why? thoughts on explaining the world

I like to ask for explanations of certain ‘fundamental’ features of the universe. They strike me (following John Lennox, William Lane Craig, Robin Collins, Alvin Plantinga and a few other philosophers and scientists who have developed and promoted these ideas) as things that really need to be explained or accounted for in some way by any Weltanschauung worth its Salz. Indeed, I think that God is the most promising explanation for a wide range of things, from moral facts to law-like regularities in the physical world; indeed, the true explanation for the totality of non-divine things.

But the atheist or, at least, a person sceptical of my argument, is likely to ask why we seek an explanation of these fundamental things. Aren’t we naïve in the extreme to demand an explanation of all that is? Sure, we can explain the facts of our everyday experience – the interactions of middle-sized dry goods as philosophers sometimes call them, with relative ease. But it’s merely the fallacy of composition to expect that we can explain the whole universe in this way, or to brazenly attempt such a thing! In fact (we may be told), we ought not to be able to expect to explain underlying features of The Whole, of Everything – so that atheism seems less useful than theism in this regard is neither here nor there!

Yet the atheist in this dialogue, it seems to me, is too quick here in at least one way. It is not at all given a priori that the physical universe is all that is and that therefore the theist is attempting an explanation of ‘all’ per se; it may indeed be that ‘the whole’, or the Most Fundamental Level, or such, has no further explanation, i.e. none beyond Itself. But the question is where this Level is – is it merely the totality of the physical universe (in whichever way this can be suitably sophisticatedly construed), or does inductive reasoning (in light of our experience of the world, including religious and spiritual claims) warrant positing something beyond this?

Note, the theist’s claim is that her system does not fall afoul of Occam’s razor, in multiplying entities beyond necessity, for God is posited precisely as being necessary (in some metaphysical, if not strictly logical sense (though see the Ontological Argument and the classical conception of God as necessary Being!)) to adequately (truthfully) account for the existence of all other entities.

The llama who reasons that her fenced-in field (and surrounding countryside) is self-explanatory, the fish who accepts no account of the origin of his pond, the lego man who considereth not the origin of plastic – each can offer only an explanatorily deficient account of their world. Those of us who’ve heard rumours of another world and taken them to heart, who’ve seen, as it were, beyond the lego box – well, we have some explaining to do – let’s get to it!

Reason, Morality, God – and Induction!

‘Reason’ itself does not lead us to form moral beliefs and we do not come to know of moral facts simply through a process of deductive reasoning.

Similarly, reason by itself does not lead us to believe that the causal outworkings of the world’s “nek minnut” will be regulated, or will accord with abstract mathematical ‘laws’ (however such laws may be hit upon).

Similarly again, reason alone does not lead to belief in God. (While a number of arguments to the existence of God are frequently derisively claimed to be “armchair philosophizing”, such arguments generally actually rely on empirical or experiential premises. The exception, perhaps, is the ‘Ontological Argument’, which having no formal background in modal logic, I shall not attempt to defend or assess, in any of its various forms – though I would suggest that even it derives any plausibility it has from our experience of the world.)

Instead, in each of these areas, we form entirely rational conclusions on the basis of our experience of the world. Sometimes we argue to a particular conclusion in each of these areas, but more often we seem to intuit a belief and work from there; examples are our beliefs that certain situations are either morally wrong or more valuable than others, our belief that the world will continue in generally the same way that it has done so far (on an everyday level as well as, more technically, when inferring or relying upon scientific laws – note, a realist committed to any of various explanatory virtues in science seems to rely on yet another inferential belief or set of beliefs), and our belief that God exists, formed perhaps when we see a stunning sunset, read the Bible, participate in communal sung worship, or reflect on the claims of Jesus.

Of course, our beliefs formed through our experience of life (or argued to inductively; perhaps inferred as the ‘best explanation’) are subject to defeaters, if such can be found. But let us not imagine that the ethicist, the scientist or the theist (or one who is all three, such as myself!) are delivering only the findings of reason when they recommend to us substantive beliefs about our world and its structure – or that reasonable people are limited to mere deduction from self-evident premises.

quod erat demonstrandum

While I’ve thought a bit about the link between these four things before, for emphasising the epistemic similarity between ethical and ‘causal-regularity’ or inductive claims (perhaps this could be broadened to the general case of rational inference rather than deduction) I am indebted to philosopher John Leslie’s 1979 book “Value and Existence”. Also very significant is Alvin Plantinga’s work on the rationality of belief, though I have not read as much of it as I would like to have done.

a bio-theological irony?

another post broadly relating to the philosophy of science – I’m back to skimming through Plantinga’s “Where the Conflict Really Lies” (WTCRL), so I may have more such thoughts inspired over coming hours/days. If they’re original (not directly from the book), or there’s something new I understand by reading it again, I may continue to post these, largely for my own future reference, as I hope to prepare some talks on related things.

While it it may be deemed rude to generalise (and I apologise for any inaccuracy perceived here) atheists, in my experience, are often very sceptical of arguments for God based on mere logical possibility, or, a bit stronger, on conceivability (I take it that that which is really conceivable is logically possible, while not all that is logically possible is really conceivable). There is an idea, for instance, that because God (in the classical theistic tradition) is a ‘necessary’ being, if it is logically possible that God exist, God does in fact exist. I can see why this doesn’t go down well with atheists – some are not philosophically educated so just don’t get it, but also the concept of God as necessary being is not infrequently mishandled or inadequately explained by apologists. So, questions of modality should be treated carefully; fair enough – (I’m not interested in bypassing the intellectual work by equivocating on the word “possible” when an atheist is up against a wall and admits that she thinks that “sure, it’s possible that God could exist”). But furthermore, ‘religious sceptics’ (it’s hard to find a suitable term here) are often also suspicious or highly critical of arguments to the effect that God more probably exists than doesn’t, or that God plausibly exists. What they want, if they’re particularly naïve, is proof – or often and a bit more fairly, knock-down evidence that God is real.

The real problem is that such critics of religion are not consistent. They’re not consistent firstly because they don’t demand this kind of thing in other areas of their life. In most relationships, we don’t trust people based on either proof or ‘knock-down evidence’ (whatever that is); in science, we have no convincing proof (that I’m aware of) that the world will continue behaving in the way we have become accustomed to it doing, etc. But, finally to the point of this post – the religious sceptic who believes that evolution is much to be preferred as an explanation of the biosphere over intelligent design – and I’m yet to meet one who takes the opposite view – is likely to accept (though they probably haven’t considered it!) an argument based on something little stronger than conceivability. Note that I am not going to say that this is entirely improper – there may be no other way to deal with the question of whether evolution is the best account – but if that is indeed the case, they should also be open to similar arguments when offered in support of God’s reality. I think, incidentally, that there is plenty more work to be done by Christians in the field of contrastive explanation along these lines.

Richard Dawkins, in The Blind Watchmaker, (for this post, I’m going by Plantinga’s account, pp. 14-30 of WTCRL) seems to make use of such an argument, in any case. He’s happy (it seems) to accept that the default position when viewing the apparent design of life’s complexity is to accept that it was in fact designed by an intelligent agent – but then he proceeds to show that, contrary to what design theorists will expect, an evolutionary process is quite able to produce these complex structures. The argument is something along the lines of ‘as far as we can tell, it’s not hugely improbable that life’s history is adequately accounted for in naturalistic evolutionary terms – therefore, this is the correct explanation!’ Dawkins’ view is not just that evolution could’ve possibly, in a logical sense, led to the current facts, but that it is in some way plausible that it did; but his argument to the plausibility of naturalistic evolution seems to be to try to show that the steps are not demonstrably restrictively improbable (without actually, as far as I know, going anywhere near to realistic calculations of the relevant probabilities; just nice Darwinian tales hoping to prime our imaginations such that we begin to consider them ‘conceivable’).

For details and replies to other possible forms of Dawkins’ argument you’ll have to read this section of Plantinga’s book, but as he points out,

“the argument form

p is not astronomically improbable



is a bit unprepossessing.” 

Note, I hope to read more of philosopher of biology Elliott Sober’s work soon – no doubt he is considerably more careful than RD. Perhaps having done so, I will give up on teleological arguments; we shall see! (Given, however, that Plantinga lists Sober amongst those who offered advice concerning WTCRL and that book managed to be published by OUP, there seems to be a pretty high-level philosophical discussion happening around some of this stuff). Watch this conceptual space.

nothing in biology makes sense

except in the light of evolution, nothing in biology makes sense – apparently Theodosius Dobzhansky said something like this once. Presumably in Russian.

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I feel I must have blogged on this point before as the main thought I have on it keeps popping up in my mind and seems to be both commonsensical and unrecognised, but this may be its first time in print … As it is the first time, it may not be as clear as could be hoped, but if it continues to seem to me a worthwhile point, it may find further life in future texts. So, watch this metaphorical space!

While it is commonly asserted that evolutionary theory possesses both the evidential basis and centrality to science of gravitational theory, I am inclined to dispute each of these things. I don’t have massive issues with evolution per se (I certainly don’t reject it out of hand, as for instance young earth creationists do), but there are a few reasons why I think it’s unhealthy for scientists to see the scientific project as being epitomised by evolutionary theory rather than, as more classically envisaged, by physical theory. I’ll leave the evidential basis for evolution (which I question primarily when it comes to matters of mechanism, rather than those of historical shared descent and corresponding patterns amongst living organisms) aside for this post, so even if you’re a card-carrying believer in the neo-Darwinian/modern synthesis, you may find yourself open to being persuaded by me on this post’s point.

Evolution, though attempting explanation of current features of the world and some prediction of future contingencies, is firstly an historical science and so experiment plays a different role than it does in most areas of theoretical physics or chemistry (for example).

A better analogy for evolution in physics, it seems to me, is theories of the formation of solar systems;  while a better analogue of the laws gravity in biology are ‘laws’ of ecological organisation, or perhaps concepts around biological form and function. It’s less tidy, as biologists don’t subscribe to mathematical laws quite as physicists do, but there are sets of relevant constraints and patterns (perhaps I’ll do a lot more work on this later in life, we shall see). Of course, these things are linked – theories of solar system formation are required to be based in or consistent with gravitational theory and theories of evolution are similarly constrained by biological facts, not just individually but as systematised in generalisations about ecological relationships and the study of biological form and function. While no doubt there is plenty more room for argument in this area, the dependence I’ve highlighted only supports my contention that evolution is not the fundamental theory in biology; it is the biological facts and their current relationships, rather than hypothesised histories to these, that needs to take precedence.

It may still be that we can’t truly make sense of these current relationships between and consistent features of organisms, organs, tissues, cells, protein machines etc without recourse to evolutionary explanation (I think the evidence points very strongly to that conclusion) – but the scientific method as I understand it, will still have us start with these facts (while a careful scientist must also acknowledge that even these ‘facts’ are theory-laden, with our interpretation of them relying on a host of previous scientific conclusions) and work from there.

Additional musing (comments like these are meant to be in smaller text, but I can’t get that feature to work, so it will have to be a ‘one size fits all purposes’ situation):

The rise of quantum physics may question the ‘fundamental’ nature of gravity (I have no idea and can’t be bothered working out the relationship between the various forces and quantum rather than classical physics at this stage of my Sunday afternoon) as the reductionist paradigm of what science is about. Also intriguingly, I wonder if a focus on evolution (while I think a bit mislead, in that while important, it’s not quite as fundamental as its champions like to assert) is a little at odds with a purely reductionist view of the world. The study of organisms and their history is, at least in its current form, (or so it appears to my unsophisticated eyes) quite non-reductionistic, in being quite comfortable in dealing with complex systems as they are, rather than breaking them down ad infinitum. It doesn’t follow that evolutionary theory couldn’t non-problematically be phrased in equivalent non-reductionist terms, I’m just saying that it isn’t treated in that way, whereas physics and chemistry are for me far more clearly reductionist in their general approach.

If you wonder, motivating this hesitancy of giving evolution the pre-eminent place in scientific theory is a range of concerns, including my preference for a fairly straightforward ‘inductionist’ (for want of  a better word) account in science (I think I want it to start with the observed facts rather than their supposed history), my sympathy for a teleological account of the universe’s history and my more general dislike of the rather unfortunate way in which Darwin is heralded as king of a brave new materialistic universe when in fact an evolving biosphere provides little support to naturalism, let alone showing it to be the only viable option. Unfortunately, as things currently stand, an evolution-centric view of science will be used in the aggressive promotion of ideas which at best are orthogonal to the theory and I believe are quite damaging to the scientific project and humanity’s flourishing in general. (As a final controversial aside, if the point of philosophy is in fact ethics, as has been suggested in an earlier post, perhaps it is something like the duty of philosophers to oppose a view like evolutionary naturalism, or at least some of its iterations, which have fuelled moral scepticism like no other view!)