“Because God Made it that Way”

Sometimes something humorous can provide philosophical insight. I got an e-mail from a former student, now community college instructor, called “how to fail with dignity.” It had exam questions with funny wrong answers actually given by students. One question was “Why is phosphorus trichloride (PhCl3) polar?” The answer, given by a student who appears devout but too lazy to study for a chemistry exam, was “Because God made it that way.” Presumably, the answer was marked wrong. But just why was it wrong? If “Because God made it that way” is wrong on a chemistry exam, why should it be an acceptable answer to ANY empirical question? Yet, many theists think that it is, for instance, an acceptable answer to questions about the origin of the universe or the beginning of life or major transitions in evolution. Why would they agree (as I presume they would) that the lazy chemistry student’s answer should be marked wrong, but hold that such an answer is an (in fact THE) acceptable answer to certain other empirical questions?

Thomas Nagel, in his book The Last Word says that appeals to the divine in empirical contexts are pseudo-explanations; saying “God did it” is really just a fig-leaf hiding our ignorance, a gesture towards a gap in our knowledge. Hence, all such appeals are rightly castigated as “God-of-the-gaps” arguments. I think he is right. Philosophers have debated at great length, and typically inconclusively, the nature of scientific explanation. Yet I think that Karel Lambert and Gordon G. Brittan, Jr. are right in their wonderful little introduction to the philosophy of science when they say that a scientific explanation, should, at least, tell us why the phenomenon or fact in question was to be expected, and theistic accounts, like astrological ones, just do not provide that information. Hence, when tempted to say “God did it” we should instead honestly admit our ignorance and wait for advancing science to close the gap and provide the explanation.

Theists would no doubt reply that the above paragraph begs the question by assuming that scientific explanations are the only legitimate ones. Richard Swinburne says that there are also personal explanations, i.e., explanations in terms of the actions of persons. “God did it” explanations are therefore assertions that God has performed a basic action. A “basic action” is one like raising my hand to answer a question. It is something I just do without doing anything else first. Saying “God did it” is therefore like saying “I did it,” that is, God’s basic actions are to be understood as analogous to my basic actions. Since we explain things all the time in terms of humans’ basic actions, there should be no in-principle objection to explaining things in such personal terms and no denigration of such explanations as uniformative or empty.

I don’t buy it. The analogy between divine and human actions would have to be a distant and tenuous one at best. Despite the anthropomorphic language of much of scripture, theology has always insisted on the very great difference between the divine and human natures. I perform a basic action by moving some part of my body, but God has no body; God does not literally say “Let there be light,” because God has no mouth, larynx, or tongue. Perhaps God’s basic action is a purely mental occurrence, consisting simply of having the volition that there be light. Yet again, God’s mind is so different from a creaturely mind, that it is hard to say what is supposed to be going on here. God is often conceived as both immutable and timeless, yet, as Kant observed, temporality seems to be an a priori condition for the occurrrence of any events, even purely mental ones, and thus they involve change. What it is like to will something immutably and timelessly is an utter mystery, and so invocation of such putative willing cannot enlighten us.

Even if theology were revised to make divine volition an intelligible procedure and tolerably analogous to our own ways of willing, there is the problem that invoking personal explanations as ultimate explanations, as Swinburne does, simply begs the question against physicalism. Physicalism holds that all legitmage explanations are physical ones and that even human volition and action is physically explicable. According to physicalism, then, personal explanations are simply way-stations on the way to deeper and better explanations. Sure, it explains why the doorbell rang to say that Keith rang it, but physicalists see this as a superficial explanation that admits of deeper explication in terms of physiology and, ultimately, physics. Indeed, I would say that things like thinking and willing are completely physically realized, and that makes enormous the disanalogy between human mental acts and putative divine ones.

So, I think that we should give F minus to someone invoking “Because God made it that way,” whether that person is a tyro chemist or a chaired professor of philosophy at a major university.

About Keith Parsons
  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03190524739107446297 Nick
  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11688233034699511182 ryan

    "God did it," isn't the whole explanation for any particular phenomenon; it's just an easy layer of abstraction that one can apply to anything that ever happens in the Universe, much in the same way that one could correctly explain that my pressing keys to type this comment worked because, "the computer did it," without going into great detail about how each keypress or key combination creates a circuit with a unique scan code, which is interpreted and placed into memory before being sent as packets across copper wires and eventually stored somewhere as ones and zeroes upon a rotating magnetic platter, to be read and displayed by a web server communicating with a database.

    Most people don't really need to know the details of how it happened. Just tell them a computer did it, and they'll say, "oh, ok!" Discussion over.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Keith Parsons claims that personal explanations of actions, such as of why Keith rang the bell, are superficial explanations, and that there are deeper and better explanations in terms of physiology and physics. No justification for this belief is given. I would like to here argue that this belief is wrong.

    1. Pragmatically speaking, nobody will ever even try to explain why Keith rang the bell, never mind why Keith posted the above piece, by analyzing the physical processes in Keith’s brain. But perhaps the point is that we have good grounds for believing that such explanations exist at least in principle, even though as a practical matter nobody will ever use them.

    2. The assumption is that Keith’s actions are caused exclusively by his brain. But as we know from mathematics, many simple deterministic systems are intractable even in principle. And we know with virtual certainty that the human brain is not a deterministic system, and if approximated as one it will turn out to be a chaotic system. In other words there cannot exist, even in principle, an analysis that connects a human brain’s output with its state and its inputs. So, far from scientific explanations being the only legitimate ones in the context of personal actions (and personal explanations being pseudo-explanations) it seems that such scientific explanations cannot be given even in principle.

    3. Now suppose I am wrong and that there exists a physical description of the how the inputs and state of Keith’s brain moved his finger to ring the bell. Even then it is not clear in what sense that description would explain why Keith did it. A fundamental conceptual problem of naturalism is the problem of intentionality, and as long as it is not solved it is not clear how one can bridge a physical process with its purpose or meaning.

    4. Let’s overlook all these contrary arguments and assume that there do exist deeper and better scientific explanations for all physical phenomena than the respective personal/theistic explanations. But, again, the opposition is not between theism and science, or between personal explanations and mechanistic ones. The whole of science and engineering work just as well on theism as they do on naturalism (actually I think science represents difficult conceptual problems for naturalism, but never mind). So, even if it were the case that scientific explanations for physical phenomena are always deeper and better than personal/theistic ones, it would have no relevance whatsoever, for they work as well on theism as on naturalism. Rather it is important to notice that it is not only physical phenomena we wish to explain. There are meta-phenomenal questions, such as why physical phenomena are intelligible in the first place, or questions about the origin of the physical universe, or questions about he apparent fine-tuning of the physical universe, and so on. Naturalistic attempts to answer these questions border on the maximally fantastic. So for example MIT physicist Max Tegmark argues that all worlds that exist mathematically also exist physically. So much for physicists (who study phenomena) doing metaphysics (the study of existence).

    5. Our experience of life has both a quantitative and a qualitative dimension. It seems to be fundamentally impossible for science to explain the non-quantitative dimension of our life, simply because the scientific epistemology concerns itself only with quantifiable data. But we use our cognitive capacities not only for explaining (and thus controlling) physical phenomena, but also for understanding, evaluating, and guiding the whole of our life. It’s about understanding beauty, goodness, justice, the meaning of life or what the worthwhile life is, and so on – all issues vastly more significant to our wellbeing than understanding such phenomena as why phosphorus trichloride is polar or how to build cheaper airplanes. And here science, and hence naturalism also, have nothing to say. But theism does in a way which is both cognitively illuminating and empirically testable.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16826768452963498005 Jim Lippard

    Dianelos: Regarding your point #1–there are already some interesting studies in neuroscience where personal introspective explanations of behavior are clearly confabulated, and the actual explanation of behavior is due to external causes of which the subject is not aware, which may be reflected in brain imagery. For example, split brain studies where different stimuli are given to different brain hemispheres, the person acts based on a command shown to the right hemisphere, and the left hemisphere generates a confabulated explanation of the behavior. Another example is hypnotically suggested movement that is perceived as involuntary, where the brain imaging suggests that it is not, but that the subject is engaged in cognitive strategies to distract attention from awareness of a decision to move.

    It seems to me quite likely that as neuroscience develops, we will find more and more cases where the neural-level explanation is richer, more detailed, and more coherent than subjective reports of conscious will.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Reply to Dianelos’ points:

    1) Whether, on any given occasion, someone accepts a personal explanation as practically adequate is neither here nor there. What counts as an acceptable explanation is, of course, context-dependent. In everyday contexts, a personal explanation may be perfectly acceptable. However, there is no reason whatsoever why a psychologist, a neuroscientist, or anyone, might not inquire about the causal basis of personal actions and choices. Indeed, as Jim Lippard points out in his post, fruitful research has already been accomplished on such questions.

    2) This is simply nonsense. We can and do make strongly confirmed causal claims about complex systems all the time. If we couldn’t there would be no such science as meteorology. What causes tornadoes? We don’t know the whole story (and may never), but we know quite a bit. A meteorologist can explain a great deal in terms of cold fronts, warm fronts, dry lines, rotation and wind flow in supercell thunderstorms, conservation of angular momentum, etc. Indeed, to accept Dianelos’ claims here would be simply to write off much of neuroscience, which assumes causal connections between brain states and between brain states and behavior and has the established results that amply justify that assumption. If it is actual, it must be possible. In fact, if we took Dianelos absolutely at his word here, we would have to conclude that we do not know that ingestion of alcohol can incline one towards truculence or sentimentality.

    3) Dianelos says that even if we could subsume a personal explanation under a scientific one, this would not tell us why someone rang your doorbell. Well, of course it wouldn’t. So what? What counts as a good explanation, as we say, depends on context, i.e., what kind of information we are looking for. If someone rings my doorbell, naturally I want to know why they did, and no one would try to answer this by looking at brain states. That we have intentions is no problem at all for naturalism unless there is reason to think, and Dianelos adumbrates none, that my intentions cannot be fully realized in my brain states. In short, the physicalist can say that having intentions is something I do with my brain. Why not?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Reply to Dianelos, continued:

    4) I honestly cannot see that there is anything here relevant to my post. My point was this: Swinburne claims that there is no problem with understanding theistic explanations since they are merely a species of personal explanations, and we all know, from our everyday experiences, what personal explanations are and we accept without question that they are informative and unproblematic. My response is (a) the disanalogies between human nature and the theologically postulated divine nature are so profound that understanding personal explanations vis-à-vis the former sheds no light on what they would be for the latter. What would or could a basic action be for an immutable timeless being??? (b) Swinburne’s answer begs the question against physicalism, which claims that personal explanations of human behavior can be subsumed under scientific explanations. In this case, the disanalogy between human personal explanations and putative divine acts remains in full force. Nothing Dianelos says here even addresses these points.

    5) Science has nothing to say about beauty, truth, justice, goodness and the meaning of life? Why not? Aristotle thought that it could, and we have far, far more reason than he did to think so. Aristotle, for instance, held that we cannot know what the good for humans is until we understand human beings as biological organisms, that is, until, we know what kind of life nature has fitted human to live. He argues that we are suited to live the lives of rational creatures in society with other human beings. Well-being, eudaimonia, is excellence in the fulfillment of the natural human function. The exercise of the moral and intellectual virtues constitutes excellence in fulfilling the human function, and therefore the virtuous person is the happy one. In short, naturalism in ethics has been around for 2400 years, and naturalism in epistemology too. Dianelos’ sweeping asseverations about what science can or cannot say appear groundless.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Keith Parsons said:

    Swinburne claims that there is no problem with understanding theistic explanations since they are merely a species of personal explanations, and we all know, from our everyday experiences, what personal explanations are and we accept without question that they are informative and unproblematic. My response is (a) the disanalogies between human nature and the theologically postulated divine nature are so profound that understanding personal explanations vis-à-vis the former sheds no light on what they would be for the latter. What would or could a basic action be for an immutable timeless being???
    ==============
    comment:

    The problem of the disanalogy between human actions and divine actions is a big and very serious problem for Swinburne and other theists. However, it is important to note that Swinburne's concept of God is not that God is "immutable and timeless".

    For Swinburne, God is eternal but inside of time. Also, God does not know ahead of time the actions that a person with free will is going to freely chose to perform, on Swinburne's view of omniscience, so this implies that God learns things as time passes (e.g. God learned what I freely chose to eat for breakfast today when I actually chose to have hashbrowns and a breakfast sandwich, assuming this was indeed a free choice that was not determined by prior causal conditions).

    Thus Swinburne's view of God's omniscience and of human free will implies that God does in fact change over time.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05693985638589020492 Mark

    Most of what Dianelos says appears to me to be non sequitur. If the complaint is that divine explanation makes little sense and is disanalogous with familiar, sensible sorts of explanation, it's of no use to point out the limitations of scientific explanation, even if he's correct.

    Re: the original post, it seems to me that theists would just postulate a (large) bunch of psychophysical laws linking acts of divine volition with events in the world. All explanations, even physicalist ones, have to stop somewhere; so why, theists might ask, couldn't some of them stop at God's mental states rather than at, say, some sort of differential equation governing the behavior of elementary particles? These laws would be radically different from the physical laws we've come to be familiar with, granted, but that doesn't make them impotent.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Thanks, Bradley for noting that Swinburne's conception of God departs from traditional theology in a number of ways. Specifically, for Swinburne, God is neither immutable nor timeless. Does this solve the problem for Swinburne? Consider two scenarios:

    A: At 9 A.M., Eden Standard Time, October 23, 4004 B.C., an incorporeal, omnipotent, everlasting being wills that there be light and there is light.

    B: Last Tuesday evening Parsons enters a darkened room looking for his briefcase. He raises his arm and flips a switch and there is light.

    What do these two scenarios have in common? So far as I can tell, Swinburne would say that they both involve basic actions by sentient beings and that if the latter is informative and explanatory, then so is the former. But does our understanding of scenario B really give us any insight into scenario A? Parsons flipping a light switch tells us something about how God created the cosmos? Human agency and divine agency are really that alike? The suggestion seems wildly presumptuous, even comically blasphemous in its implied denigration of divine transcendence.

    On the other hand, perhaps theists are free to alter their conception of God however they like; it's their idea, after all. By making God more anthropomorphic theists can make his thoughts and actions more comprehensible. The problem with an anthropomorphic deity, however, is that the idea of God becomes uncomfortably close to the plainly mythological Zeuses and Odins. Sophisticated theologians have always been embarrassed by the hairy, thundering Jehovah, who smites, curses, is jealous, has temper tantrums, changes his mind, booms in basso profundo from burning bushes and whirlwinds, and walks in the garden in the cool of the day. Hence, traditional theology has emphasized the otherness of God at the expense of comprehensibility. As Hume notes in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, unfathomable distance and anthropomorphic familiarity both are deeply problematic, and there seems to be no natural, happy mid-point that achieves the ideal balance between transcendence and comprehensibility.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Response to Keith Parsons:

    Your final paragraph clearly presents what I take to be Hume's main challenge to belief in God. God is either non-empirical and transcendent, thus irrelevant and incomprehensible, or God is empirical and immanent, and thus relevant and comprehensible and subject to confirmation or disconfirmation by observation and experience.

    Swinburne is trying to push the concept of God in the direction of being empirical, immanent, relevant, and comprehensible, so the key question is whether he ends up with an anthropomorphic deity or with an empirically disconfirmed God hypothesis.

    Keith Parsons said:

    What do these two scenarios have in common? So far as I can tell, Swinburne would say that they both involve basic actions by sentient beings and that if the latter is informative and explanatory, then so is the former. But does our understanding of scenario B really give us any insight into scenario A? Parsons flipping a light switch tells us something about how God created the cosmos? Human agency and divine agency are really that alike?
    ============
    comment:

    Your scenarios are missing a key ingredient: purpose or intention.

    Human choices and actions are understood in terms of purposes. Humans have desires, values, goals, plans, purposes, projects, interests, intentions, and objectives. We make sense of what people do by reference to both general and specific purposes. Swinburne attempts to identify God's purposes and explain the existence and nature of the universe in relation to those purposes.

    For me the critical issues are:
    (1) Are the purposes that Swinburne attributes to God logically implied (or made probable) by his concept of God?

    (2)Are the alleged actions of God (e.g. creating this universe) implied or made probable by assuming that God exists and has the purposes that Swinburne attributes to God?

    (3)Is the existence of this universe improbable assuming that God does not exist?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    In response to Jim and Keith:

    1) I don’t see how the experiments that Jim mentions affect my claim that as a practical matter nobody will ever even try to explain actions such as ringing the doorbell, or writing a particular text, by studying the agent’s brain. Neuroscience has its use (say in helping cure pathological conditions of the brain) and what it discovers about the brain is certainly very interesting, but given the nature of the brain I find the idea that it will at some point be feasible to explain normal and specific actions by analyzing physical properties of the brain to be groundless.

    2) I agree that we can analyze and understand the general behavior of complex and/or chaotic systems, but point out that it is impossible to analyze the detailed behavior of such systems. So, for example, the meteorologist may explain a thunderstorm given the weather system’s initial conditions, but cannot even in principle explain why lightning has hit a particular tree, never mind why a raindrop has hit a particular spot. Similarly, I argue, a neurologist can explain an agent’s drunken behavior, but cannot even in principle explain an agent’s detailed actions, such as ringing the bell or the particular choice of words when writing a piece, just by analyzing the brain’s state and inputs. There are fundamental mathematical limitations to what is possible to compute even approximately, and therefore also to what science’s use of mathematical models can produce. Perhaps science’s success has moved people to overestimate science’s field of applicability.

    3) I am confused by Keith’s response here. He appears to agree that scientific explanations will never say why, for example, someone rang the doorbell. Whereas, as we know from our daily life, personal explanations easily can. But then in what sense are scientific explanations better and deeper than personal ones for understanding actions such as somebody ringing the bell – which is the idea I am objecting?

    As for my use of the problem of intentionality, I mean the term in the philosophical sense of “aboutness”. For example it seems impossible to derive the content of a belief based exclusively on the physical properties of how this belief is instantiated in somebody’s brain. But if so neither can it be possible to explain actions influenced by the content of beliefs. My point is that even if it were feasible to describe the causal path between a brain’s physical state and the specific outputs that cause a finger to ring a bell it would not be possible to explain why the agent acted in this way. Indeed it seems that on scientific naturalism it makes as much sense to ask why the agent rang the bell as to ask why the thunderstorm hit a particular tree with lightning.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    4) In points 1-3 of my original post I argued that far from being scientific explanations of human actions better and deeper than personal explanations, they in fact do not exist, in the sense that it is impossible to give them because of fundamental properties of the scientific method. In points 4-5 I moreover argued that we want to explain and understand far more than physical phenomena (of which human actions is one case), and that here science has nothing to say whereas personal explanations based on the existence of God are quite successful.

    I did not address Keith’s points about the difficulty of using personal explanations based on the existence of God when using the particular language of theology he mentions, because I basically agree with him: I too find that it is confusing to say that God is a thinking and acting person and also immutable/timeless. My understanding here is as follows: In theistic metaphysics “God” refers to the deepest structure of reality. This fundamental structure has both personal and non-personal properties, and therefore rather than say “God is a person” it is more precise to say “God is not less than a person”. All immutable/timeless properties of God (such as being the foundation of reality, being the unmoved mover, etc) are basically non-personal properties in the sense that they do not form part of God’s conscious life, which is dynamic and indeed evolving and creative. As far as our own relationship with God is concerned (and this is all that theism is about) the relevant properties of God with which we engage are God’s personal, existing-within-time, properties. That’s why theistic language mainly speaks of God in personal terms, while also (correctly but confusingly) pointing out some impersonal immutable/timeless properties of God.

    5) Science has nothing to say about goodness, beauty, justice, and other value judgments, because the scientific method concerns itself exclusively with quantifiable data, whereas value judgments are about qualities.

    As for Aristotle, his metaphysics is explicitly theistic, isn’t it? The Scholastics for example based their metaphysics on Aristotle’s. So I can’t really see the connection between Aristotle’s thought and a naturalistic conception of ethics, or beauty, or justice, etc. But I will agree that if naturalism is to remain relevant it must move beyond the constrains of scientific naturalism and its dependence on the scientific method and produce a worldview based on purely philosophical thought. Perhaps such a freer philosophical naturalism can benefit from Aristotle’s categories.


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