Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Explanations, Explanations, Everywhere

In reading various blog’s comment sections, I have recently become aware that many people do not understand that it is not necessary for an explanation, if it is to be valid, to have an explanation of itself. The responses to this have been varied, but they all complain that somehow this is false. I contend this is usually due to misconceptions. The reason the Christian brings up this principle is to show that the charge “who created God?” is demonstrably fallacious. This article shall examine first why the claim in the first sentence is true, and then a few challenges shall be examined.

An explanation does not necessarily have to have an explanation of itself because then nothing could ever be explained. Consider some event E that we postulate is explained by event E-1. But before we could validly say E-1 explains E, we have to have an explanation of E-1. So we postulate E-2. But before we can accept E-2 as an explanation, we have to have E-3, and so on and so forth ad infinitum, so that nothing can be explained. Perhaps one may think that while we soldier on discovering new explanations of knowledge, we can hold these explanations as tentatively true. But this is just to say that in the absence of prior explanation the explanation may be considered valid!

Next, an explanation does not necessarily have to have an explanation of itself because then “ordinary people” would not have valid explanations for most anything. Suppose some “ordinary people,” who know next to nothing about laws of motion, kinetic energy, and what not, attend a baseball game. They watch the young player swing the bat and connect with the ball. The ball takes an arc downward and eventually falls. Now it is easy to imagine these people have very limited explanations for what happened. The ball’s moving first was explained by the connection of the bat’s being swung by the player. But suppose they cannot find an event causation-explanation for this (or suppose they can, but they reach an explanatory stopping point—at least for them). Would you then insist they have no valid explanation for the ball’s flying out to left field? Are they not justified in saying the ball’s flying out to left field is explained by the player’s hitting it, even if they know nothing else explanatorily (to say nothing of knowing everything else, which is exactly what is required)?

The following are paraphrases of some objections to this principle. “Everything needs an explanation, even explanations, or else you’re denying science!” On the contrary, to demand that every explanation necessarily must be explained in order to be a valid explanation is to give up science, for science just is the search for explanations. But as we have seen, nothing can ever be explained, for there is always a prior explanation. “What?! This means we don’t have to explain anything! I can just say ‘it was magic!’” This too is confused. Denying that an explanation, in order to be valid, necessitates a prior explanation for itself does not entail that just any and every explanation is valid. Rather, all it asserts is the rather modest proposition that some explanation may indeed be valid even if we do not currently know the explanation of the explanation. “If this were correct, then as long as we have one explanation, we shouldn’t search for any others.” This also does not follow from the principle in question. In fact, it should give us great encouragement that we have a valid explanation for an event or state of affairs. This, in turn, should motivate us to find even more explanations! So, far from being a stifle of knowledge, it paves the way for more of knowledge.
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  1. Some readers might benefit from this resource: http://www.thepolemicalmedic.com/2011/10/stephen-law-vs-william-lane-craig-debate-argument-map/. Randy thinks for a living, so he probably can do that in his head! :-)

  2. Hey man thanks for the comment and link! That argument map was so well done! I didn't agree with every last thing he said, but this was particularly interesting, and illustrative of what I have been trying to say: As our Polemical Medic friend (who is not, as I understand, a theist) pointed out, “I don’t think Law has made a case against skeptical theism that will persuade anyone who doesn’t already believe it to be false.”

    And I wish I did think for a living! I work at a bank at this point in life. :) But hey, if you know anyone who wants to pay me, I'll go for it! :)


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