What makes a good explanation?

February 21, 2014

There are several arguments atheists offer, which they really shouldn’t. Recently, listening to the “Unbelievable” podcast, the atheist guest, Matt Dillahunty gave some requirements for what makes an explanation,

We explain things in terms of other things that we understand. We begin with the simple things which we understand to explain the more complex things.

He went on to say offering explanations in terms of things we didn’t fully understand to be “literally magic”, “has no explanatory power” and “tells us nothing at all”. The clear implication being, because we don’t understand everything about God, then God could not be offered as an explanation of anything.

I am a physicist. I spend my time modelling the way future quantum computers would work. Listening to Matt Dillahunty talk, I could not help see that his requirements for a valid explanation would not only rule out God (as he wanted) but also rule out quantum mechanics.

Matt Dillahunty demands that any explanation be in terms of simpler things we understand. Yet, we famously don’t understand everything about quantum mechanics. As Feynman put it,

I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.


Do not keep saying to yourself, if you can possibly avoid it, “But how can it be like that?” because you will get “down the drain”, into a blind alley from which nobody has yet escaped. Nobody knows how it can be like that.

We certainly don’t know everything about the quantum mechanics. For example, we don’t even know if there is an actual wave which really exists in space, or if it’s a convenient mathematical trick. There are several different interpretations of quantum mechanics, each different, and each voraciously defended by their proponents. By Matt Dellahunty’s criteria this means quantum mechanics can’t be used as an explanation.

But, just because we don’t understand everything about quantum mechanics is not a reason to reject quantum mechanics an explanation, it is a reason to ask more questions. In both science and theology, that is exactly what we do.

Imagine for one second, we accepted what Matt had to say. Explanations are only accepted if they were in terms of something simpler we already understand. If we just keep asking “why?”, “why?”, “why?”, then eventually (considering we can go on asking “why?” forever) we’ll come to something necessary (which seems like an argument for God to me) or we’d admit we couldn’t give a simpler explanation we fully understood. That happens to any chain of reasoning at all. Matt’s criteria now says to belittle that explanation and say it is literally magic. Obviously we don’t just reach that point when asking about God, but, if we are honest we reach it in all of science and mathematics. It seems like an obviously bunk criteria to use.

It got even more baffling, because Matt Dellahunty went on to say that explanations which leave open questions halt inquiry. If we say

“I’m going to stick this proposed explanation in here…” it tells us nothing at all. It is a way of halting investigation and inquiry about the subject.

Which seemed to me to get everything the absolute wrong way around. Someone who admits, yes, “I don’t everything, I don’t know how God did this or that” they are often motivated to find out how he did it (such as Planck, a Lutheran Christian who first introduced quantum mechanics). If someone has question they don’t know the answer to questions about a God, like “What is God like?”, “What can I know about him?”, “How can I know him?”, it is not a reason to reject God as an explanation, but a reason to seek the answers. Open questions are an invitation to investigate further.

The same is true in science. If we come across an open question, we don’t pack up and declare that, sorry, quantum mechanics has no explanatory power. Open questions about our explanations are great, and an invitation to investigate further.

I don’t even pretend to understand what Matt was thinking. It seems so obviously wrong. It is the person who takes his attitude: that everything has to be perfectly explained in terms of things we understand who leaves no room for open questions, who halts the investigation. They declare exactly what he did: We don’t know everything about God, therefore God cannot be a valid explanation. At which point the enquiry stops.

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One Response to “What makes a good explanation?”

  1. kidandme Says:

    It sounds like he its limiting what people should know by what cab be explained, by what can be understood. And the rest is magic! That limited vie w of the world would make it full if magic ! Magic microwaves, magic cell phones, magic cars and planes.

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