“Because God Made it that Way”

Sometimes something humorous can provide philosophical insight. I got an e-mail from a former student, now community college instructor, called “how to fail with dignity.” It had exam questions with funny wrong answers actually given by students. One question was “Why is phosphorus trichloride (PhCl3) polar?” The answer, given by a student who appears devout but too lazy to study for a chemistry exam, was “Because God made it that way.” Presumably, the answer was marked wrong. But just why was it wrong? If “Because God made it that way” is wrong on a chemistry exam, why should it be an acceptable answer to ANY empirical question? Yet, many theists think that it is, for instance, an acceptable answer to questions about the origin of the universe or the beginning of life or major transitions in evolution. Why would they agree (as I presume they would) that the lazy chemistry student’s answer should be marked wrong, but hold that such an answer is an (in fact THE) acceptable answer to certain other empirical questions?

Thomas Nagel, in his book The Last Word says that appeals to the divine in empirical contexts are pseudo-explanations; saying “God did it” is really just a fig-leaf hiding our ignorance, a gesture towards a gap in our knowledge. Hence, all such appeals are rightly castigated as “God-of-the-gaps” arguments. I think he is right. Philosophers have debated at great length, and typically inconclusively, the nature of scientific explanation. Yet I think that Karel Lambert and Gordon G. Brittan, Jr. are right in their wonderful little introduction to the philosophy of science when they say that a scientific explanation, should, at least, tell us why the phenomenon or fact in question was to be expected, and theistic accounts, like astrological ones, just do not provide that information. Hence, when tempted to say “God did it” we should instead honestly admit our ignorance and wait for advancing science to close the gap and provide the explanation.

Theists would no doubt reply that the above paragraph begs the question by assuming that scientific explanations are the only legitimate ones. Richard Swinburne says that there are also personal explanations, i.e., explanations in terms of the actions of persons. “God did it” explanations are therefore assertions that God has performed a basic action. A “basic action” is one like raising my hand to answer a question. It is something I just do without doing anything else first. Saying “God did it” is therefore like saying “I did it,” that is, God’s basic actions are to be understood as analogous to my basic actions. Since we explain things all the time in terms of humans’ basic actions, there should be no in-principle objection to explaining things in such personal terms and no denigration of such explanations as uniformative or empty.

I don’t buy it. The analogy between divine and human actions would have to be a distant and tenuous one at best. Despite the anthropomorphic language of much of scripture, theology has always insisted on the very great difference between the divine and human natures. I perform a basic action by moving some part of my body, but God has no body; God does not literally say “Let there be light,” because God has no mouth, larynx, or tongue. Perhaps God’s basic action is a purely mental occurrence, consisting simply of having the volition that there be light. Yet again, God’s mind is so different from a creaturely mind, that it is hard to say what is supposed to be going on here. God is often conceived as both immutable and timeless, yet, as Kant observed, temporality seems to be an a priori condition for the occurrrence of any events, even purely mental ones, and thus they involve change. What it is like to will something immutably and timelessly is an utter mystery, and so invocation of such putative willing cannot enlighten us.

Even if theology were revised to make divine volition an intelligible procedure and tolerably analogous to our own ways of willing, there is the problem that invoking personal explanations as ultimate explanations, as Swinburne does, simply begs the question against physicalism. Physicalism holds that all legitmage explanations are physical ones and that even human volition and action is physically explicable. According to physicalism, then, personal explanations are simply way-stations on the way to deeper and better explanations. Sure, it explains why the doorbell rang to say that Keith rang it, but physicalists see this as a superficial explanation that admits of deeper explication in terms of physiology and, ultimately, physics. Indeed, I would say that things like thinking and willing are completely physically realized, and that makes enormous the disanalogy between human mental acts and putative divine ones.

So, I think that we should give F minus to someone invoking “Because God made it that way,” whether that person is a tyro chemist or a chaired professor of philosophy at a major university.