Explaining the explainers, Robert Nola

Secular Sermons: Essays on Science and Philosophy 
Alan Musgrave
Otago University Press, $45.00,
ISBN 9781877372704

Publishers in New Zealand produce books in many areas such as literature, history, politics, biography, art; they produce almost nothing in philosophy. Philosophers in this country must seek out international publishers. A rare exception is Otago University Press’s fine collection of papers Secular Sermons by Alan Musgrave, now retiring after 40 years of occupying the chair of philosophy at the University of Otago.

Most of the papers were first delivered as lectures in New Zealand, particularly at the University of Otago, to non-philosophical audiences. They retain the freshness and vigour of Musgrave’s original addresses; their aim was to present clearly to lay listeners (and now readers) what can often be, in other hands, difficult and abstruse philosophical topics.  Some lectures were given for special occasions such as “Einstein’s influence on philosophy” and “Russell on mathematics” on the centenary of the birth of, respectively, Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell. Most are invited addresses on a range of topics within the philosophy and history of science. Only one paper, “Popper’s critical realism”, was first delivered overseas; but then as a pupil and research assistant of Popper, Musgrave has been in demand as a reliable, but critical, guide to Popper’s critical rationalism.

The Popperian stance is evident in papers such as “Realism and Surrealism about Science”, “Is Evolutionary Theory Scientific?” and “Is Science a Rational Enterprise?” In this last-mentioned paper Musgrave attacks the sad but all too common view, often advanced by the religiously minded, that science is simply another “faith-based” enterprise. In the past this position has been given succour in different ways by writers on science such as Polanyi and Kuhn, but anti-rationalism about science has ways of taking on ever new forms that need to be exposed for what they are. If as a general reader you wish to know how the Copernican Revolution in science came about, “Wandering Stars and Falling Stones” is as succinct an account of this episode in human thought as any other I know of. All the papers are well worth reading for their informativeness and clarity; but the remainder of this review will focus on just two papers, the first and the last.

Sermons are meant to be spiritually edifying addresses from a pulpit which often unsparingly use the tricks of rhetoric to induce belief. For his addresses Musgrave certainly had a lectern rather than a pulpit, but there any similarities to religion end. For the secularist, reason replaces rhetoric, and the edification is intellectual rather than spiritual. The first essay in the collection “Can I Decide What to Believe?” was originally given as a “secular sermon” in a Dunedin church. One thing that distinguishes us humans from other animals is our ability to believe, and we do believe an astonishing variety of different things. One question we might ask is: “Which of these beliefs are correct?” – something over which we have been all too willing to kill one another. But the topic of the address is not the factual one of what we do believe, or even the epistemological question of what evidence there is for what we believe. Rather the question concerns a matter of choice – can we decide to believe some claim? As Musgrave challenges his audience, try believing that Julius Caesar had eggs for breakfast on the day he invaded Britain, as opposed to merely saying one does believe that.  Musgrave is not a voluntarist about belief, thereby endorsing the view of Hume on this matter but not Descartes. Nor Pascal either.

One of Musgrave’s targets is Pascal’s famous wager which presents us with the costs and benefits of believing, or not believing, that God exists, in both cases where God does, or does not, actually exist. Pascal was one of the founders of both probability and decision theory and famously used them to show that we should wager for the existence of God and so believe that God exists. But this is voluntarism about believing with a vengeance, whether the beliefs be about God or any other matter. As Musgrave points out, even Pascal recognised that working out the consequence of his wager may not be enough to generate belief through choice; you might first have to “act as if you believe”.

Musgrave picks his way carefully through tricky issues to do with the differences between believing as opposed to acting as if one believes and putting oneself in circumstances which lead to belief, whatever the belief-producing circumstances may be (such as thinking, reading books, observing, etc).  A consequence of Musgrave’s anti-voluntarist position is that we are not responsible for our beliefs any more than we are responsible for the colour of our eyes. But this is different from whether we are responsible for the belief-forming circumstances into which we get ourselves; for this we can be responsible. Musgrave carefully restricts his claim to belief; his thesis does not extend to other mental attitudes such as entertaining a thought or accepting some proposition; both of these can be voluntaristic. In sum, what Musgrave undermines is an assumption commonly made about the faith/reason divide that belief-inducing faith is voluntaristic. What did the congregation of Knox Church make of this?

The final paper in the collection asks “Are Theological Notions Explanatory?” Many people simply assume that they are, particularly those who oppose Darwin’s theory of evolution and suppose that some Intelligent Designer is at work. But that a Designer God explains well, indifferently or badly presupposes that it makes sense to claim that an appeal to such an entity is explanatory at all. Musgrave argues that it makes no sense to proffer such an explanation. Why?

Normally in science we understand what happens in the world by appealing to laws or causes. But what explains these explainers? Are there items which are self-explaining (assuming this is coherent)? Alternatively is there an unending regress of explanations with no ultimate, final explanation at all? And how would we show that we had got to the ultimate explanation? If there are unexplained explainers can science have explanation as an overall aim, or should it give up on the business of offering explanations? When it comes to human actions a common model is to explain actions in terms of what we want or desire and the beliefs (whether true or false) we have about how to realise these desires. But as is evident these very beliefs and desires are not ultimate or self-explanatory and are open to further explanation.

Rather than live with a regress of explanations (the “Russian doll” model as Musgrave calls it) the theologically minded offer God as an ultimate explanation. But how is this to work? Is God self-explanatory? A lot of unrewarding effort has gone into trying to make this notion acceptable. Another is to extend the human belief-desire model to God. But then his desires and beliefs must remain opaque despite what supposed revelations or holy books say about this. The illusory nature of this kind of explanation which Musgrave brings into the open is something Darwin recognised in arriving at his theory of evolution. For Darwin the doctrine of special creationism is anathema to science. Not only do we have no access to what God desired in the way of, say, planetary motion or species, but the claim that the world has the planetary motions or the species it does because God so desired it is an empty explanation that does not even begin to compete with science. As Darwin says in a letter: “The view that each variation has been providentially arranged seems to me to make Natural Selection entirely superfluous, and indeed takes the whole case of the appearance of new species out of the range of science.” Musgrave’s and Darwin’s message is that in science there might be no ultimate explanations; but we should not adopt fake non-explainers as alleged explanatory stopping points.


Robert Nola is a professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Auckland. 


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Posted in Essays, Non-fiction, Religion, Review and Science
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