Explaining Explanation

Nouveau

Active member
Someone asked recently what atheists think. Well, here is a bit about what this particular atheist thinks (edited from a thread on the previous forums).

What is explanation? I find that many unthinkingly assume that everything must have an explanation, and that any answer to a 'why' question counts as being better than not having one. It is almost as if explanation is viewed as a magical notion, rather than as the natural and human activity that it surely is. I've found that a deeper analysis tends to undercut some common theistic arguments.

Firstly, we can usefully distinguish between causal and conceptual explanation. The former explains those things which could have been otherwise, and does so by positing some prior and distinct event or object as a cause (e.g. the window broke because a ball was thrown at it), while the latter explains that which could not have been otherwise, and does so by analysing the terms and concepts involved to show how it's negation would violate the laws of logic. Now, I can't strictly prove that these two forms of explanation are jointly exhaustive, but I have yet to come across any third type.

One point following from this is that it is clearly impossible for everything to have an explanation, i.e. at some point explanation must bottom out with brute facts - those things for which not only no explanation is known, but for which no explanation exists to be discovered. The only premise we need to add is that at least some truths are genuinely contingent, i.e. could have been otherwise without contradiction. Take one such contingent truth, e.g. that I had breakfast this morning. We cannot explain this conceptually, for then it would not be a contingent truth, so we must instead explain it causally by postulating some prior cause. If this prior cause is not itself a brute fact, then we must also be able to posit another cause of that cause, etc. Either this goes on infinitely into the past, or it reaches a 'first cause'. With an infinite chain, what explains the whole of it? We cannot explain the chain itself causally, for any prior cause is already a part of the chain we are trying to explain, and we cannot explain it conceptually, for there is still no contradiction entailed by none of it ever having existed or occurred. So the chain itself would exist as a brute fact.

Now what if we instead posit a 'first cause'? Is that first cause itself necessary or contingent? If contingent then it is itself a brute fact, as it has no prior causes and is not susceptible of conceptual explanation. If the first cause is itself necessary (and so far theists will likely be onboard) then we can ask whether the relation between this first cause and its first effect could have been otherwise. If so, then this relation is an inexplicable brute fact (an example might be God's decision to create). If not, then we have a necessary cause bringing about an effect via a necessary relation, so the effect will therefore be necessary too. It should be easy to see how this will flow forwards through each subsequent cause-and-effect relation, leading either to a brute fact causal relation at some step, or resulting in the entire causal chain (from the first cause to my breakfast) being absolutely necessary such that it could not have been otherwise. But then, contrary to our initial premise, there would really be no such thing as contingency in the universe.

We might then ask what kind of things can qualify as brute facts, now that we are forced to concede their existence. Plausible candidates might be the fundamental laws of nature, and perhaps the universe itself (either its first moment in time if it had a temporal beginning, or otherwise its whole infinite temporal extent). What we can see here is that lacking an explanation isn't always a flaw to be overcome, or a lack in understanding. It might just be where explanation bottoms out. But how do we determine where that boundary should be? This leads to a second major point: what is the purpose of explanation? We want to understand things, obviously, but how does an explanation achieve this? Simply put, explanation is data reduction - we understand things when we can subsume them under an existing law or principle, or contain them within some already established pattern. Consider a digital image - random pixels provides a mass of data and a large filesize, while a repeated pattern of stripes allows for a much smaller filesize - the data is reduced. With causal explanation, we are bringing new examples under the umbrella of existing causal laws. Despite all the millions of possible ways things could be, we introduce one new data point - a general law - which reduces the data to a manageable level. With conceptual explanation, we bring everything under the law of contradiction, showing that with respect to the point in question, there really was only one way it could possibly have been.

Two further points now follow. Firstly, when adding a new cause when we are at what might plausibly be a boundary case (e.g. Positing God as cause for the universe, or for causal laws, or for logic itself), it is not enough to say that we now have an explanation when before we did not. We must instead look further to see if we have achieved any overall data reduction to warrant extending the boundary of explicability beyond what might be a brute fact. That is, does positing God as a cause actually unify our understanding further by bringing it inline with other similar cases, or through showing a contradiction in the alternative? Or does it instead constitute a sui generis and ad hoc cause introducing more questions than it answers? I'm not outright saying God as an explanation must fail, but just that it is not enough to merely posit a cause and assume this must constitute an explanatory improvement.

The second point is that logic itself becomes a foundational stopping point for explanation. Logic is already as explained as anything can be, as it is not possible to achieve further data reduction with respect to that which cannot be otherwise without contradiction. We cannot explain logic causally, for then it would be contingent rather than necessary, reducing all explanation to the causal variety (just as earlier trying to explain my breakfast without brute facts reduced all explanation to the conceptual type). And in terms of conceptual explanation, the laws of logic are already explained merely by being laws of logic. One might concede the necessity of logic but still want to ask why this is - why are there any necessary aspects to reality at all? However, a little modal logic can show why this is mistaken. Imagine we draw a circle, and in that circle we write a letter for every true fact. Now we draw a bunch of other circles outside of the first, each representing another consistent way that everything otherwise could have been. Now write 'p' in the first circle to represent laws of logic. If we agree that they are necessary and could not have been otherwise, then we must also write p in all of the other circles too. Now, something is necessary (L) if it is true in all possible worlds, and we can see that p is true in all circles, making p necessary. So we can write 'Lp' in the first circle. But why is it so? Could Lp have been otherwise? Imagine any of the other circles from their own perspective. Is there any circle from which p is not true in another circle? No, so Lp will also be true in every circle. But that means LLp will be true in our first circle as well, which is to say that not only are the laws of logic necessary, but their necessity is also necessary. And if we accept Lp as an explanation for p (which we should), then we must also accept that Lp is explained by LLP, which is itself a logical entailment of Lp. And the same process iterates to show that LL...LLp will also be fully explained in the same way.

One final point is that we cannot further explain logic by trying to 'ground' it in something else, such as by claiming it to be explained as a 'reflection of God's mind'. Most obviously, we cannot say that God caused the laws of logic. That is to immediately strip logic of its absolute and necessary nature by making it contingent and dependent. Less obviously, we end up doing the same thing by trying to ground logic in something else that could not have been otherwise. To use the same modal concepts used above, to say that X is grounded in or depends upon Y is to say that in our circle (the actual world) we have both X and Y, that in at least one other circle there is no Y, and that in every circle where there is no Y there is also no X. That is dependence, but there can clearly be no such dependence if both X and Y (i.e. logic and God) exist in all circles.

So in conclusion, thinking a bit more carefully about the concept of explanation fatally undermines both The Kalam Cosmological argument (first cause) and the Transcendental Argument for God (TAG), as used by those demanding that only Christianity can account for logic or the existence of the universe.
 
Last edited:

Harry Leggs

Member
You have not offered a counter explanation for the universe and life here that beats God depicted. All you did here was confirm your bias.
 
S

stiggywggy

Guest
The old Nouveau was famous around here. Are you the evil twin? Old Nouveau was the ying and now you are the yang?
Nah, he's the same guy who thought it was cute to rip off ferengi's name last CARM reboot. Maybe I should re-register as HRG. Oh, my aching sides.
 
S

stiggywggy

Guest
Someone asked recently what atheists think. Well, here is a bit about what this particular atheist thinks (edited from a thread on the previous forums).

What is explanation? I find that many unthinkingly assume that everything must have an explanation, and that any answer to a 'why' question counts as being better than not having one. It is almost as if explanation is viewed as a magical notion, rather than as the natural and human activity that it surely is. I've found that a deeper analysis tends to undercut some common theistic arguments.

Firstly, we can usefully distinguish between causal and conceptual explanation. The former explains those things which could have been otherwise, and does so by positing some prior and distinct event or object as a cause (e.g. the window broke because a ball was thrown at it), while the latter explains that which could not have been otherwise, and does so by analysing the terms and concepts involved to show how it's negation would violate the laws of logic. Now, I can't strictly prove that these two forms of explanation are jointly exhaustive, but I have yet to come across any third type.

One point following from this is that it is clearly impossible for everything to have an explanation, i.e. at some point explanation must bottom out with brute facts - those things for which not only no explanation is known, but for which no explanation exists to be discovered. The only premise we need to add is that at least some truths are genuinely contingent, i.e. could have been otherwise without contradiction. Take one such contingent truth, e.g. that I had breakfast this morning. We cannot explain this conceptually, for then it would not be a contingent truth, so we must instead explain it causally by postulating some prior cause. If this prior cause is not itself a brute fact, then we must also be able to posit another cause of that cause, etc. Either this goes on infinitely into the past, or it reaches a 'first cause'. With an infinite chain, what explains the whole of it? We cannot explain the chain itself causally, for any prior cause is already a part of the chain we are trying to explain, and we cannot explain it conceptually, for there is still no contradiction entailed by none of it ever having existed or occurred. So the chain itself would exist as a brute fact.

Now what if we instead posit a 'first cause'? Is that first cause itself necessary or contingent? If contingent then it is itself a brute fact, as it has no prior causes and is not susceptible of conceptual explanation. If the first cause is itself necessary (and so far theists will likely be onboard) then we can ask whether the relation between this first cause and its first effect could have been otherwise. If so, then this relation is an inexplicable brute fact (an example might be God's decision to create). If not, then we have a necessary cause bringing about an effect via a necessary relation, so the effect will therefore be necessary too. It should be easy to see how this will flow forwards through each subsequent cause-and-effect relation, leading either to a brute fact causal relation at some step, or resulting in the entire causal chain (from the first cause to my breakfast) being absolutely necessary such that it could not have been otherwise. But then, contrary to our initial premise, there would really be no such thing as contingency in the universe.

We might then ask what kind of things can qualify as brute facts, now that we are forced to concede their existence. Plausible candidates might be the fundamental laws of nature, and perhaps the universe itself (either its first moment in time if it had a temporal beginning, or otherwise its whole infinite temporal extent). What we can see here is that lacking an explanation isn't always a flaw to be overcome, or a lack in understanding. It might just be where explanation bottoms out. But how do we determine where that boundary should be? This leads to a second major point: what is the purpose of explanation? We want to understand things, obviously, but how does an explanation achieve this? Simply put, explanation is data reduction - we understand things when we can subsume them under an existing law or principle, or contain them within some already established pattern. Consider a digital image - random pixels provides a mass of data and a large filesize, while a repeated pattern of stripes allows for a much smaller filesize - the data is reduced. With causal explanation, we are bringing new examples under the umbrella of existing causal laws. Despite all the millions of possible ways things could be, we introduce one new data point - a general law - which reduces the data to a manageable level. With conceptual explanation, we bring everything under the law of contradiction, showing that with respect to the point in question, there really was only one way it could possibly have been.

Two further points now follow. Firstly, when adding a new cause when we are at what might plausibly be a boundary case (e.g. Positing God as cause for the universe, or for causal laws, or for logic itself), it is not enough to say that we now have an explanation when before we did not. We must instead look further to see if we have achieved any overall data reduction to warrant extending the boundary of explicability beyond what might be a brute fact. That is, does positing God as a cause actually unify our understanding further by bringing it inline with other similar cases, or through showing a contradiction in the alternative? Or does it instead constitute a sui generis and ad hoc cause introducing more questions than it answers? I'm not outright saying God as an explanation must fail, but just that it is not enough to merely posit a cause and assume this must constitute an explanatory improvement.

The second point is that logic itself becomes a foundational stopping point for explanation. Logic is already as explained as anything can be, as it is not possible to achieve further data reduction with respect to that which cannot be otherwise without contradiction. We cannot explain logic causally, for then it would be contingent rather than necessary, reducing all explanation to the causal variety (just as earlier trying to explain my breakfast without brute facts reduced all explanation to the conceptual type). And in terms of conceptual explanation, the laws of logic are already explained merely by being laws of logic. One might concede the necessity of logic but still want to ask why this is - why are there any necessary aspects to reality at all? However, a little modal logic can show why this is mistaken. Imagine we draw a circle, and in that circle we write a letter for every true fact. Now we draw a bunch of other circles outside of the first, each representing another consistent way that everything otherwise could have been. Now write 'p' in the first circle to represent laws of logic. If we agree that they are necessary and could not have been otherwise, then we must also write p in all of the other circles too. Now, something is necessary (L) if it is true in all possible worlds, and we can see that p is true in all circles, making p necessary. So we can write 'Lp' in the first circle. But why is it so? Could Lp have been otherwise? Imagine any of the other circles from their own perspective. Is there any circle from which p is not true in another circle? No, so Lp will also be true in every circle. But that means LLp will be true in our first circle as well, which is to say that not only are the laws of logic necessary, but their necessity is also necessary. And if we accept Lp as an explanation for p (which we should), then we must also accept that Lp is explained by LLP, which is itself a logical entailment of Lp. And the same process iterates to show that LL...LLp will also be fully explained in the same way.

One final point is that we cannot further explain logic by trying to 'ground' it in something else, such as by claiming it to be explained as a 'reflection of God's mind'. Most obviously, we cannot say that God caused the laws of logic. That is to immediately strip logic of its absolute and necessary nature by making it contingent and dependent. Less obviously, we end up doing the same thing by trying to ground logic in something else that could not have been otherwise. To use the same modal concepts used above, to say that X is grounded in or depends upon Y is to say that in our circle (the actual world) we have both X and Y, that in at least one other circle there is no Y, and that in every circle where there is no Y there is also no X. That is dependence, but there can clearly be no such dependence if both X and Y (i.e. logic and God) exist in all circles.

So in conclusion, thinking a bit more carefully about the concept of explanation fatally undermines both The Kalam Cosmological argument (first cause) and the Transcendental Argument for God (TAG), as used by those demanding that only Christianity can account for logic or the existence of the universe.
In other words, you don't have an explanation.
 

Harry Leggs

Member
Nah, he's the same guy who thought it was cute to rip off ferengi's name last CARM reboot. Maybe I should re-register as HRG. Oh, my aching sides.
Yes i remember HRG as another part of the CARM Non-American autocratic science faction and apologist for fish lineage of humans and perhaps ET didit.
 
S

stiggywggy

Guest
Yes i remember HRG as another part of the CARM Non-American autocratic science faction and apologist for fish lineage of humans and perhaps ET didit.
Just curious. Who were you in a previous CARM life? Your writing style sounds familiar, but I can't quite place it.
 

docphin5

Member
Just curious. Who were you in a previous CARM life? Your writing style sounds familiar, but I can't quite place it.
I laughed when you wrote that but you are right. Each person has a distinct writing style that you can almost tell who it is by what and how they write. Some I miss, and some...not so much. ha ha!
 

SteveB

Well-known member
Someone asked recently what atheists think. Well, here is a bit about what this particular atheist thinks (edited from a thread on the previous forums).

What is explanation? I find that many unthinkingly assume that everything must have an explanation, and that any answer to a 'why' question counts as being better than not having one. It is almost as if explanation is viewed as a magical notion, rather than as the natural and human activity that it surely is. I've found that a deeper analysis tends to undercut some common theistic arguments.

Firstly, we can usefully distinguish between causal and conceptual explanation. The former explains those things which could have been otherwise, and does so by positing some prior and distinct event or object as a cause (e.g. the window broke because a ball was thrown at it), while the latter explains that which could not have been otherwise, and does so by analysing the terms and concepts involved to show how it's negation would violate the laws of logic. Now, I can't strictly prove that these two forms of explanation are jointly exhaustive, but I have yet to come across any third type.

One point following from this is that it is clearly impossible for everything to have an explanation, i.e. at some point explanation must bottom out with brute facts - those things for which not only no explanation is known, but for which no explanation exists to be discovered. The only premise we need to add is that at least some truths are genuinely contingent, i.e. could have been otherwise without contradiction. Take one such contingent truth, e.g. that I had breakfast this morning. We cannot explain this conceptually, for then it would not be a contingent truth, so we must instead explain it causally by postulating some prior cause. If this prior cause is not itself a brute fact, then we must also be able to posit another cause of that cause, etc. Either this goes on infinitely into the past, or it reaches a 'first cause'. With an infinite chain, what explains the whole of it? We cannot explain the chain itself causally, for any prior cause is already a part of the chain we are trying to explain, and we cannot explain it conceptually, for there is still no contradiction entailed by none of it ever having existed or occurred. So the chain itself would exist as a brute fact.

Now what if we instead posit a 'first cause'? Is that first cause itself necessary or contingent? If contingent then it is itself a brute fact, as it has no prior causes and is not susceptible of conceptual explanation. If the first cause is itself necessary (and so far theists will likely be onboard) then we can ask whether the relation between this first cause and its first effect could have been otherwise. If so, then this relation is an inexplicable brute fact (an example might be God's decision to create). If not, then we have a necessary cause bringing about an effect via a necessary relation, so the effect will therefore be necessary too. It should be easy to see how this will flow forwards through each subsequent cause-and-effect relation, leading either to a brute fact causal relation at some step, or resulting in the entire causal chain (from the first cause to my breakfast) being absolutely necessary such that it could not have been otherwise. But then, contrary to our initial premise, there would really be no such thing as contingency in the universe.

We might then ask what kind of things can qualify as brute facts, now that we are forced to concede their existence. Plausible candidates might be the fundamental laws of nature, and perhaps the universe itself (either its first moment in time if it had a temporal beginning, or otherwise its whole infinite temporal extent). What we can see here is that lacking an explanation isn't always a flaw to be overcome, or a lack in understanding. It might just be where explanation bottoms out. But how do we determine where that boundary should be? This leads to a second major point: what is the purpose of explanation? We want to understand things, obviously, but how does an explanation achieve this? Simply put, explanation is data reduction - we understand things when we can subsume them under an existing law or principle, or contain them within some already established pattern. Consider a digital image - random pixels provides a mass of data and a large filesize, while a repeated pattern of stripes allows for a much smaller filesize - the data is reduced. With causal explanation, we are bringing new examples under the umbrella of existing causal laws. Despite all the millions of possible ways things could be, we introduce one new data point - a general law - which reduces the data to a manageable level. With conceptual explanation, we bring everything under the law of contradiction, showing that with respect to the point in question, there really was only one way it could possibly have been.

Two further points now follow. Firstly, when adding a new cause when we are at what might plausibly be a boundary case (e.g. Positing God as cause for the universe, or for causal laws, or for logic itself), it is not enough to say that we now have an explanation when before we did not. We must instead look further to see if we have achieved any overall data reduction to warrant extending the boundary of explicability beyond what might be a brute fact. That is, does positing God as a cause actually unify our understanding further by bringing it inline with other similar cases, or through showing a contradiction in the alternative? Or does it instead constitute a sui generis and ad hoc cause introducing more questions than it answers? I'm not outright saying God as an explanation must fail, but just that it is not enough to merely posit a cause and assume this must constitute an explanatory improvement.

The second point is that logic itself becomes a foundational stopping point for explanation. Logic is already as explained as anything can be, as it is not possible to achieve further data reduction with respect to that which cannot be otherwise without contradiction. We cannot explain logic causally, for then it would be contingent rather than necessary, reducing all explanation to the causal variety (just as earlier trying to explain my breakfast without brute facts reduced all explanation to the conceptual type). And in terms of conceptual explanation, the laws of logic are already explained merely by being laws of logic. One might concede the necessity of logic but still want to ask why this is - why are there any necessary aspects to reality at all? However, a little modal logic can show why this is mistaken. Imagine we draw a circle, and in that circle we write a letter for every true fact. Now we draw a bunch of other circles outside of the first, each representing another consistent way that everything otherwise could have been. Now write 'p' in the first circle to represent laws of logic. If we agree that they are necessary and could not have been otherwise, then we must also write p in all of the other circles too. Now, something is necessary (L) if it is true in all possible worlds, and we can see that p is true in all circles, making p necessary. So we can write 'Lp' in the first circle. But why is it so? Could Lp have been otherwise? Imagine any of the other circles from their own perspective. Is there any circle from which p is not true in another circle? No, so Lp will also be true in every circle. But that means LLp will be true in our first circle as well, which is to say that not only are the laws of logic necessary, but their necessity is also necessary. And if we accept Lp as an explanation for p (which we should), then we must also accept that Lp is explained by LLP, which is itself a logical entailment of Lp. And the same process iterates to show that LL...LLp will also be fully explained in the same way.

One final point is that we cannot further explain logic by trying to 'ground' it in something else, such as by claiming it to be explained as a 'reflection of God's mind'. Most obviously, we cannot say that God caused the laws of logic. That is to immediately strip logic of its absolute and necessary nature by making it contingent and dependent. Less obviously, we end up doing the same thing by trying to ground logic in something else that could not have been otherwise. To use the same modal concepts used above, to say that X is grounded in or depends upon Y is to say that in our circle (the actual world) we have both X and Y, that in at least one other circle there is no Y, and that in every circle where there is no Y there is also no X. That is dependence, but there can clearly be no such dependence if both X and Y (i.e. logic and God) exist in all circles.

So in conclusion, thinking a bit more carefully about the concept of explanation fatally undermines both The Kalam Cosmological argument (first cause) and the Transcendental Argument for God (TAG), as used by those demanding that only Christianity can account for logic or the existence of the universe.
Interesting.
I'm glad you thought to save a copy.

There's only one problem here.
According to Mr. Laurier, there is no coherence in the beliefs of atheists, beyond you simply don't believe that YHVH exists.

So, how many atheists believe you, and how many believe Mr. L?
 

Nouveau

Active member
Interesting.
I'm glad you thought to save a copy.

There's only one problem here.
According to Mr. Laurier, there is no coherence in the beliefs of atheists, beyond you simply don't believe that YHVH exists.

So, how many atheists believe you, and how many believe Mr. L?
You must be confused. I am not in disagreement with Mr Laurier.

Do you have anything to say on the OP? Did you read it?
 

SteveB

Well-known member
And I simply answered it.

Interesting that you just ignored what I asked though.
I simply haven't decided when I'm ready to discuss it.

My life doesn't revolve around your schedule. I'm taking a lunch break at the moment and then headed back out to the garage.

You're going to have to learn to be more patient.
 
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