God and Agent Explanations: A Guide for the Perplexed

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“Why believe that there is a God at all? My answer is that to suppose that there is a God explains why there is a physical universe at all; why there are the scientific laws there are; why animals and then human beings have evolved; why humans have the opportunity to mould their characters and those of their fellow humans for good or ill and to change the environment in which we live; why we have the well-authenticated account of Christs life, death and resurrection; why throughout the centuries millions of people (other than ourselves) have had the apparent experience of being in touch with an guided by God, and so much else. In fact, the hypothesis of the existence of God makes sense of the whole of our experience, and it does so better than any other explanation that can be put forward, and that is the grounds for believing it to be true.”- Richard Swinburne[1]

It’s rather easy to feel dehumanised today. Newspapers continually report that scientists have discovered which part of our brains makes us religious, or which stage of our evolutionary history made us adulterous. Free-will and responsibility have disappeared in our clock-work universe. We do not control our actions; events just happen to us[2]. We’re trapped in a chain of causes and effects. We are not agents; our nervous systems just act and react. Everything that humans do is, apparently, explicable in scientific terms.

Now scientific explanations deal with impersonal objects and laws of nature; we observe and measure how some events regularly follow others. We then use our knowledge of those regularities to explain some state of affairs; we discover how previous events produced other events by mechanical forces according to natural laws[3].  For example, we can explain why Mars in its present location by describing the solar system, where the planets have been recently and Newton’s laws. Or scientific explanations can explain objects by breaking them down into their constituent parts and structures. So we can see how atoms form molecules, and how molecules form cells.

But there is more to our world than the impersonal; we cannot understand or predict human activity without talking about agents and purposes. In a scientific explanation of a person’s actions, events in the person’s brain cause the person to act. The person is passive – desires and beliefs do all the causal work. But in an agent explanation the person is active, not passive. The person assesses his  desires and beliefs and then chooses to act. So a person must have a power to choose in an agent explanation[4]. In contrast to event causation, agent causation is a causal chain that begins with an agent intending a purpose.

As Goetz and Taliaferro put it in Naturalism[5]

“consider an example of human agency: you light a candle to accomplish the purpose that you see your beloved…most of us assume that such a purpose is truly explanatory. There may be a highly complex physiological story to tell about muscles and brains and so on when a candle is lit for this purpose. But upon reflection, most of us would hold that the purpose that you see your beloved was ultimately the explanation for the mental event that caused an initial event in your brain and whatever effects followed from it to produce the movements of your hands and the lighting of the match and the candle.”

If any agent explanation is true, there must be more to the universe than physical particles and forces. We have to believe that there is more to us than the physical parts that make up our bodies; we must have non-physical minds that have some level of control over our actions[6] .  Otherwise we would not be able to escape the chain of physical causes and effects. Free-will would be an illusion in such a world. We can accept that some of our choices might have been determined, but we assume that we have had some say in what we believe, and some choice over whom we love and how we love them.

The concept of agent explanation has also become important in assessing the rationality of theism.  Theists believe that there is a person of unsurpassable power who desired, and made, an orderly universe. As in all agent explanations, the agents abilities are cited (in this case, the agent is a being of unlimited personal power); then we cite a reason that would give that agent a plausible reason to bring an event about (in this case, the order, structure and beauty of our universe are goods that a creator would desire). Just like the human mind, God is invisible, intangible and immaterial, with the ability to bring about events in the physical world.

As Richard Swinburne argues:

That there is a Universe and that there are laws of nature are phenomena so general and pervasive that we tend to ignore them. But there might so easily not have been a universe at all, ever. Or the Universe might so easily have been a chaotic mess. That there is an orderly Universe is something very striking, yet beyond the capacity of science ever to explain. Sciences inability to explain these things is not a temporary phenomenon, caused by the backwardness of 21st Century science. Rather, because of what a scientific explanation is, these things will ever be beyond its capacity to explain. For scientific explanations by their very nature terminate with some ultimate natural law and ultimate arrangement of physical things, and the questions I am raising are why there are natural laws and physical things at all.

However, there is another kind of explanation of phenomena which we use all the time and which we see as a proper way of explaining phenomena. This is what I shall call personal explanation. We often explain some phenomenon E as brought about by a person P in order to achieve some purpose or goal G. … Scientific explanation involves laws of nature and previous states of affairs. Personal explanation involves persons and purposes. If we cannot give a scientific explanation of the existence and orderliness of the Universe, perhaps we can give a personal explanation.[7]

Swinburne is arguing that a personal, agent explanation can work when impersonal, scientific explanation cannot. He is offering an agent explanation for the universe. So Swinburne’s arguments for God’s existence would be weakened if agent explanations are incoherent or implausible. Now it is often alleged that the idea of an immaterial mind with causal power is mysterious, ad hoc, and vacuous. But a glance at the philosophical and relevant scientific literature shows that this is not the case. For example, cognitive scientists have discovered that humans instinctively and reflexively attribute non-physical minds to other agents. As Jeremy Taylor reports in “Not a Chimp[8]

…we are able to make sense of the world by inferring causation by things we cannot see – things that are unobservable, invisible. Thus when we observe another person doing something we don’t content ourselves with some mechanical description of what is going on – as if observing a machine or a robot – we understand that the other person intends to do something because he or she is being guided by internal mental states like desire, belief, and knowledge. We cannot see a desire and so we interpret the behaviour of others around us by inferring such mental states… We are, if you like, forming a theory about why so-and-so is doing such-and-such by invoking the invisible.”

And as cognitive scientist Justin Barrett puts it: “Purposeful and self-propelled action triggers [our mental tools] to recognise animals as agents with minds”[9] and

“We do not come to think that other people have minds because they have bodies. Rather, we first detect agentive action acting on or through bodies, then come to attribute a mind.”[10]

We do not think that Tim is about to move quickly away from the irritable Rottweiler because his pupils are dilated, his breath rate has increased, and that such behaviour is frequently followed by individuals moving their lower limbs rapidly away from large canines. Nor do we reason that Tim is running away because his amygdala is stimulated. Rather we infer that Tim has a mind, and that his mind is experiencing fear. When we reckon that Tim is having certain experiences we can predict Tim’s actions. Tim is afraid; Tim has good reason to run away from the angry Rottweiler; therefore he’ll probably choose to run away.

Of course we often infer a mind when none is present – for example, when we hear “things that go bump in the night”, or when the light plays tricks on us hiking along a forest path. And sometimes our picture of another’s mind is only partly correct. While animals feel fear and pain, it is highly unlikely that they feel “love” or “hate”  – not as humans understand those terms. Yet we often attribute such mental states to animals. But the point is not that cognitive science shows that we always attribute minds and mental events correctly; nor does it prove that humans really have immaterial minds. The point is that cognitive science has shown that the immaterial mind is a clear and practically useful idea.

Philosophy also shows that the concept of an immaterial mind is logically coherent and theoretically illuminating.To be an immaterial mind is simply to be the subject of beliefs, intentions and purposes; and that is all that it is.  It certainly isn’t fashionable to believe that the human mind could exist independently from the brain. But this fashion has been challenged by very capable philosophers of mind; and very few suggest that the concept of an immaterial mind is meaningless or incoherent. While I am unconvinced by the evidence for Out of Body Experiences and the like I can certainly understand the claim! I can  conceive a human subject, surviving the death of the body and interacting with the physical world!

So Stewart Goetz and Charles Taliaferro ask the atheist in Naturalism

“..why be so sure that it is impossible for there to be non-physical agency and cognition? All the Theist needs here is the bare coherence of dualism, not its plausibility.”

The idea of an immaterial agent is coherent and intuitively clear; now perhaps the atheist does not believe that humans are immaterial agents. But that does not mean that immaterial agents could not exist, and that we could not have evidence of their existence. The theist is can argue that such evidence is abundantly available; the universe is crying out for a purposive (agent) explanation.

It is important to note that such an immaterial mind would not be complex. Richard Dawkins believes that theistic explanations fail because the agent, (God) would be much more complex than what we are trying to explain (the Universe). Dawkins seems to picture God as a vast quasi-physical brain or computer. So suppose we attempt to explain the organised complexity of the biological world by hypothesising that God planned that complexity. Dawkins concedes that this would account for intricate structures that we see in the living world. But he claims that it raises a further, more troubling question. What explains the organised complexity in God’s “brain”? This would, he argues, be far more complex than any biological system.

But immaterial things could not have the sort of complexity that troubles Dawkins; by definition, they are not composed of different interacting parts. As Edward Feser patiently explains:

dualists have typically held that the [mind] is simple or non-composite, and thus not “made out of” causally interrelated parts of any sort. That its activities cannot be modeled on those of a material substance is the whole point. How should we think of it, then? For the Cartesian, the essence of the[ mind] is thought, and that is the entirety of its essence. Descartes does not say: “Gee, it’s hard to see how intentionality could be explained in terms of causal relations between physical parts. I therefore postulate an immaterial substance with immaterial parts whose causal relations are capable of generating thought and intentionality.” That would imply that in addition to thought, a [mind]has of its nature the various parts in question and their characteristic interrelations. And that is just what Descartes denies. A Cartesian immaterial substance doesn’t generate thinking. It is thinking, and that is all that it is.[11]

When the theist argues that an immaterial mind planned the universe, he is arguing that something simpler than the physical universe is responsible for its intricate structure and organised complexity. Dawkins’ critique of the design argument collapses at this point. The theist is arguing that an immaterial agent like God explains large scale features of the universe, like its order and structure.

We have no difficulty grasping the concept of an immaterial agent. Together philosophy and cognitive science show that explanations that invoke agents are intuitively clear, and conceptually coherent. It is difficult to know what more we could want from an explanation when it can neatly account for the evidence.In the absence of some argument against  the coherence of theism Swinburne’s arguments stand as plausible and illuminating accounts of the existence, structure and beauty of the physical universe, and for a wide range of moral and religious experiences.

Further Reading

Dale Jacquette The Philosophy of Mind: the Metaphysics of Consciousness(Continuum: 2009) pp255-257;

EJ Lowe An Introduction to the Philosophy of Mind (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 2000) pp257-262;

EJ Lowe A Survey of Metaphysics (New York: Oxford University Press: 2002) pp195-213

Richard Swinburne The Existence of God (Oxford: 2004) p35-45

Paul K Moser The Evidence for God(Cambridge: 2010) pp 48-63.

[1] http://users.ox.ac.uk/~orie0087/framesetpdfs.shtml

[2] This is why Richard Dawkins was quite wrong to suggest that agent explanations could be reduced to scientific explanations in an interview with Nick Pollard in 1995. http://www.damaris.org/content/content.php?type=5&id=102

[3] These laws can be probabilistic.

[4] “Agents are sometimes said to be the initiator of causal chains, and not merely the physical systems in which pre-existing causal chains play themselves out. If this is true, then, according to a theory originating with Aristotle and extended by Chisholm, Richard Taylor and others, there are two types of causation, event causation and agent causation.  . ….Minds are capable of event causation. Non-minds are passively subject only to the vicissitudes of event causation. Were it not for agency, minds and non-minds alike would at most be conduits through which causes and events are channelled…” pp256-257 Dale Jacquette Philosophy of Mind: the Metaphysics of Consciousness (Continuum, 2009 )emphasis mine

[5] (Grand Rapids:Eerdmans, 2008) p108, emphasis mine

[6] It seems more straightforward to view the agent as an immaterial mind, distinct from the body; and that is the stance defended in the rest of this article. However, some advocates of agent causation consider the agency to be grounded in a holistic emergent property, or set of properties, of the body.

[7] Ibid

[8] (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010) p 152. Taylor is describing human instinctive and non-reflective beliefs, and not his own considered philosophical position on the nature of the mind.

[9] Justin L Barrett Why Would Anyone Believe in God?(Oxford:AltaMira Press, 2004)p103

[10] Ibid p99

[11] http://edwardfeser.blogspot.co.uk/2010/06/stoljar-on-intentionality.html In this post Feser uses the term “soul” for what I am calling the “mind”.

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