Can Theistic Explanations Succeed? (part 5)

by Luke Muehlhauser on August 31, 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.

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This post is part of my series on Chapter 7 of Gregory Dawes’s book Theism and Explanation. In this chapter, Dawes’s assesses the merits of theistic explanations in light of a series of six explanatory virtues.

In part 1, I covered the general background to chapter 7 and looked at the first of the explanatory virtues (testability). In this part, I will cover the next two explanatory virtues: consistency with background knowledge and past explanatory success.

To better appreciate this discussion it is worth remembering two things. First, a potential explanation is one that fits into an abductive schema. Second, a potential theistic explanation is one that appeals to divine intentions. In other words, it is an explanation that attributes events and states of affairs in the world to the goals of a divine agent.

1. What is Background Knowledge?

The first question we need to ask is: what is background knowledge? The answer is straightforward: background knowledge is any fact or theory, excluding the fact(s) we are currently trying to explain, of which we already have knowledge.

All things being equal, consistency with background knowledge is an explanatory virtue. As we shall see in a moment, some argue that in the case of theism things are not equal. For now, let’s assume that they are.

One good illustration of the virtue of consistency with background knowledge is Darwin’s theory of natural selection. When Darwin proposed his theory we had no way of observing the process of natural selection in action. So Darwin illustrated how his theory was consistent with another well-known process, namely: artificial selection.

The fact that Darwin’s theory was consistent with artificial selection counted in its favour.

2. Is Theism Consistent with Background Knowledge?

Now we need to ask whether theistic explanations are consistent with background knowledge. On the one hand, given that we employ intentional explanations all the time, there is reason to think they are consistent. On the other hand, the nature of the divine agent is so completely different to the intentional agents with which we normally deal that the consistency is more apparent than real.

The main problem is that God is a non-physical, eternal, omniscient agent. The idea that such an agent could will into existence the physical, non-eternal universe is completely alien from our background knowledge.

Note that this is true even if you embrace some form of dualism about the human mind. J.L. Mackie made this point well when he criticised Swinburne’s cosmological argument. He said:

All our knowledge of intention-fulfillment is of embodied intentions being fulfilled indirectly by way of bodily changes and movements which are causally related to the intended result, and where the ability thus to fulfil intentions itself has a causal history, either of evolutionary development or of learning or of both.1

Mackie’s statements are consistent with the idea of a non-physical human mind, and they signal how alien the divine mind really is.

3. Is Background Knowledge Relevant?

Given the inconsistency of theism with background knowledge, theists might be inclined to argue that this particular explanatory virtue is not relevant when considering the explanatory merits of theism. Indeed, this is precisely what Richard Swinburne does and his argument is worthy of our attention.

Swinburne thinks that consistency with background knowledge is usually a relevant consideration but that it becomes less and less relevant as the scope (or breadth) of the explanation increases. The reason for this is that as an explanation explains more and more facts, there is less and less independent background knowledge. And since some theistic explanations are extremely broad in scope, it follows that there is practically no background knowledge with which they can be consistent. The only exception is logical knowledge (and some theists think god explains that as well!).

At first glance this seems like a sound objection, but it falls apart on closer inspection. What Swinburne is saying here is that theistic explanations are so broad that they can explain all true propositions (P1, P2….Pn) about the world. But the reality is that no theist does, or even could, offer such a broad explanation.

This is best illustrated by taking a look at cosmological arguments. These are the potential theistic explanations with the broadest scope. But even then they only cover general propositions about the world and not the set of all true propositions (P1…Pn). They cover propositions like “there cannot be an infinite set of contingent entities”, “there cannot be an infinite sequence of causes”, “there cannot be an infinite sequence of temporal events” and so on. Each of these propositions is only part of the set of all true propositions.

So, it is always going to be possible to distinguish between what is being explained by theism, and background knowledge that is being taken for granted. And given that it is possible to do this, theism should be consistent with background knowledge (if it wants to be taken seriously as an explanatory hypothesis).

4. Past Explanatory Success

This brings us to the question of past explanatory success. In some ways this is similar to the question of consistency with background knowledge, but Dawes thinks it is significant enough to be considered a separate explanatory virtue.

Past explanatory success refers to the track record of a particular explanatory hypothesis. For example, the reason why so many people have found evolutionary theories of human psychology to be appealing is that evolutionary explanations have a good track record outside of human psychology. There may, of course, be other reasons to discount evolutionary psychology (lack or failure of testability for example).

The point can be generalised: the past explanatory success of naturalistic scientific explanations is a reason to favour them over supernatural explanations (such as theism). This is not simply an illegitimate attempt to stack the deck against theistic explanations. The successes of naturalism are numerous and real. We are aware of them every time we take an antibiotic or turn on a laptop.

Until theistic or supernatural explanations have had similarly productive explanatory successes, there will always be reason to be sceptical of them.

That’s it for now. In the next part of this series we will look at the explanatory virtues of simplicity and ontological economy.

- John Danaher

  1. From The Miracle of Theism, p. 100 []

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{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

G'DIsraeli August 31, 2010 at 4:26 am

Can you index the posts?

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sqeecoo August 31, 2010 at 4:33 am

As Hume showed, there is no connection between past and future success. Tests are what matters, and religion is either untestable if formulated vaguely enough, or obviously falsified by tests.

Still, a nice series. I love philosophy of science, glad to see it used.

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lukeprog August 31, 2010 at 4:34 am

Yup, I will when the series is done.

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Chris K August 31, 2010 at 6:07 am

Is it really the case that granting that divine intentionality is radically different from human intentionality entails that theism is inconsistent with background knowledge? What is meant by “inconsistent” here? If inconsistent means that theism posits explanations that are distinct from our background knowledge, then sure, that’s fine. But if inconsistent means, as I think it usually does, that theism lacks agreement with our background knowledge or is somehow incompatible with it, I don’t see how this could be right. How does divine intentionality merely being different from human intentionality contradict background knowledge? Maybe ‘inconsistent’ just means something different from what I’m used to here.

Further, what about the rationality and optimality constraints that Dawes wants to implement? What I’ve understood from Dawes’ arguments so far is that he thinks that radical theological skepticism is unwarranted and that we can get some kind of a grasp on some basic features of the divine mind. Wouldn’t this undercut the claim that theism is inconsistent with background knowledge because the divine mind is radically alien?

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Chris K August 31, 2010 at 10:42 am

Also, I tend to cringe a little whenever I hear that naturalistic scientific explanations are superior to theistic explanations because of past explanatory successes. Let me try to explain:

No one argues against the fact that science has great success in discovering and explaining things. It is a great virtue of the scientific method that it has explanatory success and can give us things like laptops and medicine. But I wonder if something like “explanatory imperialism” is going on when we expect different fields to have the same kind of explanatory success as science. No doubt we don’t criticize historical studies for not having the same kind of explanatory success as science.

“Ah!” you might say, “but history doesn’t try to give explanations for the appearance of things in the natural world, while theism does. It is because theism sets itself up as an explanation that we can compare the two.” This is true, but we still have an imperialism if we expect theism’s explanations to have exact parity with all kinds of scientific explanations. No, theism doesn’t give us laptops and penicillin. But so what? That’s not the sort of thing that theism is trying to explain. Science’s explanatory successes should not be counted in favor of science against theism where theism isn’t trying to give an explanation. The real question, as I understand it, is this: Does science have past explanatory success in the areas that theism seeks to explain? Maybe it does. But that’s the argument I’m looking for, and too often an imperialistic argument surfaces when science and theism are compared.

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Reginald Selkirk August 31, 2010 at 11:07 am

When Darwin proposed his theory we had no way of observing the process of natural selection in action. So Darwin illustrated how his theory was consistent with another well-known process, namely: artificial selection.

The distinction between natural selection and artificial selection is, well; artificial.

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David Evans August 31, 2010 at 2:10 pm

Chris K asks “Does science have past explanatory success in the areas that theism seeks to explain?”
I would say it has an excellent explanatory record in many areas that theism used to seek to explain – weather, infectious diseases, earthquakes, epilepsy…etc, etc. For this very reason most theists have wisely ceased to offer explanations in those areas.

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nate August 31, 2010 at 7:49 pm

//Also, I tend to cringe a little whenever I hear that naturalistic scientific explanations are superior to theistic explanations because of past explanatory successes.//

I tend to cringe a little when I hear people imply that science assumes naturalism or that science cannot give evidence for religion. There are tons of supernatural events that are perfectly testable. For example, if Christianity was true, we should expect to see demon possession as a common ailment. We should expect to see people that are prayed for healed at a greater rate than those that are not prayed for. We don’t see this though, and because we don’t see any predictions that any religion make actualized, theists have to erect a barrier between science and religion that does not belong.

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Chris K August 31, 2010 at 7:57 pm

nate,

I don’t see why, if Christianity is true, we should expect to see demon possession as a common ailment. Also, I’m pretty sure that there are empirical studies which conclude that people who are prayed for are healed at a greater rate than those that are not prayed for.

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MichaelPJ August 31, 2010 at 8:21 pm

@Chris K

Google says no:
http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/us_and_americas/article1072638.ece

Here’s a more optimistic one
http://www.webmd.com/balance/features/can-prayer-heal,
but regarding prayer, it just notes that religious people may be healthier, which could be due to lifestyle, and that intercessory prayer was about to be tested.

Wikipedia mentions that that particular study found no effect, and lists several more.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prayer#Efficacy_of_prayer_healing

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Justfinethanks August 31, 2010 at 10:11 pm

I don’t see why, if Christianity is true, we should expect to see demon possession as a common ailment.

Because Jesus himself thought it was a fairly common problem.

” He called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out evil spirits and to heal every disease and sickness.”
- Matthew 10:1

“And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons”
- Mark 16:17

And of course Jesus felt the need to do some exorcisin’ of his own.

“Even while the boy was coming, the demon threw him to the ground in a convulsion. But Jesus rebuked the evil spirit, healed the boy and gave him back to his father.”
-Luke 9:42

“Then they brought him a demon-possessed man who was blind and mute, and Jesus healed him, so that he could both talk and see.”
-Matthew 12:22

“They went across the lake to the region of the Gerasenes. When Jesus got out of the boat, a man with an evil spirit came from the tombs to meet him. This man lived in the tombs, and no one could bind him any more, not even with a chain. For he had often been chained hand and foot, but he tore the chains apart and broke the irons on his feet. No one was strong enough to subdue him.”
-Mark 5:1-4

It’s a little odd that one city of about 80,000 people (or so) should have such a massive demon problem in the first century, yet all modern reports of demon possession seem to be invariably reasonably attributed to a common neurological or psychological condition or people under the power of suggestion. And oddly, none of the modern “demon possessed” to my knowledge have the ability to break chains or overwhelm the strength of any man.

If Christianity is true, given both the frequency that Jesus encounters the demon possessed and the importance he puts upon exorcising those who are demon possessed, yes, we should expect demon possession to be fairly common throughout history and today.

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bossmanham August 31, 2010 at 10:46 pm

If Christianity is true, given both the frequency that Jesus encounters the demon possessed and the importance he puts upon exorcising those who are demon possessed, yes, we should expect demon possession to be fairly common throughout history and today.

Who says it isn’t?

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bossmanham August 31, 2010 at 10:49 pm

It’s a little odd that one city of about 80,000 people (or so) should have such a massive demon problem in the first century, yet all modern reports of demon possession seem to be invariably reasonably attributed to a common neurological or psychological condition or people under the power of suggestion.

1) Who said the problem was so massive that everyone would have been aware of it? 2) Perhaps the numbers have something to do with it. Maybe since there are so many more people today, the percentage of demonic encounters has gone down? 3) Perhaps we mistakenly explain away demonic diseases as natural?

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Justfinethanks August 31, 2010 at 11:43 pm

Bossmanham:

Who says it isn’t?

People who believe in medical science.

1) Who said the problem was so massive that everyone would have been aware of it?

Again, Jesus thought it was important for his disciples, who were to travel to all corners of the known world, to ward off demons. That seems to indicate a worldwide epidemic of demon possession.

2) Perhaps the numbers have something to do with it. Maybe since there are so many more people today, the percentage of demonic encounters has gone down?

Certainly possible. It’s also possible that demons got bored of possession just as we started understanding disease better. It’s also possible that all those exorcisms are so successful, they have all but eradicated demon possession in the modern era, so that it’s like a supernatural smallpox vaccine. But all these possibilities are awfully ad hoc. It’s much more parsimonious to simply assume that that there are no reliable accounts of demon possession in the modern era (and especially no accounts of demon possession that endow men with super strength) because there never were demons, and prior accounts of demons by Jesus and others can more sensibly be attributed to superstition and ignorance of the origins of disease.

3) Perhaps we mistakenly explain away demonic diseases as natural?

Again, certainly possible. But perhaps we also mistakenly explain away certain instances of Santa stuffing stockings on Christmas eve by attributing it to parents. It might be true that “parents do it” allows us to make fewer assumptions in explaining stuffed stockings, but that doesn’t mean that some stockings aren’t Santa’s handiwork.

The point is, of course, that once you have a reasonable naturalistic explanation for something, it should be favored in every instance over any competing supernatural explanation. So while it might be the case that some cases of “demonic possession” are just an illness like epilepsy or schizophrenia, and others are actual demon possession, it is much more reasonable to assume the illness hypothesis or the demon one in every instance. To deny this principle of simplicity gives anyone license to construct unruly, unparsimonious explanations, and basically create reality to be whatever they want it to be.

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Chris K September 1, 2010 at 9:43 am

Justfinethanks,

Great use of the biblical text! I think that we agree on a number of the issues you’ve raised. However, I don’t think that natural explanations and theistic explanations need to be in conflict here. I agree that, in cases like demon possession, the first thing we ought to look for in troubled persons is a natural explanation. But what warrants us to conclude that every instance of a troubled person is reducible to a natural explanation? Because it is parsimonious? But what if the facts of a particular case don’t fit in with any natural explanation? This is where theistic explanations can come alongside natural ones to augment them. For example, the Roman Catholic Church has a set of criteria according to which one can judge whether someone is demon-possessed or not. The criteria include things like the subject having knowledge of events or languages not previously known to the subject. So, often when theists posit explanations of a “supernatural sort,” they are not trying to contradict a natural explanation, only complement it. The many successful past explanations of natural science in diagnosing mental illness don’t count against the possibility of successful theistic explanations in diagnosing demon possession.

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al friedlander September 1, 2010 at 12:38 pm

Hi Chris,

“For example, the Roman Catholic Church has a set of criteria according to which one can judge whether someone is demon-possessed or not. The criteria include things like the subject having knowledge of events or languages not previously known to the subject. So, often when theists posit explanations of a “supernatural sort,” they are not trying to contradict a natural explanation, only complement it. ”

Can you explain this in greater detail? I’m not sure how these kind of supernatural explanations can override, or -even complement- natural explanations. Are you saying that under an fMRI scan, possessed individuals can demonstrate unique brain activities that negate mental illnesses as the best possible explanation, or that demons merely made the individual mentally-ill?

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nate September 1, 2010 at 1:30 pm

Chris,

I’m not sure about justfinethanks, but I would agree with you that supernatural explanations could be true and can be investigated by science. If we observed someone that was ripping apart steel chains and cursing Jesus and someone else came along and in the name of Jesus told them to stop, I would certainly accept demon possession as an explanation. The thing is, we don’t observe this. In fact, we don’t observe anything that we would expect to see if Christianity was true.

I wish in debates more atheists would bring this up. IMO, this is the #1 reason to reject Christianity.

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Chris K September 2, 2010 at 4:53 am

Al,

Well, both of the options you mentioned seem like possibilities. It could be the case that demons cause mental illnesses. But then demon possession isn’t really testable, and there’s not really a reason to posit a supernatural explanation. Unless, of course, you’re really in touch with the supernatural world, like Jesus, for instance.

The other option is that demon possession is testable and can show up in brain scans and in behavior as a better explanation than the ones that neuroscience or psychology could give us. The supposedly non-arbitrary criterion of the RCC of having immediate knowledge of a language previously unknown to the subject would I think be an empirical datum that would lean toward demon possession as a better explanation.

So the idea of theistic and natural explanations working together would look like this: Say we have 100 troubled persons. Psychology and science can give good explanations for 90 of these people, but it doesn’t account for 10 people speaking previously unknown languages (or whatever bizarre symptom). Perhaps, when these 10 cases are fully assessed, the theistic explanation turns out to be more satisfying than the alternatives. Now we have good explanations for all of the 100 persons, not just 90.

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Chris K September 2, 2010 at 5:06 am

Nate,

Who is the “we” that don’t observe things that “we” would expect to observe if Christianity were true? Presumably lots of people observe what they expect to observe if Christianity were true.

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nate September 2, 2010 at 5:44 am

Chris,

When I say “we”, I mean the human race. I noticed that you have dropped the demon possession discussion. Should I assume you concede that we should expect to see demon possession, but do not?

Why don’t you list some of the things that we would expect to see given christianity, but not given atheism?

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al friedlander September 2, 2010 at 11:44 am

Chris,

“Psychology and science can give good explanations for 90 of these people, but it doesn’t account for 10 people speaking previously unknown languages (or whatever bizarre symptom). Perhaps, when these 10 cases are fully assessed, the theistic explanation turns out to be more satisfying than the alternatives. Now we have good explanations for all of the 100 persons, not just 90. ”

I understand what you’re saying here, but I’m not sure if the psychologists/scientists I’ve seen would be satisfied with the theistic explanation in this case. More likely, that there’s a subset of illnesses not yet accounted for in the DSM-IV (aka mental illness ‘booklet’), and that we need to wait for further neuroscience research/findings, haha.

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