Can Theistic Explanations Succeed? (part 4)

by Luke Muehlhauser on August 23, 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.


I previously covered chapter 5 of Gregory Dawes’s book Theism and Explanation. I am now going to cover chapter 7 of the same book.

Before we get into the meat of this chapter, a quick summary of Dawes’s basic thesis is in order. Dawes argues throughout his book that theism can be a genuine explanatory hypothesis. To be precise, it can be an abductive intentional explanation. This means that it will explain events and states of affairs by appealing to divine intentions. Any posited intentions will be constrained by the rationality and optimality principles. These were covered when discussing chapter 5.

Up to this point in the book, Dawes feels he has established the explanatory potential of theism. The final consideration is whether theism can be a successful explanation. This will require an assessment of a potential theistic explanation against a list of explanatory virtues.

In chapter 7, Dawes assesses potential theistic explanations against six explanatory virtues: (i) testability; (ii) consistency with background knowledge; (iii) past explanatory success; (iv) simplicity; (v) ontological economy and (vi) informativeness.

Some of these are more important than others. In this first post, we will deal with the testability of theistic explanations. There is quite a lot of ground to cover here so I hope you are sitting comfortably.

1. Testability and Corroboration

Testability is often singled out as the hallmark of scientific explanations. This may seem to make its application to theism questionable. We’ll get to that in a moment.

The first thing to note is that an explanation is testable only if it makes predictions about facts other than those it purports to explain. Another way of putting this is to say that a testable explanation will be able to exclude at least one possible state of affairs. This avoids the “explains everything, therefore nothing” objection.

An example might be my claim that my car won’t start because the engine is flooded. This explanation is testable because it predicts that if the engine were not flooded, the car would start. It thus excludes the “not flooded” state of affairs from its scope.

The second thing to note is that mere testability is not enough. An explanation must actually pass the test in order to merit our consideration. When an explanation passes a test we refer to it as being corroborated.

2. Are Theistic Explanations Testable?

The problem facing theistic explanations is that they tend to fall into the “explains everything, therefore nothing”-category. After all, theists tend to believe that everything is ultimately attributable to god (except, perhaps, the freely willed actions of humans), even if the road to that attribution is unclear.

Nonetheless, Dawes argues that theistic explanations could be testable if they were more specific. They would need to identify some divine goal and show how a particular state of affairs served as a means to that goal. They could then be corroborated by showing how this divine goal explains other states of affairs.

The example Dawes uses to make this point is the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. In the aftermath of this incident, at least some religious commentators attributed it to God’s desire to stamp out sexual immorality. These commentators are making a specific claim about God’s goals, and this claim can be tested. How? By seeing whether other natural disasters target regions known for breaching the sex code.

Of course, as Dawes notes, no reputable religious philosopher is willing to do this because the explanatory merit of the specific goals tend to unravel. For instance, Richard Swinburne has offered probably the most sophisticated defence of merits of theistic explanation. But in doing so he strategically avoids specifying what God’s intentions are and how creating this world helps him to realise those intentions.

In sum, theistic explanations in their most sophisticated form tend to be untestable, and in their least sophisticated form they tend to be uncorroborated.

3. Predictions and Retrodictions

After critiquing Swinburne’s lack of specificity, Dawes takes a more detailed look at how theistic explanations could make predictions.

The strict understanding of predictions comes from Karl Popper. He argued that in order to make a prediction, a scientific theory must predict wholly new events that can subsequently be verified (or, rather, falsified) by observation.

This Popperian view is unreasonable given the history of scientific practice. For example, one factor counting in favour of Einsteinian relativity over Newtonian mechanics was its ability to account for the long-known peculiarities in the orbit of Mercury. This was not a novel prediction, but it seemed reasonable to accept it as corroboration nonetheless.

But when rejecting the restrictiveness of Popper’s view, we must be careful not fall prey to correlative vice of permissiveness. We do this, according to Dawes, by making sure we consider alternative explanations during the corroboration process.

This is referred to as the historical approach. Why? Because the alternative explanations are usually predecessors to the proposed explanation, as in the Einstein-Newton example given above. The new explanation is corroborated if it accounts for something that the old explanation does not account for (and should have been able to account for).

This could be an issue when looking at theistic explanations because there is often no competing explanation. For example, Richard Swinburne claims that God can explain the laws of nature. There is no predecessor theory that attempts to do the same. Does theism then win the explanatory battle because it is the only competitor?

To answer that question, we must take a detour into some of Elliot Sober’s arguments against Swinburne.

4. The Solitary Explanatory Hypothesis

Sober objects to Swinburne’s thesis on the grounds that it is an untestable, solitary explanatory hypothesis. Sober, like Swinburne, couches his arguments in terms of confirmation theory so his specific claim is that meaningful probabilities cannot be assigned to the solitary hypothesis.

We can see this if we consider Swinburne’s argument more carefully. Swinburne is claiming that the probability of there being laws of nature (O) is high on the hypothesis of theism (T) and low in the absence of an explanation. This gives us the following:

Pr (O | T) > Pr (O)

Sober’s point is that Swinburne has no right to assign a low probability to O and a high probability to O|T. And the main reason that he has no right to do so is that there is no competitor theory.

If Sober is right, then Swinburne’s philosophical programme is severely damaged. But is he right? Dawes offers two reasons for rejecting Sober’s argument.

First, it might be possible for the theistic explanation to be compared with a “null hypothesis”. This is routinely done in scientific investigations. For example, when testing the effectiveness of a drug. The proponents of the drug predict that it will lead to measurable differences between two groups of experimental subjects (those who are given the drug and those who are not). The null hypothesis predicts that any differences between the groups will be attributable to chance.

Something similar could be done in Swinburne’s case. In this instance, the null hypothesis would be that the laws of nature got to be the way they are by chance. This would involve defining the relevant probability space (i.e. the range of values or forms that the laws of nature could take). Something that could be difficult to do.

The second response to Sober is more interesting. Sober’s argument is, surprisingly, being generous to Swinburne. It accepts the vague form of theism that Swinburne adopts. Dawes would argue that Swinburne should step up to the plate and posit a specific divine intention as the explanation for the laws of nature.

If Swinburne does this, then there will usually be some clear-cut implications that follow. In other words, additional facts that would be explained by that same intention. We could then go out and see whether those facts actually obtain. In this manner, the solitary hypothesis could become testable.

It is, perhaps, telling that Swinburne does not do this.

(click for full size)

Okay, that’s it for now. In the next part of this series we will consider how well theistic explanations fare when measured against the explanatory virtues of consistency with background knowledge and past explanatory success.

- John Danaher

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

G'DIsraeli August 23, 2010 at 8:18 am

I never understood how explanatory virtues has anything to do with truth value.


Cyril August 23, 2010 at 9:26 am

If I understand it correctly, an “explanatory virtue” is a certain kind of characteristic that some explanations have that make them more likely to be true or make them more easily showable to be true.

So the more and greater explanatory virtues an explanation has, then the more certain we can be that it’s the right one (or at least the best one).

Although, of course, I could be completely wrong. Any second opinions?


Bill Maher August 23, 2010 at 9:52 am

Theistic arguments, like the Kalam and Fine-Tuning argument try to show that God is the best explanation.

However, Dawes argues, “God did it” is an awful explanation.


John D August 23, 2010 at 10:22 am

Well, Van Frassen’s constructive empiricism would argue that the explanatory virtues are not necessarily good indicators of truth. The argument is largely that the best explanation is not necessarily a true explanation. Van Frassen is an anti-realist when it comes to science.

See here:

(Amazingly, the SEP does not yet have an article on inference to best explanation. Someday, hopefully)

Anyway, Dawes responds to that type of criticism as follows (I’m paraphrasing): What else are we going to do? How else can we make inferences to what might be the case? Obviously, we can’t have unconstrained licentious metaphysical speculation; IBE gives some reasonably constraints based on what we have gleaned from the history of explanation; so, working with it and making defeasible inferences seems to be the most acceptable strategy.

And by “acceptable strategy” I mean it seems to be a rationally defensible approach to evidence.

This is all discussed on pp. 36-37 of the book.


TaiChi August 23, 2010 at 3:31 pm

The second response to Sober is more interesting. Sober’s argument is, surprisingly, being generous to Swinburne. It accepts the vague form of theism that Swinburne adopts. Dawes would argue that Swinburne should step up to the plate and posit a specific divine intention as the explanation for the laws of nature.” – JohnD

Might there be a stronger response here? If Swinburne refuses to assign intentions to God, then it seems to me that the God hypothesis is no better than the hypothesis of chance, since an intention could be constructed for any state of affairs whatsoever. We’re left with exactly the same possibilities in either case, so, pace Swinburne, the bare hypothesis of a God does not suffice to make it true that Pr(O|T) > Pr(O).
The reason Swinburne should ‘step up to the plate’ then is not that it would be the sporting thing to do, but that he has to, in order to make the case God as an explanatory hypothesis.


John D August 25, 2010 at 1:50 am

Yes I agree: intentions could be constructed for anything. However, I presume Dawes means for this to be read in conjunction with his arguments from chapter 5 on plausible constraints on theistic intentions. I’m not sure if that improves the position greatly, but it might limit the possibilities. It would be something for a theologian to try at any rate.

Swinburne, of course, supports his argument by an appeal to divine simplicity, which I’ve covered to some extent in my series on Jeremy Gwiazda’s criticism of Swinburne:


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