Do explanations invoking an omnipotent-God have a failing track-record?

  • Clarifying the question

    Some persons invoke the Western notion of God—the greatest conceivable being—as part of an explanation for patterns in nature and origins, instead of strictly scientific explanations. Do these theistic explanations which appeal to the standard monotheistic God have a track record of failure?

    • God = def. The “greatest conceivable being,” i.e. the presumably omnibenevolent, omniscient, and omnipotent foundation of all caused reality.
    • Explanation = def. A statement that removes puzzlement.
    • Theistic Explanation = def. An explanation that features God.

    The answer to this question can help with answering other questions, notably:

  • Reception

    Some atheists proclaim that theistic explanation has a track record of failure (see here). On the other hand, with respect to standard Western theism in particular.

    • J. Brian Pitts: “These worries might also be overstated historically. Are they part of the same complex of distortion as the Huxley–Draper–White thesis that the characteristic mode of interaction between science and religion has been warfare (White [1896])? This claim has been refuted by modern historians of science (Lindberg and Numbers [1986]; Brooke [1991]; Olson [2004]). The warfare thesis, a large-scale generalization, keeps company with some specific claims that are simply false, such as that the medievals believed in a flat Earth (refuted in Russell [1991]; Grant [1994]). Given how many flaws have been diagnosed in the Huxley–Draper–White story by recent historians, one might wonder whether the definitive history of God-of-the-gaps arguments also has yet to be written.” [“Why the Big Bang Singularity Does Not Help the Kalām Cosmological Argument for Theism” The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science Vol. 59, Is. 4 (2008).]

    The two fairly consistently cited examples of theistic explanations being overturned are the theistic explanations for biological design (overturned by Darwin) and for planetary motion (overturned by Laplace).1

      • Elliot Sober: “When he heard Laplace's exposition of the nebular hypothesis…Napolean was taken aback. 'Where is God in your theory?' he asked, and Laplace is said to have replied that he had no need of that hypothesis. Many of Darwin's contemporaries were shocked… Darwin could have sad what Laplace said... these theories show that the God hypothesis is not needed in science.” [Did Darwin Write the Origin Backwards (Prometheus books, 2011), .]
      • Gregory Dawes: “Again and again, it has shown that postulating the existence of a deity is not required in order to explain the phenomena. Sir Isaac Newton (1642–1727) still required God to fine-tune the mechanics of his solar system, but by the time of Pierre Simon de Laplace (1749–1827), the astronomer notoriously had no need of that hypothesis. Until 1859, it seemed that the diversity of living organisms could not be accounted for without reference to God, but Charles Darwin offered us a more successful, natural alternative.” [Theism and Explanation (Routledge , 2012), 131-132.]
      • Sean Carroll: “Over the past five hundred years, the progress of science has worked to strip away God’s roles in the world. He isn’t needed to keep things moving [thanks to Laplace], or to develop the complexity of living creatures[thanks to Darwin], or to account for the existence of the universe.” [“Does the Universe Need God?” in The Blackwell Companion to Science and Christianity, eds. Stump & Padgett (Blackwell, 2012), .]
      • Gregory Ganssle: “We can think of Laplace’s advances on Newton’s theories of planetary motion as well as the impact of Darwin’s theories on the design argument put forward by Paley and others.” [“God of the Gaps’ Arguments” in The Blackwell Companion to Science and Theology, eds. Stump & Padgett (Blackwell, 2012), 134.]
      • Herman Philipse: “But the track record of religions, to the extent that they have attempted to explain specific facts and predicted future events, is discouraging as well. Although in the past, Christian theism has been used to explain natural facts such as the stability of the solar system or the adaptive complexity of biological organisms, and to make predictions such as the second coming of Christ shortly after his crucifixion, these explanations have been superseded by better, scientific explanations, and the predictions have not come true.” [God in the Age of Science?: A Critique of Religious Reason (Oxford, 2012), 91.]
“No, after all…
  • The track-record is constructed primarily from a false example

    The proposed monotheistic track-record is constructed from a false example (or examples).1 The primary example of a failed theistic-explanation is design being replaced by Darwinian evolution. However...

    This is relevant because a track-record whose members don't actually belong is not a veridical track-record and affords a correspondingly deficient amount of inductive evidence for future predictions of theistic failure.

    1. Few atheists will claim that theistic-explanation has failed in the case of the origin of the Universe (more often they will at best say it is undecided). However, Sean Carroll has included it in his list:

      Sean Carroll: “Over the past five hundred years, the progress of science has worked to strip away God’s roles in the world. He isn’t needed to keep things moving [thanks to Laplace], or to develop the complexity of living creatures [thanks to Darwin], or to account for the existence of the universe.” [“Does the Universe Need God?” in The Blackwell Companion to Science and Christianity, eds. Stump & Padgett (Blackwell, 2012), .] So in response, See: Beginningless-universe models are false In particular, Sean Carroll's model is false, and his quantum eternity theorem is also probably false.

  • The track-record has a near-zero sample size

    The proposed track-record has a near-zero sample size.1 (After all, usually only the same two examples are cited: Darwin’s answer for biological designs, and Laplace’s answer for planetary motion.)2 This is relevant because a track-record with a near-zero sample size is not a veridical track-record and affords a correspondingly deficient amount of inductive evidence for future predictions of theistic failure.

      • Robert Larmer: “Critics of "God of the gaps" arguments do not tend to cite many examples of this presumed fallacy nor to do any thorough analysis of the examples they do cite. I suspect, though I will not argue, that even in the cases of the examples that are cited such as Newton, the fallacious reasoning is not so clearly evident as they would have us believe. [“Is there anything wrong with ‘God of the Gap’s reasoning?” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, Vol. 52, No. 3. (Dec., 2002): 138.]
      • Gregory Ganssle: “It is uncertain, however, if the historical record reveals enough cases to make a strong enumerative inductive generalization.” [“God of the Gaps’ Arguments” in The Blackwell Companion to Science and Theology (Blackwell, 2012), 134.]
    1. These so-called track records fairly consistently only cite Laplace and Darwin. See the four examples of such quotes above.
  • The track-record is too broad (non-representative)

    The proposed track-record is too broad—formed by a sampling that is non-representative. (What do we mean by non-representative? See footnote #2?). After all, a trained academic is far more likely to present a responsible explanation-type than the untrained laity, so sampling from among the untrained laity to obtain a track record from which to judge proposals from trained academics is misguided.2

    1. Is the track record non-representative? When taking samples for arriving at inductive (pattern-based) conclusions, we want our samples to be as representative as possible. For example, suppose we are asking, can recent triathlon participants normally run a mile without stopping? Sampling from all humans of all ages to get an informative track record for answering this question is misguided.
    2. In fact, among the two often cited examples where God's action failed as an explanation is Newton invoking God's providence to explain plentary motion. However, philosophers might have taken issue even with the great mind of Newton for proposing God in this scenario. After all, God may sensibly infuse design in a simple science-friendly world he created (i.e a world that may no longer be elegant and simple if the laws needed to predestine something as complex as life [assuming Darwinism is untenable]). However, it may not be sensible to suppose God's design would require that God constantly and miraculously maintain otherwise algorithmically moving planets. That may be indicative of bad design.
      • Robin Collins: “many theists would claim that Newton’s famous invocation of God to keep the planetary orbits stable implies a less than satisfactory picture of a constantly intervening God.” [“The Fine-tuning of Physics” in The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology (Blackwell, 2009), 225.] It may also be worth noting that if the track record is specifically incorporating cases were apologists invoked God as the best explanation for some mystery in nature, that Newton's case doesn't even belong.
      • Alvin Plantinga: “Newton seems ... to have suffered a bum rap. He suggested that God made periodic adjustments in the orbits of the planets; true enough. But he didn't propose this as a reason for believing in God; it is rather that (of course) he already believed in God, and couldn't think of any other explanation for the movements of the planets. He turned out to be wrong; he could have been right, however, and in any event he wasn't endorsing any of the characteristic ideas of God-of-the-gaps thought [“Methodological Naturalism” Pt. II, Origins and Design, Vol. 18, No. 2, Footnote 52]
      • David Snoke: “Did anyone ever argue for the existence of God because we didn’t understand… the orbits of the planets? Perhaps some pagan shaman somewhere has argued that way, but I see no evidence for any serious Christian argument along those lines. We must distinguish between bad explanations for certain things within the theistic world view, and arguments for the theistic world view itself. People arguing that comets were signs from God or that demons caused all sickness did not argue that God existed because comets and demons existed; rather, starting from belief in God, they posited a reasonable, though ultimately falsified, theory about comets and demons. In the same way, people working within an atheistic world view have proposed bad explanations for things, such as the theory of spontaneous generation or the Lamarkian theory of evolution. The falsification of a subtheory within a larger world view does not falsify the whole world view. If it did, every falsified scientific theory would cause everyone to reject all of Western science.” [“In Favor of God-of-the-Gaps Reasoning,” Perspectives on Science & Christian Faith, vol. 53 (2001): 158.]
  • The track-record is unstable given the threat of paradigm shifts

    The proposed track-record transforms in the face of paradigm shifts. This is relevant because such paradigm shifts are on the horizon.

      • Del Ratzsch (Philosophy professor at Calvin): “Kuhn argued that revolutionary advances sometimes reopen scientific issues previously thought to be settled. Closed gaps may thus be an unstable launching platform for critiques.” [“Science and Religion” in The Oxford Handbook of Philosophical Theology (Oxford, 2009)]
      • Del Ratzsch: “Kuhn has argued that revolutions sometimes reopen scientific issues previously thought to be closed. If he is right about that, then gap closure may be an unstable phenomenon.” [Nature, Design, and Science: The Status of Design in Natural Science (University of New York, 2001), 119.]
  • The track-record disregards theistic successes by methodological fiat

    The proposed track record discards would-be theistic successes by methodological fiat. (Consider various origins examples below where theism ostensibly succeeds. Most atheistic advocates of the so-called failing theistic track-record thesis methodologically disallow such theistic explanations from being deemed successes.) This is relevant because if the track record only allows non-theistic explanations, then the fact that the track-record consists of only non-theistic explanations is irrelevant. Such a track-record is useless as inductive evidence that a given phenomenon will have a non-theistic explanation.1

      • Del Ratzsch: “Most scientists take methodological naturalism as a norm for the acceptability of scientific theories. Thus any inadequate theory will by methodological policy be replaced by some alternative theory that also meets methodological naturalistic conditions--non-naturalistic theories being ruled out by fiat. Thus, only naturalistic theories can even be candidates for 'success'. The claim, then, that naturalism has a monopoly on scientific success bears some logical resemblance to that of the ruling party in a one-party country citing its history of electoral success--where only party members can run--as evidence of the voters’ high regard. [“Science and Religion” in The Oxford Handbook of Philosophical Theology (Oxford, 2009).]
  • The track-record, when corrected, includes trending theistic success

    Scientific advances have a greater trend of bolstering the appeal of theistic explanation.

    Theism offers the best explanation for…

    • The origin of the Universe.
    • The origin of the fine-tuning of physics.
    • The origin of life.
    • The origin of speciated designs in life, e.g.…
      • The origin of protein folds.
      • The origin of sexual reproduction.
      • The origin of body plans.
      • The origin of consciousness.
      • The origin of moral awareness.
      • The origin of human exceptionalism (e.g. the origin of language).