“Personal Explanation”

“Personal Explanation” February 4, 2018


Oxford of an evening
Evening at the University of Oxford     (Wikimedia Commons)


A passage from Keith Ward, Why There Almost Certainly Is a God: Doubting Dawkins (Oxford: Lion, 2008), 22-23:


[T]he existence of conscious minds introduces a new form of non-scientific explanations for why things happen as they do.  Scientific explanation, in general, works by referring to some initial state (a ’cause’) and a general mathematically describable law.  That law predicts what regularly follows from the initial state, and it does so without any reference to purpose, value or consciousness.

But there is another sort of explanation.  The Oxford philosopher Richard Swinburne (Dawkins wrongly calls him a theologian, probably because he disagrees with him so much) calls it ‘personal explanation’.  It only comes into effect when persons, or conscious minds, exist.  Then it explains some of the things that persons do in terms of knowledge, desire, intention and enjoyment.

If you want to explain how it is that I am writing these words, you could do so by showing that I am aware of some possible future states (I can stay in bed, have a coffee, or write these words), I evaluate one of them as desirable (I want to finish this book), I set in motion a causal process to bring about what I desire (I get out of bed), and finally I enjoy what I am doing, because it is what I wanted and desired to do.

This is personal explanation.  It is a perfectly satisfactory form of explanation, and it does not seem to be reducible to scientific explanation.  If it is, no one has yet plausibly suggested any idea of how to reduce it.  How can my talk of knowledge, desires, intentions and awareness translate into statements of physics that only refer to physical states and general laws of their behaviour?

I conclude, like most philosophers, that if conscious knowledge, desire, intention and enjoyment exist, then personal explanation is a sort of explanation that we need, one that is truly explanatory, that is quite different from scientific (purely physical) explanation, and that is not reducible to or translatable into scientific explanation.

I do not think Dawkins agrees with this.  I was flattered to find myself mentioned in his book, but puzzled when he said, ‘Like Swinburne, Ward mistakes what it means to explain something.’  However, Swinburne and I are not making a mistake.  We are claiming that there is more than one sort of explanation for why things happen as they do.  Scientific explanation in terms of physical causes and general laws is one sort of explanation.  Personal explanation in terms of desires and intentions is another.



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