Humanist Perspectives: issue 211: Surely you’re joking, William Paley

Surely you’re joking, William Paley
by Nicholas Griffin

Surely you’re joking, William Paley
Photo created using elements from Wikimedia Commons and

ow do we explain something? Suppose a window is broken, how do we explain that? It’s not difficult to come up with possible explanations. Perhaps a child on the street threw a stone or one inside threw a toy. Perhaps a bird flew into it or a stone was thrown up by a passing vehicle. Maybe someone was trying to break in or a malicious neighbour did it out of spite or there was a drive-by shooting. Maybe there was a defect in the manufacture. Perhaps the house was unheated, the foundations heaved in the cold, the window frame twisted, and the window broke. There are many, many possible explanations of many different types. But all these, at any rate, involve ordinary, familiar things behaving in ordinary, familiar ways. Some of them involve agency, they suppose that the window was broken deliberately. Here, questions of motive and intention arise – and can, if the explanation is the right one, usually be answered. But all these explanations are open to further investigation. If a stone did it, where is the stone? If it was a drive-by shooting, where is the bullet? If frost caused the foundations to heave, was it cold enough in the house for that to have happened and is the window frame twisted? Moreover, such further investigations may often be extended until they lead to a well-nigh irrefutable account of how the window was broken. Of course, in the big scheme of things, a broken window is not terribly important and not even the most conscientious insurance adjuster is going to solve the equations of motion of the airborne stone. But the point is that it could be done. In the case of each proposed explanation we know what further questions to ask, what evidence to look for, what sort of causal process was involved.

Maybe someone was trying to break in or a malicious neighbour did it out of spite or there was a drive-by shooting.

But suppose none of these ordinary, down-to-earth explanations meets the facts of the case. No stone, toy, bullet or dead bird can be found, the weather was warm, the malicious neighbour was out of town, etc. Well, we can put forward more recondite explanations. Perhaps a gust of wind on an otherwise calm day created a momentary vacuum in front of the window and sucked it out; perhaps sunlight reflected off a vehicle parked outside was focussed so intensely on a tiny area of the window that it broke; maybe a sound inaudible to human ears had exactly the right frequency to shatter the window. Now, we’re plainly getting desperate. We are supposing that some sort of freak occurrence took place. Nonetheless, we’re still within the bounds of rational inquiry. Such freak events do happen. The question is, did one happen in this particular case and could it explain the broken window? It is the sort of question that might be put to MythBusters to investigate. But the point is that even these exotic explanations are still open to investigation.

But now suppose that even the exotic explanations fail to explain the broken window. What do we say now? At this point we might find ourselves saying: ‘The invisible man did it’ or ‘Aliens did it with a ray gun.’ By now we are beyond desperate: we are joking. Of course, so far as grammar goes, what we actually say looks as if it were just another proposed explanation. But while every indicative sentence expresses an assertion, not every use of the indicative sentence makes that assertion. The sentence may, for example, be used ironically or, as here, to make a joke. And the purpose of the joke may be to make an entirely different assertion. For surely, if we start blaming invisible men or aliens for the broken window, we have actually given up the attempt to explain it, we are implicitly acknowledging, by means of a joke, that we have no explanation to offer. That is the only reasonable way to interpret what we have said.

Now the serious point behind all this is that explanations which invoke divine agency are exactly like those which invoke invisible men or aliens, with one important difference: the people who put them forward are not joking.

Let’s look at the general principles in more detail. In all cases of genuine explanation the adequacy of the explanation is open to further investigation. Questions can be asked – and either answered or else lodged as problems. Objections raised – and either dismissed or sustained. In cases of scientific explanation, the investigation may be of a truly amazing complexity and precision. There are, moreover, two very basic principles that genuine explanations must satisfy. In cases where what is to be explained is a particular event, like the breaking of the window, the explanation must be specific. It must explain why that particular window broke at that particular time. An “explanation” which, without any change whatsoever, might also explain every other untoward event in the neighbourhood – why a tree died in the garden, why the neighbour’s cat fell ill, why a bus broke down at the corner of the street the previous week – is not a sufficient explanation of why the window broke. Secondly, whatever mechanisms or agencies are appealed to in an explanation must be ones of which we have independent knowledge. It is, after all, in the nature of explanation that what is to be explained must be explained in terms of what is already known and understood.

It is, after all, in the nature of explanation that what is to be explained must be explained in terms of what is already known and understood.

None of these conditions is met by our two joke explanations. Neither offers any clue as to what should or even could be undertaken by way of further investigation. Though both are couched in terms of agency, there is no prospect in either of identifying motives. Neither gives a specific account of what caused the broken window. If the best we can do is to say that aliens did it, we could equally well offer exactly the same explanation for the dead tree, the sick cat, and the broken-down bus – or, indeed, for pretty much anything else. Above all, neither of the joke explanations is in terms of things of which we have any knowledge or understanding: they invoke activities of which we can give no account, undertaken by beings we have no reason to suppose exist. It is not that they are bad explanations, it is that they are not explanations at all. They fail to be in the slightest bit explanatory. They are jokes – and all sensible people would take them as such. And explanations by means of divine agency are exactly like this.

Of course, God is hardly likely to be called upon to explain the broken window. He is normally supposed to have more important things to worry about. (Though if we take the Bible seriously, it has to be admitted that much of what does worry him seems remarkably trivial.) So let’s consider things that God’s agency has actually been appealed to for explanation: for example, the adaptation of organs in animals to their purposes. Since William Paley’s Natural Theology in 1802, the construction of the eye has been a favourite example for demonstrating, as Paley put it, “the existence, the agency, [and] the wisdom, of the Deity.” In this case, there are available now – as there were not in Paley’s day – scientific explanations for the adaptation of organs and Paley’s theological explanation must be assessed in comparison to them. Moreover, Paley does more than just say that God designed the organs as they are for inscrutable purposes of his own, he speculates on God’s motives: God intended the organs to be well-adapted to their purpose.

This last point has the advantages of giving Paley’s explanations some content, but it also exposes them to refutations which show the superiority of the alternative scientific explanations, for not every organ seems well-adapted to its purpose. Consider the recurrent laryngeal nerve, which exits directly from the brain (rather than through the spinal cord) in order to connect it to the nearby larynx. The recurrent laryngeal nerve makes this short trip by way of a lengthy detour into the chest cavity and then back up to its destination. No one could regard it as a felicitous design. The scientific explanation is that, in fish, which are our remote evolutionary ancestors, the corresponding nerve connects the brain to the gills and goes directly to its destination. In the evolution of mammals the gills disappeared and the nerve was repurposed to serve the larynx. If God was designing anything, perhaps it was fishes and we are an inadvertent by-product. Given the harm we’ve done to fishes, he must be pretty upset at how things have turned out. My own favourite example of poor design is the prostate glad. What intelligent designer would wrap an organ that expands over time around a vital conduit? So far as I know, no one has suffered from the poor design of the recurrent laryngeal nerve, whereas that of the prostate has been responsible for wide-spread misery. If it were actually the product of design, there would surely be grounds for a class-action suit against the designer’s earthly representatives. Indeed, even the eye is hardly the wonder of design that Paley supposed. It works as well as it does largely because of the brain’s ability to clean up the poor data it produces. In fact the great German scientist, Hermann von Helmholtz, who knew vastly more about optics, vision, and the eye than Paley, said that if he had received such a device from an instrument maker, he would have sent it back for a refund.

Hermann von Helmholtz, who knew vastly more about optics, vision, and the eye than Paley, said that if he had received such a device from an instrument maker, he would have sent it back for a refund.

So far from proving the existence, agency, and wisdom of God as Paley thought, the anatomy of mammals proves either his non-existence, his lack of agency, or his incompetence.

Indeed, Paley comes close to giving the game away at the end of his discussion of the eye. For, given God’s supposedly unlimited abilities, Paley considers the objection that God did not need to design an organ in order to endow his creatures with sight: an omnipotent being might have created animals which perceived without sense organs. In response, Paley concedes that God’s intentions may not have been properly understood – in which case, of course, the design explanation becomes utterly vacuous. But he does also suggest that God may have been trying to show us how clever he was – in other words, he was showing off. This seems hardly a proper motive to impute to the deity. But be that as it may, it once again vitiates divine design as an explanation of the structure of the eye, for pretty much any structure – a superbly crafted instrument supplying the brain with impeccable data or a Heath Robinson device that worked – might equally have served that purpose. What doesn’t serve the purpose is performing the deed and not making it clear that you have done it. It’s difficult to believe that God did it to show off when he remained so resolutely in the background – though in the days since God showed Moses his “hind parts” (which might definitely count as showing off, see Exodus, 33:23), it is not so clear what God’s being in the foreground would look like. On the other hand, if his intention was to create the organ best-adapted for its purpose, he doesn’t seem to have been very successful. And if we don’t know what his intention was, we have no explanation at all: not just a poor explanation, but no explanation.

As far as the structure of living organisms is concerned, there is no need to seek a divine explanation at all because we already have a well-tested and highly successful scientific explanation in the theory of evolution. Of course, the explanation is not complete. A truly complete explanation would explain the structure of every organ in all creatures, great and small, ancient and modern – that, obviously, is not going to happen, and so research continues. But the evolutionary explanation that we have has been successful in so many applications and so well-confirmed that the only sensible way to seek further explanations is to continue to apply it. On some matters, however, we lack satisfactory explanations, even in principle. That we can so much as identify these as problems outstanding testifies to the extraordinary success of science in explaining adjacent problems. Sometimes the outstanding problems have been taken to be eternal mysteries forever beyond human understanding, but that is surely premature. At the same time, I would not assert that science eventually will supply an explanation wherever one is desired. What we can or cannot explain is an empirical matter and we should wait to see how things turn out before jumping to a priori conclusions.

On some matters, however, we lack satisfactory explanations, even in principle. That we can so much as identify these as problems outstanding testifies to the extraordinary success of science in explaining adjacent problems.

A case in point, which has resisted decades of scientific investigation and which has been taken to be a deep mystery with theological significance, is the problem of explaining why the fundamental physical constants have the values that they do. Here the situation is somewhat more complex than is usually presented. Which constants are taken to be fundamental depends upon which physical theory one considers and the number of unexplained constants has risen with the rise of the Standard Model of particle theory which currently requires around twenty independent parameters. This is the result of research which has revealed many more particles than were previously suspected. Obviously, it would be rash to draw theological conclusions when the physics is so unsettled. But some constants have proven intractable for a lot longer. For example, the fine structure constant, which measures the electromagnetic force between two charged particles, has been a mystery since it was discovered in 1916. Its value is slightly less than 1/137 and we have no explanation why. The gravitational coupling constant, on the other hand, which measures the gravitational force between two massive particles, is of the order of 10–39 for a pair of protons. Again, we have no explanation, but the vast disparity between these two forces is of vital importance for the structure of the universe. If gravity were not so weak, planets, stars, and galaxies would be smaller and stars would shine more briefly. On the other hand, if gravity were even weaker than it actually is, planets, stars, and galaxies might never form at all.

This fact, and many others like it, have led some to suggested that the universe has been “fine tuned” by God to be the way it is. But this gets us nowhere. The immediate question is: why? Why did God want the universe exactly this way? The answer typically given – so that the universe could support human life – is preposterous: two billion galaxies created over nearly fourteen billion years just so a certain species of dangerous mammal could at last evolve on a planet orbiting a star on the outer edge of one of them! How did the universe get on without us for so long? This is narcissism to a degree that would be clinical in an individual. As the hymn says, “God moves in a mysterious way.” But mysterious ways are the very antithesis of explanation. Given God’s omnipotence, the best evidence we have of his intention is what he actually produced and that was the big bang. Perhaps he wanted to see what would happen if he broke up the unified force that held everything together. Maybe, after the excitements of inflation and the quark and hadron epochs in the first second, he found atoms rather dull and didn’t bother to wait while gravity took millions of years to form them into stars and galaxies. Maybe for God it was all about the elementary particles.

Maybe, after the excitements of inflation and the quark and hadron epochs in the first second, he found atoms rather dull and didn’t bother to wait while gravity took millions of years to form them into stars and galaxies.

Neither of these “explanations” is remotely plausible and, unlike the genuine scientific explanation whose gaps they are supposed to fill, neither, properly speaking, is an explanation at all. Explanation by means of agency is only possible when there is an agent whose intentions and abilities are independently known, and whose exercise of those abilities in the pursuit of those intentions can be determined. None of these conditions is met by purported explanations which appeal to divine agency. Even were we to grant that God exists, the failure of the other conditions makes him explanatorily useless. Suppose, as seems almost certain to happen, the values of many of the parameters of the Standard Model turn out to be fixed by the values of just (say) two or three of them. Are we to continue to believe that God set all twenty of them independently or are we now to believe that he tuned only two or three of them realizing, in his wisdom, that that would do the job? The former makes his action totally inexplicable. The latter, as an explanatory account, has all the advantages of plagiarism over creative thought. The physicists do all the work and then, whatever they come up with, the theologians come along and say: “Yes, that’s how God did it.” Such a claim adds nothing to the explanation. A crucial feature of any explanation is that what does the explaining should be intelligibly and specifically linked to what is explained. “Explanations” in terms of divine agency lack this feature. God being omnipotent, the same account fits absolutely everything: “things are thus because God wished them so.” No further specificity, as to why he wanted them thus or how he made them so, is possible. An “explanation” which appeals to the inscrutable activity of an agent whose intentions are unknown amounts to an admission that we have no explanation to offer – and should be taken as a joke.

Nicholas Griffin is a professor emeritus of philosophy at McMaster University and Scholar in Residence at the University’s Bertrand Russell Archives. He has written extensively on the life and work of Russell.


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