Two Kinds of Explanations

2021 Dec 16

There are two kinds of explanations of things: by the how of things and by the why of things. That is, there are explanations by the mechanisms of how things work, and explanations by agency.

boiled water being poured into tea mug
  • A cup of tea brewing could be explained in terms of what was happening with the physics of boiling water. Or, it could be explained in terms of my intent to make a hot beverage. note
  • The Falcon 9 rockets of SpaceX can be explained in terms of rocket drives or by means of the drive of Elon Musk.

The idea for this topic about multiple explanatory causes came from several talks by John Lennox. The cup of tea was his illustration.

Also long before, Aristotle also had something similar in his four causes for things (material, formal, efficient & final) even though he was trying to explain something different.

These two kinds of explanations do not conflict. In fact, they are complementary, and we need both kinds of explanations.

A scientific explanation is about mechanisms. Sometimes these are not actually explanatory although they are descriptive. The science describes causal chains, how one thing leads to another; however, it does not explain the initial cause (the ultimate cause). Science does not provide the purpose for why something happened.

On the other hand, the agency approach generally is the only source of explanations about ultimate causes. Only the agency explanation supplies the teleology (the purpose) for things. Therefore, without both kinds of explanations, we have serious explanatory holes.

Design and Agency

I may say that God sends the rain to water the plants. This is not ignorance of the mechanism of the hydrological cycle; it is a statement of purpose and ultimate causes.

I sometimes use this kind of language in a conversation when I describe a computer program I have written. If the program runs and does some task, I may talk about its actions as if I were performing the task. This is not ignorance of computer automation; it is an explanation of my agency and the purpose regarding how I designed the software.

Sometimes we lack science to describe mechanisms. If I look at my arm and raise it, it feels to me like a matter of pure agency - I had a thought and the arm lifted. At times in the past, humans did not have any other explanation. Because of the curiosity and persistence of many, today we know about neural impulses, contracting muscle fibers, ATP, oxygen and so forth. And yet at some point in this causal chain there was agency that initiated the event.

  • If you have a materialist world view, agency and free will (strictly speaking) do not exist. However, at some point you end up at brain states which are not material. The arm moved because the mind (an immaterial aspect) in the brain willed it. note
  • If you have a dualist world view, at some point a person’s agency transitions to the immaterial, and therefore it is beyond explanation by any scientific mechanism. The arm moved because the mind (which is immaterial) through the brain willed it.

Human agency is closely related to free will. Free will is considered by some to not exist. The views are:

  • Determinism - the idea that there is no free will because all activity including that of the mind is wholly determined by the laws of physics. However, experiments of Bell's Theorem have repeatedly proved that nature is nondeterministic.
  • Compatibilism - we believe we may have free will even though we don't (therefore it is compatible with a deterministic nature). However, this is self-refuting because then no actual truth exists about anything. This idea (that truth exists) and all other ideas are just brain processes. Truth is meaningless and this perspective cannot give truth to this or any other statement.
  • Incompatibilism - the idea that free will is incompatible with a deterministic physics and only the latter is true. (Note: already science has falsified this as truth.) In this view we don't actually have free will though it may feel like we do.

Arguments against free will fail against the evidence and logic. Therefore, from a consistently reasoned scientific point of view, human agency actually can exist. There is then:

  • Libertarianism - the idea that free will is incompatible with a deterministic physics to the extent that fully deterministic physics is false. That is, we do have free will.


See Egnor, Michael. "Have Science and Philosophy Refuted Free Will?" The Comprehensive Guide to Science and Faith. edited by William Dembski, Luskin, Holden, Harvest House Publishers, 2021, pp. 199-200

We do not today reject human agency simply because we know more about how the body works. And although we might not know when and where agency turns into a mechanism of the body, both do occur.

Agency of gods

There also are god-of-the-gaps kinds of explanations. These are a mistake because they conflate category. They insert a god as both the mechanism and the agency. If a god acts, it might be particularly indeterminate where agency ends and where mechanism then continues. However, even with the action of a god in this world, there always is some mechanism involved because this is a physical world. The problem is that when the god also is attributed to be the mechanism, then the god’s value may be eliminated later if a material mechanism is discovered.

Fixing this issue is not so simple as just never attributing things to a god. The god adds value by bringing purpose to life. note In the case of me raising my arm, we accept the involvement of both agency and mechanism even though the handoff might be indeterminate. The point of handoff would be even more indeterminate if we consider the actions of a god in the world. However, eliminating the god from explanations because we expect to know more about mechanisms later does not result in better understanding either now or later. It can also make us lose connection to purpose now.

Many studies have shown that belief in a god that gives purpose to life results in better health across many dimensions. Therefore even from a materialist or evolutionary point of view it should be the best approach.

There are some things which we know do not come from naturalistic causes. By our uniform experience, we know that things like literature and computer programs always come from intelligent sources. Humans as agents are always the causes for these things.

Similarly there are other things which we know with certainty do not have any material causes. Consider questions about the origin of this universe, the fine tuning of the universe, and the functionally specified information in living things. These are examples of things that we now know from experimental science are impossible by material natural causes. And yet here we exist. (See also Return of the God Hypothesis)

As science tells us, physical effects occur only if there is a cause. These examples then are good evidence for the existence of a god because a god has the right kind of capabilities for some of these observed effects, and a god can be a plausible ultimate cause for them. Materialist explanations absolutely fail for these because nature does not have the necessary capability. There is no other sufficient or reasonable explanation of ultimate cause for these things.

Fake gods

The truth is that for things like these examples, the atheist (like the theist) also turns to metaphysical and non-naturalistic explanations. The atheist claims the event happened without an agent god, but attributes the cause to a immaterial god-like entity. (See also The Multiverse God) Effectively the atheist just constructs a customized god. The god the atheist believes in is different than the god that I believe in as a theist. Neither god is a scientific explanation. But we all believe in some god.

Just as it would be a mistake to reject my agency in raising my arm, so also it is a mistake to categorically reject the agency of god in explanations. A god as agent does not compete with descriptions of mechanisms, but it does supply a useful cause for things that we know cannot be caused by nature. In contrast, inventing imaginary god-like mechanisms (the multiverse, panpsychism, etc) for things that we know cannot be explained by nature and then claiming this to be science is nonsense, non-scientific and irrational.

Finally, there are examples in biology where scientists use the language of teleology to describe evolutionary processes. They attribute functional agency in evolution by their choice of words even though evolution is claimed to be purposeless. This ironically turns explanations of evolutionary mechanisms into teleology where none should exist. It reveals their inability to make satisfactory scientific descriptions of the topic, and it reveals their belief that the theory explains all things in biology even when they do not have evidence for that belief. These people manufacture gods for their gaps.


So there are different kinds of explanations that answer different kinds of questions. An event happens: Agency explanations answer questions of “why”, which is related to ultimate causes for the event. Scientific explanations answer questions about the “what” (happened), and sometimes “how”. (See The Answers of Science)

The scientific answers cannot have conflict with the agency answers because they are answers for different categories of questions. note Those claiming the two have conflict only show their own ignorance. And we need both kinds of answers.

This has been called the warfare thesis and is blithely and disingenuously repeated by some popular science promoters. Wikipedia: Warfare thesis