Tuesday, July 22, 2008


Delayed Philosophy

Bradley Monton has responded, in part, to Wes Elsberry's original criticism, specifically Wes' criticism that "supernatural hypotheses do nothing to advance science ... , do not themselves represent knowledge, and are known to delay the progress of science." Monton agrees in part but states:

The one I'm not sure about is the claim that supernatural hypotheses are known to delay the progress of science. There are multiple ways of understanding this claim. The strongest claim would be: in every possible situation, introducing a supernatural hypothesis delays the progress of science. ...

The strong claim is surely false: I can imagine a situation where some scientist comes up with a great scientific insight, but she only comes up with that insight as a result of the peculiar religious training she's had — had she not had that religious training, she wouldn't have come up with the insight. Perhaps she frames the insight in supernatural terms, but other scientists see that the supernatural aspect is inessential, and embrace the non-supernatural aspect, thus leading to a major scientific advance.
Wes has now replied to Monton. As before, I would just like to add a few points:

First of all, it has to be noted that few, if any, people claim that a person cannot be religious and be a scientist ... except maybe ID proponents themselves. Certainly, Miller, a devout Catholic, doesn't. Nor is there any doubt that the wellsprings of human inspiration are many and unquantifiable. There is the famous (if possibly apocryphal) story of Friedrich August Kekulé and his daydream of a snake biting its own tail leading to the hypothesis that the benzene molecule was in the form of a ring.

But Monton's thesis is that ID is science, or so his website says. Is everything in any person's life that might give inspiration to a idea that leads eventually to some scientific advance (made by someone else in Monton's example) now supposed to be dubbed "science"? Do we then say that daydreaming is part of the scientific method? More pointedly, if a powerful political lobby attempted to require public schools to teach K-12 students that daydreaming is as valid a method of doing scientific research as empiric testing, should the scientific community acquiesce?

Another related problem is that Monton equivocates about the levels of "science" he is discussing at any point. When challenged over the detriment supernaturalism does to scientific progress, Monton drops to the level of an individual scientist and presents a hypothetical "example" of someone coming up with a scientifically valid idea based on unspecified "religious training," that she then fumbles away by attributing its action to God, ending her pursuit of it. Her idea is then supposedly rescued by the scientific community at large, which is, apparently, scanning religious literature* for scientific ideas, given that they have so little to read in their own journals.

In short, Monton seems to be saying that science can get by without any one scientist and it's no great loss if she throws away the chance to make real progress, simply because she insists on appending what even Monton calls an "inessential" hypothesis to an otherwise good idea. (Never mind how an idea inessential to science somehow becomes science.) The whole of the scientific community will be there to (eventually) pick it up.

But isn't that delay enough? Monton likes to play parsing games where any situation, real or imagined, that does not absolutely support the strictest possible reading of some statement supposedly proves it "false." Well, unless those "other scientists" pick up her idea immediately, then science has been delayed and Monton has been proved wrong.

More importantly, isn't the waste of the chance for the original scientist to pursue her own idea reason enough to try to prevent it? And, turning again to the larger issue, what if ID proponents succeed politically in having an entire generation of potential scientists taught to bring whatever good ideas they may have from whatever source to a screeching halt whenever they choose (or were indoctrinated to choose) to see God behind the curtain pulling on the levers? How many individuals lost to good scientific practice will it take to make a real, and potentially tragic, delay in science; a real lost to humankind?

There is more that could be said but, as noted by Wes, there is much that is ad hoc in Monton's approach to criticism and there is only so much time.

* Or maybe scientific journals are supposed to give up peer review and start publishing religious tracts. Monton is not clear on that point.

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