Can “God did it” (a miracle) be a valid explanation?
Clarifying the question
Can citing God or miracles potentially help explain parts of reality, or are explanations featuring God flawed in principle? In other words, can one properly posit the existence, nature, and/or action of God in an attempt to remove puzzlement about some fact or facts?1 Is “theistic explanation” legitimate? As sometimes more derisively put, is “God did it” an explanation at all?
- God = def. The “greatest conceivable being,” (i.e. the presumably omnibenevolent, omniscient, and omnipotent foundation of all caused reality).
- Miracle = def. An event that would not have happened if the natural world were left to itself. (Jn 3:2)
- Rational = def. To follow the evidence where it leads, and seek evidence in appropriate situations.
- Explanation = def. A statement that removes puzzlement.1
- Theistic Explanation = def. An explanation that features God.2
- Alexander Pruss: “One commonsensical way to look at explanation is as a removal or transfer of puzzlement or mystery. If knowing that q does not leave rational room for puzzlement about why p holds, then q explains p. Of course, there will be a different puzzlement as to why q holds, unless q is an ultimate explanation. [The Principle of Sufficient Reason: A Reassessment (Cambridge, 2006), 18.]
- Gregory Dawes: “A theistic explanation, I shall assume, is one that posits the existence and action of God, in an attempt to account for some fact about the world.” [Theism and Explanation (Taylor & Francis, 2009), 33.]
Convincing theistic explanations can be imagined
Examples exist which would clearly be best explained by referencing God.
- What if you seem to go to a hell-like state for billions of years (e.g. after ostensibly dying, seeing Jesus, and being condemned)?
This is relevant because if God features as part of the explanation for some possible experiences, then there is nothing that would in principle rule out God/miracles rationally helping to explain reality. They are at least potential explanations.
Bayesian epistemology is true
Bayesian epistemology is true.1 This is relevant because on Bayesianism, unless there is literally a zero chance of some hypothesis H being true (a confidence which is nearly impossible to justify in philosophy), then evidence could in principle build up so-as to justify belief in H. (This is true even if the hypothesis is wildly improbable, e.g. having a prior probability of .000000000000000001). So as long as God's existence is epistemically possible, no matter how improbable, "God did it" can not only be an explanation, but also be a best explanation and justifably warrant belief. Any methods or rules (often invented in new atheist communities) which conflict with this fact are simply bad/overturned methods which were likely never justified in the first place.
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (William Talbott): "[Bayesian epistemology's] two main features are: (1) the introduction of a formal apparatus for inductive logic; (2) the introduction of a pragmatic self-defeat test (as illustrated by Dutch Book Arguments) for epistemic rationality as a way of extending the justification of the laws of deductive logic to include a justification for the laws of inductive logic. The formal apparatus itself has two main elements: the use of the laws of probability as coherence constraints on rational degrees of belief (or degrees of confidence) and the introduction of a rule of probabilistic inference, a rule or principle of conditionalization. [...] One important application of Bayesian epistemology has been to the analysis of scientific practice in Bayesian Confirmation Theory. In addition, a major branch of statistics, Bayesian statistics, is based on Bayesian principles. In psychology, an important branch of learning theory, Bayesian learning theory, is also based on Bayesian principles. Finally, the idea of analyzing rational degrees of belief in terms of rational betting behavior led to the 20th century development of a new kind of decision theory, Bayesian decision theory, which is now the dominant theoretical model for both the descriptive and normative analysis of decisions. The combination of its precise formal apparatus and its novel pragmatic self-defeat test for justification makes Bayesian epistemology one of the most important developments in epistemology in the 20th century" ["Bayesian Epistemology" (Stanford, 2008) [online](https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/epistemology-bayesian/)]
Theism does best explain some facts
“God did it” is just an appeal to ignorance
When someone cites God's miraculous intervention as an explanation for some phenomenon, they are in fact just making an appeal to ignorance (i.e. it’s a so-called “God of the gaps” argument—“I don't know. Therefore, God did it”). This is relevant because appeals to ignorance are fallacious, and explanations based on fallacious reasoning are not even potential explanations.
No, theistic explanations are not necessarily appeals to ignorance,…
- These are best seen as formally valid modus tollens arguments.
- Theistic explanation is often justified by deduction, induction, or abduction.
So? Even if a theistic explanation was justified by appealing to ignorance,…
- Legitimately potential explanations can be proposed for illegitimate reasons.
“God did it” is just an appeal to magic
When someone appeals to God's supernatural power as an explanation for the occurrence of an event, they are really just appealing to magic.
This page analyzes three arguments:
This is relevant because we know magic does not exist; and since explanations have to be epistemically possible (i.e. possible as far as we know), we cannot appeal to something we know does not exist.
Real explanations don't compound mystery
“God did it” is wildly mysterious; it tries to “explain the obscure by something more obscure.”1
After all, God’s causal actions do not even involve spatio-temporal mechanisms!2
This is relevant because real explanations don't solve mysteries by appealing to bigger mysteries.
No, God is not more mysterious. After all, God is a very familiar explanation (maybe too familiar!).3
So? It doesn’t matter anyways if an explanation is more “mysterious,”…
- True explanations often invoked greater mysteries: quantum physics, gravity, continental drift, relativity theory.4
- Genuinely potential explanations would invoke greater mysteries (e.g. if we encounter obviously non-human technology on Mars, we'd say “aliens did it”).5
- The idea seems to be that theistic explanation would entail God's existence, and therefore something even harder to make sense of because of how unfamiliar it is.
- Walter Sinnott-Armstrong: “...if the Big Bang had different features, God would be just as good (or bad) at explaining those other features. …an eternal God adds nothing to the scientific explanations. To cite God as the cause of the Big Bang is to explain the obscure by the more obscure, which gets us nowhere.” [God: A Debate between a Christian an an Atheist (Oxford, 2003), 45.]
- Robert Price: “…in that moment one has not found an alternate explanation at all. It is like the fundamentalists who say God must have ignited the Big Bang since scientists cannot yet account for what chain of causation led to it. How is “God” an explanation, even if there is a God? God is a mystery,… And to claim one has “explained” a problem by invoking a mystery is no advance at all. You are trying to invoke a bigger enigma to explain a smaller one. ‘I have the answer to X! The answer is XX!”’ [Price’s review of “N.T. Wrights The Resurrection of the Son of God”]
- Richard Dawkins: “Even if the postulation of such an entity explained anything… it still wouldn’t help because it raises a bigger mystery than it solves.” [The “know-nothings”, the “know-alls”, and the “no-contests,” A lecture by Richard Dawkins extracted from The Nullifidian, Dec. 1994.] (For a similar comment, see The Blind Watchmaker (W.W. Norton & Company, 1986), 141.]
- As one author put it,
- Bede Rundle: “To qualify as supernatural it must be distanced from any spatio-temporal character which would place it in our world, but to make sense to us as explanatory of changes therein it must be sufficiently concrete to interact with material bodies, and the more convincingly a case is made for the former status, the greater the difficulty put in the way of the latter.” [Why There is Something Rather Than Nothing (Clarendon Press, 2004). 28.] By way of response, however, God’s not using spatio-temporal mechanisms does not mean there are mysterious mechanisms outside of space and time that God uses instead; rather, aside from direct personal choice, divine action uses no mechanisms at all! See: Personal explanation is legitimate. [Forthcoming] A quick word about familiarity here: humans have always known that getting bumped in the head could affect their mental state. This is not a scientific discovery! Most all humans in history were “interactionist-dualists” (i.e. believing the immaterial soul and material brain/body affect each other). So humans have long held to direct mental-to-physical interaction via personal choice; it is about as familiar to humanity as a concept gets—even if it’s awkward for materialists who deny the soul. That is to say, while materialists today may deny empowered souls exist as such, they cannot simply assume it is unfamiliar in this argument without first establishing materialism is true (in which case, theism would be false anyways).
- There are several reasons to acknowledge that theistic explanation is familiar. One is that humans are innately inclined to find theistic explanation intuitive (theism itself is intuitive, but more specifically even naturalist scientists struggle to avoid familiar theistic explanation when required to provide explanations under time pressures). If theistic explanation were so unfamiliar, then it would not be so pervasive throughout human history. When Dawkins says citing God appeals to a greater mystery, his argument is ill-formed and question-begging at best. In a book devoted to evaluating arguments, which pulls Dawkins’s argument out for review,
• Alec Fisher: “It’s not easy to know how to evaluate the arguments in this passage—or even whether they are arguments. The passage is very engagingly and eloquently written. However, my judgment is that [they] carry little persuasive force, because they so often tend to beg the question.” [The Logic of Real Arguments 2nd ed. (Cambridge, 2004), .]
- As noted by one atheist,
This is all to say, not only does the principle not apply in the broadest context, it doesn’t even apply in scientific contexts!
• Gregory Dawes: “Many of our most successful explanations raise new puzzles and present us with new questions to be answered.” [Theism and Explanation (Routledge, 2009), 16.] Newton famously offered no mechanism for gravity, and yet it was quintessentially explanatory (removing puzzlement). Consider also the theory of “continental drift” (put forward in 1596 by Abraham Ortelius). Ortelius—and later Alfred Wegener—noted how well continents appeared to be able to lock together like jigsaw puzzle pieces, provided that they can drift apart. The theory was widely rejected because no mechanism was provided. It was later vindicated, however, when Arthur Holmes advanced the theory of plate tectonics. Despite being rejected, continental drift surely played a legitimate explanatory role in accounting for the arrangement and distribution of landmasses across Earth.
• Carl Hempel: “the view that an adequate scientific explanation must, in a more or less precise sense, effect a reduction to the familiar, does not stand up under close examination.” [Philosophy of Natural Science (Princeton, 1966), 83.]
- One can comically imagine a cluster of stubborn naturalists in the movie Independence Day (1996) standing around after the White House and various cities have been blown up. They reason with each other, “Why are you assembling the military? Proposing that aliens-did-it is not an explanation! Any proposed aliens would be even more complex and mysterious than the objects in the sky we are dealing with right now. The alien hypothesis just solves our mystery with a bigger mystery!”
Real explanations can't explain everything
If a proposed explanation coud literally explain anything whatosover, then it is compatible with all observations and is not a real explanation. [See: “Meaningful explanations are testable/falsifiable.”] This helps show that “God did it” is not an explanation, because soch a cop-out is compatible with any test result.
- “Nature did it” can explain anything as well; precision matters.
- [See objections under “Meaningful explanations are testable/falsifiable.”]
Meaningful explanations are sense-verifiable
Meaningful explanations are empirically verifiable (i.e. meaningful statements make a detectable difference to what you see, smell, hear, or taste). This is relevant because theistic explanations cannot make any difference in the world that can be detected or verified with your senses.1
No, explanations need not be verifiable, after all…
- Verificationism is self-refuting
- A competing theory of meaning is true
- Scientific laws can't be verified for all points/times
- Math/logic truths are not verifiable (nor true-by-definition)
So? God's activity does make a verifiable difference,…
- See several evidences for God).
- As articulated by a pioneer of verificationism:
- A.J. Ayer: “[The] term ‘god’ is a metaphysical term. And if ‘god’ is a metaphysical term, then it cannot even be probable that a god exists. For to say that ‘God exists’ is to make a metaphysical utterance which cannot be either true or false… unless [the religious believer] can formulate his ‘knowledge’ in propositions that are empirically verifiable, we may be sure he is deceiving himself.” [Language, Truth, and Logic 2nd ed (Dover Publications, 1936), 114, 120.] However, verificationism is dead today, and this has factored into the consensus on the intelligibility of theistic statements. Whether theistic statements ended up being true or false, it remained true that…
- Mikael Stenmark: “After intensive discussion the consensus among philosophers was that religious belief and their linguistic expressions pass the semantic test. They must be treated as cognitively meaningful statements.” [Rationality in Science, Religion, and Everyday Life (Notre Dame)]
Real explanations are falsifiable
Meaningful explanations are testable/falsifiable via one's sensory perception.
This page analyzes one evidence:
This is relevant because theistic explanations cannot make any difference in the world that can be tested or falsified with your senses.1
But no, meaningful statements need not be empirically “falsifiable”. After all…
- Falsifiability/testability is incoherent
- A competing theory of meaning is true
- The criterion is self-refuting
- No statement can actually be falsified
- Some unfalsifiable claims seem meaningful
So? Theistic explanations are not in principle unfalsifiable, after all:
- Some theistic explanations ostensibly have been falsified.2
- Theistic explanation can be falsified by making reference to God's omnibenevolence.3
- Keith Parsons (Associate professor of philosophy at the University of Houston): “‘There is a God’ or ‘God created the world’ are devoid of factual significance. They are then equally compatible with anything and everything that the believer and non-believer alike can conceive as being experiential.” [God and the Burden of Proof (Frontiers of Philosophy, 1989), 84.]
- Robert Pennock: “Science operates by empirical principles of observational testing [but]…in any situation, any pattern (or lack of pattern) of data is compatible with the general hypothesis of the existence of a supernatural agent unconstrained by natural law. Because of this feature, supernatural hypotheses remain immune from disconfirmation.” [Tower of Babel (Cambridge, 1999), 88.]
- Notably, Newton’s theistic explanation for planetary motion was falsified. Similarly,
- Gregory Dawes: “God created the world may (or may not) be an unfalsifiable proposition, but that he did so on Sunday October 23, 4004 bc, surely is falsifiable. Indeed, as all but young-earth creationists would agree, it has been shown to be false.” [God and Explanation (Routledge, 2009), 81.]
- Theistic explanations do not stop at “God did it” any more than natural explanations stop at “nature/physics did it.” Rather, theistic is a kind of personal explanation, and these kinds of explanations always require reference to reasons or desires. So theistic explanation is constrained by referencing plausible desires God has, in virtue of God’s goodness. Consequently, the problem of evil and the problem of hiddenness can be evidence against God. (Whether the evidence is sufficient to count as falsification is going to depend on the notoriously vague term “falsify.”)
- Gregory Dawes (Non-theist): “If the God in question is omnipotent and morally perfect, we would not expect him to bring about, for instance, states of gratuitous suffering… it follows that even a very minimal proposed theistic explanation of the kind Kitcher cites has some empirical content. There are possible states of affairs that it excludes.” [Theism and Explanation (Routledge, 2009), 44.]
Real explanations cite mechanisms
- Salmon's “causal-mechanical” model of explanation is true.
This is relevant because theistic explanation involves no mechanisms—God wills x and x thereby obtains directly.
No, explanations need not cite mechanisms. After all…
So? Even if they do cite mechanisms,…
- Personal choice is a mechanism (which theistic explanation cites)1
- Personal choice is a mechanism (on some definitions).
• Richard Swinburne (Professor of philosophy at Oxford): “...personal choice among equally good alternatives is a mechanism which we see intuitively to be a simple and natural mechanism for selecting alternatives; for it is a mechanism, indeed the only mechanism, of which we have inside experience and whose operation is thus comprehensible.” [‘Mackie, induction, and God’, Religious Studies vol. 19 (1991): 390.]
Explanations are in the most unified account
Real explanations belong to our most unified account (in the Kitcher “unificationist” sense).1 This is relevant because theistic explanation is not part of our most unified account.
No, after all,…
- God fosters incredible unification; it belongs! (And it’s not “spurious unification”) [Forthcoming]
- Philip Kitcher's “unificationist” model is false. [Forthcoming]
- On the standard unificationist account as proposed by Kitcher, in “any domain only the most unified theory that is known is explanatory at all; everything else is non-explanatory.” [James, Woodard, “Scientific Explanation” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2014)]