Discoveroids’ Straw Man: Naturalism

What we’re about to discuss is a philosophical pretzel, with fallacies at every turn. It’s not an easy read. Before we start, we need to define a couple of terms. A straw man argument is defined by Wikipedia as a “fallacy based on misrepresentation of an opponent’s position.” You’ll soon see why that’s relevant.

Philosophical naturalism, sometimes referred to as metaphysical naturalism, is the belief that nothing exists beyond the natural world. It’s incompatible with belief in supernatural phenomena.

However, metaphysical naturalism is not the same thing as science. In Bring Me An Angel Detector!, we said:

The creationists — through ignorance or artifice — equate that philosophical materialism [previously defined] with something very different — methodological materialism. The latter is a procedure (not a philosophy) which is inherent in the scientific method.

To be a competent scientist, no philosophical materialism is necessary, and many — perhaps most — do quite nicely without it. A scientist may even believe that a multitude of spirits inhabit this world, but being imperceptible, they are outside the scope of his professional work. … Methodological materialism is an operational constraint of science, not a philosophical attack on theism.

We’re clear on that, right? Philosophical materialism isn’t the same as science. That addresses the straw man aspect of what we’re about to discuss.

Okay, now that you know what our title means we’re ready to begin. At the blog of the Discoveroids, they’ve got this oddball item: Does the Effectiveness of Science Support Philosophical Naturalism? It’s by Michael Egnor, whose last Discoveroid post inspired us to write Discoveroids Demand: End All Science Funding.

The first half of Egnor’s post is a large quote from something written by a high school teacher named James Chastek — this is his biographical page at Chesterton Academy, a Catholic prep school in Minnesota. Egnor quotes Chastek as follows, with bracketed material provided by the Discoveroids:

[Scientism] attempt[s] to bootstrap from the success of a natural explanations to the probability of naturalism. The relevant argument is this one: The sciences have had such great success with natural explanations that it is improbable that non-natural explanations are true.


And so, in an irony that the heavens have no doubt long laughed at already, the attempt to argue that the multiplication of successful natural explanations makes Naturalism more probable is itself a straightforward piece of junk science.

That really impresses Egnor. We imagine he thinks that despite the dazzling success of science, supernaturalism (i.e., intelligent design or Oogity Boogity!) is still very much in the game. Here’s what he has to say, with bold font added by us:

The scientistic view that the success of natural explanations demonstrates the truth of philosophical naturalism (the view that nature is all that exists) is a non sequitur.

The “scientistic view”? Scientistic? But Egnor has yet another problem. He’s arguing that the mere success of science can’t be used to argue for its truth or its continued success. Here we must quote the immortal words of Henny Youngman. When asked “How’s your wife?” he’d invariably respond: “Compared to what?”

We humbly suggest that considering the impressive track record of science and comparing it to nothing else — as Egnor is doing — is a wee bit disingenuous. There’s no context. The record of science should be compared to the accomplishments of those who advocate supernaturalism and who seek to discredit science. That comparison doesn’t establish beyond all doubt that science will give us all the answers, but at least an impartial observer (if such exists) could then decide which horse to bet on.

We continue with Egnor’s article:

In the matter of science, the view that science cannot give us the whole truth is particularly obvious, given that the assertion that science can give us the whole truth is itself not a scientific assertion.

Science can’t give us “the whole truth”? That’s probably true, although we don’t know what “the whole truth” is, and neither do the Discoveroids. The claim that science gives us the whole picture is a philosophical assertion, and as we said, making such a claim isn’t a prerequisite to doing science. Here’s how Egnor’s post ends:

As Chastek noted wryly, the scientistic mode of thinking is junk.

We’ve lost track of the number of fallacies in Egnor’s article. It doesn’t matter. The whole thing is junk.

Copyright © 2013. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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7 responses to “Discoveroids’ Straw Man: Naturalism

  1. David Williams

    Plumbers use methodological materialism. When a drain is stopped up, plumbers do not pray to Lady Cloacina to remove drain obstructions, but use mechanical means such as plumbing snakes to remove drain obstructions. If a plumber pooped on a newspaper,and then offered the poop as a burnt offering to Lady Cloacina with prayers to remove a plumbing obstruction, he might be seen to be incompetent. Plumbers have no need to invoke the supernatural, and neither do biologists.

  2. Our Curmudgeon proposes:

    The record of science should be compared to the accomplishments of those who advocate supernaturalism and who seek to discredit science.

    And there are copious amounts of readily-available data for just such a comparison: simply contrast the historical interval between the end of Classical civilisation in the Mediterranean and the European Enlightenment with the period since the 18th century.

    Why do the Discoveroids neglect to mention that the happy millennium in Europe when the Church had supreme power–when everyone was a creationist, and any troublesome heretics or apostates were quickly dispatched–is better known as The Dark Ages? And why are they (in the effective company of religious jihadis) so keen to drag us all back to those benighted centuries?

  3. AronRa has a great statement on the headmast of his Ace of Clades blog:
    “Science doesn’t know everything. Religion doesn’t know anything.”

  4. Stephen Kennedy

    Has a non-natural explanation for a natural phenomenon ever been shown to be true? I am not aware of any.

  5. What the hell was that?

  6. With reference to the ‘plumbing is atheistic’ meme, I’ve often wondered what a creationist would pay to the driver of a AAA wrecker who, in order to fix the creationist’s flat tire, danced around the tire chanting “Hubba hubba, Goodyear rubba!”

  7. @ waldteufel:
    Beat me to it! (by 4 days).