Levels of Explanation
There are varous kinds of explanations, corresponding roughly to the questions ‘What?’, ‘How?’ and ‘Why?’
- We might ask, ‘What is a kettle?’ This requires an interpretive explanation, clarifiying what the word ‘kettle’ means.
- We might ask, ‘How is a kettle made up?‘ This requires a descriptive interpretation, identifying the various components of a kettle.
- We might ask, ‘Why is the kettle boiling?‘ This requires a reason-giving explanation, but a number of these could be given. We might reply, ‘Because energy is transferred, raising the temperature of the water’; ‘Because I want a cup of tea’.
Different types of explanation are not mutually exclusive. Consider the statement, ‘People used to believe that God created the world; but now we know it was a Big Bang.’ The two are not logical alternatives.
Scientific explanations are not the only, nor necessarily the most appropriate, explanations. Knowledge of the structure and function of the heart is useful in medicine, but less useful in starting a friendship. Science and religion offer different types of explanations.
It can be useful to distinguish between ‘First Causes’ and ‘Secondary Causes’. ‘God brought the universe into being’ would be an example of the former, and ‘The universe began with a Big Band’ an example of the latter. Science works with secondary causes, just as the workings of a television can be studied without having to mention its inventors.
‘God-of the Gaps’
Historically, scientific explanations have sometimes been mixed with religious ones. For example, no scientific explanation was available for planetary orbits, and so God’s direct action was invoked as an explanation. Then when gravity was better understood, there was no need to appeal to divine action.
In this ‘God-of-the-gaps’ approach, the place for God in his universe progressively shrinks as scientific explanations are developed. But to assume that something must be explained either by science or by religion is to confuse different types of explanations. Professor C.A. Coulson (who originated the term ‘God-of-the-gaps’) says,
If God is in nature at all, he must be there right from the start, and all the way through it.
Reductionism and ‘Nothing-Buttery’
There is a hierarchy of scientific explanations, moving from sociology to psychology to biology to physics. This movement from higher to lower levels of explanation is knownas ‘reductionism’. We must distinguish between ‘methodological reductionism’ (‘we are made of atoms and molecules’) and ‘ontological reductionism’ (‘we are nothing but atoms and molecules’).
Reductionist approaches tend to overlook the ways in which elemental parts may be combined and arranged, giving rise to emergent properties. For example, hydrogen and oxygen combine to make water, and water molecules together form water itself, which has the ’emergent property’ of ‘wetness’. Another emergent property is human consciousness.
It is clear, therefore, than when a scientist deals with the origin of the cosmos, or religious behaviour, s/he may be offering a perfectly legitimate explanation at one level, but we are not at liberty to suppose that creation or religious experience have been ‘explained away’.
Sociology and psychology are concerned with the functions and causes of belief, but they must necessarily bracket off questions of the truth or grounds of beliefs: these must be examined in other kinds of ways.
Based on Michael Poole, User’s Guide to Science and Belief, 30-39.