Theists often base their belief in God on the claim that God is the “necessary” and “ultimate” explanation for everything. Explanatory power is the ability to understand a phenomenon in terms of what is known. This short essay is a response to Dr. George Natann Schlesinger’s defense of the explanatory viability of theism in his article “The House and Builder” (Jewish Action, Winter 5760/1999).
Some theists consider God to be an inherently unexplainable mystery, beyond human understanding, an unknown. Such a mysterious God has no explanatory power because it can only provide “understanding” for phenomena in terms of the unknown (itself).
Some theists make specific claims regarding the nature of God. As the definition for God becomes more explicit and detailed, the likelihood that different people will find their definitions self-contradictory increases. God becomes a progressively more subjective concept as God becomes more well-defined. There is no reliable independent mechanism for choosing among the competing claims of “knowing” God.
Where religion purports to explain it actually resorts to armchair tautology. Valid explanations cannot be so subjective and arbitrary.
A catchall explanation is one which could account for a hypothesis while simultaneously accounting for the denial of the same hypothesis. There is literally no limit to what God can be invoked to explain, including the “truth” of all falsehoods. Of course, people do not invoke God to explain “truths” that they a priori know are false. But the fact remains that God can invariably be so invoked without internal logical inconsistency. God is an intrinsically vacuous, magical, catch-all explanation that provides the superficial appearance of providing explanation by avoiding the necessary constraints of proper reason and logic. God explains nothing.
“The House and Builder” article notes that scientists of the recent past were baffled by the immense amount of energy radiated by the sun. The explanation for this phenomenon was found when thermonuclear fusion was discovered. Before that discovery not even religiously committed scientists invoked God’s will as an adequate explanation of how the sun could generate such tremendous energy. Yet even today many scientists invoke God as an explanation for the “Big Bang” without being fully cognizant of their inconsistency. Upon closer inspection it should be clear that “God’s will” is no more useful for explaining the Big Bang than for explaining the source of the sun’s energy. An intrinsically catchall explanation does not lose its powerlessness by merely changing the nature of the object being explained. This is true even if there were a fundamental difference between explaining phenomena within the universe, such as the energy generated by the sun, and explaining the birth of the universe.
Is there really a fundamental difference between phenomena within our universe and the birth of our universe itself? The assumption that “something” came supernaturally from “nothing” lost most of its punch ever since energy and matter were discovered to exist in both “positive” and “negative” forms such that they cancel when combined. It is incorrect to assume that there could not be any physical causes before the birth of our physical universe since there is no evidence that a pre-universe state of “nothingness” ever existed or could exist. Because we experience our life in a short time frame and small space, we tend to be deceived into thinking that the universe is orderly, reliable and stable, and therefore designed. However, our universe is fundamentally chaotic, dynamic and nonstable when viewed from a cosmological time frame and size scale as would be expected for a nondesigned phenomenon. Indeed, all modern fundamental physics is infused with randomness. When something is random, we cannot infer any cause behind it.
Randomness is also crucial for natural explanations of our intelligence and our creativity. (See “Where Science and Religion Disagree” by Taner Edis.) We cannot assume that our universe is “unique” and “improbable” since there is no reason to believe that our universe is not one of many. Nor will our universe likely remain a cozy place for humankind since the universe’s expansion is accelerating. All this is consistent with the notion that our universe emerged through chaotic processes, indifferent to human welfare, that are no different than any other subsequent emergent processes within our universe.
God as Creator would have to be more complex than our universe itself because such a God supposedly knew everything required to design and create our universe, a knowledge that the designed universe itself would not have. So resorting to such a Creator God is tantamount to “explaining” a complex mystery by postulating a more-complex mystery. As an “explanation” it is thus self-defeating unless it confers some other advantage. The explanatory advantage theists claim for theism derives from arbitrarily claiming that God is “uncaused” while simultaneously insisting that the universe itself must be independently caused.
Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that there is a fundamental difference between explaining phenomena within the universe and explaining the birth of the universe. Theists argue the need for an independent cause for creation by extrapolating from the dubious assumption that all phenomena within our natural universe are entirely deterministic. But this is inconsistent with the aforementioned assumption that the natural properties of phenomena within the universe do not apply to the universe’s creation because these two sets of phenomena are distinct. We are thus left with no self-consistent theistic response to the counterclaim that it is simpler and thus more logical to conclude that either our universe itself was uncaused or that it is self-caused. Because it lies outside of the understanding provided by our daily experience, an uncaused or self-caused universe is counterintuitive, of course, as is much of modern cosmology and physics. But positing a God provides no explanatory relief or advantage here.
There is no pressing need for claiming to have explanations to the big mysteries of our universe and existence. Some mysteries may remain forever beyond our ken. Questions are not meaningful simply because we are capable of articulating them. Asking for ultimate purpose when there is no ultimate purpose does not bring us closer to truth. If honesty and truth is our goal, then it is better to properly identify what we do not know then to claim knowledge we do not have.
Atheism, properly understood, makes the fewest unsubstantiated, unnecessary, knowledge claims and is thus more sensible than theism or agnosticism.
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