More on Theistic Explanation

The discussion following my earlier post on “the hard problem” has gone on at rather great length, and has broached a number of topics. One of those topics has been theistic explanation, and Alex Dalton and Dianelos Georgoudis have raised some points that need further argument and clarification.

First, when, if ever, would a rational atheist such as (ahem) myself be driven, “as a last resort” to admit that something is inexplicable on naturalistic terms and concede that it must be due to the immediate act of God? If nothing, in principle, would convince an atheist that God has done something, then the atheist can rightly be charged with dogmatism, with clinging to an unfalsifiable ideological infatuation in the face of any and all possible evidence. The atheist would himself be hoisted with Flew’s unfalsifiability petard!
Christian philosopher Victor Reppert challenged me in precisely this way some years ago: What would I, Keith Parsons, take as undeniable evidence of the existence of God? My reply was that if all the galaxies in the great Virgo cluster, suddenly were rearranged so that, when viewed from earth, they spelled out “Turn or Burn! This Means You Parsons!” (and if all the world’s astronomers also saw and reported this), then I would be in the front pew of the church or synagogue of my choice next time its doors were open.
Norwood Russell Hanson, in his delightful essay “What I Do Not Believe,” addresses the same sort of scenario. He imagines that a gigantic, luminous Michaelangeloid figure appears in the sky, towering over us like a hundred Everests, and booms in a voice a hundred times louder than thunder: “Woe to you unbelievers! Be assured that I, Jehovah, do in fact exist!” (This is not Hanson’s exact wording, but close enough.)
These answers were somewhat flippant, of course, but they made the philosophical point: Yes, there are imaginable circumstances where a rational atheist would throw in the towel and admit that, yes, something has occurred which only God could bring about, and which, even given our priors, we have to admit could not be a natural occurrence. Therefore we would have to admit that God exists.
But, Alex and other theists ask, would not Hanson and I be folding too quickly? Are there not possible naturalistic scenarios that could account for even such outre events, so that a truly hard-bitten naturalist could hold his ground even then? Gee, I guess so, if you had enough imagination, and were willing to go far out on many limbs of supposition and speculation. But, as I say, given even my priors, which include our current understanding of the laws of nature, the proffered naturalistic scenarios would have to be so wild, arbitrary, speculative, and ad hoc, that just conceding that God did it would be far more reasonable. In short, even for the staunch naturalist, there are circumstances in which he would admit that, given what we now know, a naturalistic explanation would have to be even more wildly improbable than a theistic one.
What about theistic hypotheses? Are they “science stoppers?” Why not regard them as we do any other hypotheses, that is, as tentative answers that are to our “why” questions, which are then to be abandoned when better answers come along? Thus, if in a given circumstance a theistic hypothesis seemed the most reasonable given our theory choice criteria, why not treat it as any other hypothesis and regard it as, tentatively, the best confirmed rather than setting it aside and awaiting a naturalistic answer?
Good questions, and the answer is straightforward: Yes, indeed, “God did it” is a science-stopper. First, as an answer to our “why” questions, it is almost completely uninformative. Theistic “explanations” can tell us nothing about a modus operandi; we can, in principle, have no way of understanding how the event was caused or what the underlying process was. There can be no specified mechanism or process, nothing quantifiable, measurable, testable, or observable. There are no known “laws of supernature” under which we may subsume the particular event. In effect we are simply told that the event was brought about by the inscrutable and incomprehensible actions of a transcendent, supernatural entity employing occult powers and for purposes that we can, at best, only vaguely recognize. Sorry. I am just not enlightened by such an “account.”
Further, historically, theistic explanations have had enormous obscurantist power, and it is small wonder that they do. Philip E. Johnson, the Berkeley law professor who is one of the leading “lights” in the intelligent design movement, has made it very clear that he hates evolution because his God has to be an involved God, one who is directly active in shaping and molding the particulars of the natural world. No distant deistic deity will do. Evolution by natural selection removes God from the detailed design of the world and, at best, sets him back from the process. When science supplants God at any level of explanation, there is furious resistance. Even now, more than 150 since the publication of the Origin, last-ditch resistance continues–vehemently.
So, no, we cannot expect theistic hypotheses to behave like other hypotheses. They don’t and they won’t.

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

    Keith Parsons said…

    First, when, if ever, would a rational atheist such as (ahem) myself be driven, "as a last resort" to admit that something is inexplicable on naturalistic terms and concede that it must be due to the immediate act of God? If nothing, in principle, would convince an atheist that God has done something, then the atheist can rightly be charged with dogmatism, with clinging to an unfalsifiable ideological infatuation in the face of any and all possible evidence.
    =====
    Comment:
    A good question, well worth serious consideration.
    =======
    Keith said…
    What would I, Keith Parsons, take as undeniable evidence of the existence of God? My reply was that if all the galaxies in the great Virgo cluster, suddenly were rearranged so that, when viewed from earth, they spelled out "Turn or Burn! This Means You Parsons!" (and if all the world's astronomers also saw and reported this), then I would be in the front pew of the church or synagogue of my choice next time its doors were open.
    ============
    Comment:
    The scenario you describe would not persuade me to believe in God.

    One reason I rejected Christianity is the doctrine of Hell. The idea that a perfectly good person would cause or allow human beings to be tormented in hell for eternity makes no sense.

    If I saw "Turn or Burn" written by stars in the sky, I would conclude that the character Jehovah (or Yahweh) of the Old Testament was real, but that conclusion would give me almost complete certainty that there was in fact no God.

    For, a perfecly good person who was all-knowing and all-powerful would surely protect us weak human mortals from such a horrible and demonic being as Jehovah. Jehovah is certainly much more evil than, Adolf Hitler, if for no other reason than that Jehovah is much more powerful than Hitler ever was or ever could be.

    The real existence of Hitler makes the existence of God improbable, so the real existence of Jehovah would make the non-existence of God almost certain.

    Like the atheists in foxholes, I might run to a nearby Church in lunatic desperation, and pray to a God whose existence I strongly doubt, asking God to save humankind from the evil clutches of Jehovah.

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

    Keith Parsons said…
    Theistic "explanations" can tell us nothing about a modus operandi; we can, in principle, have no way of understanding how the event was caused or what the underlying process was. There can be no specified mechanism or process, nothing quantifiable, measurable, testable, or observable. There are no known "laws of supernature" under which we may subsume the particular event. In effect we are simply told that the event was brought about by the inscrutable and incomprehensible actions of a transcendent, supernatural entity employing occult powers and for purposes that we can, at best, only vaguely recognize.
    =========
    Comments:

    To the extent that theistic explanations are personal explanations, then there is an aspect of these explanations that cannot be reduced to scientific explanation, according to Swinburne.

    But in thinking about ordinary personal explanations concerning human actions, it seems to me that we can do a fair amount of investigation and analysis.

    Why did George W. Bush push us into war with Iraq? This is not an easy question to answer, and the truth of the matter might evade even the best and brightest and most objective of critical thinkers, but I would not dismiss the possibility of finding out the truth of the matter, or arriving at some reasonable level of probability as to some of the key factors/motivations.

    If there are supernatural persons who interfere with human affairs, then it will, of course, be an even greater challenge to determine the motivations and key factors influencing the behavior of those supernatural persons, but I would not assume that such inquiry was unavoidably futile.

    There is a huge hurdle or two, however, that would need to be jumped first. One hurdle is the personal identity of a disembodied person or spirit. Closely related would be the problem of having adequate evidence showing that a particular event was brought about by a particular disembodied person or spirit.

    If these conceptural and epistemological hurdles could be jumped, and if actions could be tagged to specific disembodied persons, then we could gather data on different disembodied persons, formulate hypotheses to explain their behavior, and start an empirical science of the psychology and motivations of spirits.

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

    Bradley,

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments. The "Turn or Burn!" scenario, as I said, is flippant, like Norwood Russell Hanson's imagined Spielbergian display. It would be easy to substitute a scenario with a cosmic message of love, urging peace and brotherhood. The point is this: If we accept a broadly Bayesian view of rationality, as many theistic philosophers do, then we atheists also will appeal to our priors in evaluating any evidence or testimony. This is why, for instance, I have a perfect right to place a very heavy burden of proof on any resurrection apologist. Alternative scenarios, like a "Passover plot" may be highly implausible, but, given my priors, a resurrection from the dead would be vastly more improbable still.

    Still, though I might regard the existence of God as having a very low probability given my background beliefs, it is not an infinitesimal probability. Hence, there could, in principle, be overwhelming evidence for the existence of a being with God-like attributes and any proffered naturalistic scenario to explain away the evidence, given what we know, would be unlikely in the extreme. In that case it could be rational, even for someone with my priors, to throw in the towel and admit that a being exists that answers to at least some aspects of the traditional description of "God." So, the atheist need not be victimized by the "unfalsifiability" charge.

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

    Bradley,

    You are right, of course, that theistic explanations would be personal explanations and that these are irreducible to scientific explanations (at least God's personal actions would be irreducible; neuroscience very well could reduce explanations in terms of HUMAN action). And that is precisely the problem. The broader the scope we give to theistic explanation–i.e., appeals to God's immediate and direct causation, not through "secondary causes"–the less we understand. When we say "God did it" we surrender any hope of understanding "how," and the only "why" explanation we might get would be in terms of personal aim or motivation. Yet, as you point out, this is highly problematic with humans, and much more problematic with God. "Why did George W. Bush invade Iraq?" will keep cadres of historians busy for years, as you say. Why God purportedly does what he does is far more mysterious. As Swinburne admits, given our limited knowledge of God's putative nature, there are very many possible worlds he could have created. Why not Middle Earth or the "Avatar" world? Why not Flatland or Oz? Why a material reality at all rather than a spiritual one? The Anselmian attributes of God–omniscience, omnibenevolence, etc., are compatible with innumerable scenarios, and so even as a personal explanation, "God did it" is very weak.

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

    Keith Parsons said…

    Hence, there could, in principle, be overwhelming evidence for the existence of a being with God-like attributes and any proffered naturalistic scenario to explain away the evidence, given what we know, would be unlikely in the extreme. In that case it could be rational, even for someone with my priors, to throw in the towel and admit that a being exists that answers to at least some aspects of the traditional description of "God."
    =============
    Response:
    Agreed.

    However, strong evidence of the existence of an all-powerful and all-knowing person would not suffice to prove that God exists, if a necessary condition of being "God" is that one also be a perfectly good person.

    Suppose that I have a neighbor named Jack Smith. Suppose that although I don't know Jack very well, from time to time over a period of several months, I see him mowing his lawn, working in his yard, washing his car, and we exchange greetings and sometimes even chat about the weather.

    Suppose that one night, I wake up and see Jack in my bedroom, pointing a .45 handgun at my forehead. Jack ties me up, and then rapes, tortures, and murders my wife in front of me. Jack then rapes, tortures, and murders my teenage dauther in front of me. Jack then rapes, tortures, and murders my youngest daughter in front of me.

    Just as Jack is about to pull the trigger and blow a large hole in my skull, someone knocks at the door and Jack runs away in fear of being caught.

    A few weeks later, a private investigator that I have hired locates where Jack is hiding out, and gives me the address. I bring my own .45 handgun to that location, find Jack, and put my gun to his skull. As I contemplate how I will make Jack suffer for the next and last hour of his life, Jack pleads with me:
    "I know it seems like I'm a terrible person, but despite everything you have seen and experienced of my behavior, I'm actually a perfectly good person. What evidence would it take to persuade you that I'm telling the truth?"

    I'm inclined to say that no possible evidence could persuade me at that point, that Jack was a perfectly good person, or even that Jack was even a moderately good person. But this would not make me a dogmatic believer in the evilness of Jack.

    However, I suppose that it is possible that Jack has an evil twin, and that it was his evil twin who raped, tortured, and murdered my wife and daughters.

    I suppose that an even more remote possibility is that the raping, torturing, and killing was all staged or that false memories of these events were somehow planted in my mind. But I think I would strongly resist such wild explanations. I would not hesitate to make Jack suffer and die, on the basis of the evidence of my own eyes and memories.

    If one takes the problem of evil seriously, then I'm not sure how an all-powerful and all-knowing being is going to be able to show to me that he/she is a perfectly good person, given that he/she let the Nazis enslave, degrade, and murder millions of innocent human beings, for example.

    I suppose there is a remote possibility that the holocaust deniers are correct, and that this event did not actually occur. But the evidence for the holocaust is overwhelming, so this is extremetly improbable.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16826568465831489492 Alex Dalton

    I've been meaning to respond here but have been super busy. I hope I'll have time coming up to share some of my thoughts on this post. For now, I'll just say – we really just still have the same problem. Several naturalistic explanations can be given (very easily I might add) for the examples of allegedly justified theistic belief given by Keith and N.R. Hanson. Not only can they be given but they are more plausible in these instances. Since the evidence postulated here (and really anywhere) can be explained naturalistically, we do not have to admit that God exists. Therefore, the "God as last resort explanation" proposal for theistic hypotheses can never work, and our naturalism becomes just as unfalsifiable as (or even moreso than) theism.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16826568465831489492 Alex Dalton

    Keith writes: Yes, indeed, "God did it" is a science-stopper. First, as an answer to our "why" questions, it is almost completely uninformative.

    Alex: This whole business about "why?" questions is extremely vague. There are just a multitude of different kinds of "why?" questions. If we accept a theistic explanation for the origin of the universe for instance, the "why?" question of the universe's existence is explained in the form of: "Why does a universe exist?". The universe exists bc God brought it into existence. If Keith thinks that, were he to accept this as a fact, this is uninformative, I find this to be ludicrous. It quite clearly informs Keith that his entire worldview is unfounded.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16826568465831489492 Alex Dalton

    Let's look at Keith's reasons for theistic explanation as uninformative.

    Keith: Theistic "explanations" can tell us nothing about a modus operandi;

    Alex: 2 issues here: a) this doesn't matter, and b) it is false.

    Regarding a), if Keith will admit that learning that a god did anything, and thus exists, is a significant fact about the nature of reality (and I hope he can; this seems obvious), then simply bc we may not know this god's method of doing this or that does not thereby render this uninformative. We are very much informed about a significant fact. See my response to Drange in the original thread. If we find an alien artifact that we can agree is designed, but the method of construction is too mysterious to decipher, it is still highly significant/informative to learn that aliens exist.

    Regarding b), here's why it isn't true. Let's suppose that a convincing fine-tuning argument could be formulated and we have good evidence that god fine-tuned the universe for the existence of conscious life. We would then know one of god's goals in this universe, and we could look at the history of the evolution of life and understand some aspect of how he brought it about. In fact, if you think about it, learning that god created the universe means that everything we learn about how the universe operates tells us something about said god's MO. Studying how *anything* works would be studying the mind of god.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16826568465831489492 Alex Dalton

    Keith: In effect we are simply told that the event was brought about by the inscrutable and incomprehensible actions of a transcendent, supernatural entity employing occult powers and for purposes that we can, at best, only vaguely recognize.

    Alex: Something like creatio ex nihilo or other unmediated acts of a god might be inscrutable to a degree, but that shouldn't be surprising. Firstly, there's a HUGE amount of inscrutibility when it comes to human acts of volition. Secondly, what composite parts, devices, processes, etc. ought we expect to be able to examine when a god wills something into existence? This seems to be a fairly basic act. Since the being is essentially a non-physical mind bringing something physical into existence, if we allow that such a being is possible, then what we should expect to find is a physical existence that, from all observation begins abruptly, or at least tapers off to inscrutibility as we look back into the past (take a peek, Keith. That is indeed what you will see). Keith might not like how different such an entity is from everything else we normally study or discuss, but our expectations need to be aligned with the type of entity we're investigating (e.g. some events/entities are unobservable, nonrepeatable, etc.). Really though, we're not in such an odd situation here. Pretty much every past volitional event of history is inscrutible to a very similar degree. To quote developmental molecular biologist John Medina in his book on the function of the brain, "If we ever fully understood how the human brain knew how to pick up a glass of water, it would represent a major acheivement." (Brain Rules p. 4)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16826568465831489492 Alex Dalton

    Last comment for now….

    The final paragraph by Keith about Phillip Johnson and ID doesn't help his case. So some people have theological reasons to reject evidence? I can also cite the atheological motivations of certain scientists to reject evidence. Let's just say that a person's particular use of a particular theistic hypothesis (whether right or wrong) and their resistance to/ignorance of evidence, really has no bearing on whether or not all or any theistic hypotheses are tenable. A person's arguments need to be examined on their own. If their arguments fail, they simply fail. This is a matter of babies and bathwater. Suppose most Darwinian scientists were atheistic, racist, elitists who favored gradualism (for atheological reasons). Suppose that scientists who simply accept some form of Darwinism were even abundantly more likely to embrace gradualism, against superior evidence for punctuated equilibrium, based on their atheological commitments. Punctuated equilibrium might still be the best Darwinian explanation, and we wouldn't count this against Darwinian hypotheses in general.

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

    I've been out of town and otherwise preoccupied for the last several weeks, but I would like to belatedly address some of Alex's replies.

    Alex:

    Several naturalistic explanations can be given (very easily I might add) for the examples of allegedly justified theistic belief given by Keith and N.R. Hanson. Not only can they be given but they are more plausible in these instances. Since the evidence postulated here (and really anywhere) can be explained naturalistically, we do not have to admit that God exists. Therefore, the "God as last resort explanation" proposal for theistic hypotheses can never work, and our naturalism becomes just as unfalsifiable as (or even moreso than) theism.

    Keith: Could the intransigent naturalist make naturalism an unfalsifiable posit? Sure. Must he? No. As I explained, I, or any naturalist, can regard the probability of God's existence as small but not infinitesimal. Further, there can be outre circumstances, like the instantaneous rearrangement of galactic clusters, where, even given my naturalistic priors, I would say that it is more likely that God did it than any conceivable naturalistic explanation. So, if Alex means to say that naturalism CAN be held in an unfalsifiable manner, what he says is true but trivial. If he says it MUST be held in such a manner, what he says is interesting and false.

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

    Alex:

    This whole business about "why?" questions is extremely vague. There are just a multitude of different kinds of "why?" questions. If we accept a theistic explanation for the origin of the universe for instance, the "why?" question of the universe's existence is explained in the form of: "Why does a universe exist?". The universe exists bc God brought it into existence. If Keith thinks that, were he to accept this as a fact, this is uninformative, I find this to be ludicrous. It quite clearly informs Keith that his entire worldview is unfounded.

    Keith:

    Would it be informative to know that God had created the universe? Sure. Whether the universe had a creator or not is a perennial question of metaphysics. Once all of our scientific questions are answered about the origin of the universe, the theist could (and does) claim that a further level of explanation is needed. The debate over the theistic claim would not be a scientific debate since, ex hypothesi, our scientific questions have all been answered at this point.

    No, the context in which I am challenging theistic explanation is the one where we might anticipate a scientific explanation, e.g., the origin of life. My claim is that in such contexts, to proffer a theistic explanation, as do "intelligent design" theorists, is inevitably obscurantist. Such explanations are vacuous and, once entrenched, hard to dislodge in favor of real explanations. Therefore, Alex's comments here are beside the point.

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

    Alex:

    2 issues here: a) this doesn't matter…

    Keith:

    Alex misses my point here, so let me attempt to clarify with a historical example: As Neal C. Gillespie showed in his classic study, Charles Darwin and the Problem of Creation (1979), pious scientists of the early 19th Century, well before Darwin's Origin, agreed to admit only "secondary" (i.e., natural causes) into science and to leave the "primary" cause (i.e. God) to theology. These scientists recognized that "explanations" that appeal to God's immediate causation in the natural realm are an impediment to scientific progress even for those, like themselves, who devoutly believed in God. They were right. So, if today an ID theorist offers a theistic explanation for, say, the origin of life, our reply should be this: "Your proffered 'explanation' is unhelpful. Even if God exists, it tells us very little to say that "God did it." It tells us precisely nothing about how it was done, and the "why" merely brings a mass of theological imponderables onto the stage. Further, we suspect that if we allowed your account, you and others would find it so ideologically infatuating that you would fight any progress towards finding a true scientific explanation. Therefore, we regard it as more honest and less obscurantist to say 'we do not know' rather than 'God did it.'"

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

    Alex:

    Regarding b), here's why it isn't true. Let's suppose that a convincing fine-tuning argument could be formulated and we have good evidence that god fine-tuned the universe for the existence of conscious life. We would then know one of god's goals in this universe, and we could look at the history of the evolution of life and understand some aspect of how he brought it about. In fact, if you think about it, learning that god created the universe means that everything we learn about how the universe operates tells us something about said god's MO. Studying how *anything* works would be studying the mind of god.

    Keith:

    If the FTA could be made to work, what would it tell us about the mind of God, his aims, and purposes? Well, without some independent, reliable source of information about this fine-tuner's moral and intellectual qualities, the most natural conclusion of the FTA would be that this being was an idiot and/or a monster. To create the necessary initial conditions for life (which is all the FTA could tell us) in hopes that some billions of years later intelligent life would happen to develop, would seem to be about as clear a case of unintelligent design as one could imagine. If, on the other hand, this putative creator also kick-started the whole process of biological evolution with humanity as the ultimate aim, then, to produce endless geological ages of evolutionary dead ends to get, in the end, us, would seem insane or monstrously evil.

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

    Alex:

    The final paragraph by Keith about Phillip Johnson and ID doesn't help his case. So some people have theological reasons to reject evidence? I can also cite the atheological motivations of certain scientists to reject evidence.

    Keith:

    Atheists sometimes are slow to abandon their incorrect hypotheses in the face of evidence, so tu quoque, right? No, like every theistic deployment of the tu quoque, this one has bark but no bite. It would simply be disingenuous, and negligent of the plain historical facts, to discount the obscurantist power of theistic hypotheses. Of course, other ideologies can be obscurantist too. Marxism/Leninism promoted Lysenkoism. Yet as the continued virulence of every form of creationism shows, the ideological imperative for theistic hypotheses remains strong and dangerous, a central aim of the armies of the night.


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