Why Using Word “Complexity” Needs Greater Clarification

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One day while I was out doing outreach on a major college campus, an atheist lamented to me that he tends to get quite frustrated when he begins to probe deeper as to why Christians think there is a God. He said to me one of the most common reasons many theists say there is a God is because everything is just too “complex.” For the atheist, this is quite vague. And sadly, while Christians do use this argument, they don’t do the best job of elaborating as to what they mean when they appeal to the complexity argument. I went ahead and offered a more detailed argument to the atheist as to what it means to use the word “complexity” so that he could grasp what many Christians are attempting to say. So I will repeat what I said to him here.

Complexity is a form of probability and in most cases what Christians are saying is that the probability level is very low that the entire universe, the earth, and how life got going could have happened by chance. However, chance is another word that gets a bit lost in the discussion as well. Chance in itself is not a real cause: I might say the odds of me winning the lottery are very low and I may attempt to come up with some mathematical probability of it happening.  But it is not chance that caused me to win or not win the lottery.  I think what Christians really mean to say is the following:

  1. A specific object, or event has to be the result of a Being with the ability to plan ahead and thinks with an end goal in mind.
  2. A specific object or event can’t be the result of unguided natural processes.
  3. A specific object or event can’t be the result of chance/coincidence

In his book An Atheist Defends Religion: Why Humanity Is Better off with Religion than without It, author Bruce Sheiman gives a general outline for how atheists account for human life began:

The laws of physics for our present universe arose by chance (from a multitude of possible universes); the first forms of life developed by chance (arising by primordial soup combinations that resulted from the laws of physics plus accidents); the first concept of life developed purely by chance (genetic mutations and environmental randomness); and humans evolved by more improbable occurrences. To summarize, here is simplified version: Human Life = Laws of physics x chance + randomness+ accidents+ luck x 3.5 billion years. (pgs 203-204)

Obviously,  Christians will say this scenario is just nonsense.  However, there is no doubt that any attempt to point to God as an explanation for these features that were just mentioned can lead to what skeptic’s call the God of the Gaps fallacy. It works like this: a theist says human knowledge, due to its limits, needs God as an explanation for what is observed about some feature of reality. The saying goes, “We cannot explain the origin of the universe with science, so God must have created us.” There is a ‘gap’ in our knowledge, and ‘God’ fills in the gap which then provides closure to the mystery of cosmic origins. But then, a skeptic replies that when enough information is had, the gap in our knowledge closes, and ‘poof’—there goes the whole ‘God’ hypothesis. The whole idea of God as Creator went away as the gap closed! So, in many cases, skeptics think they can accuse the theist of the God of the Gaps fallacy.

Is there a difference between the God of the Gaps fallacy and abduction or inference to the best explanation? There is. God of the Gaps thinking depends on a lack of knowledge in order to sustain its conclusion that God exists. As long as a theist affirms theism because of our inability to explain the cause of some feature of reality, the skeptic can simply have faith that science will provide an answer in the future. This is not the way a theist should make his case to a skeptic. Abduction on the other hand affirms that given the evidence at hand, theism is the better explanation for what we observe, compared to chance or necessity. Chance is ruled out by measuring probabilities, and necessity is ruled out simple reason. Consider the universe: the probabilities that the universe should provide the ability of life to arise by chance are zero. That rules out chance. What we have left is necessity. Is the universe necessarily the way it is?  Could it have been different? Of course, it could have been different! Is there any reason or evidence to suggest that the universe is necessarily fine-tuned for life? No, it isn’t necessary that the universe is the way it is, or even that it is in the first place. This leaves us with the only alternative: design.

Chance, necessity, or design; it is the latter that provides the best explanation given the evidence we have. So far so good. But, what if new evidence were to come about? Wouldn’t that provide the opportunity to return to chance, and thus make abduction no different than the God of the Gaps fallacy? Not at all. This is because God of the Gaps theorists punt to the notion of God’s existence based upon a lack of knowledge. Contrarily, an inference to the best explanation relies on what is known: the scientific data shows that the universe is finely-tuned, and how such meticulous fine-tuning could not happen by chance or necessity. So, no—inference to the best explanation is not a God of the Gaps fallacy, and is a viable way to understand evidence.

Also, as we have said before, there is a difference between scientific (or, impersonal) and personal explanations. Impersonal or scientific explanations deal with impersonal objects and laws of nature; we observe and measure how some events regularly follow others. By contrast, there are personal explanations that show things like motive, intention, and purpose. These explanations are caused by an Agent, which is why there are personal. Is the fine tuning of the universe the result of an impersonal force or is it the result of a personal Agent who displays intentionality and intelligence? What about the rare earth  that is needed to allow for life to even exist? What about something like biological information?

In the end, Christians need to do a better job of explaining what they mean by saying things are just too “complex.” I hope this helps.