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The Explanatory Fallacy

I am not familiar enough with formal logic to know if I am coining a new term or describing a fallacy for the first time.  Google was no help.  If you can help, I’d be happy to hear it, but first you ought to read further to make sure you know what I’m talking about.

In the nearly 20 years or so of debating with various kinds of non-Christians, I have often encountered a way of thinking that I think is self-evidently flawed, but oddly common nonetheless.  What I mean is this:  as soon as you press the point, they drop the principle, recognizing it can’t be maintained as tightly as was presented.  A moment later, or in another conversation, the principle is re-presented.

The principle is this:  that a proposition is true if it explains something.  Or, a belief is to be preferred if it explains something.  Or, the better belief is the one that explains the most.

At first blush, this principle seems pretty solid.  After all, don’t we give weight to an idea, hypothesis, or theory if it provides an explanation for something else?  If I come across the body of a clearly murdered person and the evidence points to another person who is known to have hated the victim, wouldn’t we say, “Well, that explains that.  He hated him.” ?  Well, yes.  It does explain it, but it still doesn’t follow that he actually murdered anyone.   The time honored tradition for hanging a murder verdict on someone does include motive- but also means and opportunity.   Merely having a hypothesis that ‘explains’ the facts does not prove the hypothesis.   One must corroborate it.  If it cannot be corroborated, it doesn’t follow it isn’t true.  We just have to be careful how we weight it.  We certainly would not (or ought not) sentence a man to death for it.

Note:  I am not saying that explanation is unimportant.  Indeed, one could say that in an ultimate sense even the final account for something is an ‘explanation.’  I pick up the cup and set it on the counter.  Its presence on the counter is explained by the fact that I put it there.  Yes, but it is not proved by the fact that I am an explanation for its presence!  It could equally be explained by positing that my wife put it on the counter.  See what I mean?  Actually observing me put it on the counter technically could be framed “the presence of the cup on the counter is explained by him putting it there” but at that stage, the value of ‘explanation’ is trivial.  We reserve ‘such and such explains this and that’ for situations where direct observation is impossible, impractical, or at least, not something we currently have even if we hope we may in the future.

The ‘explanatory fallacy’ surfaces often in debates about religion, especially where someone allegedly taking the ‘rational’ ‘scientific’ point of view enters into the discussion.

Take for example something an atheist friend said to me in a forum post.

I said:  “Your belief that evolution selected against this moral law in order to create sentient, moral, human beings strikes me as little more than that:  a belief.””

He said:  “Of course it’s a belief, the question is whether or not it is a plausible one or not.”

I had been pointing out that he had no actual evidence for his claim, which he more or less conceded, asserting that the most important thing was that his claim was plausible.  In short, evolution plausibly accounted for what he was describing- and that was all that mattered.

Obviously, much more than that matters!  If this were a debate about plausible explanations there would be no end to the sorts of beliefs we could entertain.

Another recent example was an interview I saw between David Silverman, an atheist, and Bill O’Reilly, the Fox News host.   O’Reilly makes the unfortunate argument that God is required to explain the tides of the oceans and Silverman can’t explain it.  Silverman is basically right in his response that this doesn’t mean God does (although he makes the silly ‘Thor on Mt. Olympus” statement).  I’ll return to this in a moment, although for the record, note that I’m saying that it was O’Reilly making use of the fallacy in this instance.

Another example comes at the end of Ben Stein’s movie, “Expelled.”  We see an interview with Richard Dawkins who is being pressed to give an explanation about life on this earth and Dawkins- quite seriously- suggests it was planted here somehow from outer space.  This is my atheist friend’s ‘plausibility’ argument rearing its head.  Any explanation is more reasonable than that there is a God or that there is evidence of intelligent design that would suggest a God.

That last sentence is really the core expression of the fallacious use of ‘explanation’ among atheists, and in fact is what O’Reilly was attempting to communicate.  Essentially, it is this:  everything can be explained in naturalistic terms.

As stated, that is fallacious.  What we are ultimately concerned about is not whether or not something can be explained in naturalistic terms, but whether or not it actually that accounting is actually true.   This forms the line of demarcation between methodological naturalism and philosophical naturalism.  To return to the example of gravity, above, by employing methodological naturalism, we can attribute the tides to the gravitational pull of the moon on our oceans.  But there comes a point where nothing more can be explained.  It can only be taken as a brute fact:  we can’t explain it at all- we just see that it happens.   We observe that there is attraction between matter.  This attraction can be measured.  Ultimately, we don’t know why there is attraction between matter or why it attracts at the rate it does.

Raise your hypothesis, and push it back further if you like, and you will still come to a point where you ask, “Ok, but I cannot account for why this happens.  I just observe that it does.”  To go further is to engage in philosophical naturalism, not methodological.  That is, one is assuming there is no God at the same time they are concluding there is no God.  That is a fallacy of a different sort.

There comes a point where one would actually have to be God, or view things from his perspective, in order to provide further ‘explanation.’  Admittedly, the frontiers of that have been pushed back over the years.  However, I think there are some ‘brute facts’ that I think we can safely point to nowadays.  (High on my list are not the physical underpinnings of the universe, though I see the argument for them.  I think of abstractions, logic, and the confidence in the deliberations of our own mind.  Take this for example.)   I think it is safe to say that I’m not God, and neither are any of the atheists I know.

Dispute that if you like.  You surely will agree that a plausible explanation isn’t nearly enough to serve, by itself, as a definitive truth, just because it explains and just because it is plausible.

My point of this post was not to weigh in on precisely how to properly use ‘explanation.’  Nor is it (yet) to tackle in full how it manifests in debates about reality.  It is worth saying, though, that most of the learned Christians I know and defenders of the faith shy away from the notion that we  can ‘prove’ anything, but content that what we’re looking for is the best explanation, which will have to be inferred.   Surely by ‘best explanation’ we mean not merely that which explains the most, and not merely that which is plausible, but also that which can be best corroborated along the way.


More to come in a future post.


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