Saturday, December 23, 2006


Science and Philosophy

The NCSE has just put up a pdf file of Eugenie Scott's Expert Witness Statement, prepared for the planned retrial in the Cobb County "sticker case," at its website. She has a nice section on the interface of science and religion (pp. 11-12):

Although many scientists believe in God, all scientists regardless of personal religious or nonreligious views restrict themselves to natural causes when doing science. The reasons are simple. First, restricting science to explaining natural phenomena in terms of natural causes has yielded spectacular results, and we see no need to change. More importantly, natural causes are the only ones that we can test. Because it is impossible for scientists to test (i.e., hold constant) the acts of a supernatural agent, we have no choice but to limit ourselves to testable natural causes for purposes of doing science. In other words, as scientists we must reject intelligent design’s proposition that some phenomena cannot be explained except through supernatural causes, and must instead seek natural explanations. The as-yet unexplained is not therefore unexplainable, and we do not treat it as such.

Put differently, if scientists were permitted, in their capacity as scientists, to consider supernatural causes, those causes could never be ruled out by scientific experimentation. It would never be possible to disprove that a supernatural force (i.e., God) was responsible for whatever natural phenomenon one was observing. So as a scientist one would never be able to draw conclusions about the natural causes for that phenomenon. To take natural phenomena off the table of natural explanation by regarding them as unexplainable or as potentially attributable to a supernatural force would thus be a "science stopper."

The methodological limitation that restricts science to natural causes does not mean that there cannot in reality be supernatural causes, nor does it say anything about whether a supernatural agent (e.g., God) does or does not exist. It simply means that, as scientists conducting scientific inquiry, we exclude the supernatural and work to develop the best natural explanations that our observations and data permit. To do otherwise would be to cease engaging in science.

The restriction of science to natural cause is sometimes referred to as "naturalism." That term generates confusion, however, because there is also a philosophical view called "naturalism," according to which the supernatural does not exist and reality consists only of material (matter and energy) causes. The philosophical view is a claim that is logically independent of science because science cannot say whether supernatural causes do or do not exist. In the attempt to avoid confusion, philosophers of science often refer to the restriction of science to natural causes as "methodological naturalism," and the philosophical view as "philosophical (or metaphysical) naturalism."[24]

Creationists commonly confuse these two uses of the term "naturalism" because they view evolution as being an antireligious philosophical view.[25] They oppose evolution because they believe that acceptance of evolution requires abandonment of faith — a belief that is refuted by the fact that many scientists are also people of faith.[26] The district court in the Kitzmiller case considered testimony from some of intelligent design’s chief proponents, as well as experts in evolutionary science and science education. The court correctly found that, whereas evolution is a scientific theory that respects these necessary methodological limitations, intelligent design is a non-scientific religious view that assumes there are unexplainable supernatural causes.

[24] Pennock, Robert 2003. Creationism and Intelligent Design, Annual. Rev. Genomics Hum. Genet. 2003. 4:143–63.

[25] Religious conservatives are not the only ones who confuse philosophical with methodological naturalism and thus misunderstand the nature of science. Some scientists have written that evolution and faith are incompatible, and creationists love to cite them to support the creationist view. But philosophical materialists (such as Richard Dawkins and William Provine) who claim the authority of science for their philosophical views do not speak for the scientific community. Their claims about science have been strongly criticized even by fellow materialists. Scott, Eugenie C. 2004. Evolution vs Creationism: An Introduction. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press and references therein.

[26] Much of the objection to evolution found among conservative Christians stems from the belief that acceptance of evolution entails the abandonment of faith. That belief depends on a misunderstanding of the nature of science. Science is a limited way of knowing that attempts to explain the natural world based on natural causes, but it does not claim that science is the only possible way of understanding the world. There are evangelical Christians, such as Francis Collins, who accept evolution; they are frequent contributors to the website and annual meetings of an esteemed organization of evangelical Christians called the American Scientific Affiliation (
Scott is not only eminently clear but, I think, in all important respects, exactly correct. I would just add that the very power of science comes from its self-imposed limitations. By restricting itself to the natural world, science frees itself from ideology (as much as humanly possible) and, therefore, can deliver the closest thing to unvarnished truth that we, as a species, are capable of. Those who would load science down with their metaphysics, creationist or otherwise, are not its friends.
P.S. See Nick Matzke's article at The Panda's Thumb about other aspects of Scott's Report, particularly the history of the "teach the controversy" ploy.

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