Here’s another common atheistic argument.
Christians often argue that God is the only reasonable or feasible explanation of how the universe got here. A common atheistic response is to say that “God did it” explains nothing – it leaves us with no more of an explanation than we had before we brought God into the discussion. For example, the ‘Proud Atheist’ blogged that God explains nothing and Richard Dawkins said “To explain [something] by invoking a supernatural Designer is to explain precisely nothing, for it leaves unexplained the origin of the Designer.”
What do they mean by “explains nothing” and are they right?
How do we explain things?
It is quite clear that we can use the phrase ‘explain things’ in different ways, for example:
- In science, we try to understand a particular state of affairs by explaining the underlying causes and the processes leading up to that state. It was a great breakthrough when Louis Pasteur explained that a major cause of disease was pathogenic micro-organisms, and that measures like boiling water and washing hands with antiseptics could greatly reduce diseases.
- Sometimes we want to use statistics to explain the relationship between two variables. We graph the two variables against each other and the closer the experimental points plot to each other, the more of the relationship between the two variables is explained; if the points scatter too much, other factors must be more important. For example, we may wish to predict the height of a flood from the rainfall, so we plot flood height against rainfall. If the points plot close together, then the rainfall is a good predictor of flood height, i.e. it explains the flood height very well, but if the points scatter too much, the rainfall doesn’t predict or explain the flood height very well, and other factors must be more important.
- In everyday life, we may ask someone to explain their actions, that is, tell us why they chose to behave in a certain way. For example, a teacher may ask a pupil to explain why they haven’t done their homework. This is a more personal type of explanation.
Different circumstances require different types of explanation
This is obvious. If a scientist is asked “Why did the bacteria grow in petri dish A?”, it isn’t going to be helpful to give a personal explanation such as: “Because my assistant set it up last night.” Equally, if someone ask me why the kettle is boiling, they probably don’t want an explanation of the physics, but want to know if I’ll make them a cup of tea.
So what sort of an explanation is God?
It is clear that the atheists are correct that “God did it” isn’t a satisfactory scientific explanation, for it doesn’t explain the physical processes. This is an important point when discussing scientific matters (for example, the supposed irreducible complexity and Intelligent Design of the eye) but it is a trivial point when discussing the existence of God, which is not (primarily) a scientific question.
Saying God did it (backed up by good reasoning) adds a lot to our understanding. It tells us that the universe has a design and probably a purpose. It explains a lot, in fact it explains ‘everything’ and leads our thought in new directions.
An example would be if a tourist on a remote Pacific island discovers a grave with some ancient artefacts. Everyone wonders where they came from, so archaeologists are called in and after examination and testing, pronounce them as being ancient Egyptian in origin. No-one can explain how they got there, but the fact that they are ancient Egyptian is nevertheless an important fact.
But saying “God did it” simply substitutes one unknown for another
This is a common response to the claim that God is the explanation of the universe – saying “God did it” doesn’t get us any closer to a final answer (it is argued), because then we need an explanation of God.
But philosophers, and most scientists, have long known that science proceeds by finding an explanation, then looking to understand that; each answer opens up another question. In science, there are no ultimate explanations, so demanding an ultimate explanation would destroy science, as William Lane Craig and Luke Muehlhauser explain.
So where does this leave us?
It is hard to see how anyone could think that being able to identify that God made the universe is anything other than a momentous discovery. This line of thinking by atheists seems to be not so much a logical argument as a way to avoid a logical argument. It gets us nowhere, and leaves us where we were all along, assessing the evidence.