Saturday, November 13, 2010
Having hit a slightly slow spot in life that, I'm sure, won't last long, I'm taking the time for another drive-by of the paper by Maarten Boudry, Stefaan Blancke and Johan Braeckman ("BBB"), "How not to attack Intelligent Design Creationism: Philosophical misconceptions about Methodological Naturalism."
Consider their definition of "supernatural":
[W]e propose to define 'supernatural' as referring to any phenomenon which has its basis in entities and processes that transcend the spatiotemporal realm of impersonal matter and energy described by modern science ...
What if someone had shown up 150 years ago and demonstrated the ability to correctly identify various ailments, including broken bones, enlarged hearts, etc. without physically touching the patient? Today, we know the technique as X-rays but 150 years ago the very existence of such a force transcended the spatiotemporal realm of impersonal matter and energy described by the then "modern science."
That is why I think the following criticism of IMN by BBB misses the mark:
Consider the claims of IDC. ... [I]f God has left observable traces in our material universe, as IDC proponents claim He did, these are in principle open to scientific investigation, and thus God would be reduced to the realm of the 'natural', by a matter of philosophical definition. Pennock thinks it is ironic that, in the course of introducing God in science, IDC theorists actually naturalise God without realizing it. That may well be true according to Pennock's definition of 'supernatural', but by the same token IDC theory does not violate the strictures of IMN any longer, and Pennock's argument on the basis of IMN misses the mark.
Imagine that IDC theorists, contrary to the actual state of affairs, had provided us with clear and unmistakeable evidence for intelligent design behind functional biological complexity (in the next section we will consider what could constitute such evidence)*. Following Pennock's logic, even if the designer were to reside beyond the known material universe, forcing a complete revision of our metaphysics, our reply to the IDC proponents would be something like this: 'You see, now we have a scientific proof for Intelligent Design. By definition, that means that we have to do with a natural phenomenon. Thus, I was right after all, supernatural causes and forces have no place in science.'
[W]hen Pennock and Forrest adopt this analytical definition of the 'supernatural', they can no longer challenge IDC by using IMN as a philosophical shield, because it misses the mark by their own definition. Instead, they will have to convince IDC theorists that the so-called Intelligent Designer would be 'natural' like anything else. This is a different route to the same conclusion we are defending in this article: that claims of IDC have to be confronted head on, and rejected on scientific grounds, instead of being excluded by fiat on shaky philosophical grounds
Scientific evidence of intelligent biological design would be as exciting to scientists as the evidence for radiation was. But one thing is sure, the scientific community would be looking for a natural designer, not falling on their collective knees. Even if they failed to find the natural designer after 300 years, the way we've failed to find a satisfactory answer for gravity's action at a distance, they'd keep on looking for a natural explanation.
And Intelligent Design Creationists are quite aware of, and obviously accept, this stricture on science. It is why they (disingenuously, as in everything they do) pointedly and repeatedly stated right from the beginning of their movement, even before IMN was widely discussed, that the "Designer" could be space aliens or time travelers or other natural beings.
IDers knew that if they insisted the cause of design must be supernatural they didn't have a ghost of a chance of convincing anyone but themselves that ID was science.
For once they were right.
* The intercessory prayer "evidence" that I previously discussed.
Labels: Methodological Naturalism
One of the hallmarks of scientism is the improbable claim that our present picture of the cosmos is just a few tweaks away from being complete... unlike every previous picture in human history.
As I see it, there are 'things' that, if they are something other than formless chaos and thus have 'natures' we can observe, however indirectly, that are amenable to scientific investigation. Anything else, if it can be said to exist at all, is irrelevant.
atheists, we're gonna cut off your heads...
THE HIGH PRICE OF REVOLUTION
It's not hard to keep one's head when nothing but imaginary steel is being brandished.
Consider electricity as a historical example: many people used to view it as a supernatural phenomenon (moving through solid objects, invisible force, somehow connected to life and death). Electricity was later recognized to be "natural", though not by way of trivially extending the scope of the term, but because it turned out to be reducible to familiar dead physical stuff. But that is a contingent discovery.
What would be a reasonable definition of "supernatural"?
First of all, I'm honored you have considered my amateur efforts at philosophy and repeat my opinion that your paper raises valid questions about MN as it has been stated. But ...
Nothing has ever been found to be "outside" that picture, an no serious scientists doubts that gravity or dark matter will turn out to be incorporated in the same basic framework.
Yes, that is doubtless correct. And our experience is certainly a good reason for scientists to take that attitude. Neither version of MN was, originally, obvious. But once experience showed us just how useful science (and MN) was, there was no reason why the practice of science could not be adjusted to intrinsically preclude the use of "supernatural" explanations. It is both practically and logically valid to limit science to the "natural." The fact that no serious scientists doubt that gravity or dark matter will turn out to be incorporated in the same basic MN framework seems to me to be evidence that science has (justifiably) adopted an a priori assumption of MN.
As I've said elsewhere, the "supernatural" is that set (quite possibly empty) of phenomena and forces that are not what we call "natural." The tough part is defining "natural." As far as I can tell, the latter means those phenomena and forces that occur with such regularity as to appear to us to be lawlike or, in Maarten's phrase, "impersonal."
It's the contention of IMN supporters that limiting science to the assumption that what it is studying is the result of impersonal, lawlike nature is a lesson so well-learned by experience and so logically valid that it has become a philosophical assumption of the process of science as it is practiced today.
As far as I can tell, [natural] means those phenomena and forces that occur with such regularity as to appear to us to be lawlike or, in Maarten's phrase, "impersonal."
Thank you for response. There are a few things that pop into my head:
Regular on which timescale? In a previous thread, Chris (Schoen) told me supernatural events could not be recognised as something not conforming to existing scientific models, because it could be a natural phenomenon that is unknown to us (which sounds reasonable to me). We cannot call something supernatural if it occurs only once, because we have to assume it might happen again, right?
"Impersonal forces" sounds like a good criterion, since most people think of the supernatural as the domain of intelligent agents (e.g. most religions do so). But on what grounds do we exclude the action of "space aliens or time travellers", who appear to be "natural beings"?
I am sorry, but I just cannot seem to get my head around this concept. What do people mean when they talk about the supernatural?
I should thank you for your interest in our paper! If you think our commitment to naturalistic explanations is grounded in past experience, I think you're pretty close to PMN. Your position is close to Michael Ruse's: he thinks MN is an a priori principle, but still he sees it a lesson from history. What about this question: in the extremely unlikely event that dark matter or gravity would be caused by entitites outside the said material framework, is there any reason why science would have to remain silent about it?
I'm not so sure this is accurate. It is difficult to say how a "particle" without dimensionality or mass can have "spatio-temporal location."
Consider electricity as a historical example: many people used to view it as a supernatural phenomenon (moving through solid objects, invisible force, somehow connected to life and death). Electricity was later recognized to be "natural", though not by way of trivially extending the scope of the term, but because it turned out to be reducible to familiar dead physical stuff.
Doubtless many people did believe this, though I might quibble that these beliefs tended to predate any systematic concept of what electricity is. We have no word for it (in English) before the 19th century.
But if you are going to refute IMN you have to ask if any scientists believed this when they set out to explicate it.
At any rate I think your proposal is hobbled by a too-weak definition of naturalism. If we discovered that there was a kind of non-physical "stuff" that we could explicate and predict the behavior of, would we continue to call it supernatural, going forward? Or would we say it was part of the lawful, natural world? (Dark matter is a pretty good example, since we have to seriously stretch the definition of matter to include it. Likewise anti-matter.)
MN is "provisional" in the sense that we don't know what we are going to discover next. In this sense we are all advocates of PMN. But this does nothing to engage the question of whether there is another realm beyond the natural, that cannot or will not observe natural laws.
If we were to "hypothesize" such a realm, how do you propose we test its existence against the null hypothesis that everything has a natural explanation?
"Impersonal forces" sounds like a good criterion ...
Except, how can you determine that they are "impersonal" if you cannot empirically investigate what a "personal" supernatural force might do?
But on what grounds do we exclude the action of "space aliens or time travellers", who appear to be "natural beings"?
We don't, most of the time. We simply ignore the possibility mostly because we have (or imagine we have) sufficient "impersonal" forces to explain phenomena. If we wanted to consider the possibility of such natural beings, we would have to do what we do when we want to consider the possibility of, say, prehistoric human agency. Many stone tools we identify could also have been made by impersonal forces, such as the action of fast-running rivers. We look for such things as collections of stone flakes, tool marks on the supposed tools, association with other evidence of human activity, such as campfires, and so forth. But to seriously consider space aliens or time travelers, we'd have to confirm their existence and know something about their abilities and motives, the way we have with prehistoric humans.
This is the problem with supernatural beings. We can rule out a god that made the Earth 6,000 years ago as a scientific proposition but can we scientifically rule out the Omphalos proposition (that a god made the world 6,000 years ago but made it look old)? What empiric evidence could possibly bear on that? Sure, we can philosophically discount a "trickster god" but that's philosophy, unrooted in empiric evidence, not what I would call "science." Unable to bring empiric evidence to bear on the abilities and motives of such a being, we can only philosophize, not empirically investigate.
What do people mean when they talk about the supernatural?
Actually, they mean many things and (in some sense) nothing. Some gods are small and as petty as we are. Others are ineffable. Ultimately, it is the unknown and the unknowable.
I think you're pretty close to PMN.
I don't think PMN and IMN are mutually exclusive. I think all good philosophy has to be rooted in experience but that doesn't mean it is limited to experience. We can and should organize our experience into logical systems that transcend mere trial and error.
What about this question: in the extremely unlikely event that dark matter or gravity would be caused by entitites outside the said material framework, is there any reason why science would have to remain silent about it?
No, IF science had any way to demonstrate that entities outside the material universe caused dark matter, instead of some unknown material cause. That's what we disagree about. I can 't see how the empiric evidence of the material world can demonstrate that there is something outside the material world.
By the way, thanks for the article. I won't comment on it or quote from it until it has finished review and it appears on your website.
I'm not an expert in QM, but it seems that even a point particle lacking dimensionality still has spatio-temporal location. Take any electron in any carbon atom in the top of my finger.
"At any rate I think your proposal is hobbled by a too-weak definition of naturalism. If we discovered that there was a kind of non-physical "stuff" that we could explicate and predict the behavior of, would we continue to call it supernatural, going forward? Or would we say it was part of the lawful, natural world? (Dark matter is a pretty good example, since we have to seriously stretch the definition of matter to include it. Likewise anti-matter.)"
I didn't want a definition of naturalism that simply encompasses every single thing scientists should discover in the future. If we want the term to have any meaning, there are some things we have to exclude from its reference domain. I'm not sure why dark matter "stretches the definition of matter", as you yourself have written that "whatever it is made of, and however it interacts with the rest of the material world is purely speculative, an untestable hypothesis".
"If we were to "hypothesize" such a realm, how do you propose we test its existence against the null hypothesis that everything has a natural explanation?"
This is similar to the point John is making. How could we ever demonstrate the existence of something outside the material world? We have given some specific examples in our paper (a variation on the Benson study), but you're right that I should have tackled Clarke's third law, as this keeps turning up in discussions. Maybe I can never logically rule out super-savvy space aliens, and in that sense I have not "demonstrated" SN entities, but that doesn't mean that the balance of probabilities will always tilt in the direction of space aliens. As soon as you admit that there's a balance of probabilities involved at all, it's just a matter of stacking things at one side (firework displays by God until you're convinced). Consider this analogy: is science capable of "demonstrating" an ancient earth? Beyond reasonable doubt, yes, but science can never strictly rule out the Omphalos hypothesis. It depends on what you mean by "demonstrate".
My own view is that this debate over where to draw a line between 'natural' and 'supernatural' is irrelevant. Science can only address that which it can observe, about which it can obtain information, however indirectly. There may well be phenomena beyond the range of our power to observe such as parallel universes that have absolutely no connection with or influence in our own. They are both irrelevant because they are not required to explain phenomena in our universe, yet they are natural like ours if they have form and law-like regularity.
The Wikipedia entry for "Nature" - which I quote, not as an authority, but simply because it encapsulates my own view - describes its origins thus:
The word nature is derived from the Latin word natura, or "essential qualities, innate disposition", and in ancient times, literally meant "birth". Natura was a Latin translation of the Greek word physis (φύσις), which originally related to the intrinsic characteristics that plants, animals, and other features of the world develop of their own accord. The concept of nature as a whole, the physical universe, is one of several expansions of the original notion; it began with certain core applications of the word φύσις by pre-Socratic philosophers, and has steadily gained currency ever since. This usage was confirmed during the advent of modern scientific method in the last several centuries.
Put simply, we try to understand phenomena by describing and explaining their 'natures' or essential and defining properties or attributes. The confusion arises where 'natural' is conflated with 'material' or 'physical'. For example, science is grappling with the nature of human consciousness even though it has no observable material form other than its association with the substrate of the physical brain. Besides, as Richard Lewontin wrote in the correspondence following his review of Carl Sagan's Demon-Haunted World in the New York Review of Books, contemporary physical theory has blurred the distinction between the material and immaterial:
It is true, as Booth says, that matter ain’t what it used to be, but then neither is materialism. Einstein’s equation of matter and energy makes the materialist’s life easier, not harder, because it brings under the aegis of elementary physical explanation phenomena that would otherwise be in the realms of mystery. By “materialism” we mean the claim that all the motions and states of the physical (including the biological) universe form a closed world of causation, solely under the influence of a small number of known measurable forces. As I pointed out, this claim requires us to accept that these forces have some counterintuitive properties, our intuitions having been formed by the experience of our gross senses. The fact that “matter” can be turned into “energy” is one of the less difficult ones for us to imagine because our ordinary experience seems to tell us (quite erroneously) that this happens every time we burn a piece of paper. And if any doubt remains that the conversion of mass into energy can be accomplished at will by the work of human hands, a trip to Hiroshima will settle the matter.
Not the prayer studies, as those are claims about the supernatural and don't actually deal with specific events, and seem to me to focus on general statistics. And not necessarily dark matter or gravity as I don't believe any serious scientific time is being spent on studying out whether the supernatural is involved.
I'm wondering if there's some actual, specific collection of instances that are right now unexplained but being studied where the supernatural should be considered as
That may not be a fair question, though. If not the explanation why would be interesting too.
Again, I don't mean to sidetrack the discussion, but I wondered if there were practical applications right now. Thanks
You raise an excellent point. If BBB are defining naturalism as a synonym of physicalism or materialism, then maybe it would make some sense to talk about a "provisional" naturalism, since science may discover modalities of nature that are non-material. I would argue, however, that this kind of "naturalism" has already been refuted by QM, which shows that at the elemental level there is no such thing as matter, only waveforms that we sometimes call "particles" for convenience, but which have no mass and no structure.
Obviously it would be silly to call QM "supernatural," though, so we'd be well advised to drop that usage and return to the definition used by philosophers over the last half century, as the claim that everything is "linked in a single web of causal relations" (in Richard Rorty's words.)
Put this way, it easier to see why the non-natural (supernatural) would be a "science stopper," since science can't make allowances for phenomena causally quarantined from the known regularities of nature. It must, a priori, assume a single web in order to function, which is why MN is "intrinsic" to it.
No, Chris. In QM, you have particles whose behavior is more properly modeled by equations other than those of classical physics, but unless those particles are photons, they have mass. The mass of an electron is even a parameter in the Schrodinger equation. As for the particles having no "structure," I have no idea what you mean, since the particles aren't supposed to have an internal structure but rather are treated as points, albeit points whose location and momentum cannot be known precisely. Matter still exists in QM, it's just that it behaves counterintuitively. Don't go Deepak Chopra on us.
I stand corrected on this.
However, I believe it is still accurate to say that such particles are not extended in space, and that they are structureless, which puts them in conflict with the philosophical concept of matter, which has always (in the Western tradition) relied on being somewhere and being made of something. Perhaps this is a bit of tangent, and I know my command of this subject is primitive. But it is instructive how blithe we can be about the absence of these properties, just three generations after the Copenhagen interpretation, such that we can say these particles merely behave "counterintuitively."
Actually, that's not quite right. A particle's wave function is very much extended in space. Remember the atomic orbitals from high-school chemistry, some of which were spherical, some of which were more dumbbell-shaped? Those are wave functions. The wave function of a free electron looks more like a traveling wave, which too is extended in space.
Also, Maarten, if you're lurking, I have a reply to your last comment on the way.
That impression is about right, actually. The thing is, wave functions (orbitals included) are instrumental in describing how non-classical particles behave, and often in practice it makes more sense to speak of things like electrons as if they were waves extended in space, especially if one is talking about things like electron diffraction.
So beyond the need of some to extend science, as John as pointed out, to beat theists over the head, I'm wondering what current work is crying out for this? I suppose I'll need to wait for the paper.
I'm sorry it's taken so long for me to respond to your last comment.
I didn't want a definition of naturalism that simply encompasses every single thing scientists should discover in the future. If we want the term to have any meaning, there are some things we have to exclude from its reference domain.
I understand you are trying to evade a tautology here. But in trying to save naturalism from being drained of meaning, you've exposed science to the same fate. To illustrate this, take your example of "firework displays by God until you're convinced." If such a conviction were to be considered scientific, it would have to be accompanied by something more than a broad folk concept borrowed from Stone Age scripture. We would need to articulate some basic terms and principles--omnipotence, omnipresence, for example--and speculate on how to account for their apparent violation of thermodynamic law. And then we'd need to expose these ideas to methodical scrutiny. Without these steps, we have a Deus ex Machina, but not a hypothesis.
I don't think it's too high a standard, given the understandable skepticism of the supernatural in the scientific community, to establish the following standard: if you are able to formally hypothesize that a "god" created those fireworks, with sufficient precision to get published in Nature, then your conviction that a god did it could begin to be considered scientific.
Maybe I can never logically rule out super-savvy space aliens, and in that sense I have not "demonstrated" SN entities, but that doesn't mean that the balance of probabilities will always tilt in the direction of space aliens.
But on what are these probabilities based if not a presumption of IMN? I can't imagine what "probability" could even mean without a presumption of IMN. When naturalism becomes provisional, probability theory is deprived of its evidentiary value.
At any rate, I still don't see how PMN gives science any assistance in understanding the world.