Answering the Question with the Question
I read a bit of Keith Ward this morning, looking for some sophisticated theological arguments, since we keep being told there are some and we don’t respect them enough. Various thoughts occurred to me as I read. On pages 13-14 of God, Chance and Necessity, for instance, Ward says ‘The argument of this book, then, is that a theistic interpretation of evolution and of the findings of the natural sciences is by far the most reasonable…and that it is the postulate of God, with its corollary of purpose and value, that can best provide an explanation for why the universe is as it is.’
That’s just the introduction, not the argument itself, but all the same, it prompts me immediately to notice that the meaning even of that summary sentence depends heavily on what Ward means by ‘best’ and ‘explanation’. It strikes me that by ‘best’ he means ‘one I like best’ – one he finds comforting, familiar, unfrightening, nonalien.
And then, as always, it also strikes me how easy, and empty, that word ‘God’ is in that usage. You could say that about anything and everything; it’s just as explanatory, just as comfortable, and just as empty. You find a beautiful garden, a painting, a building, a statue; how do you explain this? ‘A genius.’ Okay – but which one; where; when; in what context; why; in short, tell us more. Just saying ‘a genius’ doesn’t say anything, because we already know that much; we want to know the details. The same applies to ‘God’ as the explanation for why the universe is as it is. What is ‘God’ there? The thing that caused the universe to be as it is. Well – we sort of know that something caused the universe to be as it is (unless we think it was uncaused, which is tricky), but what? Just saying ‘God’ amounts to the same thing as saying ‘don’t know’, except with all sorts of smuggled (and unwarranted) baggage. Theists claim the ‘God’ answer is explanatory but it isn’t because it argues backward, so it’s really just repeating the question – looky here, look at this, it’s special, so something special made it, and of course that something special=god, so there’s your explanation. No. Just pointing at an explanandum – where did this come from? – doesn’t provide its own answer. Of course ‘god’ is a better explanation in many senses of ‘better’ – it’s more appealing, more intuitive, more human-like – but it’s not better in the sense of being a real answer; it’s more of a disguised non-answer.
And then – when there is no explanation, or no explanation that we can get at, yet and perhaps ever – then providing one by supplying a name – God, or A Q Genius – is not better than saying ‘don’t know’. So the argument is spurious. Saying that god is a better explanation for the universe than (say) naturalism plus don’t know, is absurdly deceptive. It reassuringly soothingly says yes there is an answer when in fact there may not be – we may just not know.
And the god answer is just too generic – hence, again, too easy. It’s like seeing a poem and saying ‘a poet did this!’ A crime scene: ‘a criminal!’ It’s generic, it’s circular, it answers the question with the content of the question: ‘this is big, great, impressive, so who made it?’ ‘someone that can make things that are big, great, impressive.’ Er – that doesn’t answer.