Thursday, January 24, 2013

Theistic intentional explanation

It is frequently objected that explanations in terms of the divine will are useless because they can "explain" everything.

One might equally object to quantum mechanics that it can explain any coherent macroscopic state, since all macroscopic outcomes have non-zero probability. This would be a poor objection. For while it could be that any macroscopic state can be given a statistical explanation, these explanations are not all equally good. The statistical explanation of why the cream spreads throughout the coffee is much better than the statistical explanation, invoking flukish probabilities, of why the cream coagulates into a regular nonagon.

Similarly, one might object to ordinary agential explanations. After all, just about anything within the power of humans can be given an agential explanation simply by positing some odd set of motivations. But some of these agential explanations will be better than others.

So it seems to be in the case of divine will explanations. Some are much more plausible than others. The explanation that there is life because God was so impressed with the value of life that he willed there to be life is much better than the explanation that there are platupuses in order to make us laugh. Why is the former a better explanation? One reason is that life is a greater value than laughter. Another is that while there being life is the only way to get the value of life, there being platypuses is not the only, and not the best (giving P.G. Wodehouse his sense of humor and writing ability is an even better way), way to get the value of laughter.

Moreover, notice that just about anything that occurs in a book could be explained by positing some motives or other on the part of the writer. But the explanation is better when these motives cohere well with the motives apparently exhibited elsewhere in the book. Nature throughout seems to exhibit a motive to give reality a mathematical structure and predictability. Explanations in terms of that motive are thus much better than explanations in terms of a one-off motive. In this way, good science, by discovering such structure, will actually help provide very good theistic explanations.

That said, the less good explanations are still explanations. In a typical case where something realizes a value (there may be some exceptions, say if there is some deontic prohibition in the vicinity), this realization of the value will give God a reason to make the case come about, and God will not ignore that value. He will act at least in part on it. So it is true that the platypus exists in part to make us laugh. But a much better explanation will be given by attending to the evolutionary processes that produced it.


Mika Erl said...

Hi Dr. Pruss, I was wondering what you thought of Gregory Dawes' idea from his "Theism and Explanation" that we can rationally accept a theistic explanation only if we know that God's way of actualizing the explanandum is the optimal way of doing so. After all, given who God is, he will accomplish things as optimally as possible. This is a rather rough presentation of Dawes' idea, but perhaps its basic thrust can be seen. If he is right, then it will be very difficult for us to come up with a rationally acceptable theistic explanation.

Alexander R Pruss said...

We don't require in ordinary agential explanations that we know that this is the best way of doing so by the agent's lights.

Besides, God is seeking to actualize a plurality of values, perhaps even an infinity of values. While we can expect to be able to explain some events by the values they exemplify, we can't expect to be able to tell whether they are optimal once one considers all the values God is actualizing.

Mika Erl said...

In the case of ordinary agents, we aren't required to do that because agents are, unlike God, flawed. Thus we can expect them not to act optimally, while we can expect God to always do so.

Perhaps, yes, we can't expect to know whether the events were actualized optimally, but according to Dawes, this skepticism spells big trouble for the theist by effectively making it impossible for us to rationally accept any theistic explanation.

Alexander R Pruss said...

We can expect ordinary agents to choose the best option per their own lights. But we don't need to know that they have done so prior to figuring out that agency was involved.

I don't see why we need to know that the events were done optimally prior to inferring agency.

Suppose that aircraft engineering has reached such a peak of perfection that all aircraft are perfect for their purposes. Suppose I see a helicopter. I can't tell that it's perfect. To tell that it's perfect, I'd have to (a) be an aircraft engineer and (b) know the exact purposes for which this helicopter was designed. But I can tell that it's designed. And from the fact that it's designed, if I know that aircraft engineering has been perfected, I can infer that it's perfect for its purposes. But I can't infer perfection before design in this scenario, and don't need to.

Mika Erl said...

There's a disanalogy between your helicopter scenario and theistic explanations. With the former, we can remain agnostic about how optimally it was made because we have independent grounds for thinking helicopters are designed.

With the latter, since we are invoking God's action as an explanation, we can't remain agnostic about optimality. Given who God is, we can infer that he will act optimally. Any explanation that involves suboptimal means for actualizing the explanandum will not count as a theistic explanation.

Thus, Dawes claims that "We are warranted in regarding a theistic hypothesis as a potential explanation of some state of affairs only if we cannot conceive of any better way in which the posited divine goal could have been attained".

Heath White said...

What seems to follow from Dawes' premises (I haven't read the article) is that we cannot accept a theistic explanation if we do know that the design is suboptimal. (God, being perfect, wouldn't do anything suboptimally; so if it's suboptimal God didn't do it.)

The converse--that we can accept a theistic explanation only if we know it is not suboptimal--is apparently Dawes' conclusion but doesn't follow.

But one might reply that we are very unlikely to know whether some design is suboptimal. Given the many values God is trying to optimize, and the general inscrutability of most of them, this is not a piece of knowledge we generally have.

Mika Erl said...

Hi Heath,

Yes, it is unlikely we can know whether a design is suboptimal or optimal. Dawes is aware of this reply, and holds that this is problematic for the theist, since it means we can never know whether we have a potential theistic explanation or not.

But why think we have to know a design is optimal in order to give it a theistic explanation? Why is this a necessary requirement? Because God would only actualize something optimally. We are constrained by the very nature of a theistic explanation to accept this requirement.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Sure, but the reasoning doesn't have to be:
observation → optimality → divine design.
The reasoning could instead be:
observation → divine design → optimality.

Compare this. Suppose we knew that humans always do things suboptimally. It would not follow that we need to first find an imperfection in something before concluding a human made it. We could, instead, first say that a human made it, and then conclude that therefore there is an imperfection there, even if we can't see it yet.

Mika Erl said...

Hmm, that does sound reasonable. It seems that that reasoning from observation -> divine design -> optimality is strangely something Dawes doesn't consider. Perhaps this is because he thinks that theistic explainer must posit from the very beginning that the divine agent in the explanans is omnipotent, omniscient, etc.

This seems reasonable enough, but it doesn't appear possible to infer these attributes from any observation, and moreover, it misses out the possible line of reasoning you mentioned. I'm still not sure how we could ever infer optimality, but perhaps the theist can be content with the inference to divine design, even if he cannot know whether it is optimal or not.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Well, if one has independent reason to believe in a perfect God, and one has reason to think A was done by God, then one has reason to think A was optimal (vis-a-vis God's purposes).

Mika Erl said...

Yes, I would agree to that. I would just point out two things for the sake of discussion: first, if we don't have such independent reason, then perhaps at most we can posit a super-powerful divine being, not an omniperfect God. Any event we observe doesn't give us enough information to posit omnipotence, omniscience, etc.

Secondly, it seems the only reason we could have to think a perfect God exists comes from either special revelation or the ontological argument (plus an argument identifying the cause of the event with the being argued for in the ontological argument). This means that to complete the inference from observation -> divine design to optimality, we would need to defend special revelation and the ontological argument. These are controversial, to say the least. So it seems we should be pessimistic about the success of theistic explanations (those involving an omniperfect God at least).

Mika Erl said...
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