When the “best explanation” is the worst explanation

Credit: Is the God Hypothesis a good explanation? (see below)

I sometimes get into debates about scientific issues with what could be called “bush philosophers.” People who have learned a little (sometimes even a lot) about philosophy but have no real idea of how science works or proper concepts of the philosophy of science. Consequently they sometimes end up making claims, or advancing arguments and justification, about reality which are nothing more than fanciful from a scientific viewpoint.

One justification I commonly hear from such people, particularly theologians,  philosophers of religion and those under their influence, is the “inference to the best explanation.” I recognise that this is a recognised philosophical and epistemic process – it’s just that every time I hear that justification I know from experience I will be presented with a bit of motivated “reasoning” or “logic” to justify the proponents strong belief and ridicule different beliefs.

Inference to best explanation and its problems

For example, “Andrew” (sorry don’t know any more about him) claimed to be using the  “Inference to the Most Favored Hypothesis” in his post Comparing the Old & New Teleological Arguments. Boiled down he believes that observed “fine-tuning” of physical constants in the universe is “more probable given the hypothesis of theism as opposed to” an atheistic one. Similarly a local philosopher of religion, Glenn, declares a belief in a god based on this postulate being the “best explanation of the existence of moral facts.” For good measure he in the end adds appeals to a god as the “best explanation of the origin of the universe,” “the fine tuning of the Universe for the existence of intelligent life,” “the objectivity and transcendence of beauty” and “the best explanation for the historical facts concerning Jesus of Nazareth, along with any arguments for the reliability of Scripture.” (see Occam’s Razor and the Moral Argument for Theism).

Whew – you can see that “the inference to the best explanation” does a lot of the heavy lifting for the theologically inclined. Or at least their “bush philosophers.” Problem is that these opportunist users of this “inference to the best explanation” ignore the problems that commonly haunt the method. Problems that have been well understood.

For example, Alexander Bird, in his chapter in The Routledge Companion to Epistemology describes the problems that are relevant here:

  • Underconsideration – not considering all relevant explanations available. How can one determine the “best” explanation if the one closest to the truth is not even considered.
  • Subjective judgement“explanatory goodness is too subjective a quality to be correlated with objective truth.” Such judgements, like beauty, are in the eye of the beholder.

I think the above examples of theistic use of “inference to the best explanation” illustrate the mistakes of underconsideration and subjectivity in spades. From the perspective of a scientist who is used to inference, to arguments and to comparing hypotheses or “explanations” some things stick out like a sore thumb when the theologically inclined resort to this inference:

1:No real testing against reality.

They rely purely on argument, reasoning or logic – motivated argument, reasoning and logic  at that. If facts or evidence are referred to this is usually cherry-picked, distorted or exaggerated. And there is never any idea of producing an hypothesis or explanation for the purpose of testing against reality. One is asked to accept the idea purely on argument. It’s like the buyer of a car being refused a test drive.

Any explanation worthy of the name must surely make predictions about the real world, and preferable testable predictions. How else can we make anything like an objective judgement. How can we compare a number of available explanations for their real explanatory ability?

2: The favoured explanation is usually vague

Of course the favoured explanation is always some form of “god did it.” Inevitably the concept of the god is pretty open ended or vaguely described. There is never any question that the god hypothesis itself could possibly be tested. Quite the opposite. When any testing is suggested ad hoc adjustments are rapidly made to the hypothesis to ensure it remains untestable.

As for the specific explanations – this always seems to be left at a level of some sort of magic. Their god clicked her fingers and the universe came into existence, the appropriate values of physical constants were chosen, objective moral truths were declared, etc. Never any mechanism. One can’t even get the picture of a bearded and robed god adjusting the knobs on his universe-creating machine so as to guarantee the evolution of intelligent life.

Any “explanation” comprising such vagueness is not a real explanation. Serious explanations should contained structured hypotheses, using existing knowledge, suggesting observations, making predictions. And it should have some degree of plausibility, credibility, even if some aspects still await scientific verification.

3: All reasonable candidate explanations are not considered.

Because the prime motivation is to provide an argument for their own pet belief there is no real interest in considering all the possible explanations that can be inferred. In fact, those making the argument may not even be aware of existing candidate explanations and may lump them all into a generalisations such as the “atheist explanation.”

Usually this is bad enough when admitting there are scientific alternative candidates. But I would have thought if you are going to propose an explanation which involving your own preferred god, you should also include explanations which involve other gods or beings. Explanations based on myths of other religions.

The candidate “explanations” available for comparison and judging would be numerous indeed.

4: God-of-the gaps worst explanation

In effect the vagueness and lack of structure common to such theistic “best explanations” mean they boil down to the god-of-the gaps. Anything they don’t understand can be “explained” by postulating their god. No mechanism required, no testing against reality possible. And no real consideration of alternative explanations. Even though these alternatives may have structure, be more plausible or credible, and can offer ways of testing or verification through their predictions.

Inevitably scientific explanations must fare better than such theistic explanations. Without really trying. Victor Stenger expressed it this way in his recent book God and the Folly of Faith: The Incompatibility of Science and Religion:

“we can defeat any proposed God-of-the-gaps argument by simply providing a plausible natural explanation consistent with our best existing knowledge to fill the gap. That argument need not be proven.”

See also:
Is the God Hypothesis a good explanation?
Historical method – Wikipedia

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10 responses to “When the “best explanation” is the worst explanation

  1. I believe in God, after that things get a bit fuzzy. My belief is based on faith or as you say inference to best explanation. The simple fact is in my limited mind there had to be a beginning to the universe, pre big bang, ( to everthing) whatever/whoever that is/was is God an intelligent knowing being not just some force.

  2. Youareherex – I did not say inference to the best explanation was the same as faith – it clearly isn’t. One is required to collect together a number of candidate explanations – obviously the scientific ones can’t be excluded. And your need to use some measure of objectivity in making a judgement. Again science is useful

    Faith just doesn’t work.

  3. Would you happen to have any good resources for those interested in learning more about the philosophy of science or science in general?

  4. Accusations of “God of the gaps” arguments are depressingly common, but often simply mistaken. I’ve commented on this in the past, but I don’t realistically see the practice fading away any time soon. It’s too convenient a method of dismissal. :)

  5. I guess it depends on one’s perspective, Glenn. I would think its rather that “god-of-the-gaps”arguments themselves are depressingly common.” They may often be called out these days – but not often enough.

    Given the criteria I have discussed here for the degree of goodness of an explanation I classify ‘god-of-the-gaps” arguments as those which really just argue “god-did-it” without any real explanation. No structured hypotheses, no mechanism. Not even reasonable speculation.

    That’s not to reject explanations containing god hypotheses out of hand. For example Frank Tippler does provide speculative mechanisms for Christian miracles, etc. I would not classify his explanations as “god-of-the-gaps.” However the do fail on other grounds.

  6. Oh dear, apparently this is the method of “real” scientists who write on philosophy, (a) call people names like “Bush” philosopher (b) quote an article where one person agrees with you (c) make a whole lot of philosophical assertions about epistemology (d) fail to appreciate the implications of what your saying (e) provide no argument of any sort for them. (d) hope that because your a scientist people wont recognize this as crap a first year student would not do.

    Complain philosophers write about science with little understanding and ignore the obvious irony.

  7. “They rely purely on argument, reasoning or logic – motivated argument, reasoning and logic at that. If facts or evidence are referred to this is usually cherry-picked, distorted or exaggerated. And there is never any idea of producing an hypothesis or explanation for the purpose of testing against reality. One is asked to accept the idea purely on argument. It’s like the buyer of a car being refused a test drive.”

    This is idotic, first, you note an argument is motivated, but that’s irrelevant the motives of a person who makes an argument do not determine the validity of the argument, that’s logic 101.
    Second, one can’t offer a argument or reasoning and not appeal to evidence because that’s what arguments do they offer premises (i.e evidence) from which one draws a conclusion.
    Finally, you state . “And there is never any idea of producing an hypothesis or explanation for the purpose of testing against reality.” Actually if one offers an argument they do test it against reality, arguments appeal to premises which describe the way the world is, one tries to show given the world is this way and the laws of logic certain things must be the case. That is testing the claim for consistency with reality.
    Moreover, the process of testing a hypothesis against reality in fact itself involves the use of a logical argument. You argue that the hypothesis entails something should happen, and then note that this does not happen, that’s actually reasoning about implications and employing the law of non contradiction. If one can’t accept ideas purely on the basis of arguments one can’t base ideas on empirical testing.

    I do agree with you about how people in one discipline commenting on another without understanding the basic concepts of another. Its just the irony of you continually saying this seems lost on you.

  8. Matt – your first comment is all ad hominem. I guess you were working off some spleen?

    Clearly when I use the term “motivated reasoning” I mean reasoning that is engineered to achieve a preconceived bias. We all do it. Its very hard for an individual to be completely objective in their reasoning. That aspect of cognitive science is well understood.

    So we don’t judge the validity of an explanation by the authors assurance that they used logic and reasoning. We make our judgements collectively and through interaction with reality.

    You do not understand the nature of validation and testing against reality. It involves a lot more than presenting a biased argument.

    And surely its silly to suggest that because I point out the danger of biased reasoning and logic then I am rejecting logic.

    I can understand why you, as a theologian, should argue for people to accept your arguments without any testing or validation, “purely on the basis of arguments “. But come off it. Grown-ups expect better than that.

    You say that people in “one discipline commenting on another without understanding the basic concepts of another” is bad. I don’t agree – provided people are open to discussion and the ideas of others.

    However, theologians and religious apologists are not open to exchange of views. They are making claims about the universe, “fine-tuning”, human evolution and morality – all things outside their discipline – and attacking others, like me, who have an interest and contribute their ideas.

    Matt, you are of course welcome to contribute to the discussion – I hope you do. But please – proper discussion. Not ad hominem attacks.

    What about critiquing what I have said about the requirements for an inference to the best explanation? I think they are important even if you don’t.

  9. A theologian is like a blind man in a dark room searching for a black cat which isn’t there – and finding it! Oscar Wilde.

    The Internet: Where religions come to die.

    The burden of proof

  10. Pingback: Going beyond the evidence | Open Parachute

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