My parody of a CreationWise cartoon.
We use science, as a body of knowledge and as a tool, to understand the relation between cause and effect, how things work, how they come to be and how they will change. People may use science to explain what they observe, but they usually don’t. Our most popular explanations are supernatural, perhaps not explicitly but at least implicitly. We explain people’s actions with some kind of non-material agency, we explain natural things with various teleological beliefs, and we answer the great questions of existence with confused religious or pseudo-religious mutterings.
These seem like equally valid explanations to most people. One obvious area of disagreement is the origins of the variety of lifeforms on Earth. Some people believe that it originated in the process we call evolution, while others believe that God created all life (yet others, more incoherently, believe both happened at the same time). To the people involved, this is a meaningful debate with two equally substantial options.
Scientists are fast to point out that Creationism is not actually a scientific theory, and cannot have the same credibility as evolution. That’s a fair point. But a much more important point is that Creationism is not actually an explanation. It’s a non-explanation.
Suppose we assume that God created all life. That’s fine, but what does it mean exactly in terms of cause and effect? How did this creation take place? On this, believers can tell us nothing, because there is no explanation to give; what is supernatural cannot be explained in natural terms by definition. All they can do is postpone the explanation.
The Bible states that God molded man out of clay and breathed life into it. But this is merely turning one non-explanation into two non-explanations. How could a supernatural being mold clay? How can you breathe “life”? Life is a biological process of which breathing is only one tiny part, so this does not tell us how it’s actually done.
I’ve written quite a number of entries lately about another non-explanation, free will or “human agency.” Again, it makes perfect sense for people to say that “our decisions are the result of free will.” The naturalistic alternative posits that our decisions are the result of causality, basically that our personality combined with our life experiences dictate what we will do and think in the future.
Naturalism provides us with an actual explanation. But what about free will? How does it explain our decisions? Well for one thing, we can’t even define what free will is. It’s some kind of uncaused… thing… which, by that contra-causality, must therefore exist outside of the natural realm… that somehow, in some unknown way (some people even say, entirely randomly), causes our decisions.
Talking about “human agency” (or as some say, that humans can be the first cause of some things) doesn’t really help this pitiful case much. We define “human agency” as the capacity to act contra-causally, that “we” make choices. Where is this capacity located? How does it work? No idea.
But note that this is not merely an issue of there being no evidence yet. Science is not concerned with the supernatural. Whatever process we identify in the brain must be material and subject to cause and effect (otherwise we couldn’t perceive it, let alone identify it), therefore it cannot be “human agency.” It can only be the result of faith, not of science.
Occam’s Razor concerns itself mainly with eliminating such non-explanations. If two explanations A and B explain the same set of facts but B includes more entities and processes, then those extraneous entities and processes do not explain anything further. A round Earth explains the horizon and the fact that people live on the other side, and so does a flat Earth coupled with space-warping properties. Those space-warping properties explain nothing, therefore they are probably a non-explanation (where are they? how do they work?).
Why are people so attracted to non-explanations? Well, they are always simpler. Understanding divine creation (God is all-powerful and created man out of clay) is much easier and faster than understanding Neo-Darwinism, which is very counter-intuitive. Most people are not taught or schooled to understand neo-Darwinism, and the Bible offers an explanation which is accepted by many believers.
Some of this may also have to do with the fear reflex I discuss in “Fearing the non-conventional,” at least in the case of “free will”/human agency. Non-explanations typically are of the category of concepts that perpetuate the social order, and abandoning them elicits the fear of the consequences of doing so.
Because they perpetuate the social order, and social order is predicated on social roles and group identifications, non-explanations also sometimes trigger group allegiance or protecting one’s social roles. Divine creation, and the attendant allegiance to Christianity, gives us another obvious example. Irrational conspiracy theories are another form of non-explanations which also trigger group allegiances. Gender is a non-explanation and triggers the desire to protect our social role (in this case, being of a certain gender).
It may seem strange to speak of things like gender or race as supernatural, and this may also seem like a contradiction of my claim that non-explanations are supernatural in nature. But remember that “supernatural” only really means “non-natural”; there is no way to define the term “supernatural” apart from pointing out that it is inaccessible through natural means. Anything that does not function through natural means is therefore “supernatural.”
Because of its association with religious constructs, the word “supernatural” also has connotations of “spookiness” or superstition. I think this is very appropriate when we talk about gender or race: we should rightly see these social constructs (and indeed all social constructs) as “spooky” and superstitious, not merely as (pseudo-)scientific concepts.
Natural non-explanations are excluded by simple logic. If an explanation is actually natural, it means that one can identify some causal chain that makes it effective, and if this is so, then it cannot be a non-explanation. It can still be a false explanation, or an irrational explanation, but not a non-explanation.