Far be it from me to credit Bill O’Reilly with philosophical acumen. But in recent skirmishes over the moon, the tides, and the existence of God, the Fox host’s smugness and intellectual dishonesty have been matched by his opponents’. Back in January, while debating David Silverman (a soul-patched caricature of modern atheism), O’Reilly reasoned that “religion is not a scam” because “the tides go in, the tides go out, never a miscommunication… You can’t explain that.” Silverman couldn’t come up with the concept of, you know, gravity in response, but numerous commentators took up the slack, citing the well-understood correlation between lunar motion and tidal activity. Stephen Colbert threw together a reel of “Papa Bear” making the same point in the same words on earlier broadcasts, and trotted out astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson to explain how tides work.
Three weeks later, O’Reilly doubled down in reply to a reader’s letter: “Okay, the moon does it. But how’d the moon get there, who put it there?”, setting off another round of online mockery. Some of which is richly deserved: O’Reilly’s apparent ignorance of the fact that other planets also have satellites is mind-boggling. To be fair, there are competing hypotheses about how Earth’s moon was formed. It might be a chunk of the planet that was thrown off by centrifugal force or meteoric impact, or a pre-existing body trapped in our orbit. We don’t know with certainty how the moon got hung, but most of us – even most theists – feel secure in believing that the explanation doesn’t require a who.
What Thomas Dolby-esque appeals to “Science!” miss, however, is that O’Reilly’s position, however ineptly stated, draws on some traditional (though hardly unproblematic) philosophical arguments. His “What explains the explanation?” rejoinder is a petulant high-school debater’s version of what’s known as the cosmological argument, which posits a “prime mover” or “First Cause” to explain the existence of the universe without infinite regress. (O’Reilly’s fellow Catholic Colbert is surely familiar with St. Thomas Aquinas’s version of the argument.)
O’Reilly’s “never a miscommunication” refrain, meanwhile, seems to reference the puzzling nature of causal (including scientific) explanation. When we notice that events of one type (movements of the moon, say) are regularly followed by events of another type (movements of the ocean), and go on to predict future events based on this correlation, we reason inductively, on the principle that the future will be like the past. The kicker, as David Hume pointed out in the 1800s, is that this principle is grounded only on more inductive reasoning. We predict that the future will be like the past in the future because the future has been like the past in the past. This meta-principle lies behind most forms of scientific explanation: if you’re down with it, it’s a “working hypothesis,” and if you’re not, it may seem an article of faith akin to religious belief. Either way, what science doesn’t (and likely can’t) do is “prove” the principle by its own evidentiary methods.
O’Reilly’s problem is that none of this offers direct support for theism. (Hume, a raging atheist by the standards of his own time, left the issue as an unsolved skeptical problem; a century later, Immanuel Kant, a nuanced theist and scientific realist, enshrined the need to recognize causal relations in our unchangeable cognitive architecture.) His opponents’ problem is in supposing that “deeper” or more systematic scientific knowledge makes the underlying conceptual questions laughable. And both sides tend to assume that debates as old as the medievals, if not the Greeks, can be polished off in a sound bite, a comment thread, or, frankly, a blog post. For those with the time and inclination for an actual conversation, try this famous 1948 BBC debate between Bertrand Russel, one of the last century’s great unbelievers, and Jesuit historian of philosophy Frederic Copelston. Caveat: Neither participant calls the other “pinhead.”