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The Problem of Inexplicable Divine Plan

By Paul So ~

Every now and then a skeptic will point out a counter-example (let’s call it anomaly X) in the universe (usually in earth) not only as an objection against theism but demanding an explanation for how theism could account for anomaly X. Suppose that one kind of anomaly could be suffering caused by natural disasters, accidents, or human folly. What occasionally happens in a discussion is that a theist would respond “God has a plan”, a skeptic might inquire “what plan?” and then the theist would reply “we do not know what the plan (let’s call it Plan A) is but it must be some kind of plan that accounts for anomaly X”.

Most of us are not satisfied with this reply and I think for very good reasons. The kind of rationale theists would often appeal to is “God’s way is always higher than our ways”, but this kind of rationale simply does not work. It does not work because the rationale “God’s way is always higher than our ways” is simply a non-sequitur: it is irrelevant to the question “What is the content of Plan A?” This may sound trivial at first but it is an important point, which I will explain.

We often try to find explanations for variety of motives or reasons, but we all can agree that if someone provides an explanation with an empty, vague, or inexplicable content then it is not a very satisfying explanation. There is really nothing to make that explanation true or false. Consider the example of the UFO aliens. Someone might ask a UFO believer “Why would the UFO’s come billions of miles away from their home to earth?” a believer might respond “It has a certain message to convey to us”. If we do not know the content of the message then we do not know what to expect to find if claims of UFO visitation are true. It is merely ad hoc.

However, the problem for the theistic reply from inexplicable divine plan goes a little deeper. In philosophy, there is an important distinction called Explanan and Explanandum. This distinction is a fancy way of saying “That which explains” and “Phenomena which is being explained”. What I’m getting at here is that an explanan that is vague, unclear, or inexplicable has not really done any explaining at all because the nature of explanation is to identify reasons or causes for certain phenomena. The explanandum simply remains a mystery since an inexplicable explanan fails to identify any cause or reason for the explanandum.

the rationale “God’s way is always higher than our ways” is simply a non-sequitur: it is irrelevant to the question. So we have a kind of rule (or rule of thumb) here: an explanation with an inexplicable content fails to be an explanation because by virtue of its inexplicability it does not identify any cause or reason for phenomena it is suppose to explain. So if Plan A has a property of being inexplicable such that it does not identify any reason for God has allowed anomaly X then appealing to Plan A fails to explain anomaly X.

A theist might respond that this does not disprove the existence of God. However, the point here is that the objection I presented was not meant to disprove the existence of God. The whole point I am driving at is that for any explanatory claim to have any explanatory value the explanation it provides must be explicable, but if it is not explicable then it lacks explanatory value. If any explanatory belief lacks explanatory value then it mitigates the plausibility of the claim. When a theist appeals to some inexplicable Plan A then she hasn't explained much, she has only appealed to a mystery to explain another mystery. This does not defend theism but it is only an act of concession that theism lacks explanatory value.

Thus, if the theist ever says "God's way is the highest way" whenever he or she appeals to an inexplicable plan A, one could always respond "Ok, suppose that I grant you that claim. Suppose that God's Plan A is the highest way compare to human plans. It still does not explain the mysterious anomaly X because it is inexplicable, we do not know what it even is. If we do not know what the content of plan A is then to say 'God's plan A is the highest way' is meaningless claim because if we do not know what the plan then we do not know in what sense the plan is the best way." A theist can insist that his or her position does not require him or her to provide an explicable plan. One could respond "Well, then that's too bad: your position lacks explanatory value so your position sounds less plausible than if you did provide a clear explanation. I have no reason to take your position seriously."

However, I am only saying that appealing to an inexplicable plan is simply a bad strategy because it means that the position one is defending lacks explanatory value which mitigates its plausibility. A more sophisticated theist (such as some of the apologists) might try to avoid this approach and try to appeal to a divine plan that is plausible, so theism does not immediately collapse from the objection I presented. However, the objection is still useful against theists who do make such an appeal to inexplicable divine plans.