Dr. Vince Vitale is a Christian apologist for Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM), and he has given the same talk on several occasions (see here and here) on the question “Was the Universe Designed by God?” I want to respond to his arguments, but because his talk is almost an hour long and packed full of various topics, I will break my responses into several posts.
First, I will start with a claim that I’ve heard Vince make on several occasions. The context of his claim is usually when debating the origin of the universe. Vince claims:
Criticism without alternative is empty. A given hypothesis is only probable or improbable relative to what alternative hypotheses are out there.
In other words, Vince is saying that if you criticize his view, and if you don’t have a replacement explanation to his Christian God hypothesis, then your criticism is empty. And, what makes an explanation for the origin of the universe probable or improbable is measured by how well it stands up to the alternatives.
I think Vince is wrong. First, a given hypothesis is only probable or improbable relative to our background knowledge and the available evidence, not which alternative hypotheses are out there. The supporting evidence is what matters. If Vince happened to live in a world full of apathetic people, who simply don’t care about questions of cosmic origins and who lacked alternative explanations, his Christian God hypothesis wouldn’t suddenly become more probable.
Bayes’ theorem is a statistical equation that can describe the probability of an event based on our prior knowledge of the conditions related to the event. It’s the standard equation for finding probabilities. But it is the related evidence that is put into the equation that changes the probability/improbability of a given explanation. Alternative hypothesis don’t change this inference.
Regarding Vince’s claim, “Criticism without alternative is empty”; this too is wrong. In fact, this is a textbook argument from ignorance. Vince is saying that he’s going to keep believing his hypothesis until somebody can either prove it wrong or offer something better; this is a way to shift the burden of proof. Christian theism as an explanation either stands or falls because of the evidence. Nothing else should matter.
Consider how a scientist approaches their work: the default position is to lack an explanation — they say “I don’t know.” A lack of understanding is why the scientist is seeking to discover an explanation in the first place! Suppose a scientist is attempting to explain the mechanisms that make the flowers grow in the garden. And suppose their friend suggests a hypothesis: “The flowers grow because of invisible fairies under the garden.” The scientist may respond, “I see no reason to think that’s the case. First of all, there is no good evidence to think that fairies exist. It’s more likely that fairies are imaginary beings, and not real things that make flowers grow. Besides, how do they actually turn a seed into a flower? You haven’t explained that part at all.”
Is the scientist’s objection valid? I would argue, yes. The scientist doesn’t need to have a replacement explanation in order to show the shortcomings and errors in their friend’s hypothesis. Remember, the default position is to lack an explanation. If all explanations fall short or contradict the evidence, or if some related evidence is left unexplained, then either our confidence in our explanation should be lowered, or it’s back to the drawing board.
The same is true with our religious and metaphysical beliefs about the origin of the universe. If the evidence doesn’t fit with the Christian God hypothesis — say, because of all of the suffering in the world, or because of the diversity of various religious and non-religious beliefs around the world, or because of the extraordinary claims in the Bible about 900 year old men, talking animals, and people raising from the dead — then there is no problem is simply abandoning that hypothesis, even if we have nothing else to turn to.