Friday, January 13, 2006

Do supernatural explanations increase our understanding of the world?

Posted in butterflies and wheels a year ago:

[R]eligion can't explain anything - not anything at all. Not really. It can pretend to, but it can't actually do it. Answering 'magic' to every question really doesn't explain anything whatever, does it. Well, answering 'God' for all questions that science can't answer amounts to the same thing. If science can't answer it, that means it's the kind of question which can't be answered by means of inquiry. Well - what else is there? Is there some other kind of epistemic endeavour that genuinely does find out things, but does it with completely different (yet still reliable, testable, coherent, logical, repeatable) methods? Some kind of science+++? Some kind of >science? No. No, what people mean when they say 'science can't explain everything' is that there are some things that can only be explained by making up the explanations out of our own dear heads, without checking them against anything. And that isn't an explanation. It's a story, or an aphorism, or a pretty thought, but not an explanation.

As we've seen, Pat Robertson, in his infinite wisdom, attributed Israel prime minister Ariel Sharon's stroke to God's retribution. Sharon, he claimed, was struck down by God because he carved up the Holy Land ceding part of it to the Palestinians. Robertson's flock probably finds his explanation comforting. It may even reinforce their belief that their deity must be feared and obeyed. But was Sharon's stroke, in fact, caused by a deity? Can Robertson or anyone discover the veracity of his causal explanation? Can anyone confirm or disconfirm it? Robertson can easily appeal to a "word of knowledge," to a private revelation, but how shall he or anyone distinguish it from a hallucination or the like? What test can he devise and perform to rule out all except supernatural communique? In beefing up his indictment Robertson pointed to his tradition's sacred text, noting how God had declared Israel to be his land and how God has "enmity against those who divide" it. But such appeals to ancient literature is as vacuous and ridiculous as pointing to Homer's Odyssey and--noting how Cyclopes are mentioned in it--asserting that these creatures do or did exist. The mere fact that something had been written about and claimed thousands of years ago hardly necessarily implies that they're true. The argument "But it's written in the Torah/Vedas/Quran/Bible!" holds no water. So what if ancient and revered text X says Y? Mere credulity, bibliolatry, ardent belief will never make something true/real. These principles are so elementary it's amazing how so many can fail to apply them.

Supernaturalistic explanations are, at best, speculation, at worst, outright fantasy. As we've said they may provide a sense of understanding of certain events in our lives and our world, but it is a false sense of knowing, for one cannot know and determine whether the explanation is true or false. Indeed, even supposed statements of fact about the supernatural cannot be known to be true since we cannot determine and check the veracity of these so-called facts. Thus, those who fervently believe and adamantly insist they are true are being most irrational.

I'd like to think that one reason, if not the main reason, for this irrationality is mere ignorance of how to think through their beliefs incisively, logically and critically. Or perhaps some just wittingly or otherwise turn a blind eye because the psychological and emotional rewards of having such irrational beliefs outweigh whatever benefits disillusionment offers.

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