Thursday, March 11, 2010

Does Atheism Break Down Here?

Shane Hayes

[This is a reply to a reader’s comment on my posting “The Greatest Scientific Mind.” The full text of his comment can be found by clicking “comments” under that essay, which appears below.]

Autumnal Harvest,

Richard Dawkins makes the precise argument you advanced in your comment. In Chapter 4 of The God Hypothesis he says: “… the designer hypothesis immediately raises the larger problem of who designed the designer. The whole problem we started out with was the problem of explaining statistical improbability. It is obviously no solution to postulate something even more improbable.”

In the margin beside that statement I wrote: “But can’t we explain something complex and amazing (the play Hamlet) by pointing to a cause even more complex and amazing (Shakespeare)?”

In the same chapter Dawkins says: “To suggest that the first cause, the great unknown which is responsible for something existing instead of nothing, is a being capable of designing the universe and of talking to a million people simultaneously, is a total abdication of the responsibility to find an explanation. It is… thought-denying skyhookery.”

Hiding Weakness with Rhetoric

That is a rhetorically forceful statement; many are convinced by it. But if you examine it closely it is not a refutation of the First Cause argument – it is mere intellectual name calling with no rational substance. Pasting the label “abdication” and “skyhookery” on a solid argument that threatens his position, shows how weak the position is, and how illogically Dawkins, for all his brilliance, tries to hide such weaknesses.

To say the wondrous world could not have had a still more wondrous creator is to deny the obvious. An inventor is greater than his machine. DaVinci was greater than his paintings. To say the more wondrous creator must have had a creator is simply untrue. The argument that a creator must have had a creator, who must have had a creator, who must have had a creator, etc., etc., ad infinitum, is to involve oneself in an infinite regress, which keeps begging the question and solves nothing.

A Rational Way Out

The only way out of an infinite regress is to posit that it stops somewhere, and that the end-of-regress is the First Cause of all that is, itself uncaused. Yes, there could have been a starting point, a Being that always existed, before time began, whose intelligence and powers are not limited, as ours are, but are vast beyond our imagining. Who created the universe and set it in motion, perhaps by making the singularity that exploded with a Big Bang, giving birth to the galaxies, our planet, life, evolution, and all of history, human and natural. That kind of an all-sufficient starting point in no way violates logic. In fact logic requires it. And common sense regurgitates the theory of an infinite regress.

Dawkins, again in Chapter 4, says that “any God capable of designing a universe… tuned to lead to our evolution, must be a supremely complex and improbable entity who needs an even bigger explanation than the one he is supposed to provide.”

Again, that’s flatly untrue. A supremely complex cosmic intelligence, existing from all eternity, does not require a bigger explanation. Nor does it “explain nothing.” In fact, it explains everything about the origin of the universe. It’s the most adequate explanation there can be. It’s where the need for an explanation ends. You may not like it. If you hate the idea of God you’ll hate the argument. But don’t say it explains nothing, and smear graffiti on it like “abdication” and “skyhook.”


In fact, it’s such a powerful and comprehensive argument, I’m not sure how we get around it. Is infinite regress the best we can do? Or is “the singularity just happened” the best? Is there a real rebuttal? Help me! My agnosticism is tottering. This looks like a proof.

The Believing Agnostic


  1. I can't speak for Dawkins, as I've never read him, but you're probably not surprised to hear that I agree with him. I think your analysis of the "infinite regress" is logically backwards. I didn't say that, logically, a complex creator must have an even more complex creator. What I said was

    And since your basis for thinking the universe occuring without outside influence is improbable, is that the universe is so magnificent and complex, then logically, if your creator is even more magnificent and complex, he/she must be even more improbable without an outside influence to create him/her;

    Note the conditional. I'm analyzing your argument, on its own terms. I don't think that a magnificent and complex system logically requires, or even makes probable, outside additional evidence, a more magnificent and complex creator. I think sometimes you get marvelous and complex things without a creator. There's no "infinite regress" in my position.

    However, what you were saying in your earlier post, is that you look around the universe, see how amazingly complex it is, and that makes it seem probable that it had a Creator. I'm saying if I accepted that argument (which I don't), then you would enter an infinite regress - if you are going to claim that a complex system makes probable an even more complex creator of that system, then by the exact same argument that you just made, the complex creator of that system must have an even more complex creator. I'm pointing out that your argument leads to an infinite regress, which you seem to avoid only by applying your logic inconsistently - why do you view a magnificence and complexity of the universe as evidence of a creator, and then the next post insist that the magnificence and complexity of the creator isn't evidence that He/She has a creator?

    I also don't understand your example with Hamlet and Shakespeare. My point, and presumably also Dawkins', is not that it's impossible for something complex to be created by something more complex. It's that some complex things were created by more complex things, and some complex things were not created by more complex things, so when you see something complex, you need additional evidence to decide that it's created.

  2. I'm sorry that you take offense at Dawkins' statement that postulating a divine creator doesn't explain anything, since I think I've offended you by essentially saying the same thing. Unfortunately, while I don't intend to give offense, I'm going to stand by my statement that saying "God did it" does appear not constitute an explanation. I've had this discussion with Wayne before, and am not sure that I can do a good job of explaining why "God did it" strikes me as a non-explanation (rather than even a bad explanation) without giving offense, but I'll give it a shot.

    It seems to that in all the cases I can think of where we call something an explanation, the explanation makes sense of the thing that we're trying to explain, either by (a) making sense of it in terms of things we already understand, or (b) making sense of it in terms of a larger pattern that we've observed, even if we don't understand the cause of that pattern. For example, if we're trying to explain why my car doesn't start, saying "it's because it's out of gas" explains it in the sense (a) --- I have an understanding that cars needs gasoline to run, and this specific instance of my car not running fits into that more general understanding. Or if you say "It's because your car is a Yugo, and those break down all the time," then even if I don't know specifically what's wrong with my car, or why Yugos break down so often, this specific breakdown makes sense as part of a larger pattern. Both of these are also good explanations in that, if I'm not sure if they're true, they have observable consequences that I can test, to confirm or refute those explanations.

    On the other hand, if you say "it's because some all-powerful entity that we don't know anything about, and have no direct evidence of, has decided to stop your car from working," that doesn't strike me as an explanation, because I don't know anything about this all-powerful entity, or why it would want my car to stop working. It's possible that there is some powerful entity that wants my car to stop working - I can't rule it out as impossible - but without additional evidence of this, and an understanding of why he/she would want my car to stop working, I can't really see this as an explanation.

    The situtation strikes me much the same when someone says that the universe is here because some all-powerful entity decided to make it. I'm honestly not trying to "smear" anyone or engage in "name-calling" when I say that I have trouble seeing how that constitutes an "explanation," whether for my car breaking down, or for the origin of the universe.

  3. Autumnal Harvest,

    Thank you for a reasoned explanation of your position. I agree that you did not engage in name calling or smearing. You have examined my arguments and I have examined yours. We have not come closer in our thinking. At this point let's simply accept the fact that on the issue under discussion we disagree. Thank you for giving me the benefit of your ideas and challenges. I hope you'll continue to do so.


  4. Thanks, Shane. Yes, I think our views of the world are too different for our thinking to converge, but I'm nevertheless enjoying your posts.

  5. Autumnal Harvest,
    I always enjoy your posts. You make a good point that it seems unlikely that a complex organism and universe would be the result of a creation of an even more complex being. Still, I read about the arguments for and against evolution. The ones for evolution seem to make the most sense. Still, when Behe argues for a designer, he only picks something singular like the argument against the evolution of the Eukaryotic cilium due to its irreducible complexity, which evolutionists have been able to show has evolved over a long period of time. That I can understand, but what I can’t fathom is how can a complex being have come into existence without several functions occurring all at once, and I find it disappointing that it appears that no one has brought up this point so I can see how an evolutionist would address it. The way I see it, we need to have the following all at once in order to exist: Digestion and Elimination, Respiration, Circulation, a flap to close our wind pipe when we swallow, blood clotting or we bleed to death from a cut, and even with all the above, we would still need reproduction, otherwise the being dies and we would once again have to start from scratch. Since we need all these systems, it would have to be an unbelievable coincidence for all of them to occur at once. And just think about It. A male would have to come into existence with a penis and a system for producing sperm and a female with a vagina along with a womb and eggs along with a way for the offspring to leave her body. That just seems too far beyond belief. That is why I feel there had to be a creator involved. Once designed, then evolution takes over.

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  7. Shane, you write, "A supremely complex cosmic intelligence, existing from all eternity, does not require a bigger explanation. Nor does it “explain nothing.” In fact, it explains everything about the origin of the universe. It’s the most adequate explanation there can be. It’s where the need for an explanation ends."

    I disagree. It does indeed explain nothing, because the "explanation" is, at bottom, "It was magic." Invoking magic, and leaving it at that, is not an explanation.

    To have a genuine explanation, you need to be able to specify how the trick was performed. But this is precisely the kind of expanation that you not only cannot provide, but that you seem to think is rendered superfluous by invoking a "supremely complex intelligence, existing from all eternity."

    Here's how I see your argument in a nutshell:

    Q. How did the universe come to be?
    A. By magic.

    Q. Who performed the magic?
    A. A great and powerful magician called God.

    Q. How did the magician perform the trick?
    A. The magician is supremely complex and intelligent and has existed from all eternity.

    Do you see the problem with the argument? You're simply begging the question.

    I was watching a pop science television program on the origin of the universe about a year or so ago, and one statement in particular caught my attention. That statement was something to the effect that scientists may some day be able to create universes in a laboratory. Well, that's certainly interesting. If one acknowledges that possibility, then one would have to acknowledge the possibility that our universe was previously created by scientists in some other universe. But if that happened, it wasn't by magic, and it wasn't because those scientists were "supremely complex beings who have existed for all eternity." It was because they had figured out how to perform the trick.

    What you have identified is not the point at which atheism breaks down, but the point at which theism breaks down. That is the point at which you admit your lack of an explanation -- and then present that very admission as though it WERE an explanation

  8. Wayne,

    Only just now saw your post. What basis do you have for claiming that an organism needs all these things to survive? In fact, they surely don't need all these things, since many organisms don't have these things that you describe. Amoebas don't have a wind pipe at all, let alone a flap to close it, blood to clot, respiration, or multiple sexes, let alone a vagina and womb. You're acting as if the theory of evolution needs to create fully functioning human beings at once, which is certainly not what the theory of evolution claims. And, of course, there are all kinds of other creatures that have more of these things than an amoeba, but less of these things than humans.

    On the other hand, there are certainly all kinds of interesting questions about how evolution works, and where it might be hard to see how a particular function was formed by a set of incremental changes. Certainly evolutionary biologists don't have all the answers, and I don't think any of them would claim that they do. The point I'm trying to make is that it doesn't make sense to me that you feel that evolution is "beyond belief" because of you don't see how it can occur, but then you're willing to claim that it's explained by a creator that you know nothing about. Why don't you have the same issues with your creator? Doesn't he/she/it need Digestion and Elimination, Respiration, Circulation, a flap to close his wind pipe, etc, . . ? If he was an entity that you knew anything about, we would have all the exact same questions about how he/she/it could possibly have come into existence. It seems (and I mean no disrespect here) that you're "solving" the problem by pushing back the first life to an entity that you know absolutely nothing about, so that we can't possibly think about or investigate the problem in any way whatsoever. That's why I would deem this creator explanation to be not actually an explanation. Or, as P. Coyle puts it "magic."

  9. Autumnal,

    Yes I do believe that evolution would need to create a fully functioning human or any animal species all at once. A higher form of animal is not at all like an Amoeba. An Amoeba is merely one cell, so it can engulf its meal and absorb it. Also, an Amoeba can simply split in half to increase its number. I cannot picture an advanced animal being able to do that. Could both sexes have initially been within a single higher animal form? Perhaps. Still, you would have to have some means to create an offspring. Quite a bit more complicated than a one cell creature splitting in half. Still, you do have some sort of splitting going on in genetic material, so perhaps the answer lies there. That still does not explain how two sexes came about by chance with the ability of one sex to pass on sperm to an egg of the other complete with womb for the fetus. An Amoeba, after absorbing another one cell organism, simply pushes out the waste. Still, it would need the ability to turn that consumed organization into energy. A higher organism like us is a lot more complicated. Also, unlike the Amoeba, we need respiration and circulation. Since one involves the other, how do you have one evolve without the other? I don’t believe that evolution, in general, is beyond belief. There is definitely evidence that it exists. I just find it difficult to explain it in my mind how certain things could have come about without a little nudge from a creator. BTW, yes you are right that I don’t know anything about this creator, but neither do you, so your question why I don’t have the same issues with a creator wouldn’t necessarily apply. The reason, is that it appears that since we can’t see a creator, it may simply be a super intelligence in spirit form. In that case, it wouldn’t require things like respiration, digestion, etc. I know you, like P.Coyle, refer to the explanation of a creator as magic. Perhaps, but when you look at the big bang where, supposedly matter appeared from Nothing and then exploded without a creator, that seems even more like magic. Also, evidence shows that things didn’t happen in 6 days, but billions, so that long period of time doesn’t make it seem like someone waving a magic wand. For all we know, either the creator set up evolution/natural selection so that he didn’t have to constantly fine tune things, or evolution is evidence of this creator experimenting until he got it right. For all we know, the destruction of the dinosaurs was caused by the creator to make way for us. Kenneth E. Miller, writer of Finding Darwin’s God, suggests that we came about by chance because of evolution/natural selection set up by a creator.

  10. Wayne, if you believe that evolution would need to create a fully functioning advanced organism at once, then you're not criticizing evolution, you're criticinzg some other theory that you've just made up.

    But more crucially, you're still not explaining how a creator can be considered an "explanation." You are correct that I know nothing about this creator, if he exists, and neither do you. That's exactly my point. An actual "explanation" involves making sense of things in terms of something that we know something about. Claiming to explain something by making reference to something we know nothing about, doesn't constitute an explanation - it's just a random story. You're saying that you have trouble with evolution, because you can't explain how respiration would evolve, and your solution is to postulate a creator that you know nothing about, and then "solve" your problem of respiration by saying that since we know nothing about this creator, maybe he doesn't need to respirate. I don't see how this can possily consider this an "explanation." As I said before, all you're doing is pushing the problem of the first life to a situation that you know nothing about, and proclaim that since we can't know anything about it, you've solved the problem - that's not an explanation, that's an announcement that you're going to refuse to seek an explanation.

    I've asked Shane several times to state what he considers an "explanation" but never received an answer, so I'm still baffled as to what the two of you consider an "explanation." To ask again, if you car breaks down, and you take it to the mechanic, and she says "Your car broke down because God wanted it to," would you consider that to constitute an "explanation"? Particularly if she then answered questions like "Well, what part of the car did God decide to damage?" with "I don't know. Neither of us know anything about this God." And if this doesn't constitute an "explanation" for your broken car, then why does it constitute an "explanation" for life?

  11. "Perhaps, but when you look at the big bang where, supposedly matter appeared from Nothing and then exploded without a creator, that seems even more like magic."

    No, the Big Bang is the exact opposite of magic, it's a testable scientific theory. You seem to be using "magic" to mean things that seem incredible, or hard to believe, but this is surely a bad definition of "magic." Personal incredulity is a poor way to test any hypothesis. The Big Bang is a scientific theory that explains various things that we see in the universe - Hubble's law, the abundance of light elements, the isotropy of the cosmic microwave background, etc . . . - and makes predictions about future observations with which we can confirm, or potentially, falsify, the Big Bang. That's why the Big Bang theory, whether true or false, is an actual explanation - it makes enough connections with things we know that we can investigate it, test it, and make sense of other observations. Your Creator hypothesis is a magic non-explanation, not because I find it incredible (although I do), or because it's impossible (I agree that it's not), but because it's simply proclaims some supernatural event that we know nothing about, and can't possibly test or investigate further.

  12. Autumnal,

    When it comes to the big bang, I agree that their appears to be evidence that it occurred. I have no problem with that at all. What gives me a problem is that science states that the mass for the big bang came out of nothing. From everything I've read, in order for that to occur, you have to have a cause, but if there is NOTHING, there cannot be a cause or force. That is why I turned to the supernatural that always existed and, which is outside of nature and could very well be a intellectual spirit not requiring a body with respiration etc. Can you give me an alternative hypothesis? And yes, we know nothing about this supernatural being and cannot test for it. That said, it does not nullify the possibility, especially considering that a cause or force needed to produce matter out of nothing cannot be found in nothing. BTW since you do agree it isn't impossible, why insist that it be testable? It certainly would be nice, but, unfortunately, that ability is beyond science.

  13. Autumnal,
    You said "Wayne, if you believe that evolution would need to create a fully functioning advanced organism at once, then you're not criticizing evolution, you're criticinzg some other theory that you've just made up."

    How can you say I'm criticizing some other theory I made up? I'm discussing evolution. I see a lot of things that are evidence of evolution, however, I have yet to see any explanation how advanced forms like ourselves could have come about gradually because it appears we need quite a number of functioning systems all at once including a woman and a man appearing with full reproductive organs including a penis and vagina. I find that mind boggling how it could have come about by chance. I know Behe gets shot down when he talks about iriducibly complicated, but he is talking about one thing like the whipping mechanism of a bacteria. But I am talking about the requirement of numerous systems all at once.

  14. "BTW since you do agree it isn't impossible, why insist that it be testable?"

    Because lots of things aren't impossible - that's not a good standard of treating a belief as reasonable.

  15. Autumnal,
    When something is not testable, then you are only left with subjective reasoning.