Saturday, 3 December 2011

An explanation that's nothing of the kind

Last week's Unbelievable? featured Edgar Andrews and Robert Stovold on "What made the Universe?" — a loaded question if ever there was one (though to be fair, host Justin Brierley admitted this). There was much about fine tuning and the Big Bang, and God being an uncaused cause. In other words, the usual stuff.

What I found disturbing is that Andrews seems to think that positing "Goddidit" is an adequate explanation. He says that unbelievers come up with all sorts of ad hoc arguments to explain such things as the Big Bang, the apparent design of the universe, how something can exist rather than nothing, and such-like, but these explanations are all separate and unrelated. (I'm not sure that's true, but we'll let it pass.) Andrews claims that positing an all-powerful, all-knowing, timeless, spaceless, uncaused intelligence (or to put it another way, Goddidit) explains all these separate things with a single entity — and presumably is therefore more likely to be correct*.

Andrews must have a very odd idea of what constitutes explanation. In general when we attempt to explain something we don't understand, we do so in terms of things we do understand. Saying "Goddidit" isn't only the worst kind of intellectual cop-out — in theological terms it exhibits stupendous hubris.

As Karl Popper pointed out, if you have a theory that fits all circumstances without exception, in that there's nothing it can't explain, it isn't an explanation at all.

* My competing theory — that magic pixies did it — is similarly unified, but I wouldn't call it an explanation. Edgar Andrews is on Unbelievable? again today. I'm not looking forward to it much.
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