An explanation is a set of statements constructed to describe a set of facts which clarifies the causes, context, and consequences of those facts.
The requirement that an explanation actually clarify the phenomenon under consideration is an important one: simply stated, an explanation of a given phenomenon must be based on better understood phenomena, not less understood ones. An explanation based on known phenomena usually allows for it to be tested and potentially falsified.
Teleological explanations of phenomena are based on its goal, purpose or intention by some intelligent agent. This is often problematic because an intelligent agent is often a complex system that is difficult to observe and understand. Good explanations are based on known entities. Of course, many things can be explained in terms of intentions, such as human relationships. However, other phenomena like gravity, evolution, radioactivity and optics are better understood by physical laws rather than teleology.
As far as can be determined, intelligent agents are subject to uniform physical laws. For this reason, physical laws are more fundamental and are to be preferred as explanations, when they are available.
Teleological explanations are generally human inventions and are subjective.
- "Seven and eight-year olds agree with teleological statements such as “Rocks are jagged so animals can scratch themselves” and “Birds exist to make nice music”. "
- "When you go to a car mechanic, do you go to one that does a séance to rid your car of evil spirits? Or do you go to a car mechanic that looks for real and physical reasons that your car doesn't work? "
- "For the heathen Scandinavians, [...] lightning was the embodiment of [Thor's] hammer slaying giants "
God as an explanation
The lack of a clear human comprehension of God, including his nature, attributes and existence, is why "God did it" is not a sound explanation of anything. For example, to explain the origin of human beings with the account in Genesis is to assume many entities and occurrences that are poorly understood, cannot be investigated further and provides no testable predictions. A non-predictive explanation is irrelevant to human existence. On the other hand, biology and evolution is relatively well understood and provides an explanation that can make future predictions. Because an explanation is predictive, it is also potentially useful.
God as an explanation also suffers from infinite regress because the explanation is more mysterious than the original phenomena and therefore requires a further explanation. This is the basis for the ultimate 747 gambit. An true explanation for something needs to be in terms of known entities, not unknown entities.
- "How does saying “God did it” explain any of these things? How does “God did it” offer a solution to any of the problems that philosophers and scientists are working on? When you’re confronted with a difficult problem, you can’t just say “Well, I guess it was magic.” That doesn’t solve anything! "
"God is a too palpably clumsy answer; an answer which shows a lack of delicacy towards us thinkers—fundamentally, even a crude prohibition to us: you shall not think!"
- "One question was “Why is phosphorus trichloride (PhCl3) polar?” The answer, given by a student who appears devout but too lazy to study for a chemistry exam, was “Because God made it that way.” Presumably, the answer was marked wrong. But just why was it wrong? If “Because God made it that way” is wrong on a chemistry exam, why should it be an acceptable answer to ANY empirical question? "
- "For example, if you say, if I ask you "how did the universe come [into existence]" and you say "God created it," that doesn't answer the question. The question is "how did God create it". And I defy any theist to define how God created it."
A claim that "a phenomenon requests X to explain it" that simply "pushes the question of origin up a level" fails to address that if -- on one level -- a certain observable set of rules is in effect, that other level is required to circumvent these rules and therefore is a necessary addition to the theory.
Physical laws as explanations
Some apologists claim that physical laws do not explain anything because they do not address the "efficient cause" or the "final cause"/teleological basis. This argument goes back at least to Francis Bacon in his Advancement of Learning (1605).
- "in no way does it follow that merely describing how something was made amounts to an explanation of the cause for that something. Atheists here confuse scientific description with explanation. Bold declarations from atheists that “science explains things without the need for God” therefore amount to a category error. "
This attempts to separate physical causes from explanations based on intelligent agents. However, intelligent agents are also explainable, at least to an extent, by social sciences and psychology. Ultimately, everything seems to depend on universal physical laws and, as far as can be determined, are explainable in these terms.
Final causes and teleological explanations are generally human inventions and are subjective. They do not represent any reality that is not ultimately explainable by physical laws, because humans are also subject to the same physical laws.
"Efficient cause" is concept developed by Aristotle that usually points to the intelligent agent that triggered the phenomena in question. It suffers from similar shortcomings as "final cause" explanations.
Explanations as predictive systems
Karl Popper argued that explanations should be predictive to be considered as scientific. Since God can allegedly do anything, he is a poor explanation since it does not rule out any possibilities and provides no predictions that can be practically verified.
Some explanations simply restate the problem they try to explain. Such explanations are not meaningfully helpful.
- "opium induces sleep by virtue of its soporific power"
Principle of sufficient reason
- Main Article: Principle of sufficient reason
It is often assumed that everything has an explanation, at least in principle. However, this is only an assertion and is not easy to demonstrate. It is possible that brute facts exist that have no explanation.
- Main Article: The Dragon In My Garage
A good explanation should not require repeated modification to avoid its refutation. Karl Popper argued that potential falsifiability is a requirement of any scientific explanation. Apologists are often advancing new ad hoc arguments to justify the untestability of God.
- Xkcd's "Fixion" explains everything - satire on bad explanations.