Friday, June 06, 2008

The Placeholder Fallacy

In physics, we have found a pattern of reduction and unification. James Clerk Maxwell discovered that the electric force and magnetic force are both aspects of a single electromagnetic force. Abdus Salaam, Steven Weinberg and Sheldon Glashow were awarded the Nobel prize for their work in revealing that the electromagnetic force and the weak nuclear force are two aspects of a single electroweak force. The hope is that, one day, we will unify all of the forces in a "Theory of Everything" (ToE) described by one or two simple equations.

However, as yet, we do not know whether the ToE exists. Some think that a String Theory might turn out to be the ToE, but for all we know, the ToE could be based on a radically different mathematics. For now, a ToE remains an elusive dream.

Imagine two astronomers are looking through a telescope tonight, witnessing a galaxy exploding mysteriously. One astronomer says to the other "Aha! This explosion is explained by the Theory of Everything!"

The other astronomer replies. "Really? What is the Theory of Everything?"

The first astronomer responds "I don't know what the Theory of Everything actually says, but, it being a theory of everything, it must explain this explosion."

Has the first astronomer explained the explosion?

Of course not! The first astronomer is merely using a reference to a theory he does not have. He is using a placeholder for an explanation as if he had the actual explanation.

This is akin to me stepping ashore on an unexplored continent, declaring the tallest mountain to be named "Mount Logic", and then trying to claim credit for the discovery of the tallest mountain on the continent.

Thus, I present you with what I call The Placeholder Fallacy

The Placeholder Fallacy
Treating a reference to an explanation you don't have as if it has explanatory power.
This fallacy is most commonly used by theists when they claim that God can explain the existence of the universe, the fine-tuning of physical constants, or the origin of species. By the definition of a deity, God can certainly perform all of these tasks. This is no different from there being the possibility that an as-yet undiscovered physical law can explain all these things. What the theists really mean is that, if we knew the mind of God, we would have an explanation for these things, not just the possibility of an explanation. But theists generally reject the idea that we can know the mind of God well enough to predict anything like creation of universes, creation of life with common descent, etc. God, or rather the mind of God, is an explanation we do not (and can never) have. It can't explain anything until we know what God was thinking.

Note that if we knew what God was thinking, we could make some predictions, and then God would begin to be explanatory.

How does one expose instances of the placeholder fallacy? If the alleged explanation is prediction-less, just substitute the as-yet undiscovered Theory of Everything for the alleged explanatory agency. If it doesn't work for the ToE, it doesn't work for the agency either.

Example: "God explains the creation of the universe."
Test: "The ToE explains the creation of the universe."

Example: "God explains why this child survived the crash."
Test: "The ToE explains why this child survived the crash."

Example: "God explains why humans can think rationally."
Test: "The ToE explains why humans can think rationally."

1 comment:

JT Eberhard said...

Very good stuff. Kudos on a good blog.

JT