Supernatural explanations

Posted on November 29, 2008


My course on superstitions has reached chapter seven of my yet-to-be-finished book. In that chapter I discuss the kinds of explanations that appear in superstitions. To help my students understand explanations I have directed them to the article on explanations in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. The article was written by a friend of mine, Randy Mayes, so I directed to him the question of whether he thought that the kinds of supernatural explanations used within superstitions deserve to be called explanations at all. Here is what Randy wrote in reply:

What I think is that the question whether supernatural explanations are explanations at all takes you immediately into metaphilosophical territory, and not one where naturalists and supernaturalists are likely to find much common ground.  As a naturalist, my own metaphilosophical position is that a theory of explanation is a scientific theory, specifically a theory about how certain (explanatory) cognitive processes work.  So any discussion of the meaning of explanation should be a discussion of how to clarify the term for scientific purposes. (Pretty much the model I used for my cruelty paper.)  My view (not expressed in that article) is that explanation is a cognitive response to predictive failure selected for enhancing our predictive power.  So for me the question whether supernatural explanations are explanations is the question whether that basic process is involved in creating them.  Pretty obviously, I think, it turns out that supernatural explanations are explanations but very poor ones, since they  seem to fail to satisfy that function, at least very well.

But if you allow that a theory of explanation is an a priori examination of the meaning of the term, or an inquiry into common usage, you can obviously come to a very different conclusion.   The Platonist, for example, will argue that universals provide an explanatory account of how people can grasp the same concept and therefore communicate about an objective reality.  As a naturalist I would claim that this isn’t much of an explanation until it generates predictions of phenomena we don’t know about, and of course that’s not going to happen (at least I don’t see how.)

But I don’t think there are no interesting discussion to be had between the two camps.  For example, a supernaturalist accepting the naturalistic criterion of explanation might argue that some supernatural explanations do have some kind of indirect predictive power.  For example, I understand that people who believe that a supernatural being created the universe and looks after the safety of the people who believe in him are actually somewhat less likely to be attracted to all sorts of more pedestrian supernatural phenomena.  That could be said to have a stabilizing effect on our explanatory apparatus. Also, there is the question of the intersection of science and metaphysics.  Are string theorists providing better explanations than Platonists and supernaturalists, for example?  All well-traveled territory for you I know.

I had my epistemology class read this article by Robert Koons, you might have a look at it.  It’s an argument that a certain kind of naturalist has to accept supernatural causes/explanations.  I think it is flawed, but it is accessible and challenging nonetheless.

I find myself comparing what Randy writes with what Pascal Boyer wrote in his Religion Explained book (on page 14) about religious explanations:

An “explanation” like that does not work in the same way as our ordinary accounts of events in our environment. We routinely produce explanations that (i) use the information available and (ii) rearrange it in a way that yields a more satisfactory view of what happened. Explaining something does not consist in producing one thought after another in a freewheeling sort of way. The point of an explanation is to provide a context that makes a phenomenon less surprising than before and more in agreement with the general order of things. Religious explanations often seem to work the other way around, producing more complication instead of less. As anthropologist Dan Sperber points out, religion creates “relevant mysteries” rather than simple accounts of events.

At this point I really ought to spell out my worries regarding explanations.

My first worry is exactly what philosophical accounts of explanation such as the traditional deductive-nomological account (that Boyer seems to reference) are supposed to achieve. Primarily, it is not clear to me whether they are descriptive or prescriptive. Are they saying what explanations are or what explanations ought to be? The worry perhaps is clearest when I consider explanations in the context of their being a psychological phenomenon. In that context an explanation often seems to be not much more than whatever gives us the feeling that we understand what is going on. Now, that might sound hopelessly subjective and, sometimes, it looks like that, too. It certainly does when we look at split-brain experiments in which it is clear that people invent post hoc explanations for their own actions. However, it must be remembered that the phenomenon is not just psychological but, also, evolved. So it is plausible that, in some way, this feeling that something has been explained is tied in some nonabritrary way to adaptation. This might not be much from the point of view of a logical positivist who’s hoping for a neat first-order formalisation but it is definitely much more than the original “whatever makes you feel good” suggestion. Randy seems to be thinking along similar lines when he’s talking about ‘clarifying the term for scientific use’.

The second worry is basically what Boyer gets at – religious ‘explanations’ look very different. My own suspicion is that the difference has a lot to do what people do with potential explanations in science as opposed to everyday life. In particular, even if an explanation is originally post hoc, in a scientific context it gets ‘pushed’. In other words, scientists consider its potential implications and attempt to see if they are correct. It is this pursuit of the consequences of the potential explanation that, as much as anything, seems to have to do with the way scientific explanations form a tight, cohesive mesh. The context with supernatural explanations seems to be the very opposite – the consequences of the explanations are not pursued. Indeed, their pursuit is seen as in various ways inappropriate and is discouraged, i.e. the explanations are treated as sacred. The end effect of such an approach is likely to look like ‘relevant mysteries’.

Of course, if one breaks apart the idea of an explanation and the idea of an intellectual context in which the explanations are ‘pushed’ to see how well they hold up, it becomes hard to understand how the situation is meant to work out in evolutionary terms. After all, on this picture, it is the ‘pushing’ of the explanations that really extends out predictive power. Treating them as sacred limits it. That works best if an alternative function can be ascribed to such cases – such as helping to maintain group cohesion, i.e. the DS Wilson position.