Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Is God an Explanation?

Shane Hayes

[This responds to remarks by Autumnal Harvest, and some by P. Coyle, that appear in the Comments section below my posting entitled “Magic: Divine and Human.”]

A. H. and P.C.,

Welcome back. You ask me to say “what constitutes an explanation.” American Heritage Dictionary gives this definition: “explain: 1. to make plain or comprehensible… 3. To offer reasons for; justify.” The God hypothesis does make the origin of the universe comprehensible; more comprehensible, for me, than any other explanation I have heard. It does offer reasons for:

(1) the existence of a material world, which once did not exist;

(2) the complex structure of the cosmos, the laws that govern it, and even of the atom (that structure appears to be the work of a brilliant inventor and, on the God hypothesis, it is).

It throws light on the purpose of the cosmos, of human consciousness, and of the human struggle to prevail over adversity and even death.

The Only Rational Way Out

So the God hypothesis is an explanation as dictionaries define one. It is not a scientific explanation, which is the kind you seem to demand (“the mechanism by which the universe came to be…”). It does not give a progression of mechanical details, because a transcendent Being is not accessible to the empirical method. You can apply that method, I contend, to every cause but the First Cause, which by its nature is uncaused. An uncaused First Cause is the only way out of an infinite regress of secondary causes (A was cause by B, which was caused by C, which was caused by D, etc., etc. ad infinitum). Science can deal only with such “secondary causes.”

If there is the First Cause that Aquinas and others have posited, he is beyond the probing techniques of science. To the extent he can be explained at all, it must be by non-empirical speculative disciplines like philosophy and theology. And no, they don’t provide scientifically verifiable certainty. As a Believing Agnostic I contend that on the ultimate questions such certainty cannot be had. Since we can’t know what is true, we must either take no position, or one that is in essence an opinion, which is to say, a belief. Theism is a belief. Atheism too is a belief.

First Cause Durability

Unlike attacks on evolutionary theory, the First Cause argument is not a “God of the Gaps” argument. It aims not at weak links in the scientific chain, but at the foundation of all reality. Nor does it depend on the Big Bang theory being true. Aristotle toyed with it in the fourth century B. C. Aquinas refined and solidified it in the thirteenth century A. D. It applied equally to the geocentric theory of Ptolemy (d. 165 A.D.), to the heliocentric theory of Copernicus 1400 years later, and to the “steady state” cosmological model that was eclipsed by Lemaitre’s Big Bang hypothesis. I have applied it to Big Bang theory because that is now the most widely accepted cosmological view.

If Big Bang dies with a whimper, its successor will face the same dilemma: An infinite regress of secondary causes is the only alternative to a First Cause. New Atheist Victor Stenger has recently argued that the universe, or the singularity it came from, may have popped out of nothing in the natural course of things. Well, that’s one way out of an infinite regress. Proponents of the God hypothesis say the world was created from nothing. Now a New Atheist says it was created by nothing. Stenger is right to this extent: When you look for a First-Cause that is not a Divine Intelligence you find… nothing.



  1. Shane, thanks for the response. Unfortunately, this still doesn't help me understand what you mean by "explanation," because saying that the God hypothesis "makes comprehensible" the origin of the universe, or provides a "reason for" the universe, is essentially a different way of saying that it's an "explanation" - if the meaning of one statement is unclear to me, so is the other. If you're willing, I think the only way you can illustrate what you mean is by "explanation" is to describe your criteria for something to be an "explanation," and demonstrating how these criteria work in actual cases.

    For example, if my car breaks down, does saying that it broke down because "God did it" meet your criteria for being an explanation? Does it make the breakdown of your car "more comprehensible"? Does it "offer reasons for" the breakdown of your car? For me, it does not, and I don't see what criteria you've given that distinguishes this case from the origin of the universe case. I understand, of course, that you think that the breakdown of your car is not due to a "First Cause," but what I'm asking is what criteria you have for an "explanation" that makes "God did it" an explanation for the origin of the universe, but (presumably?) not for the breakdown of your car.

  2. Shane:

    I agree with Autumnal here. At the risk of being accused of making a bad joke, I have to say that you really haven't offered an explanation of why what you say is an explanation is an explanation.

    It seems to me that the "God explanation" does not make the origin of the universe comprehensible. It does not offer reasons for the existence of a material world. It does not offer reasons for the complex structure of the cosmos. It does not "throw light on the purpose of the cosmos, of human consciousness, and of the human struggle to prevail over adversity and even death." It does not do any of those things except insofar as the implicit claim is made that the universe must be as we see it because that must have been the way God wanted it. Why God wanted it is, well, unexplained.

    In an earlier post you wrote, with regard to the question of why the God hypothesis does not actually explain how the universe came to be,

    "A supremely intelligent and powerful Being may have been the First Cause who produced the singularity and all that proceeded from it. If that were the case, the divine intellect might be so vastly superior to the human that we could not penetrate its depths or grasp its methods."

    Here is a theological possibility for you to consider: What if the reason we don't know how God created the universe is not that we're too dumb to understand it, but because God does not want us to know? Would that not be consistent with your position, as the "believing agnostic," that we cannot know whether God exists? Doesn't your theology imply that, if we cannot know whether God exists, surely that must be because God doesn't want people to know that he exists?

    I feel you are getting overly technical with the definition of “explanation”. I believe what Shane is trying to say is that there is no provable explanation of how matter appeared out of nothing, which includes science. Shane is essentially arguing as I did that, since you need a cause to produce matter out of nothing, he suggested that an explanation or cause for how that matter came from nothing had to be by a creator or god since you cannot get a cause from “nothing”.
    I fail to see why the above suggested explanation, that since matter could not come about from nothing without a cause and that cause could very well be a creator or god, can be diminished by suggesting that a car breaking down was caused by God. What you are talking about is something easily proven to be a mechanical error, whereas science cannot explain how matter could come from nothing. I believe that Shane’s explanation is a reasonable one and cannot be so easily dismissed.