Saturday, July 16, 2005

Methodological Naturalism

Here's the Wikipedia definition: "Methodological naturalism (MN) is the operational ground rule that, within natural science enquiry, one can only use natural explanations - i.e. one's explanations must not make reference to the existence of supernatural forces and entities. Note that methodological naturalism does not hold that such entities or forces do not exist, but merely that one cannot use them within a scientific explanation. Methodological naturalism is often considered to be an implied working rule of all scientific research and logically entails neither philisophical naturalism nor atheism, though some would argue that it implies such a connection."

I suppose we are going to need some clarifications of the terms "natural"and "supernatural."
The point about Lewontin's quote has to do with my question as to whether this is supposed to be an absolute principle or not, and whether the prinicple defines science or not. Some initial commitment to methodological naturalism seems to me to make perfect sense as part of science commitment to something like Ockham's Razor. But some people MN is an absolute and that it is definitive of science. Lewontin is an example, and plenty of people have argued that ID is a pseudoscience merely from its apparent supernaturalist commitments. I have a problem with that. Apart from that, I would just note that Dembski's The Design Revolution was written to answer a lot of the standard objections to ID. I'm not an ID expert and am a poor person to defend them on a lot of issues. Maybe others can do better.

On the other hand we do have, in ordinary life, situations where we have to decide whether there was design or not, and shouldn't we be using those principles in the investigation of nature. If I am playing cards, and one person gets 3 royal flushes in a row, I probably should have gone home a long time ago, because now I'm going to have to go home in my underwear. Even if the acceptance of design requires something on the order of the supernatural, I believe that there is some point at which enough is enough.

I remember one time I read a paper by old housemate and atheist philosopher Keith Parsons. It involved a strong commitment to methodological naturalism in the case of miracles. I told him, "This seems to imply that if I were God I couldn't persuade you no matter how many miracles I performed." And he said "No. If the stars the Virgo cluster were to spell out the words "Turn or Burn: This Means You Parsons," I'd turn. But I've read others who say they would not turn!

If by the "fact" of evolution you mean the gradual emergence of species, that's hard to doubt, I'll grant. Lots of scientists have thought that there is design in the universe, though they have often been shy about making it part of science. Can this conviction be made scientific?

31 comments:

Ahab said...

I should clarify that one of the reasons I am so vocal in my opposition to ID is its tactic of trying to get its views of evolution into the public school system without first going through the vetting by the scientific community that any scientific theory has to do. They are attempting to expose young people to what they claim are scientific methods and theorieis, yet they have so far been unable to persuade the scientific community of the validity of their ID methodoly or theory.

Has this sort of thing ever happened before?

Is it proper to try and convince school board members who are untrained in science to decide what is or is not a credible scientific theory or methodology?

And do you think it is ethical to deliberately expose young minds in the public school system to what ID'ers claim to be scientifically credible methods and theories but which the vast majority of scientists working in evolutionary theory find lacking?

ID'ers may or may not have a point that scientists are going to have to adjust their methodologies in order to account for all the observed data in regards to evolutionary theory. But it looks to me like they should be taking their case to the biologists who already have a great deal of knowledge about the problems that need to be adddressed. As with all scientific disuptes that is the proper arena in which this issue should be decided.

Ahab said...

Victor wrote:
I suppose we are going to need some clarifications of the terms "natural"and "supernatural."


Here's a link to the results of a recent study of the efficacy of prayer on healing:

PrayerStudy

In short, the study indicated there was no empirical evidence to support prayer to aid in healing.

Here is one response by a person who believes in the power of prayer:

But the Rev. Raymond J. Lawrence, director of pastoral care at New York Presbyterian Hospital, disputed any suggestion that the study disproved the power of prayer.
"Prayer can be and is helpful," Lawrence said. "But to think that you can research it is inconceivable to me. Prayer is presumably a way of addressing God, and there's no way to scientifically test God. God is not subject to scientific research."

I think he is right. When supernatural explanations like prayer healing a person are put forth how could science possibly be able to decide the issue? No matter how much empirical evidence is gathered to cast doubt on prayer's power, the believer can always make up some story about why God didn't answer these particular prayers. Perhaps He was trying to teach someone a lesson. Or perhaps He had decided it was time for the sick person to pass on.
As you indicated in another post, you can define God anyway you like as long as it is consistent and coherent to you, no skeptic can effectively assail it.

Steve said...

I want to support Ahab's point above about public schools. Dr. Reppert: I'm glad you've posted this debate on your blog and certainly respect your opinion. But it would be so helpful if you could at least agree that while it it's great to have this kind of philosophical discussion among learned adults, it has no place in high school science class (where it is hard enough to teach the basics).
best regards, - Steve Esser

mosaic said...

Hugo has an excellent post on Methodological Naturalism here at the Galilean Library.http://www.galilean-library.org/blog/?p=100.

Ahab said...

Hugo's post fails to address the central issue here:
If you are going to give science the task of adressing issues that are traditionally handled by metaphysics or theology, how is science going to do this any differently than these traditional methods?

mosaic said...

Well, I dont know how that question as anything do with Hugo's post and I dont know what "methodology" you're talking about. Hugo's argument is a reductio of the distinction between methodological naturalism and metaphysical naturalism, noting that the former (Metho Nat) as to pressuppose the latter(Meta Nat) in order to claim the former has made any 'progress' towards truth as it has often been claimed.

Ahab said...

The discussion here has been whether or not science should limit itself to MN. How does Hugo's post address that issue?
He can come up with all the reductios he wishes, but if in practice science still has to rely on MN it makes his point moot.

By the way, science hasn't made an a priori commintment to MN, it simply turned out through experience to be the best way to attempt to understand how things work in this world.

And unless it is also presupposing that it is trying to determine some kind of metaphysical truth, it also is not presupposing Meta Nat by relying on MN (methodological naturalism).

Funny thing is, any reasoning in regards to metaphysical truth presupposes the very things that naturalists believe in. So it seems to me that he has this presuppositional thing backwords. Unless you first grant the existence of this natural world, how can you start to reason about metaphysical things?

mosaic said...

I'm going to make the charitable assumption that I'm writing in a different language since Ahab seems incapable of reading correctly what I wrote in summary of Hugo's argument or Hugo himself. In any case, for anyone else interested, we had a discussion at the Galilean library forum http://www.galilean-library.org/academy/viewtopic.php?t=332 about Methodological naturalism that goes over the same issues.

Ahab said...

Gee, mosaic, I think you are the first person to post an insult in this otherwise very civil blog.

Now if you can explain what Hugo's post has to do with what we have been discussing here re: whether or not science should limit itself to MN, we could move this convrsation along.

Victor Reppert said...

About science education; I always thought one thing a really good science teacher does is treat even such "noncontroversial" scientific issues like heliocentrism as controversial and try to get the student to discover for themselves the real grounds for the received positions. Anyway, I thought that we learn science best by learning to think for ourselves, and no by taking someone's word for something.

Some ten years ago I once talked to a biology classroom teacher about teaching evolution, and she told me that most of what you teach in the classroom was how to observe natural evolution in action, which would be conceded by even the most hard-core creationists as "microevolution."

Strangely enough, I think things are made worse by some high-profile evolutionists crossing the boundary from science to metaphysics by making Darwinism into a case for a "world without design." That is, instead of saying "Look, this is our paradigm, we have to use naturalistic methods, so if this was really supernatural we had to ignore that possibility because we are trying to do science here," they say "This is our theory, and we can do it all without God, so we should reject belief in God." If Dembski has overstepped his bounds and assigning metaphysical questions to science, what about Richard Dawkins?? But I am really not sure the science-metaphysics divide can be made as neatly as most people think it can.

I'm not convinced that science has to be committed to MN in order to be science. It seems that so long as you present theories that can be confirmed or disconfirmed by evidence, and you allow your claims to be tested, you are doing science.

The prayer study you mentioned disconfirms testable claims made about prayer. But one can continue to believe something that has faced disconfirmation. That is true of naturalistic theories as well as supernaturalist theories. You can always amend your theory to conform to the experimental data ad infinitum. Usually scientists defending a disconfirmed theory give up after it gets too bad, but there is no logical point at which it becomes necessary to give up. Failure to give up in the face of a piece of counter-evidence does not entail that your position is untestable. If that were so, then all of the scientists of history would be condemned as pseudoscientists.

Someone who believes that the Shroud of Turin is a miraculously imprinted image of the rising Christ suffers a disconfirmation if carbon-testing shows the Shroud to be from the thirteenth century. That doesn't mean you have to give up believing in the Shroud, but it does mean that the carbon-test contradicts what you should expect if the Shroud is the real McCoy.

One can make untestable supernatural claims, and one can make testable supernatural claims. You can also make untestable naturalistic claims.

Because the claims made by ID are of interest to the community at large, I can't see the harm in informing students about them, so long as it is made clear that at this stage in the game this is very much a minority report. Don't insult these kids' intelligences.

Ahab said...


Victor wrote:
Some ten years ago I once talked to a biology classroom teacher about teaching evolution, and she told me that most of what you teach in the classroom was how to observe natural evolution in action, which would be conceded by even the most hard-core creationists as "microevolution."


All you example demonstrates to me is that there are some teachers out there who don't know enough about their subject to teach it properly. Wish they all were perfect, but obviously they aren't. My son once had a high school English teacher who was convinced that Flannery O'Conner was anti-Christian. !!!


Strangely enough, I think things are made worse by some high-profile evolutionists crossing the boundary from science to metaphysics by making Darwinism into a case for a "world without design." That is, instead of saying "Look, this is our paradigm, we have to use naturalistic methods, so if this was really supernatural we had to ignore that possibility because we are trying to do science here," they say "This is our theory, and we can do it all without God, so we should reject belief in God." If Dembski has overstepped his bounds and assigning metaphysical questions to science, what about Richard Dawkins?? But I am really not sure the science-metaphysics divide can be made as neatly as most people think it can.


The difference is that the ID'ers want their metaphysical views taught in science classes. Do you see any scientist (Dawkins included) trying to get school boards to include the teaching that evolution proves there is no God?
Dawkin's is obviously an atheist and I see nothing wrong with him making the claim that evolution supports his metaphysical views. In the same way I see nothing wrong with a Christian making the claim that the Big Bang theory supports his religious views. But I don't think either side should be presented as a scientific claim within a public school science class.


I'm not convinced that science has to be committed to MN in order to be science. It seems that so long as you present theories that can be confirmed or disconfirmed by evidence, and you allow your claims to be tested, you are doing science.


One can make untestable supernatural claims, and one can make testable supernatural claims. You can also make untestable naturalistic claims.


You seem to me to be missing my point. Perhaps a few concrete examples will help to clarify what I am trying to say. Please name some testable supernatural claims that can be shown through empirical evidence to be false.

Victor Reppert said...

Ahab: You missed my point about the Shroud of Turin. I say that testability doesn't require that it be shown to be false, all we need is that it is probabilistically disconfirmable. And that can be done if carbon-dating shows that the Shroud came into being in the thirteenth century.

Ahab said...

And Victor, you failed to respond to my earlier question, so I'll repeat it here.
Are you aware of any group of scientists who disagreed with the prevailing theory in their field of science who went around petitioning public schoold boards to have their ideas taught in high school science classes - other than ID'ers?

Ahab said...


Victor wrote: You missed my point about the Shroud of Turin. I say that testability doesn't require that it be shown to be false, all we need is that it is probabilistically disconfirmable. And that can be done if carbon-dating shows that the Shroud came into being in the thirteenth century.


Your example indicated to me that you missed my point.

The carbon-dating could demonstrate that the claim that the Shroud originated in the first century is false. But there is no way in which it could verify or disprove or probabilistically disconfirm the supernatural claim that God put the image on the shroud.
Same for the claim that God created the earth approximately 6,0000 years ago. The empirical evidence makes it almost impossible for anyone to continue believing in such a young age for the earth. But the supernatural part: 'God created the earth' is not open to falsification. People still believe that despite the probabilistic discomfirmation of the earth's age.
You see the dates claimed for the origin of the Shroud and the earth are empirical claims. The supernatural explanations that accompany them fall outside the realm of testability.

Do you have any other examples of supernaturally based theories we could examine?

Victor Reppert said...

I don't know of any cases, but Dembski, if I understand correctly, thinks that the biology community is so biased in favor of Darwinism, and so many unfair tactics are used against the careers of, say, editors who even allow IDers to publish in their perr-reviewed journals, that their hope for fair and honest consideration of their position can only come from the upcoming generation. There are surely few issues about which so much is at stake. And Dembski also says that design theorists have written in several biology journals.

Dembski writes:

"IN the current intellecutal climate it is impossible to get a paper published in the peer-reviewed biological literature if that paper explicitly affirms intelligent design or explicitlyl denies Darwinian and other forms of natulraistic evolution. Doubting Darwinian orthodoxy is comparable to opposing the party line of a Stalinist regime. What would you do if you were in Stalin's Russia and wanted to argue that Trofim Lysenko was wrong? YOu might point out paradoxed and tensions in Lysenko's thoery of genetics, but you could not say taht Lysenko was fundamentally wrong or offer an alternative that cleraly contradicted Lysenko. That's the situation we're in. To get published in the peer-reviewed literature, design theorists have to tread very cautiously and can't be too up front about where their work is leading. Indeed, that's why I was able to get Cambridge University Press to publish The Design Inference but not No Free Lunch, which was much more explicit in its biological implications. "

Victor Reppert said...

But in reality there are plenty of people who consider the Shroud genuine who could be persuaded by good enough scientific evidence that it was not genuine. I think the testability problems that you pose for God could also be posed for any theory that is committed to unobservables, such as electrons. That's why Bas van Fraassen thinks that theories that commit to unobservables should be regarded as empirically adequate, but not true.

All theories, not just supernatural ones, are underdetermined by facts.

http://www.u.arizona.edu/~jenkinsm/071504.html

Ahab said...

I'm sorry, but Dembski is going to have to do more than make accusations against the integrity of other scientists if he wishes to demonstrate the validity of his ideas.

And I think his Stalin analogy borders on the absurd. He surely is not going to persuade skeptics with claims like that.!!!

Victor Reppert said...

Maybe not, but do anti-design people sometimes play hardball against design theorists, making it hard for them to publish if their convictions are out in the open? Maybe Dembski has waxed hyperbolic here, but does he at least have a point? (OK, I'll drop the maybe).

Ahab said...

Victor wrote:
That's why Bas van Fraassen thinks that theories that commit to unobservables should be regarded as empirically adequate, but not true.


I have to admit to being a little confused here.

Are you taking the position that God is not true? That He is something that can only be considered to be, at best, empirically adequate?
How does this impact your AfR? Or your AfT?

Victor Reppert said...

I don't accept van Fraassen's arguments, and I don't think you do either. But if I accept your argument that supernatural hypotheses are untestable because you can detach the supernatural part of them and leave the testatble part, then you would have to say that all theories that commit to unobservables are untestable.

Ahab said...

I'm still not quite following you. Simply becauses the supernatural is unobservable and untestable doesn't necessitate that all unobservables are.

I don't claim that electrons exist outside of nature. But I'm assuming you believe God does. And by definition the supernatural is not part of nature.
Seems to me that the supernatural is in principle incapable of natural observation. Not so sure the same could be said for electrons.
And hasn't empirical testing changed our concepts and understanding of electrons? How could the same be said for God?

I don't know very much about van Frassen. Your post was the first time I recall running across his name. I am going to have to try and follow up on what he is saying. So I can't honestly say how much I may or may not agree with him.

Victor Reppert said...

What do you mean by nature? If nature is what science studies, and the studies science engages in them lead to God, then God is part of nature. I have no problem with that at all.

Ahab said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Ahab said...

But why do you place so much faith in science? Strangely, I think you place more trust in science than I, a naturalist, do. I'm doubtful that science will ever be capable of adddressing the issues that are central to my life.

By the way, I just came across this site :
OneChristianViewof Evolution


I have to admit that I was pleased to be reminded that there are Christians out there who don't accept ID. Especially since I don't believe this is really an issue that need divide theist from atheist.

Victor Reppert said...

Ahab: I've never said more than that I am sympathetic to basic idea of ID and that I think some arguments against it are bad. I think that there is no proof beforehand that science cannot address or even support intelligent design.

I also think that some academic hardball is being played against ID advocates which is going to backfire in the long run. We don't need the pseudoscience police.

Whether, say, the No Free Lunch theorems really demonstrate that we can detect irreducible design in nature is something I am in no position to defend.

Ahab said...

In the end it doesn't really matter whether not ID is a pseudoscience, etc. After all there are plenty of examples of 'real' scientific theories that havep proven to be worthless.
The scientists working in the science of evolution who understand the issues much better than either you or I will have to decide whether or not ID has any explanatory power and can be incorporated into what is already known.

This reminds me, you still haven't addressed my question : do you know of any group of scientists who, having failed to persuade their fellow scientists of the merits of their theory, have then gone to public school boards and tried to persuade them to incorporate their 'scientific' ideas into the science curriculum?

The only other example of this that I can recall is the action taken by Creationists through much of the twentieth century.

Victor Reppert said...

I don't know of anyone who has been in a position to petition school boards about teaching their doctrines. I think that the IDers think it is early in the game; many now-respected scientific theories were scoffed at in their infancy. I suppose it is open to you to say, if you really believe in ID as science, if you keep plugging away at the science, we will accept your doctrine in the long run. It's not an either/or, they can do science and do the school boards at the same time.

I'll stay with what I said earlier, that some of the anti-ID academic hardball is a bad idea even on the assumption that the Darwinists are right.

And, the IDers are not trying to get the theological content into the schools, anymore than Dawkins has tried to get the atheology into the schools. Kant pointed out long ago that the argument from design, even if it works otherwise, establishes the existence of an Artificer but not necessarily an omnipotent, omniscient being.

Ahab said...

The key point here is not whether ID is a psuedo-science, or if it violates some principle of MN or some ID'ers have been treated harshly by other scinetists. What is key is that ID theorists will have to demonstrate to other evolutionary scientists that they have a theory with enough explanatory power to be incorporated into the science of biological evolution.

Victor Reppert said...

What Dembski says about this is that we will have to wait for the next generation of scientists to make this assessment.

Ahab said...

Well, of course. I'm sure scientists are going to be fine-tuning and modifying the theory of evolution for generations to come (if our species is still around, that is).
Look how long they've been working on the theory of gravity.:-)

dfadf said...

Microsoft Office
Office 2010
Microsoft Office 2010
Office 2010 key
Office 2010 download
Office 2010 Professional
Microsoft outlook
Outlook 2010
Windows 7
Microsoft outlook 2010