Why Supernatural “Explanations” So-often Suck: Book Plug Edition

Since I’ve been complaining regularly about how supernatural or theological explanations claim to offer so much and yet embarrassingly fail to deliver, I figured some more explanation is in order.

To illustrate, I want to offer an example of what a real explanation of a real mystery looks like: a satisfying answer to a hard question that actually illuminates instead of obfuscates. The example also serves as a plug for a great “high-information content” book: Parasite Rex, a book written by science journalist Carl Zimmer (who blogs over at The Loom).

The mystery in question is one that troubled biologists for a long time: how the heck do parasites like Trichinella and liver flukes were find their way around the bodies of their hosts, making it from one specific location required for their complicated life cycle to another? The parasites of course had no eyes, and barely even a brain. How were they reliably figuring out the harsh and chaotic environments of their hosts’ bodies?
All sorts of theories had been tested and failed: did they sense chemical gradients in the body that helped them orient themselves? Nope. Did they have some sort of mental map they were using? Nope. A real mystery. And yet, it has a real solution!

It turns out that the the parasites don’t really “navigate” at all. What scientists like Michael Sukhdeo realized was that navigation abilities are something you need when you aren’t really sure of the terrain. Parasites, on the other hand, if they have reached their appropriate hosts, live in a world that is basically always laid out in the same way: all human beings, for instance, have basically the same arrangement of organs. What the flukes were doing was simply automatically reacting to environmental landmarks (like a particular acidity or chemical) that showed that they had made it to a particular location or organ, and then simply performing a specific action in response (like burrowing, or thrashing, etc.) that would reliably move them to the next stage of their journey. No eyes, nose, sense of direction, or even much brainpower necessary.

Better yet, this theory panned out under scrutiny: it was tested all sorts of different ways, and passed all the explanatory tests that other explanations had failed.This theory even provided new insight into other mysteries, such as why when flukes end up in the wrong hosts, they seem to travel to counter-productive locations (often causing serious or even fatal problems both for their host and themselves). The flukes simply weren’t capable of realizing that they were working with different terrain or that they were ending up in the wrong places: they were employing their responses to the right stimuli, but it had the wrong results because the landscape was different.


Let’s compare the above model of an explanation to standard theological “explanations” which are supposedly so superior to anythings else when it comes to weight subjects of origins, morality, and so on.Here, for instance, is a real and geniune mystery that I’d love an answer to. How did the universe come into being (assuming that it did)? Why is it the particular way it is?

The basic answer that theologians give? God did it. How? Well, that’s not important: God can do pretty much anything at all: anything you imagine, so what’s the bother in asking specifically how anything happened?

Of course, theological language is rarely this unadorned: word-salad evocations of divine this and absolute that can run to several pages. But this stuff is really little more than diverting poetry: the bottom-line nature of the explanation remains simply that the being that can do anything possible did it in whatever way this sort of thing is done. But no mechanism is ever described by which the thought and intention of some superbeing are translated into universes. The mysteries, in fact, of universes are all but done away with, instantly rendered unimportant as we simply do away with all the natural constraints and details that made them interesting problems in the first place.

Imagine the parasite mystery being treated like this. “How do parasites navigate their way through the body?” with “Parasites just navigate through the body!” (and, if we want, we could toss in plenty of poetic language about the sheer majesty of it all… whatever it is) How do they do it? Well, they just have the supernatural ability to do so, end of story. How does this ability work exactly, following what supernatural laws and principles? (Heh… what?)

Now, not only would “they just do” simply be the wrong answer in the first place (since it turns out that the question was itself invalid: they don’t navigate at all), but where’s the insight? Where’s the surprise, the “ah ha!” moment?

Where, in fact, is the original mystery? It’s nowhere to be found: no light is cast on the mysterious nature of universes at all. The magic trick is just that: magic. There is no specific ingenious mechanism behind it all to be known, and no thought or hard work necessary to discover or validate the answer. All we find out is that, yes indeed, this particular ideology deserves all the credit for, well, whatever was done and however. That, apparently, that assurance of theological purity, is what seems ultimately most important: not, you know really answering the question.

That’s what I mean about supernatural explanations being, well, just a big let down. It’s not that the questions they claim to answer aren’t potentially deep or interesting. It’s that the “answers” provided are plain and simple frauds: shameless abuses of the very sincerity of the questions and the desire to know the answers.

Disagree? Then it’s time to put money to mouth and start coughing up some theological/supernatural explanations that actually illuminate, delight, and surprise, rather than just bore and disappoint.

3 Responses to Why Supernatural “Explanations” So-often Suck: Book Plug Edition

  1. AV says:

    The basic answer that theologians give? God did it.

    Actually, the basic answer theologians give is: “Until you can provide a natural explanation for X, the default answer is that Goddidit.”

    In other words . . . the argument from ignorance.

  2. Christ Davis says:

    I love that book! So much more interesting than politics, the ways of our co-habiting cousins. I couldn’t count how many days I was exhausted at work because I stayed up all night reading about disease vectors for fun. Blood flukes rock!

  3. […] no gods, ten gods included. But I never could have imagined or thought up crazy things like how liver flukes navigate their way through a host. It’s surprise and wonder that draw me in, not staid pronouncements day after day. […]

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