Monday, April 01, 2013


Methodological Philosophy

Jerry Coyne is doing philosophy again.
As you know if you’ve read this site before, I don’t adhere to the view that science should be wedded a priori to either of these views. Although we do use the methods of reason, experimentation, replication, and so on to study phenomena in nature, we aren’t limited to studying purely natural phenomena—that is, unless, you define “natural phenomena” as those amenable to scientific investigation, in which case the claim becomes a tautology.

And indeed, scientists have studied “supernatural” or “paranormal” phenomena before, including ESP, intercessory prayer, and so on.
This is, again, the issue of whether science practices "methodological naturalism" ("MN") versus "ontological naturalism" ("OM"), also known as philosophical or metaphysical materialism.

Jerry at least has actual philosophers on his side this time, Yonatan I. Fishman and Maarten Boudry. I've discussed Boudry's views before and even had some interaction with him. I respect his views even if I disagree.

Now, it will probably take to the weekend before I can give the Fishman and Boudry ("F&B") paper (49 pages worth) the attention it deserves but, with the above quote from Jerry and the following from the paper itself, I think I can see where this is going.

As in Boudry's previous paper, F&B want to distinguish Intrinsic MN ("IMN"), which they claim "considers supernatural explanations to be off-limits to science in principle" from their favored view of Provisional MN (PMN), "which tends to discount supernatural explanations as a general methodological guideline, on the grounds that they are extremely unlikely given the consistent failure of supernatural hypotheses in the past."

F&B quote Michael Ruse:
[S]cience [makes no] reference to extra or supernatural forces like God. Whether there are such forces or beings is another matter entirely, and simply not addressed by methodological naturalism ... [Emphasis added]
... and conclude that MN holds that "science is necessarily mute on the question of whether or not supernatural phenomena exist" [Emphasis added]. Similarly, F&B quote the National Academy of Sciences:
Because science is limited to explaining the natural world by means of natural processes, it cannot use supernatural causation in its explanations ...
Notice how they are talking past their "opponents"? Coyne and F&B are insisting that science can investigate "supernatural" phenomena while the MNers are talking about "supernatural" causation.

I'd like F&B to give an example of MN proponents who claim that phenomena, for example, the age of the Earth, cannot be investigated by science and, to the extent that religions claim that the Earth is less than 10,000 years old, refute such claims.

I've said this before: there are (at least) two great objectives of science ... 1) to determine if phenomena truly exist and 2) to determine the causation of those real phenomena. MN only applies to the second objective.

For example, in Jerry's example, science can determine if there is a statistical correlation between intercessory prayer and healing (assuming that is actually a claim made by "religion"). If such a correlation was found, however, how, exactly, would science go about determining whether it was the result of a "supernatural" cause rather than an (as yet) unknown "natural" cause?

The issue between IMN and PMN is one of the nature of induction. As Hume pointed out long ago, there is a problem with induction. Stubbornly, not all swans are white.

F&B would ignore the problem and anoint it, philosophically, as science instead. I think science is better ... truer ... than that. It recognizes its limitations and, instead of enshrining those limitations as part and parcel of it, it boldly proclaims them, in the form of MN, and challenges any philosophy or theology to do better ... or even as well.


Fun links to the past. I noticed the question I asked back in 2010 never really got answered: is anyone actually including the supernatural as an explanation for something?
Even in prayer studies, all we get is a statistical look at whether prayer works all the time, not whether a supernatural explanation was found for when prayer did work.
I guess Ken Miller in Dover said it best: "...if I invoke a non-natural cause, a spirit force or something like that in your research and I decide to test it, I have no way to test it. I can't order that from a biological supply house, I can't grow it in my laboratory. And that means that your explanations in that respect, even if they were correct, were not something I could test or replicate, and therefore they really wouldn't be part of science."
... is anyone actually including the supernatural as an explanation for something?

Only the IDers and other creationists ... which makes it easy to distinguish them from scientists. That's why I don't agree with Boudry that MN is a bad argument against ID ... except, perhaps, in a rhetorical sense but when did we start defining "science" based on rhetorical effectiveness?
I'd like to see an example where the supernatural actually functions as part of an explanation for something. Where there is some characteristic of the supernatural thing which accounts for why some particular thing happened. Not just "it couldn't have happened by natural means", but a substantive and positive explanation of the connection between the supernatural and the event being explained.

You're right, of course, they don't include it as an "explanation" as such; they just say nature can't explain it, ergo God ... er ... "designer."
To me, these discussions are always bedevilled by the lack of clear, agreed definitions of 'natural' and 'supernatural'.

I like to sidestep the problem by employing my own definition of 'naturalism' which is that it is the study of the natures of things or phenomena, where 'nature' is that which makes a thing itself and not something else.

By this definition, a god or ghost, if they exist as something other than human mental constructs, will have their own distinctive natures and are as much a part of the natural world as we are.
And I wholeheartedly agree with Ian. This is a pervasive problem with evolution denial. The evolution denier always has access to a response, "that isn't what I mean by design" (or creation or information or irreducible complexity or whatever).

I think supernatural explanations would become interesting if it appeared that there was something like a person responsible for patterns in the data.If, for instance, prayers tended to be granted more if the petitioner professed to a particular religion or lived according to its moral code. The point being that it would be very hard to imagine a law of nature acting in that way, but easy to imagine a person doing so.

Of course it could always be argued that some very powerful alien being was choosing to simulate a god. I don't know how that could be tested, except by saying very loudly "We're on to you". The result might be, as Asimov suggested in a short story, that the alien decided to terminate the experiment.
I guess I disagree, Ian. I think the conventional definition for supernatural is fine.
I just think people don't adequately distinguish between the supernatural and claims about the supernatural - if that makes sense.
For instance, if someone claims that they've seen a ghost in a house, how do you test that? What material is left behind by a ghost that we might gather and study?
We can certainly test the claim but barring any Scoopy-Do like reveal, there are instances where all we can say is that we cannot confirm their sighting and only offer possible explanations for why that person might think they saw one.
In the end, all we have is a claim about the supernatural that can't be confirmed. But I can't conceive of what we could have from supernatural in order to investigate.
I get what you mean David, but here's a problem I have with statistical prayer studies:
I think most studies put it as indistinguishable from chance, around 50%.
But in email advertising, last I checked it's considered successful when about 20% of your emails are opened.
So how do we know what the success rate of prayer is supposed to be?
TB said...

I guess I disagree, Ian. I think the conventional definition for supernatural is fine.

Sure, but which one are we talking about?

Consider the ghost sighting example. My understanding of reality is that there is an external objective reality but we live within a model of that reality constructed in our brains on the basis of sensory input. In the case of the ghost, I see two possibilities: first, the ghost is an objective entity or, second, it is an illusion, a false image that has crept into the model somehow. The modeling system is very good but it is far from perfect. Glitches can happen.

If ghosts are objectives entities such that we can observe them reliably and investigate their 'nature' then they are a part of the natural order. We just don't know much about them yet.

If they are false images in our mental model of reality then it gets a bit more complicated. Although they don't represent anything in external reality, they seem real enough to the observer. So are they natural? What is the ontological status of an illusion, a false image in a virtual model of an external reality?
TB & Ian:

I suspect you are dancing around slightly different ways of expressing Methodological Naturalism. TB (I think) is saying we can reject as science any "supernatural" causation and Ian is taking it from the negative side by saying if we can investigate it scientifically, it must be "natural."

Now you are both free to tell me how wrong I am. ;-)
John and Ian, I'm not really sure.
I think what I'm saying is there are some things - like ghosts - that I don't believe we can observe reliably. To do that, I believe we would need a reliable way to cause a ghost to appear and I don't think there is a way.
While there are situations that can be explained, such as old stairs creaking at night due to the effects of a cold draft on wood, a personal report of an observed apparition that leaves no physical evidence is far more difficult.
Here's where i'm coming from: I have two atheist friends who believe in supernatural phenomenon that I otherwise don't believe in. One swears that he was stone cold sober and not under any suggestion when he saw a ghost of a young girl in an old house.
I can only believe that he believes that and still reasonably doubt there are such things as ghosts. And I can do so by relying on past scientific investigations into these kinds of matters, and scientific studies on the reliability of eyewitnesses.
But I don't know how I could investigate and prove or disprove my friend's specific claim scientifically. And there are enough of these kinds of claims by otherwise reasonable and rational people that I don't have call to dismiss his as the claims outright.
Perhaps neuroscience will one day allow us to download memories to study - but even then we would have to distinguish between what our eyes actually saw and what our brain recorded as reality.
You could speculate that this is a bit of a god-of-the-gaps problem. At the same time, you could see how this fits with the theological idea of limited ability of our ability to perceive all of reality, much like a stone is not aware of the farmer that moves it.
Here's another example, this one by Roger Ebert:

In it, he talks about the first time he died and how his wife just knew he was still alive:

"Do I believe her? Absolutely. I believe her literally — not symbolically, figuratively or spiritually. I believe she was actually aware of my call and that she sensed my heartbeat. I believe she did it in the real, physical world I have described, the one that I share with my wristwatch. I see no reason why such communication could not take place. I’m not talking about telepathy, psychic phenomenon or a miracle. The only miracle is that she was there when it happened, as she was for many long days and nights. I’m talking about her standing there and knowing something. Haven’t many of us experienced that? Come on, haven’t you? What goes on happens at a level not accessible to scientists, theologians, mystics, physicists, philosophers or psychiatrists. It’s a human kind of a thing."

I just don't see how that experience can be confirmed or not scientifically. We could dismiss it as an illusion of chance, and that is certainly likely probable.

Fun conversation though! Thanks!
I think I would go along with John's statement of my position. I think that science can investigate anything we can acquire data about, however indirectly. That includes ghosts and subjective conscious experience. That doesn't mean we have all the answers yet. The Hard Problem of Consciousness is still a hard problem. But that doesn't mean that we won't crack it some day either.

Ghost sightings and near-death-experiences are fascinating in themselves. Clearly, in some cases, there is fraud or misinterpretation of known phenomena, but in others the experiences seem very real to those experiencing them.

One problem in explaining them is getting people to understand that they are, in effect, living inside a virtual model of reality. It looks, feels, sounds, smells and tastes very real. It's an immensely detailed and sophisticated construct but it's not the whole story.

For example, as you and I sit here, every second millions of neutrinos emitted by the Sun are pouring through every square centimeter of our bodies, yet we feel nothing. We have no sense capable of detecting them directly. They are not part of our everyday experience of the world - they're not represented in the model - but science tells us they are there nonetheless and in huge quantities.

Or take quantum mechanics. The phenomena that exist at this sub-atomic are just plain baffling. Yet they happen. They've been tested over and over again. There's no getting away from it but again we only know about them through science. We don't see this stuff, or hear it or smell it. It's not part of or day-to-day experience of reality, yet science tells that reality is built on a foundation of counter-intuitive weirdness.

So while I might be inclined to think of ghosts as illusions or some other kind of false image I think we have to remain open to the possibility that there is some other explanation. Perhaps they are images of people in another 'dimension' that 'leak' sporadically into ours and are detectable only to the few that are attuned to them. Who knows? I certainly don't but it's what we don't know as much as what we do know that makes science fascinating.
As always, Ian, you make an interesting case. I certainly agree that science can study anything that we can acquire data about - directly or indirectly. But I don't think ghosts and subjective conscience experiences are the same thing. As I pointed out with my neuroscience example, science may be able to prove that we believe we saw a ghost, but can it prove that there really was a ghost to see?
Consider this: there are concepts - such as M theory or the supernatural - whose supporters go through life acting as if these concepts have weight. Yet scientific evidence for these things is wanting.
Now, I'm not saying those two ideas are the same thing, I'm simply saying the very construct of those ideas put them beyond the science we have now - and perhaps beyond any science we may have.
So depending on their constructs, I can respect those ideas, reject them or even believe in them.
But if I do any of those three things, the most basic thing I believe I have to do is also admit that I could be wrong, because they can't be confirmed or disproved by scientific methods.
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I used to want a car with girls, then I got married and had daughters. Funny how things work out.

(John, you can delete this too when you take care of the other spam.)
John, you can delete this too when you take care of the other spam

No, I want to appologize for not paying attention when you and Ian and others deserve better.

(Besides, I want a car with girls too ... as long as "girls" mean someone at least half my age ... which is kind of an oxymoron ...)
It's a bit hard to concentrate on the supernatural and M-theory when people keep bringing up Cars and Girls. I keep seeing these two attractive girls in the backseat of one of those big Sixties convertibles (I'm particulalrly partial to the '59 Impala)

Then, because my memory is a bit quirky. I'm reminded of a scene from the 1969 version of The Italian Job where two rather larger ladies disport themselves in the back of a convertible as an inducement to Professor Peach to join Michael Caine's team of villains.

Not a lot of people know that.

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