Structure of Explanation

When we explain a thing, we give a cause; we assign the thing an origin that explains it.

We can go into a little more detail here. When we ask “why” something is the case, there is always an implication of possible alternatives. At the very least, the question implies, “Why is this the case rather than not being the case?” Thus “being the case” and “not being the case” are two possible alternatives.

The alternatives can be seen as possibilities in the sense explained in an earlier post. There may or may not be any actual matter involved, but again, the idea is that reality (or more specifically some part of reality) seems like something that would be open to being formed in one way or another, and we are asking why it is formed in one particular way rather than the other way. “Why is it raining?” In principle, the sky is open to being clear, or being filled with clouds and a thunderstorm, and to many other possibilities.

A successful explanation will be a complete explanation when it says “once you take the origin into account, the apparent alternatives were only apparent, and not really possible.” It will be a partial explanation when it says, “once you take the origin into account, the other alternatives were less sensible (i.e. made less sense as possibilities) than the actual thing.”

Let’s consider some examples in the form of “why” questions and answers.

Q1. Why do rocks fall? (e.g. instead of the alternatives of hovering in the air, going upwards, or anything else.)

A1. Gravity pulls things downwards, and rocks are heavier than air.

The answer gives an efficient cause, and once this cause is taken into account, it can be seen that hovering in the air or going upwards were not possibilities relative to that cause.

Obviously there is not meant to be a deep explanation here; the point here is to discuss the structure of explanation. The given answer is in fact basically Newton’s answer (although he provided more mathematical detail), while with general relativity Einstein provided a better explanation.

The explanation is incomplete in several ways. It is not a first cause; someone can now ask, “Why does gravity pull things downwards, instead of upwards or to the side?” Similarly, while it is in fact the cause of falling rocks, someone can still ask, “Why didn’t anything else prevent gravity from making the rocks fall?” This is a different question, and would require a different answer, but it seems to reopen the possibility of the rocks hovering or moving upwards, from a more general point of view. David Hume was in part appealing to the possibility of such additional questions when he said that we can see no necessary connection between cause and effect.

Q2. Why is 7 prime? (i.e. instead of the alternative of not being prime.)

A2. 7/2 = 3.5, so 7 is not divisible by 2. 7/3 = 2.333…, so 7 is not divisible by 3. In a similar way, it is not divisible by 4, 5, or 6. Thus in general it is not divisible by any number except 1 and itself, which is what it means to be prime.

If we assumed that the questioner did not know what being prime means, we could have given a purely formal response simply by noting that it is not divisible by numbers between 1 and itself, and explaining that this is what it is to be prime. As it is, the response gives a sufficient material disposition. Relative to this explanation, “not being prime,” was never a real possibility for 7 in the first place. The explanation is complete in that it completely excludes the apparent alternative.

Q3. Why did Peter go to the store? (e.g. instead of going to the park or the museum, or instead of staying home.)

A3. He went to the store in order to buy groceries.

The answer gives a final cause. In view of this cause the alternatives were merely apparent. Going to the park or the museum, or even staying home, were not possible since there were no groceries there.

As in the case of the rock, the explanation is partial in several ways. Someone can still ask, “Why did he want groceries?” And again someone can ask why he didn’t go to some other store, or why something didn’t hinder him, and so on. Such questions seem to reopen various possibilities, and thus the explanation is not an ultimately complete one.

Suppose, however, that someone brings up the possibility that instead of going to the store, he could have gone to his neighbor and offered money for groceries in his neighbor’s refrigerator. This possibility is not excluded simply by the purpose of buying groceries. Nonetheless, the possibility seems less sensible than getting them from the store, for multiple reasons. Again, the implication is that our explanation is only partial: it does not completely exclude alternatives, but it makes them less sensible.

Let’s consider a weirder question: Why is there something rather than nothing?

Now the alternatives are explicit, namely there being something, and there being nothing.

It can be seen that in one sense, as I said in the linked post, the question cannot have an answer, since there cannot be a cause or origin for “there is something” which would itself not be something. Nonetheless, if we consider the idea of possible alternatives, it is possible to see that the question does not need an answer; one of the alternatives was only an apparent alternative all along.

In other words, the sky can be open to being clear or cloudy. But there cannot be something which is open both to “there is something” and “there is nothing”, since any possibility of that kind would be “something which is open…”, which would already be something rather than nothing. The “nothing” alternative was merely apparent. Nothing was ever open to there being nothing.

Let’s consider another weird question. Suppose we throw a ball, and in the middle of the path we ask, Why is the ball in the middle of the path instead of at the end of the path?

We could respond in terms of a sufficient material disposition: it is in the middle of the path because you are asking your question at the middle, instead of waiting until the end.

Suppose the questioner responds: Look, I asked my question at the middle of the path. But that was just chance. I could have asked at any moment, including at the end. So I want to know why it was in the middle without considering when I am asking the question.

If we look at the question in this way, it can be seen in one way that no cause or origin can be given. Asked in this way, being at the end cannot be excluded, since they could have asked their question at the end. But like the question about something rather than nothing, the question does not need an answer. In this case, this is not because the alternatives were merely apparent in the sense that one was possible and the other not. But they were merely apparent in the sense that they were not alternatives. The ball goes both goes through the middle, and reaches the end. With the stipulation that we not consider the time of the question, the two possibilities are not mutually exclusive.

Additional Considerations

The above considerations about the nature of “explanation” lead to various conclusions, but also to various new questions. For example, one commenter suggested that “explanation” is merely subjective. Now as I said there, all experience is subjective experience (what would “objective experience” even mean, except that someone truly had a subjective experience?), including the experience of having an explanation. Nonetheless, the thing experienced is not subjective: the origins that we call explanations objectively exclude the apparent possibilities, or objectively make them less intelligible. The explanation of explanation here, however, provides an answer to what was perhaps the implicit question. Namely, why are we so interested in explanations in the first place, so that the experience of understanding something becomes a particularly special type of experience? Why, as Aristotle puts it, do “all men desire to know,” and why is that desire particularly satisfied by explanations?

In one sense it is sufficient simply to say that understanding is good in itself. Nonetheless, there is something particular about the structure of a human being that makes knowledge good for us, and which makes explanation a particularly desirable form of knowledge. In my employer and employee model of human psychology, I said that “the whole company is functioning well overall when the CEO’s goal of accurate prediction is regularly being achieved.” This very obviously requires knowledge, and explanation is especially beneficial because it excludes alternatives, which reduces uncertainty and therefore tends to make prediction more accurate.

However, my account also raises new questions. If explanation eliminates alternatives, what would happen if everything was explained? We could respond that “explaining everything” is not possible in the first place, but this is probably an inadequate response, because (from the linked argument) we only know that we cannot explain everything all at once, the way the person in the room cannot draw everything at once; we do not know that there is any particular thing that cannot be explained, just as there is no particular aspect of the room that cannot be drawn. So there can still be a question about what would happen if every particular thing in fact has an explanation, even if we cannot know all the explanations at once. In particular, since explanation eliminates alternatives, does the existence of explanations imply that there are not really any alternatives? This would suggest something like Leibniz’s argument that the actual world is the best possible world. It is easy to see that such an idea implies that there was only one “possibility” in the first place: Leibniz’s “best possible world” would be rather “the only possible world,” since the apparent alternatives, given that they would have been worse, were not real alternatives in the first place.

On the other hand, if we suppose that this is not the case, and there are ultimately many possibilities, does this imply the existence of “brute facts,” things that could have been otherwise, but which simply have no explanation? Or at least things that have no complete explanation?

Let the reader understand. I have already implicitly answered these questions. However, I will not link here to the implicit answers because if one finds it unclear when and where this was done, one would probably also find those answers unclear and inconclusive. Of course it is also possible that the reader does see when this was done, but still believes those responses inadequate. In any case, it is possible to provide the answers in a form which is much clearer and more conclusive, but this will likely not be a short or simple project.

Kingdom of God

Earlier I quoted the passage at the beginning of Mark where Jesus proclaims the kingdom:

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Elsewhere in the Gospels Jesus makes an argument for this:

Then they brought to him a demoniac who was blind and mute; and he cured him, so that the one who had been mute could speak and see. All the crowds were amazed and said, “Can this be the Son of David?” But when the Pharisees heard it, they said, “It is only by Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons, that this fellow casts out the demons.” He knew what they were thinking and said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand. If Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself; how then will his kingdom stand?  If I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your own exorcists cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you.

This argument does not prove that he is casting out demons by the Spirit of God. The argument is that if Satan is casting out demons, then his kingdom cannot last, and therefore the kingdom of God is coming. Likewise, if God is casting out demons, then the kingdom of God has come. Either way the kingdom of God has come near.


The Time is Short

Jesus says some things indicating that the time of the judgement was unknown, as for example, “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” And if it is completely unknown, then it would be reasonable to say that it could not be known whether it is long or short. But he also says things, such as those already mentioned, that suggest a short time. In fact, this was true from the beginning of his ministry. Mark describes this:

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Since Daniel 7 says that “his dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed,” it was natural for people to understand from Christ’s preaching that the end of the world was at hand in a literal sense. This does not mean that there cannot be a reasonable understanding of this for Christians living in the present day. But there can be no reasonable doubt that the early Christians in fact held such a belief about the nearness of the end, and that they held this belief on account of this kind of preaching. 

Thus for example when St. John says, “Children, it is the last hour! As you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. From this we know that it is the last hour,” his words may be explained in a general sense. But it does not make sense for him to actually say this in this particular way, unless he believes that a very short time remains until the end of the world. In other words, we knew that antichrists would come and then the world would end; and now the antichrists have come; so the world must be about to end.

The second letter of Peter, however, warns against assuming that the end must come quickly:

But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.

Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire? But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.

Daniel Wallace says, “From one perspective, this short epistle is the most disputed book in the NT canon as to authenticity. From another, the issue of authorship is already settled, at least negatively: the apostle Peter did not write this letter.” By “most disputed book,” he means that the most doubt is put on the question of whether it is actually written by the author to whom it is attributed. He believes himself that St. Peter wrote it, but says that the majority of scholars have already concluded that he did not. Although they have various reasons for their opinion, one of the reasons is the idea that it was written after it was already clear that Christ was not returning soon.

Regardless of how the question of authorship is resolved, this argument is probably unnecessary. Even if the letter was written by St. Peter himself in the 60s, it would have already been 30 years since the time of Christ, and it would already be becoming clear that there was a need to correct people’s idea of the end of the world. The Gospels themselves do something similar. For example, immediately after, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom,” Matthew continues, “Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves,” and goes on to give the account of the Transfiguration. By this means he at least suggests, although without saying so explicitly, that the words of Christ were fulfilled in the vision of the apostles at the time.

The Son of Man in the Gospels

The discussion of the Son of Man in Daniel and in the Book of Enoch sheds light on how Christ uses this title in the Gospels. In Daniel it might not be entirely clear whether the phrase refers to a people as a whole or to an individual. But in the Book of Enoch, it is clear that it refers to an individual who is the Messiah, and who has the role of coming to judge and to reward the good and punish the wicked.

In many places in the Gospels Christ speaks of the “Son of Man” in precisely this way. Thus for example in Matthew 13 he explains the parable of the weeds:

Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!

It is probably a mistake to understand “Son of Man” here as simply a roundabout way for Christ to refer to himself. Rather, the Son of Man, namely the one described in Daniel and Enoch, is the one appointed to carry out the judgement, and the parable of the weeds is about this judgement.

There are many other places in the Gospels which speak of the Son of Man in the same way, as for example at the end of Matthew 16, when Christ says, “For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” The listeners will understand this to refer to the coming of the one appointed for judgement; they may or may not infer that Christ is speaking of himself.

Something related to this can be seen earlier in chapter 16:

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

Mark and Luke have “say that I am” in place of “say that the Son of Man is.” Presuming that they speak of the same episode, as it appears, Jesus could not have literally used both of these phrases. Either he said “Son of Man”, and the other Evangelists, recognizing that Christ is the Son of Man, choose the shorter phrase, or he said “I”, and Matthew replaces this with “Son of Man.”

I cannot prove this, and nothing in particular rests on it, but I would suggest that Matthew’s text is probably historically accurate here. While Mark 6 does suggest that some people identified Jesus in such a way, “The Son of Man, namely the one coming to judge, is Elijah,” seems a more plausible opinion for people to hold than “Jesus of Nazareth is Elijah.”

Christ seems to speak of the “Son of Man” in general in the third person, but also apparently with the implication that he himself is the Son of Man, and this practice is likely responsible for the fact that the Evangelists in this case take the two to be equivalent.

One problem of course is that in the text at the end of Matthew 16, Jesus seems to say something false about the time of the judgement. Something similar seems implied by Matthew 10:23, “When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next; for truly I tell you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.”