Is saying “God did it” just an appeal to magic?

  • Clarifying the question

    Does theistic explanation inherently appeal to “magic” (whatever magic is)? When one cites God as part of an explanation for some fact, is one really making a reference to or essentially depending on the notion of “magic” in their explanation?

    Debates this question is relevant to:

“No, after all…
  • “Magic” is too vague to be useful

    A crystal ball with arrows pointing random directions inside.

    Magic is so notoriously vague and undefinable that it is a relatively useless concept. (Experts tend to agree.)1 This is relevant because it renders the charge that theistic explanation is “magic” a fairly meaningless one. By contrast, “theistic explanation” (and “supernatural”) do have relatively clean definitions.2

      • Bernard-Christian Ott & Michael Strausberg: “‘Magic’ is a critical category because it has been variously criticized and remains a matter of intense dispute: despite its being a common term in all modern western European languages, there is no unanimously agreed academic definition of ‘magic’, nor any shared theory or theoretical language—and apparently not even any agreement on the range or type of actions, events, thoughts or objects covered by the category. Accordingly, during recent decades the scholarly validity of the category as such has been vigorously criticized by several scholars,” [Defining Magic: A Reader. eds. Otto & Strausberg (Routledge, 2013), 1.]
      • Owen Davies: “Defining ‘magic’ is a maddening task. Of the last century, numerous philosophers, anthropologists, historians, and theologians have attempted to pin down its essential meaning, sometimes analyzing it in such complex and abstruse depth that it all but loses its sense altogether. For this reason, many of those researching the practice of magic in the past and present often shy away from providing a detailed definition,” [Magic: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2012), 1.]
      • Michael Strausberg: “Despite the many attempts at defining 'magic' documented in this volume, the last and final definition to put the case at rest has so far not been pronounced.” [Defining Magic: A Reader. eds. Otto & Strausberg (Routledge, 2013), Preface.]
    1. We can say an entity or event is supernatural just in case it exists beyond nature or occurs without the productive powers of nature.
  • “Magic” is sooner natural

    Magical explanations are sooner defined as a special kind of natural explanation (a weird or hidden part of it).1 This is relevant because theistic explanations are quintessentially supernatural explanations (not natural).

    1. Magic may be a weird or hidden part of nature, but it is still generally represented as being part of the contingently law-governed natural world. If God exists, God created the laws of magic. Magical beings therefore are never necessary or omnipotent. The magical laws require specific circumstances like a certain energy level, chant, gesture, item, time, location, or channeling-realm. They involve alchemy, amulets, astrology, charms, curses, incantations, necromancy, potions, spells, witchcraft and other things which depend on space-time. Counter-points exist, but they all lead back to the point that magic is too vague of a term to be helpful or informative.
“Yes, after all…
  • Explanations without mechanisms are magic

    A magician with his wand in one nad, a top hat in the other, and a rabbit head poking out of the top hat.

    Explanations with no mechanism are just appeals to magic. This is relevant because theistic explanations lack a mechanism.


    • It implies fundamental particles (w/ interactions) appeal to magic.1
    • Non-magic “Personal explanation” can lack explanatory mechanisms.2
    • Magic often works through mechanisms (magical ones).
    • Magic is a useless concept (notoriously undefinable)


    • Personal choice is arguably a mechanism.3
    1. Electrons are leptons, which are fundamental particles in the Standard Model. They are all commonly understood to have no substructure, and to exert an irreducible causal power. For example, it irreducibly has negative charge, and thereby just repels other electrons. End of story.
    2. There is a category of explanation called “personal explanation” or often “intentional explanation”.

      Gregory Dawes (Non-theist): “Our everyday intentional explanations also fail to make quantitative predictions. Worse still, they use notoriously vague terms such as ‘belief,’ ‘desire,’ ‘hope,’ and ‘fear’. We use such terms to explain and to predict people’s behaviour, even when we lack any clear idea of what mental states they denote… they can still be useful; they still have explanatory force and can still enable us to make some rough-and-ready predictions. And unless you are prepared to reject all forms of intentional explanation, the fact that a proposed theistic explanation lacks precision does not seem a fatal objection.” [Theism and Explanation (Routledge, 2009), 138.]
      Tim Mulgin: “We are familiar with both scientific and personal explanation. … personal explanation cites non-physical properties of persons.” [Purpose in the Universe (Oxford, 2015), 86.] However, it is not regarded inherently as a mechanistic explanation.

      J. P. Moreland: “A personal explanation can be epistemically successful without referring to a mechanism or other means by which the hypothesized agent brought about the state of affairs in the explanandum. I can explain the existence and precise nature of a certain arrangement of objects on our dinner table by saying that my wife brought it about so we could have an Italian dinner with the Isslers. That explanation is informative (I can tell it's Italian food we’re having, that we are having the Isslers over and not the Duncans, that my wife did this and not my daughter, that natural processes are inadequate). In addition, the adequcy of such a personal explanation is quite independent of whether or not I know exactly how my wife did it.” [Consciousness and the Existence of God: A Theistic Argument (Routledge, 2008), 105.] And yet personal explanation is not “magical,” whatever that means.

    3. Whether personal choice is a mechanism may depend on how mechanism is defined, but...

      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.]