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There is grandeur in this view of life…

Touched by an angel #10

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A rabbit playing the violin; a Dominican friar; a dog called Spot; and a hypothetical trip to Babylon.

Tenth in a series responding to John Cornwell’s Darwin’s angel: an angelic riposte to The God Delusion.1

See also: Touched by an angel #1#2; #3; #4; #5; #6; #7; #8; & #9

Ghost of the virtuoso

In Chapter 6 (Is God Supernatural?)2 Cornwell objects to Dawkins’ use of the word ‘supernatural’ in The God delusion.3 According to Cornwell:

The concept of “supernatural” was originally developed to describe behaviour that outstrips the natural capacities of any creature.



He quotes Nicholas Lash as saying:

“If you were to come across a rabbit playing Mozart on the violin you could bet your bottom dollar you have witnessed a supernatural phenomenon, for rabbits don’t have it in them to play the violin.”

Which leads to Cornwell’s coup de grâce:

…this phenomenon you call God is the one being who can NOT act supernaturally, for how could God outperform His natural abilities?

This is particularly in response to Dawkins’ ‘God hypothesis’, which is that

there exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us.4

Which for Cornwell puts Dawkins squarely in the camp of those

atheistic polemicists who define God purely within the bounds of science, rather than in terms of a relationship, a quest for spiritual contact.

Interestingly, although the chapter is titled Is God Supernatural?, and it appears both critical and dismissive* of Dawkins’ use of ‘supernatural’, it does not actually include any explicit statement to the effect that, no, God is not supernatural. (*For example by inserting ‘[there you go again]’ between ‘supernatural’ and ‘intelligence’ when he quotes Dawkins’ definition of the ‘God hypothesis’ above.)



Nicholas Lash’s Mozart-playing rabbit interpretation of ‘supernatural’ is too misleading for the current context, so to ground the discussion we unfortunately need a dictionary definition. The rabbit story is misleading because it is not self-evident that anyone and everyone would necessarily describe a Mozart-playing rabbit as supernatural. Someone might do, who for example thought Paganini had crossed back over to possess the poor creature. But equally it might be seen as a hallucination, a clever conjuring trick, or a highly intricate robot. If there was still no explanation after the most thorough examination, it might be seen as an ‘unexplained mystery – possibly involving something supernatural’. Or just ‘an unexplained mystery’.

My Shorter Oxford English Dictionary5 defines supernatural (adjective) as:

1 That transcends or is above nature; of or pertaining to a supposed force or system above the laws of nature.

2 Beyond the natural or ordinary; unnaturally or extraordinarily great.

Now if something supernatural is ‘above nature’ or ‘above the laws of nature’, it is odd that Cornwell should see Dawkins’ description of God as supernatural as evidence of him

defin[ing] God purely within the bounds of science. [My emphasis.]

Spot on

But we should dig a bit further. Both dictionary definitions suggest something positive and posited, not just an unexplained mystery which appears to defy nature. The word refers to that something, that ‘force or system’. It does not just refer to the perceived phenomenon itself – either one which might eventually turn out to be compatible with the rest of human knowledge (conjuring trick; robot; hallucination) and therefore not needing a supernatural explanation; or one which still defies all investigation and therefore stays unexplained.

In short (and in Latin!), the word ‘supernatural’ typically refers to the explanans (the posited explanation) rather than the explanandum (the thing to be explained).

To take a completely non-supernatural example, if ‘global warming’ is the explanandum, then ‘greenhouse gases’ could be the explanans, or at least part of it.

We need to bear this distinction between explanandum and explanans in mind when we relate what Cornwell says here in Chapter 6 about Dawkins’ use of ‘supernatural’, to Cornwell’s later treatment of the question Does God exist? in his Chapter 20.

Herbert McCabe

Herbert McCabe

There in Chapter 20 Cornwell refers to the Dominican friar Herbert McCabe’s explanation of what it means to assert God’s existence:

[His] starting point is that proving the existence of God does not expect a conclusion. It is an ongoing, never-ending process, …like proving the validity of science – not any particular facts in science, but science as an authentic activity…: an endless questioning venture into the unknown.

Cornwell then asks:

If it is all right for science to ask “How come?” about particular things or events in the world, why should it be wrong to ask “How come?” about the existence of the entire world? [My emphasis.]

That should be easy. It is not wrong. I am not sure why the specific reference to science though. It would be better to say: it is all right for people to ask ‘How come?’ about particular things or events in the world; and it is also all right for people to ask ‘How come?’ about the existence of the entire world. I would agree that when people ask ‘How come?’ about particular things or events in the world, they may well be doing science. But it seems unnecessarily restrictive to word it the way Cornwell does – particularly as in a debate like this we need to be really careful about the words we are using.

Cornwell goes on:

[A] mortal can be, and often is, puzzled about that question: why is there something rather than nothing? For Father McCabe, this is what it means to be puzzled about the existence of God.

We need to be careful here, too. Being puzzled about why there is something rather than nothing is actually being puzzled about why there is something rather than nothing. So the most we can say at this point, if we choose to, is this:

The expression ‘being puzzled about the existence of God’ means the same as (in the sense of refers to the same puzzlement as) ‘being puzzled about why there is something rather than nothing’.

Cornwell then presents a sequence of ‘how come?’ questions, paraphrased below:

‘How come your Labrador dog, Spot, is a pedigree rather than a mongrel?’ – could be answered by identifying Spot’s parentage.

‘How come Spot is a dog rather than a cat?’ – could be answered from biology, including evolution and genetics.

‘How come Spot is a living creature rather than an inanimate piece of material?’ – could be answered from other levels of science.

Every question is about Spot, and is about

what it is for Spot to come to be by noting what he is not, but might have been. Every question, moreover, is “why as opposed to why not”…

We then get to the ‘ultimate, radical question’:

why does such a being as Spot exist instead of nothing? This question puts Spot not just in relation to parents, species, animate or inanimate matter, but everything, the entire universe or world. Why is there something rather than nothing?

This is the God-question.

This is OK as well, so long as we acknowledge that all we are actually saying is:

The question ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ is (is meaning in this context: is also known as) the God-question.

Cornwell and McCabe agree that it is as hard to think about everything as it is to think about nothing. Dog has a boundary round it, marking it off from everything which is not-dog. But is everything similarly bounded by nothing?

Cornwell quotes McCabe again:

“…we are asking our ultimate radical question with tools that will not do the job properly, with words whose meaning has to be stretched beyond what we can comprehend.”

From here to Babylon

We are getting close to the target. Cornwell goes from the stretching power of the question to:

Some of the answers are self-evidently unsatisfactory. For example, if God is the answer to the question “How come everything?”… [My emphasis.]

This antecedent is followed by a torrent of consequents:

…then he is not included in that everything. God cannot be an object competing for… attention among other objects… God and the universe do not add up to two. Nor does God make the universe out of anything; for whatever God’s creation may be it is not a process of making. Nor does God interfere in the universe… Being the cause of everything… there is nothing that He is outside of. Hence there is no feature of the universe which indicates that it is God-made. What God accounts for is that the universe is there instead of nothing.

After all these consequents comes a change of direction. We have reached a point where

a philosopher might ask: “How come God in the first place?” But by definition He must contain within himself the reason for His own existence: it is not possible for Him to be nothing. Since He is not part of the universe, though, God must therefore be in everything that happens and everything that exists in the universe. If Spot’s parents made him exist instead of nothing it was because God was acting in their action, just as a pen writes because the writer is writing.

Again he quotes McCabe, who is following Thomas Aquinas:

“Every action in the world is an action of God… not because it is not an action of a creature but because it is by God’s action that the creature is itself and has its own activity.”

The ‘ultimate fallacy’ of Dawkins’ position, says Cornwell, is that he, Dawkins,

confuse[s] two quite different areas of discourse, the scientific and the religious…

A good word that: ‘fallacy’. Let’s backtrack a moment.

We had the ultimate radical question ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’, which Cornwell chose to call the God-question. Happy with that. We had the observation that this sort of exploration ‘stretches human beings to their limits’. Happy with that too.

We then had the antecedent of an example hypothetical:

For example, if God is the answer to the question “How come everything?”…

The antecedent is followed by the cascade of consequents, from ‘then he is not included in that everything’ to ‘Hence there is no feature of the universe which indicates that it is God-made’.

But these consequents are all governed by that ‘if’. There has been no proof or deduction or demonstration that God is the answer to the why-is-there-something-rather-than-nothing-question (aka the God-question). We are just entertaining the hypothesis that he might be.

Hanging Gardens of Babylon

Hanging Gardens of Babylon

To pick an absurd – but formally identical – example: if I want to call ‘how many miles to Babylon?’ the ‘three score and ten’ question, that doesn’t magically position Babylon seventy miles away from where I am. But I could say that if Babylon is three score and ten miles away, then we could probably get there in a few hours; and it’s very likely to be on the same time zone; and it will definitely be the same season as we are enjoying right now; …and so on. But none of these statements has to be true. They will only be true if Babylon really is three score and ten miles away.

So by exactly the same token (and I mean exactly), statements like ‘God is not included in that everything’ and ‘there is no feature of the universe which indicates that it is God-made’ are only true if God is the answer to the question ‘How come everything?’

As for ‘What God accounts for is that the universe is there instead of nothing’ – well, he accounts for no such thing. Cornwell has just asserted that God is the reason (or perhaps even defined God as the reason) why the universe is there rather than not, without in any way establishing that there is a reason for the universe being there rather than not, and that God is that reason.

Ultimate radical questions may well stretch human beings to their limits but that doesn’t mean we can throw in the towel and just make up the answers.

To get back to this word ‘supernatural’, which is where we began, it strikes me that there is a significant connection between, on the one hand, the definition and familiar usage of ‘supernatural’, and, on the other hand, how Cornwell treats the question ‘why is there something rather than nothing?’. In the case of ‘supernatural’ we have a question, a mystery, an explanandum: something has happened (or might have happened, or might be just considered as possibly having happened) which goes against the laws of nature, and which therefore cannot be explained in terms of the laws of nature. This effectively means it cannot be explained using existing knowledge, or – even more simply – it cannot be explained.

So we might posit something to be that explanation, to be the explanans for that explanandum. And because it ‘transcends nature’, because in fact it is ‘a supposed force or system above the laws of nature’, that something is described as ‘supernatural’. It is the explanans that we describe as ‘supernatural’.

In a parallel way, Cornwell has introduced the mind-stretching question: why is there something rather than nothing? This is the explanandum. And he has posited, or asserted, or defined, God as the answer to that question – the explanans.

The similarity between these two ‘arguments’, in terms of both structure and content, strikes me as more than a coincidence.

To return to our dictionary definition of ‘supernatural’, there are no doubt theologians who can argue that of course God does not ‘transcend nature’; of course God is not ‘above nature’; not a ‘force or system above the laws of nature’; not ‘beyond the natural or ordinary’; and not ‘extraordinarily great’.

But the apophatic tradition has a price tag, for anyone intellectually honest enough to honour it. It smacks of what in my previous post I referred to as the ‘argument from infinite redefinition’. What I meant there and what I mean here is the attempt to redefine ‘God’ in response to any particular challenge so as to immunise the concept from any and every critique.

What makes this ploy particularly slippery is that when treated like this the concept of God is not only ineffable, but also infinitely protean. So after a particular defence relying on an assertion that ‘God is not X’, God can go back to being X as soon as his X-ness is needed to beat off another challenge. Perhaps God can switch on and off the power to turn any hypothetical in which he is mentioned into a categorical?

For Cornwell, though, people like Dawkins who don’t follow logic like this are dense:

You ridicule the quest because you do not seem to understand it. If you understood it, you would not ridicule it even if you felt unable to go there yourself…

A real atheist, like yourself, is one who does not accept that the question ‘Why is there anything rather than nothing?’ is a genuine question…

I cannot remember seeing anything in Dawkins to suggest he does not see this question as genuine. I wouldn’t want to put words into his mouth but he might suggest that a genuine question is one where you don’t just make up the answer.

Not so wordy next time…


1 John CornwellDarwin’s angel: an angelic riposte to The God Delusion, Profile Books, London, 2007.

2 John Cornwell, 2007: 1 above.

3 Richard DawkinsThe god delusion, Bantam, 2006.

4 Richard Dawkins, 2006: 3 above.

5 Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, Fifth edition, OUP, 2002.

© Chris Lawrence 2009.


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