Guest Blogger, Dr. Kevin Kinghorn, Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Asbury Theological Center, D.Phil., University of Oxford, The Queen’s College
It is sometimes argued that science is in the process of making God superfluous. The more science discovers about how our world works, the less need there is to rely on God in explaining the things of this world. If science can explain something, then there’s really no need to posit God as some additional explanation. God, again, becomes superfluous.
One problem with this line of argument is that there are kinds of explanations that are of huge importance to us humans and which science can never, even in principle, address. Scientific explanations involve measurement: the study of those things that are measurable and quantifiable. On the other hand, there are other kinds of explanations that some philosophers call personal explanations. And it turns out that these latter explanations are often the ones humans really, really want and need. What kinds of explanations are personal, rather than scientific? Consider those explanations that answer our questions about reasons and values.
Consider a case where you see a child fall into a pond and cry for help. Being the kind and brave person you are, you jump in and save the child from drowning. Someone then asks the question: What caused you to rush to the pond to save the child? Well, a scientific answer would involve saying that the sight of the child caused a reaction in your brain, certain neural connections were stimulated, there were chemical changes and adrenaline was produced, giving you energy and the physical reaction of rushing to the pond. All that would be part of a scientific explanation. But what if someone asked you the reason you jumped in the pond? Neural firings and chemical reactions aren’t reasons; you don’t consider the fact that neural firings are taking place when deciding whether to rush to the pond. Your reasons are that the life of the child is valuable: the child has parents who would suffer if the child died; the child has the potential to contribute to many people’s lives as s/he grows up; the child’s life and experiences are a good thing in and of themselves.
These are reasons having to do with the value you assign various things. But value is not something that is quantifiable or measurable or observable. It’s not part of any scientific explanation. It’s not a candidate for scientific inquiry. (As to the suggestion that our mental reasoning processes are reducible, on further analysis, merely to physical brain processes, I indicated in a previous entry why most philosophers find this suggestion very implausible.) So, explanations involving reasons and values involve an altogether different kind of explanation than a scientific explanation. And, again, these are often the kinds of explanations we really want and need. When we’re frustrated that a family member won’t accept our help, or when we don’t understand why a friend no longer wants to spend time with us, we want to know their reasons for not doing what we ourselves think is valuable and worthwhile.
Consider another example. I know a married couple who are contemplating having a third child. On the one hand, they want a larger family. On the other hand, they view world overpopulation as a pending danger; and they want to act responsibly with that perceived problem in mind.
Let’s suppose an evolutionary biologist says to these friends of mine: “You know, the human ‘drive’ to have children is a result of the random variations that occur within any species, where some members of a species will have a desire, a drive, to procreate and have children. And these members are the ones that did tend to go on to have children, passing on their genes to their children, with the end result that you and I have inherited this drive to have children.” The evolutionary biologist continues, “And as for your concerns about overpopulation, this stems from earlier members of species who had altruistic tendencies to care about the well-being of others not related to us. Since altruism is needed for cooperation, and cooperation for long-term survival, those with altruistic tendencies tended to survive and ultimately passed on these ‘altruistic genes’ to you and me.”
This is the story that evolutionary biologists often give about people’s desire to have children and their altruistic concern for things like overpopulation. But the thing is, even we grant all this, even if we accept this entire story about how the couple in question came to have their conflicting desires whether to have children, this still doesn’t help my friends decide what they should do! It doesn’t help them decide if there’s more value in having another child or refraining from doing so. The evolutionary biologist’s story doesn’t give any reason to do one thing or another. An explanation about what there is most reason to do, what there is most value in doing, is a personal explanation.
To be sure, theists are sometimes interested in questions that admit to scientific explanation. Christian theists, e.g., are interested in the question of whether Jesus of Nazareth really did possess a physical body, whether his heart really did stop beating when he was crucified, and whether he really was resurrected from the dead, appearing to various witnesses. But in addition to scientific explanations, there are questions that require what again we might call personal explanations. Theists (and moralists, for that matter) will focus on this type of explanation in explaining why people do the things they do. Christians focus a great deal on explaining the inner struggles humans face, as well as the solutions to these struggles made possible through a relationship with God. And this is simply a logically different category of explanation than the kind of scientific explanation we saw offered by the evolutionary biologist.