In having a bit of a debate with blogger Eric Kemp, we hit an impasse at which he declared that “God” is a sensible explanation for an otherwise presently inexplicable event (in this case, the nature and/or origin of the universe). It seems like as good a time as any to explore what I see as the intellectual impotence of theistic “explanations.”
Just what is it to explain something, anyhow? It is to come away with more information than you began. To have a set of distinct causes, effects, and overall processes, in place of what was once complete ignorance. It means being able to state what needs to be done for some event to happen: what specific capacities are necessary for something to do it.
To say that the standard theistic God has caused phenomenon X is essentially to say that it was done by a being that is hypothetically capable of doing anything. In short, it is a truly ingenious means of avoiding having to give any specific explanation for how X happens. No ignorance is dispelled.
Using God in this way is much like answering a multiple choice question by filling in every option, and then claiming that you have answered the question correctly. But while you are indeed sure to have filled in the correct bubble at some point in the process (unless of course, we’ve tricked you by simply not offerring the right answer there at all), your “answer” doesn’t actually tell you or anyone else which option was the correct one.
That is to say: we may indeed credit God with X, but in doing so, we have learned nothing about either X or God. Indeed, because the actual nature of God is essentially beyond our understanding in any case, saying that God has done something is really no different than saying that “some cause that we do not understand did it in a way that we don’t understand.” Which is really just a creative way of saying “we don’t what caused it or how.”
We don’t generally encounter this dodge when looking to other sorts of causes. Avalanches, for instance, are capable of crushing hikers under rocks and snow through a fairly predictable and intelligible sequence of events. Knowing that, when we find a hiker crushed in such a way, avalanches are likely suspects. An avalanche is not, however, capable of writing a sonnet.
A hypothetical God, on the other hand, would, however, be capable of both. Not because we know anything about how these things happen, but simply by definition: God can do anything (including doing any particular in nearly any way at all).
So when we find a sonnet, or a crushed hiker, or whatever else, we could claim that it was caused by God: nothing can ever preclude the philosophical possibility. But this claim wouldn’t help us understand what, specifically, happened… and it is absurdly gratuitous to boot. In order to explain a single specific event like the results of an avalanche, we are resorting to imagining something possessing every single possible causal capacity, including a nearly infinite number of things that have nothing at all to do with what is necessary to cause the effects of an avalanche.
This is why scientists, even religious scientists, aren’t particularly satisfied with theism as an explanation for any specific scientific question. They want parsimonious, targeted explanations, not indiscriminate atom bombs.
But what about questions beyond the range of empirical science? What about philosophy in general? What happens when we encounter an event so outside our experience that we do not know, and can barely even begin to conceptualize, the possible causes? Is God a more plausible answer in that case?
It’s true that the cause of, say, the universe (if it had an ultimate cause) might be something totally beyond our current understanding, or perhaps even our capabilities for ever understanding. But whatever capacity is necessary to cause a universe (and perhaps also to be uncaused), there’s no reason to think that the thing that has this capacity has every other capacity as well. There’s no more reason to think that a “universe causer” could write a sonnet than to think that an avalanche could.
We don’t know how, or even if, the universe had its ontological beginning. We aren’t even sure we’re asking the right questions in regards to how to conceptualize the problem. All we do have is knowledge of the Big Bang and the beginning of the universe as we are familiar with it. And while it’s true that most of the natural laws we are familiar with likely were shaped by the particular nature of the Big Bang, we have no way to discerning how or why things are that way: i.e. if there were simply more basic, underlying laws. You could call them “natural” or not depending on how you define natural. But it’s clear that philosophically, there is no justification for calling whatever they are “guiders” or asserting that they must be God. The field of possibility remains wide open.
We are left with a simple reality: we have some stuff here (a universe) and we want to explain it. But we don’t seem to have enough evidence at present to really understand what we need to understand. So we’re left with the observable, conventional universe, and lots of unanswered questions.
What theists are generally advocating is a doubly disappointing “answer” to these questions. It means jumping to a particular conclusion despite the fact that it a) doesn’t actually explain anything and that also b) basically smuggles in all the other capacities and characteristics of God (i.e. sentience, omniscience, etc.) along with whatever still unknown capacities were actually necessary to cause our universe (if it was caused at all).
It’s an assumption that demands a huge price for no discernable benefit: paying out your entire life savings for nothing in return. It’s simply not worth it.