When a creationist asks how the Universe was caused, is it fair to restate the question and ask how God was caused? There is some concern with this approach among philosophers, as pointed out in the post Who Designed the Designer?. The post comes from one of my favorite atheist blogs, Common Sense Atheism. The author has a good grounding in philosophy, makes interesting posts (not a million links to news stories), and also provides interesting podcasts. I highly recommend the blog.
CSA thinks the retort is a poor argument. So let’s examine his case.
He thinks that “God did it” is a poor explanation for anything, but the “who/what caused God?” response leads us down a slippery slope. Invoking this argument can require us to explain our initial explanations ad infinitum until even the most knowledgeable among us will reach the precipice beyond which we have no more explanations. Since this is the case, it would appear we don’t hold ourselves to the same standard of having to provide every possible explanation. How, then, is it fair to expect this of theists? He thinks instead we should ask “How is ‘God did it’ the best explanation?” This is a very brief overview of a more complex argument, so I suggest you read his post (linked above) for his full case.
This interested me in particular because I invoked the argument in a previous post, Common Arguments for God’s Existence. In it, I provide very brief rebuttals to three classic arguments for the necessary existence of God. Below is an exerpt from that post regarding the Cosmological Argument:
Everything that exists was caused, the universe exists and must have a cause, nothing can cause itself…
The most obvious flaw, and one that I assure you can never be overcome, is that God would have to be held to these same restrictions. There is no adequate proof that God should count as an exception to this. You could say that God has always existed, but then you open the possibility of the Universe always existing, and you’re back to square one. God, in this case, acts as a typical deus ex machina.
While I don’t disagree with anything I said there, I want to address CSA’s objection, because I think it is a good one.
Why invoke ‘Who caused God?’
I agree with CSA that this leads us down an unproductive path. However, I don’t think it necessarily leads us down an unproductive path at the fault of the objection. I think it is the theist’s initial assertion that is problematic and by restating the question, which they cannot adequately answer, it merely shows the fault of their own claim. Do two bad arguments make a good argument? No, but I personally have found this method successful at getting on the same page with a theist about sound arguments. For example, if a Christian asks me if I’m scared of going to Hell, I may ask them if they are scared of being reincarnated as an amoeba. This at leasts gets them to see the argument through a doubter’s eyes. I can at least show them that even they don’t find their arguments convincing.
Is the retort a powerful one philosophically? I’d have to agree with CSA that it is not, though, I feel this type of retort can still be an effective tool if used in the way I described. But there are more effective arguments out there and we should all make attempts to use the best arguments for our case.
Is the best explanation approach better?
CSA proposed instead asking “Why is God (magic) the best explanation for that? Will you explain please?”.
Is that approach ultimately more successful? Perhaps. I think you first have to set some ground rules.
It seems you have to first establish that the theist is proposing a best explanation. I think most would grant this, but there could be a few slippery responses. The trickier part may be having the theist agree that a natural explanation will be better than a supernatural one. Of course, everyone does this in the course of their daily lives, but when it comes to God, theists have a hard time granting this.
Ultimately, I prefer to attack the premises, rather than the conclusion of this argument. Does everything have a cause? Can the Universe be infinite? If we can provide other possible answers in either of these areas, then the conclusion fails automatically. To answer these questions, read up on your physics.