How else do you explain it?

Down inside, we are all born apart from God, and we grow up selfish and demanding our own way. What the Psalmist said of himself is also true of us: "Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me" (Psalm 51:5). And one sign of our sin is that we don’t want God’s way in our lives, and we are in rebellion against Him and His will. How else do you explain the evil in the world?
Rev. Billy Graham

Is a bad explanation better than no explanation at all? If you have no idea why your mug suddenly shattered and someone suggests it had spontaneously gained consciousness, realized the futility of its existence and committed suicide, would it be wise to accept that explanation, provisionally at least, until a better one is forthcoming?

Clearly there are some explanations which are worse than no explanations at all. Yet humans don’t seem comfortable living with the unaccountable. We even talk of things themselves demanding an explanation, when really it is us doing the demanding. Perhaps then we crave explanations, and this craving sometimes leads us to accept things we really have no good reason to.

How else do you explain the rhetorical force of asking how else you explain something? Asking a question like this shifts the onus from the claim-maker to the person accepting or rejecting the claim. Instead of having to provide evidence or arguments to defend her position, the claim-maker is demanding that the person assessing her view either offers a better explanation or shuts up. But this shifting of onus is unreasonable. If you offer an explanation, it is up to you to show that it is a good one, not for me to show I have a better one. My rejection of your explanation does not require that I have a better one to hand. In the same way, if someone writes a terrible poem, it’s no defence for them to argue that you couldn’t write a better one.

So, of course, my own use of “How else do you explain” at the start of the last paragraph is itself an example of how not to argue. Whether you accept my earlier speculation that human craving for explanation in part explains the rhetorical appeal of “How else do you explain it” should not depend on whether you have a better explanation.

This move is very often used by people whose views would otherwise seem quite outlandish to outsiders. Believers in the paranormal, for example, accept implausible explanations because they see them as the only way to dissolve the mysteriousness of various phenomena. In the absence of good explanations, they settle for crazy ones. Aliens, ghosts and psychic forces fill the gap which sensible explanations cannot fill. But sometimes we just don’t know enough to explain why something happened. The rational response in such circumstances is not to hold on to the only available explanation, no matter how batty, but to accept we don’t know.

Billy Graham’s use of the tactic is interesting in several respects. He skilfully combines plausible ideas acceptable to many with some more doctrinally-specific ones. The idea that we are in some sense born with an inherent capability, or even tendency, to be selfish and do wrong is widely accepted. But he puts this idea together with concepts of separation from God, and sinfulness, so when he asks how else we explain evil in the world, one of the most obvious answers – that human beings are not intrinsically good – is already part of his own. In effect, it forces many people to, in part, agree with him, creating the impression that they don’t have an alternative explanation at all.

Of course, in some sense, it is perfectly reasonable to ask what other explanations there could be. The key point is the spirit of the request. It can be part of a genuine search for answers: I’m at a loss here, I only have this rather poor explanation and I’d really appreciate a better one. But so often the real purpose is to make the lack of alternatives seem like a reason for accepting the one poor explanation being offered. No matter how you explain the appeal of this argumentative move, it is surely not a good one.

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