Wednesday, September 14, 2005

I'm reading Xenophon's Hellenica in my spare time up here, and I'm enjoying it thoroughly whatever its deficiencies as history (I wonder what the modern view on that is - I'm curious as to why this Oxyrhynchus Historian is considered so superior, given that we have only fragments and indirectly reported pieces of his work). Of all the ancients with whom I am more or less familiar, Xenophon is the one I admire most. The introduction to my translation of the Hellenica contains the following statement: "The hand of God is an explanation that dulls the quest for truth, but it is the explanation to which Xenophon, so unlike Thucydides, readily had recourse."

That "the hand of God is an explanation that dulls the quest for truth" is the sort of thing one hears often enough if one has the right sorts of discussions, but it strikes me as an either ignorant or disingenuous statement. There are two ways in which one could mean "the hand of God" as an explanation.

One way (the way I think most people have in mind when they complain about it as an explanation) would be something like this. Somebody asks, "Why do objects fall?" and somebody else answers, "The hand of God." Somebody 2 then says, "No, gravity makes objects fall" and Somebody 1 says, "No, I don't believe in gravity. The hand of God did it."

I have never been to the mysterious hick land where people talk like this (the Duelist doesn't count; when he says stuff like that he says it on scientific rather than religious grounds), and the people who claim to have are generally the sorts of people whom I find to be more or less ignorant about Christianity and how to interact with it, either intellectually or socially. Consequently I am usually wary of such claims.

The other sense in which somebody might mean "the hand of God" is a little more complex, and doesn't seem to me to dull the quest for truth at all. This would go something like this. Somebody 1 asks, "Why do objects fall?" and Somebody 2 answers, "The hand of God." Somebody 1 then says, "Why?" and Somebody 2 says, "Because this is the equation for gravity," and perhaps Somebody 1 pushes that to a discussion of the theory of gravity. But all of that will be begging the question, because what Somebody 1 has really asked is not, "What is the mechanism by which objects fall?" but, "Why is there such a mechanism?"

Now, the hand of God is certainly not the only answer to that question. The other obvious answer is, "There is no reason why the mechanism exists; it simply does." This seems structurally equivalent to the hand of God, though. It's not a scientific verifiable statement, and it poses the same problem of eternal existence. But eventually you get to this point where you've got to pick one or the other, and in that case "the hand of God" doesn't dull the quest for truth at all. It is the very object of your quest (or at least the sort of thing that is the object of your quest) and is no more or less a cop-out than any of your available alternatives.

The thing is, this is the way in which I almost always hear people invoke the hand of God, whether for good or for ill ("the hand of God destroyed New Orleans with hurricane Katrina" would be an example of "for ill"). But I note that it is usually the "for ill" that people are really upset about. For instance, I imagine that most people (myself included) would be offended by the proposition that the hand of God caused the devastation in New Orleans. But why is that? Not because that explanation dulls the quest for the scientific, mechanical explanation. Because at the level of inquiry where it is appropriate to invoke the hand of God, I think it is has been erroneously invoked. I don't know that I've ever seen "the hand of God" dull the quest for truth, but I have seen it be wrong.

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