Can Theistic Explanations Succeed? (part 1)

by Luke Muehlhauser on July 21, 2010 in Guest Post

Guest blogger John D of Philosophical Disquisitions summarizes contemporary articles in philosophy of religion in plain talk so that you can be up to speed on the God debate as it ensues at the highest levels of thought. This series was previously posted to John’s blog.


Gregory Dawes’s book Theism and Explanation is one of the more careful treatments of the question: can God be an explanation of anything?

I have no intention of going through the entire book, but I was recently reading through Chapter 5 on “Potential Theistic Explanations” and thought it merited a blog series (why waste all that effort reading it, right?).

The Story so Far…

In Chapter 5, Dawes deals with the position of theological scepticism. This is the claim that God cannot be an explanation of anything because we do not know enough about him. Interestingly, this position is defended by atheists, such as Elliot Sober, and by theists, such as Peter van Inwagen.

You might wonder why theists defend this position, but the answer is straightforward: they think we come to know of God’s existence in a manner distinct from how we come to know the truth of ordinary explanatory hypotheses. They may also be conscious of the fact that bringing God into the explanatory arena is not necessarily a boon to theism.

To get the most out of the discussion of Chapter 5, I need to offer a quick background sketch of what Dawes tries to establish in the preceding chapters. I am not going to cover everything he says, just the essentials. Nor am I going to defend any of the claims presented in this sketch. Dawes does this, but for present purposes they will need to be taken as given.

The first important point relates to the purpose of Dawes’s book. He is trying to argue that there are no in principle objections to theistic explanations; that theistic explanations cannot be wiped from the explanatory menu.

There may, however, be good de facto objections to theistic explanations. Indeed, the final chapter of Dawes’s book presents several of these de facto objections.

Having established the purpose of the book, Dawes proceeds in chapters 2, 3 and 4 to the general topic of explanation and the specific topic of theistic explanation. He makes two important claims. First, that any purported explanation must satisfy the requirements of Peirce’s schema for abductive inference. This schema is the following:

  • The surprising fact E has been observed.
  • H, if true, would entail E.
  • Therefore, there is reason to suspect H is true.

As he points out at length elsewhere, it does not take much to satisfy this schema. The real test of an explanation is how well is measures up against a list of explanatory virtues. I have discussed this previously.

The second important claim is that theistic explanations are a brand of intentional explanation. What does this mean? Well, an intentional explanation is one that explains something in terms of the beliefs, desires and intentions of rational agents.

So I explain your opening of the fridge door, in terms of (a) your intention to open the door which arises from (b) your desire to retrieve the milk and (c) your belief that the milk is in the fridge.

To add some formalistic dressing to this relatively simple idea, Dawes presents the following practical syllogism. All intentional explanations must fit with this syllogism:

  • There exists a rational agent A with intended goal G.
  • A has beliefs B1, B2, …. Bn relating to the attainment of G.
  • If B1, B2, …. Bn were true, E would be the best way of achieving G.
  • Rational agents always choose the best way of achieving their goals.
  • Therefore A will do E.

This practical syllogism incorporates what Dawes calls the “rationality principle”. I will talk about this in more detail later.

Theological Scepticism

Now that we have some appreciation for the backdrop to Chapter 5, we can proceed to its actual contents. In this chapter, Dawes tries to counter some in principle objections to theistic explanations. As mentioned at the outset, these objections come in the shape of theological scepticism.

Dawes distinguishes between two varieties of theological scepticism. Remember, the idea is that God could be an explanation of certain states of affair because they are attributable to a divine intention. This is analogous with how we explain the behaviour of other intentional agents.

The first type of theological sceptic thinks that the analogy cannot hold water. The divine agent is wholly distinct from the human and animal agents we have to contend with on a daily basis. We have no idea what God’s beliefs and desires really are, so we have no juice to put into the divine explanatory engine.

The second type of sceptic focuses more on our inability to make modal judgements about God. Modality is, very roughly, a bit of jargon for propositions that are qualified by terms such as “possible”, “necessary”, “contingent” etc. It is most often brought up when discussing possible worlds. I mentioned this in one of my posts about causation.

Applying this to the present debate, we cannot have a theistic explanation because we simply do not know what options (possible worlds) were open to God when he is trying to implement his intentions. Are there innumerable options or is he restricted in some way?

Dawes responds to these criticisms by saying that we can make certain assumptions about God and so can actually place certain constraints on a theistic explanation. Two of these constraints are central to this chapter: (i) the rationality principle and (ii) the optimality principle.

We will take a look at these constraints and take a more detailed look at the arguments of the sceptics in future entries.

- John Danaher

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Torgo July 21, 2010 at 8:28 am

John D writes:

To add some formalistic dressing to this relatively simple idea, Dawes presents the following practical syllogism. All intentional explanations must fit with this syllogism:

* There exists a rational agent A with intended goal G.
* A has beliefs B1, B2, …. Bn relating to the attainment of G.
* If B1, B2, …. Bn were true, E would be the best way of achieving G.
* Rational agents always choose the best way of achieving their goals.
* Therefore A will do E.

What concerns me here is E. One problem I have with theistic explanations is that they never seem to include anything like E. God is invoked to explain, say, the cause of the universe, but how God caused the universe is either not explained, or is attributed to God’s omnipotent will (which seems no better than invoking magic).

If “Rational agents always choose the best way of achieving their goals,” then what does this have to do with God or theistic explanations, since they seldom if ever include an explanation of the means God employs in doing things? God is not usually held to be a being who has to employ some means, some E, to accomplish his goals. So does any of this really apply to God and/or theistic explanations?

As far as we know, rational agents–i.e., humans, since these are the only rational agents we have any direct knowledge of–always carry out their will through some means, and with limitations on what means can be used. How then, can theistic explanations be of any value when they don’t provide this crucial element of an explanation? It may be possible for a God to act without using some means, but how can this be established when the comparison used in these kinds of arguments is always to human agency?

Finally, what counts as “best” in “Rational agents always choose the best way of achieving their goals”? Most efficient? If so, what can this mean to an omnipotent God? How can anything me more or less efficient to God?

Does Dawes address any of this?


Chris K July 21, 2010 at 8:56 am


I’m not sure what Dawes addresses or doesn’t address, but I think that theistic explanations can include E – means which God uses to achieve certain states of affairs G. So in talking about divine providence, Aquinas says that God directly provides a planned purpose for all things, but indirectly provides for how things are worked out:
“Divine providence works through some intermediaries. For God governs the lower through the higher, not from any impotence on his part, but from the abundance of his goodness imparting also to creatures the dignity of causing…God’s immediate providence over everything does not exclude secondary causes from executing its ordered policy.”

So an example could be that God creates the world through the secondary causes of evolution, while still directly guiding its processes.


Torgo July 21, 2010 at 9:50 am

Chris K,

Good point, but I think this only limits the scope of my objection. Let’s apply my objection just to the creation of the universe, and I’ll acknowledge that God can act through some means when acting in the universe once it exists.

But I think one of my points still stands, namely, the question of what counts as the “best” means of achieving some goal. To use your example, is evolution a better means of bringing about humans than special, miraculous creation? How could either of these be better in the sense of more efficient for an omnipotent being? (Note: I’m not certain that “best” means most efficient in Dawes’s argument)


Chris K July 21, 2010 at 10:13 am


Good question about the use of “best.” I don’t know what Dawes has in mind here either.


G'DIsraeli July 21, 2010 at 11:56 am

beautiful picture by the way. What’s it’s name (if it has one)? Who draw/composed it?

I find the “rationality principle” critical.
If you want to conclude that the best current explanation is of an agent with desire, the way the agent would achieve the aim MUST be rational so we can know it was a rational agent. Or else it could not be an human-like agent or intelligent one capable or good decision making with desires.
(Evolution by natural selection for instance.)

Great clear article, Thank you.
As my dear girl friend would say “Chocolate Lovely”.


John D July 21, 2010 at 12:08 pm

Will be going in to what Dawes means by “best” in future entries. Will be going into some of the other issues as well.


the sent messenger July 21, 2010 at 3:37 pm

god is real god is good you shouldnt question what his intentions are if agent A dont get you to G STFU


Tomasz July 22, 2010 at 3:01 am

Why Universe is not fine tuned for existence of this comment??
Universe apper to be fine tuned not only for existence
of inteligent life, but for existence of disbelief in God, which is more rare phenomenon than blief in God. But if we are talking about physical laws, it is unclear why this troubling thing should be explained by free will or other nonphyisical things? If there is such thing as immaterial soul and live after death than, life is possible without any physics! But if ture than fine tunning argument is unconvincing explanation, but if there is no such thing as immaterial life than such conclusion seems to turn whole idea of religious etics, justice in to nonsence.


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