Reppert on Theistic Explanation

Victor Reppert has chimed in on my reply to Wintery Knight.

This is always an interesting issue. But does it really make sense to ask of an omnipotent being how they did something. For example, I once beat a Grandmaster in a chess tournament. Now, you might ask how I did that, since as someone whose rating has never gone above expert, you might wonder how I did that. (And the answer isn’t all the flattering, was able to win because my opponent had had entirely too much to drink.) But if I have all power, then the simple answer is that I used the power of omnipotence to get it done.

Since it is at least possible that an omnipotent being occasionally works through secondary causes, the question at least makes sense. For example, if I remember correctly, Richard Swinburne says that God fine-tuned the initial conditions of the universe and the values of the various constants in physical laws of nature, such that intelligent beings like humans would evolve. In one sense, we might say that, on Swinburne’s view, God’s fine-tuning of the universe explains the evolution of human beings. In other words, Swinburne might say, “The explanation for the existence of human beings is that God fine-tuned the initial conditions and constants of the universe in such a way as to cause the evolution of human beings.” Now suppose we ask, “But what explains the initial conditions and constants of the universe?” Suppose Swinburne said, “God used the power of omnipotence to get it done.” That statement may very well be true, but we wouldn’t have an explanation in the sense I have been talking about in my last few posts.

Again, imagine a naturalist responding to a cosmological fine-tuning argument. He says, “there is a naturalistic explanation for cosmological fine-tuning, but we have no idea what it is or how it works. Science hasn’t figured it out yet.” That statement may very well be true, but it hardly counts as an explanation. It’s hard to see how the theist’s “using the power of omnipotence” is any more informative or explanatory than the naturalist’s “there is an answer, but science hasn’t figured it out yet.” At this point, the naturalist can hardly be blamed for comparing the track record of naturalistic explanations to that of theistic explanations and sticking with naturalistic explanations.

About Jeffery Jay Lowder

Jeffery Jay Lowder is President Emeritus of Internet Infidels, Inc., which he co-founded in 1995. He is also co-editor of the book, The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave.

  • http://notnotaphilosopher.wordpress.com/ Jason Thibodeau

    Several months ago I had an exchange with Alexander Pruss and Michael Gonzales at Pruss’ blog that seems relevant. Michael Gonzales suggested that the atheist’s request for an explanation of how God creates, for example, is misplaced. He said, essentially, that the claim that God has the power to do it is a sufficient explanation. I objected to that claim by pointing out that theistic explanation is a species of personal explanation and personal explanations are always given in terms of a sequence of events, involving the manipulation of some sort of material, that culminates in an intended effect. Pruss then offered the following:

    Distinguish between what we fundamentally cause as agents from what we non-fundamentally cause.
    For instance, perhaps, maybe what we fundamentally cause as agents are some neural events, which in turn cause muscle actuations. Or maybe what we fundamentally cause as agents are basic actions such as lifting of arms, clenchings of fists, etc.

    In any case, in the case of the fundamental stuff, there might not be a very informative answer to the question of how we do it. We do it by a power to do it.

    In the case of the non-fundamental stuff, there are informative answers. How did you make that loop of rope? By tying the ends in a Zeppelin bend. How did you do that? By making a six loop and a nine loop and tucking this through that and that through this and pulling tight. How did you make the six loop? By tensing my muscles thus and so.

    Now, the case of what God does directly, without secondary causes, is analogous to what we fundamentally cause as agents. Except that whereas for us the basic effects are things like muscle tensings or nerve firings, for God the basic effects are much more impressive, like an object coming into existence ex nihilo.

    You can read the exchange here. Scroll to comments until you see my name.

    • John

      Let me suppose for the sake of argument that the most fundamental thing it makes sense to use agent-language to describe is the lifting of my arms. I don’t think that naturalists should agree with Pruss that the explanation of how I lift my arms is that I do it “by a power to do it.” The explanation of how I do it would instead be one that appeals to non-agent language (e.g. neural events that I am unaware of in the brain, nerve impulses, etc).

      If none of those things were involved (as is alleged in the case of God), one might reasonably wonder whether I really do cause my arms to lift when I will that they do so. How might we ever know that it’s not a non-causal correlation? It’s far from clear that it makes sense to speak of a disembodied person causing anything to happen, or how we might conceive of that. If P1 and P2 are disembodied persons, and both will that event E happens, and E does happen, what is the criterion for ascertaining which of P1 or P2 (if either) was the cause of E? Furthermore, when I cause things to happen, I at least do it in pre-existing space and time. What it might mean to CAUSE the totality of space and time to exist is a mystery, if it’s not outright incoherent.

      It’s hard to see where the value is in an incomprehensible and perhaps even conceptually impossible “explanation.”

      • http://notnotaphilosopher.wordpress.com/ Jason Thibodeau

        Good points. In the exchange, I tried to suggest that it only makes sense to say that human beings can fundamentally cause because we have/are bodies/brains. If our brains weren’t wired thus-and-so, we would not be able to cause, fundamentally or otherwise. And there is a deeper explanation of how it is that our brains are wired thus-and-so. So, the existence of fundamental causation does not exclude the possibility or further explanation, indeed, it seems to require it.

        • http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/ Lothar Lorraine

          The problem with your initial reply is that there are situations where we would be utterly unable to give such a sequence yet be justified to make a design inference.

          If for example one found a device from a very advanced alien species we could very well recognize that random processes are astronomically unlikely to have produced it while at the same time having no clue about its function let alone how it was created.

          I believe that ID Creationists are wrong because unlike inert machines, self-replicating systems can (at least theoretically) gradually evolve.

          Lovely greetings from continental Europe.

          Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

          http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com

    • Marcin

      Both Pruss and Gonzales assume that human “agents” are nonphysical entities capable of causing physical events (neural events etc).

  • Steven Carr

    What is the sense of the phrase ‘the power of omnipotence’?

    Literally, what does it mean?

    The power of all powerful?

    VICTOR
    But does it really make sense to ask of an omnipotent being how they did something.

    CARR
    But this is a sentence which is accurate.

    The answer of course is ‘magic’. All-powerful beings work through magic.

    Naturally, an all-powerful being can’t create a universe where six million Jews are not gassed, starved or machine-gunned to death…..

  • Richard_Wein

    In most cases I wouldn’t say that “God did it” is no explanation at all. I’d just say it’s a very bad explanation. If God really did do it, and I discover that God did it, then I’ve learned something about the cause of it that I didn’t know before. “God did it” doesn’t become no explanation at all just because the theist can’t say how God did it.

    The expression “the power of omnipotence” seems meaningless. But I think the theist could meaningfully say: “God wanted it to happen, and whatever God wants to happen just happens. There’s no mechanism for this. It’s just the way things are.” Of course that’s a dreadfully unsatisfactory explanation, but it’s an explanation of sorts. Some physicists think there may be a point at which we have to say, “It’s just a brute fact that the Universe is that way. There’s no further explanation.” The problem is not that the theist gives up on explanation at some point, but that he gives up too easily, and invokes the sort of explanation that we have good reasons to reject.

    That said, there are some explananda for which “God did it” is no explanation at all. It’s no explanation for why there is something rather than nothing, because God is a something. It’s no explanation for why there are minds (at all), because God has a mind. For different reasons, “God did it” is no explanation for objective moral truth, because the problem is to make sense of objective moral truth, not just to say how it happened.

    P.S. I think the worry is that, if we accept that something is an explanation, it may sound like we’re accepting that it’s a sufficient or a reasonable explanation.

  • http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/ Lothar Lorraine

    Hello Jeff that’s a great question!

    As a Christian I view the supernatural as laws which transcends our comprehension, but which are nonetheless logical and understandable for creatures much more advanced than us.

    Lovely greetings from Europe.

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

    http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com

  • http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/ Lothar Lorraine

    Hello Jeff I have just written a response on my blog:
    http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/2013/09/12/does-the-progress-of-science-vindicate-naturalism-weisen-die-fortschritte-der-naturwissenschaft-auf-die-wahrheit-des-naturalismus-hin/

    If you deem it worthy of your time and attention, I’d be extremely glad to interact with on these issues.

    Lovely greetings from continental Europe

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son
    http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com

  • Bradley Bowen

    Jeff Lowder said…

    In other words, Swinburne might say, “The explanation for the existence of human beings is that God fine-tuned the initial conditions and constants of the universe in such a way as to cause the evolution of human beings.” Now suppose we ask, “But what explains the initial conditions and constants of the universe?” Suppose Swinburne said, “God used the power of omnipotence to get it done.” That statement may very well be true, but we wouldn’t have an explanation in the sense I have been talking about in my last few posts.

    =======================
    Comment:
    Swinburne distinguishes between scientific explanation and personal explanation.

    Scientific explanations, on his view, require an appeal to scientific laws. But if we are trying to explain the origin of scientific laws, it seems impossible to provide a scientific explanation, since that explanation would, on Swinburne’s view, be based on and assume the existence of one or more scientific laws. Thus personal explanation (assuming that this is the only kind of explanation possible besides scientific explanation) is the only sort of explanation available to account for the origin of scientific laws.

    I might be oversimplifying Swinburne here, but this is a rough approximation of his thinking on this.

    There are attempts to provide scientific explanations for the origin of our laws of physics, however. So, the question is more complicated than it first appears to be. There can be a hierarchy of laws, right? There could be laws governing the development of the laws of physics that we observe to be operating now. So, current laws of physics could be explained not by similar laws of physics, but by laws governing the development of laws of physics, by appeal to a higher level sort of law. But then we have to consider the possibility of an infinite regress of laws.

    I have not explored this issue before, but even if we grant that personal explanation is a seperate and legitimate form of explanation from scientific explanation, how can one be certain that these are the only two possible forms of explanation? Are there other non-scientific forms of explanation besides personal explanation?

    If a theist is expected to give an explanation of HOW God created the laws of physics, for example, then it must be logically or theoretically possible to give such an explanation. Ought implies Can. But it is not clear to me that what you are asking for is even possible. What might an explanation of HOW God created the laws of physics look like? Why do you think that such an explanation would even be possible? or are you making the very point that such explanations are logically impossible? Are you suggesting that theism is logically incapable of providing an explanation of HOW God created the laws of physics?

    It might be helpful to consider the classic example of demon possession vs. mental illness as explanations for unusual and irrational behavior. Demons are supposed to have ‘direct’ control over the bodies of some people who exhibit odd and irrational behavior. Is it possible for ‘demon possession’ to be developed into a viable explanation of such behavior? or is there some logical or epistemological constraint that precludes such an attempted explanation from ever being a serious alternative to social and psychological (and biochemical) explanations of such behavior?


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