Sunday, October 04, 2009


And So It Goes

To continue (by rote) with Nick Smyth's response to criticisms of his article at 3 Quarks Daily, I'll turn to his following points:

3. Of course you can distinguish science from pseudoscience. Courts regularly do it, in fact, they do it all the time (Nick Matzke).

4. In a legal context, we don't need a set of necessary and jointly sufficient conditions for "science". All we need is a rough, "ballpark" characterization in order to rule out ID-creationism. Methodological Naturalism (MN, the principle that commands us to never invoke supernatural causation) characterizes science in this way, and rules out ID-creationism (Roger Pennock).

Nick's argument against the third point is:

I am perfectly aware that courts think they are rationally separating science and pseudoscience, but the question at hand is clearly whether they are actually doing so. A person who simply cites a legal case at this point is a person who has lost the ability to step away from his or her involvement in this particular battle and examine it objectively.

Since these are not specifically listed as my argument (though I agree broadly with them) and since Nick doesn't indicate where he is taking Nick Matzke's or Pennock's points from (and I don't feel like looking them up), I'll have to answer somewhat in generalities.

First of all, courts do not claim to be separating science and pseudoscience, as such. Courts proceed case-by-case, assisted by precedent, to determine the facts and the law as applicable to the case before it. Specifically, the questions courts seek to answer are: is this "expert" applying the "generally agreed" standards of science sufficiently well so as to be exempt from some of the rules of evidence; and is this "science," that is being promoted by the government, actually an attempt to violate the constitutional rights of some person or group? In the first category, the court is interested in only one person and that person's behavior as it will be on the stand in that case. In the second, they are interested in the behavior of the government in choosing to teach some claimed "science" at taxpayer expense. In that context, the content of the "science" is primarily relevant to the motivations of the government officials and agents who are promoting it.

The courts will not "banish" anyone from science, as Nick claimed in his original article. That same expert may come back to testify in another case, either on a different subject or, perhaps, with further evidence that his methodology is accepted within science. The IDers are free to do some actual science and demonstrate, with empiric evidence and logical arguments, that they are right ... much the same way that plate tectonics, originally spurned by scientists (for good reasons), eventually won the day. Furthermore, the courts in the US are only interested in a limited number of potential "pseudosciences" in the second category: creationism, "scientific racism, "scientific anti-Semitism," and the like, that have been given government sanction. In short, courts are interested in cases where government is dressing up the violation of the constitutional rights of some of its citizens in scientific garb, specifically to evade the constitutional ban against such action. Courts have no interest in general questions of what is "science" and what is "pseudoscience."

Thus, courts are not concerned with some esoteric philosophical definition of science and non-science, they are interested in the pragmatic balancing of the rights of people in the case before them. The right of a litigant not to have his or her case decided because of some artful but empty bafflegab generated by someone who happens to have some academic credentials, but has more appreciation for money than honesty. Or the right of people to be free of religious proselytization by government under the false colors of science.

The courts are, contrary to what Nick states, rationally making a distinction between science and non-science. They are just doing it on different and more limited premises than what Nick is interested in.

As to Nick's attack on Methodological Naturalism in his response to the fourth point, I pointed out in my last post that, if, as he says, the terms "natural" and "supernatural" are "hopelessly obscure," he can hardly claim that Dembski's assertion -- that design, chance, and natural law are mutually exclusive and exhaustive list of types of explanation -- is empirically falsified by showing instances where "natural law" and chance combine to explain the world. The most he can claim, given the logic of his premises, is that those terms are incoherent.

Now, I think I have a definition of "natural" that fills the bill for purposes of Methodological Naturalism but it is my own and I am not a professional philosopher and do not have the time and resources to work out all the implications. I have run it past professional philosophers and scientists and have not had any significant objections to it yet. I offer it here as a possibility.

"Natural" is that set of phenomena, that we empirically observe, that, as far as we can tell, operate in a "lawlike" manner and, therefore, permit prediction of future phenomena (or "retrodiction" of past phenomena within a framework consistent with the lawlike behavior of phenomena). "Supernatural" is that set (which may well be empty) of events that do not operate in a lawlike manner and do not permit prediction/retrodiction.

Note that this does not rule out the action of a god being lawlike. It is Catholic theology (not always observed on the ground) that God sustains the material world from microsecond to microsecond ... in other words, that every phenomena (with the theological exception of human "free will") is an act of God. But that's where the "methodological" part of Methodological Naturalism comes in. Quite simply, as far as science goes, what difference would it make? We don't know how gravity works but so what? We know it is predictably associated, in predictable ways, with mass, and we can make reliable predictions based on that. We label that a natural law and do science based on it, even if we don't understand it. What scientists don't do is accept their ignorance as a reason to assign a cause to the lawlike phenomena.

Let's take an extreme example. Say we found that intercessory prayer worked in a lawlike manner -- one prayer, one healing. Would the scientific community collectively fall down on its knees or would it look to other lawlike explanations first? Would it explore psychological factors, brain activity and chemistry, even the carbon dioxide exhaled by the prayer in the course of his or her utterance? Even if we exhausted the entirety of our present means of scientific investigation, would the scientific community as a whole give up looking for another lawlike phenomena to explain the result? I don't think so ... any more than we've given up looking for the explanation for gravity.

ID fails the Methodological Naturalism test on at least a couple of grounds: 1) if you study ID and its proponents, it is easy to see that their attempt to explain "apparent design" in living things ends with the explanation "Goddidit." Ignorance (to the extent that we are truly ignorant of the causes of the phenomena ID proponents point to) is sufficient grounds, as far as they are concerned, to assign the cause to God. Judge Jones documented this at length in his decision. While they pay lip service to extraterrestrials (a "natural" phenomenon) as possibly being the "Designer," they actively refuse to explore not only who that might be (and how they came into being), but how the extraterrestrials came to be in a position to design life on Earth and how, when and where they actually achieved this design. In fact, they call such questions "theological." This is quite different than the behavior of the scientific community, either in fact or in my little thought-experiment above.

And 2) they have failed to empirically show that "design" in living things operates in a lawlike manner -- i.e. the very point Nick was ultimately making against Dembski. They cannot give us any (to use an overworked word) algorithm for separating "design" from chance, some other lawlike phenomena, or the combination of both.

In the end, Stephen Jay Gould was right: (from his testimony at the McLean trial) "Science is what scientists do." Science is not a "thing" "out there" waiting to be "discovered" by some philosopher diddling with definitions. It is behavior. We can say many things about the behavior that is scientific and the behavior that is not but we cannot tell you what "science" is in some completely rigorous way -- not least because it will change with the abilities of humans to empirically investigate the world. That makes for messy and perhaps, to Nick, unsatisfying "definitions" of science and its opposite. But to say that we cannot distinguish scientific behavior from non-scientific behavior is deny that we can know ourselves.

More as I can get to it.


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