, and you ask: “How is God the best explanation for that? How is ‘poof! Magic’ the best explanation?”

Since Luke is unable to show us that other explanations are superior to God, and why God even fails as an explanation, this final statement is empty rhetoric.

About Cory Tucholski

I'm a born-again Christian, amateur apologist and philosopher, father of 3. Want to know more? Check the "About" page!

Posted on February 2, 2014, in Apologetics. Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. “Since Luke is unable to show us that other explanations are superior to God…”

    Just because Luke doesn’t give an alternative explanation that doesn’t make god the best explanation. That’s God of the gaps. However a naturalistic explanation is implied as a better explanation by Luke. A multiverse, something from nothing for instance.

    “and why God even fails as an explanation”

    He explains quite clearly why God fails as a best explanation.

    • I know Luke explained “quite clearly why God fails as a best explanation.” I read the article twice. His clarity did not escape my notice. But thank you for pointing out the obvious to me.

      My turn to restate the obvious: I spent four blog posts explaining why his reasons don’t work.

      Reminding me of what Luke already said is not, in fact, a counterargument. If you would care to actually take issue with something specific, I’ll be happy to respond.

  2. 1) You didn’t respond to my God of the gaps complaint. 2) You’re right I should have responded to each of your points but I was in a hurry and wasn’t thinking clearly. I’ll respond soon if I can.

  3. “Why does a universe that is designed be necessarily free of “bad design”? “
    Why would an all-loving God create bad design like the blind spot in the human eye? We eat and breath through the same tube, that’s another example of bad design. Then there’s examples like babies being born with cancer. Why would good God do this?

  4. I see that you haven’t yet responded to my comments concerning Luke’s arguments. I’d also like to get your opinion, at least, on the “no evidence” argument that atheists use. The development of the human brain being the best example I know of where there is no evidence of creation (but there is evidence of naturalism creating — evolution by natural selection). Thanks.

  5. Hi again. Do you have any books on theism that you’d recommend to an atheist like me? I’m reading Gregory Dawes Theism and Explanation (this is where Luke Muehlhauser got the above arguments from) and Why I Became An Atheist by John W. Loftus. Do you know any books that directly attack these books? Thanks.

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