A Discoveroid Defense of Supernatural Science

This one at the Discovery Institute’s creationist blog was no fun to read and even less fun to write about, but it’s interesting to see what those people are up to. Their new post is Are Methodological Naturalism and Philosophical Naturalism the Same? A Dissent. It was written by Walter Myers III, who teaches philosophy at Biola University, a bible college. We wrote about him in Discovery Institute — The Mind of Walter Myers.

As before, Walter is discussing: (1) methodological naturalism, an operational procedure which is inherent in the scientific method; and (2) philosophical naturalism, also known as metaphysical naturalism, defined by Wikipedia as “a worldview, which holds that there is nothing but natural elements, principles, and relations of the kind studied by the natural sciences.”

We wrote about those concepts years ago in Bring Me An Angel Detector!, where we said:

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. For the same reason, no scientist can embark on a scientific exploration of the anatomy of angels’ wings, because there are no observable or detectable data to be examined, measured, tested, etc. This is a consequence of methodological materialism — the process of science. It says nothing at all about the existence of spiritual matters, only their inability to be scientifically studied. Methodological materialism is an operational constraint of science, not a philosophical attack on theism.

Slogging through Walter’s prose is difficult. Attempting to appear scholarly, he writes in a deliberately obscure manner, using as many polysyllabic words as possible. But we know — because he’s a Discoveroid — that Walter is attempting to blur the distinction between the two kinds of naturalism, so he can claim that science is an inherently atheistic enterprise, which arbitrarily refuses to consider what it stubbornly regards as philosophically incorrect ideas.

That’s enough introduction. We’ll give you a few excerpts from Walter’s post, with bold font added by us for emphasis. He cites an article by Barbara Forrest and says:

Forrest, unlike Dembski [a Discoveroid], does not believe that methodological naturalism necessarily entails philosophical naturalism. She reasons, however, that based on the success of methodological naturalism, and the great knowledge it has contributed to the world, along with the simple dearth of evidence for the supernatural, that the “only reasonable metaphysical conclusion” from an empirical and logical perspective is philosophical naturalism. She sees methodological naturalism as procedural and epistemological, as opposed to philosophical naturalism which is a metaphysical position.

She’s right. But being a good creationist, Walter says:

I don’t think this holds up logically. Methodological naturalism has, indeed, shown great success in describing the natural world through physics and chemistry. We think, notably, of the incredible technological advances in medicine, robotics, cell phone technology, and soon-to-be-ubiquitous self-driving cars. But descriptions are not explanations, as they don’t tell us why things are the way they are. There are a great many things we can’t explain or describe that seemingly defy physics and chemistry, such as human consciousness, dark matter, or life itself. So I think Forrest displays considerable “epistemological arrogance” in saying that philosophical naturalism naturally follows from the success of methodological naturalism.

Walter wants science to have wiggle room for the supernatural. He tells us:

Both Dembski and Forrest would agree that methodological naturalism is, in principle, metaphysically neutral. Both would also agree that methodological naturalism has no bearing on what practicing scientists may actually believe about the supernatural. Yet Dembski thinks that methodological naturalism effectively impedes scientific progress, in that it limits science to pursuing only natural causes. [Hee hee!] Forrest counters that methodological naturalism keeps science focused where it should be, on natural causes.

Walter continues, attempting to be reasonable and scholarly:

Clearly, there is no reconciling these two positions. However, is it necessarily the case that those who practice methodological naturalism, particularly those who are theists, feel that God would leave no empirical evidence of himself, as Dembski asserts of them? And is it necessarily the case that a non-theist who accepts methodological naturalism is not open to intelligent design? I don’t see it as the case that a non-theist who practices methodological naturalism could not possibly, at some point, infer design if sufficient empirical evidence were presented. And I don’t see where it is logically necessary that a theist who practices methodological naturalism as a principle must also believe design is not empirically detectable.

What about evidence for intelligent design, Walter? Science is all about evidence! If you have some, bring it on! [*Curmudgeon pauses, but sees no evidence*] After a lot more polysyllabic blather, Walter gives us his position:

I believe wholeheartedly that design is empirically detectable in nature. [Hee hee!] The fact that some bring an a priori view of philosophical naturalism into science, while others feel it follows a posteriori from methodological naturalism (as with Forrest), is in my view unfortunate but immaterial to the goal of methodological naturalism to be neutral on the metaphysical (as Forrest maintains). For me, what is important is that all scientists, irrespective of their metaphysical views, should be able to express their own sincere conclusions without fearing derision or reprisals in the scientific field.

Lovely, wasn’t it? So what did he say? Nothing, really. But it sounded so scholarly!

Copyright © 2017. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

add to del.icio.usAdd to Blinkslistadd to furlDigg itadd to ma.gnoliaStumble It!add to simpyseed the vineTailRankpost to facebook

. AddThis Social Bookmark Button . Permalink for this article

27 responses to “A Discoveroid Defense of Supernatural Science

  1. I should be able to spout any kind of evidence free BS and not have anyone tell me so I guess. Certainly no talk with derision. Bwahahaha!

  2. I suggest that for the supernatural to be detectable, it must follow some rules. If it’s an issue of “anything goes”, how can we credit the supernatural? Does anyone know of any rules that the supernatural follows?

  3. For me, what is important is that all scientists, irrespective of their metaphysical views, should be able to express their own sincere conclusions without fearing derision or reprisals in the scientific field.

    They can, as long as they provide evidence. It is when they venture off into cloud-cockoo land (which is exactly what creationists want to see happen) that scientists start catching flak. And rightly so.

  4. Mike McCants

    “all scientists… should be able to express their own sincere conclusions without” requiring any mere “evidence” to back up those conclusions. Fixed that for you. Now it’s clear how anti-scientific that idea is.

  5. Mike McCants

    “There are a great many things we can’t explain or describe that seemingly …”

    Yes, the “god of the gaps” fallacy has been used by creationists for a very long time.

  6. Michael Fugate

    “….if sufficient empirical evidence were presented.”

    If only.

    Natural design of course is detectable – supernatural design isn’t.

  7. Dave Luckett

    What gets me is how vacuous this piece is. This wouldn’t require Aquinas to refute it – any third-rate medieval schoolman would have seen right through it, and as for it lasting three minutes in a sophomore philosophy class…

    Myers must be writing for a preselected audience. Even in the very modest academic surroundings at Biola, he can’t possibly be unaware of the obvious rebuttals – such as those given above. He must be writing for people who have never thought critically or rigorously about anything in their lives, and who can be impressed by pretentious tosh presented with an air of authority. The audience of the DI, in other words.

  8. Mark Germano

    “I believe wholeheartedly that design is empirically detectable in nature.”

    Well, then, get detecting!

  9. Wasn’t that Axes’ premise, “I think it’s true, therefore it must be true?”

  10. ” I don’t see it as the case that a non-theist who practices methodological naturalism could not possibly, at some point, infer design if sufficient empirical evidence were presented. And I don’t see where it is logically necessary that a theist who practices methodological naturalism as a principle must also believe design is not empirically detectable.”

    Turgid but true. As scientists, we can and do investigate supernatural claims. For example, we investigate claims of ESP, or of the effect of prayer on recovery from illness. We end up with pragmatic methodological naturalism. We don’t spend much time investigating the supernatural, because such investigations, of which there have been many, repeatedly come up empty.

    Intelligent Design is no exception. The dominant model for Paley and Cuvier, it was shown to be unnecessary by Darwin.

    We don’t rule out intelligent design a priori. If, for example, we have found the Ten Commandments written in enormous lettering on the far side of the moon, that (as Sagan pointed out) would indeed have been evidence for such design. But we didn’t.

    There remains the notorious fine tuning argument, where a Designer would probably do no harm, but be an explanation as mysterious as the thing to be explained, and an solve problems such as the origins of life, where invoking a Designer as explanation would be actively harmful by shutting down real research.

  11. Dr. Braterman notes

    If, for example, we have found the Ten Commandments written in enormous lettering on the far side of the moon, that (as Sagan pointed out) would indeed have been evidence for such design.

    I’ve always enjoyed the point Sagan made with that.

    But I have also wondered, what if we found a copy of the Ten Commandments engraved in stone on the far side of the moon–except, the word ‘not’ is entirely omitted from the current prohibitions and inserted in the current injunctions, e.g.

    Thou shalt commit adultery
    Thou shalt not respect thy father and thy mother, &c. &c.

    Wouldn’t that mess with everybody’s mind!

  12. @megalonyx:
    See the Wikipedia article on the “Wicked Bible”, an early edition of the KJV with the typo “Thou shalt commit adultery”.

  13. Ken Phelps

    “…at some point, infer design if sufficient empirical evidence were presented.”

    Well yes, because if there was empirical evidence then it would be f##king real. Nothing “unnatural” – whatever the hell that means – would be required. We would simply have failed to detect, up to that point, a part of the natural world that is, apparently, harder to detect or predict. Kind of like x-rays. What we had mistaken for the rules, hadn’t actually been the rules. The entire concept of naturalism vs something beyond natural is nonsensical. A thing is, or it is not. If we discover a thing that can apparently mess with nature in a “divine” manner, it just means we had hitherto misunderstood the nature of the universe.

    The entire premise of the article, and the entire needless distinction between methodology and metaphysics, is a pointless exercise in “let’s pretend”, aimed at trying to gussy up the fact that a lot of humanity wants to believe tripe.

  14. Believe it or not, I largely agree with WM the Third in his first few paragraphs.

    “Yet Dembski thinks that methodological naturalism effectively impedes scientific progress, in that it limits science to pursuing only natural causes. Forrest counters that methodological naturalism keeps science focused where it should be, on natural causes. Clearly, there is no reconciling these two positions.”
    It’s here that he goes wrong. And go wrong he must or else he must admit that IDiocy is worthless. If only the IDiots developed a reliable method to separate their correct claims from incorrect ones. Instead even more than the Good Rev Rives and Ayatollah Ol’ Hambo they parasitize on actual science (ie the results of methodological naturalism) only to make the salto mortale to a divine world at some random point – random, because they don’t even have a method to decide which points require such a salto mortale and which ones not. All this had been extensively documented by our dear SC.
    Instead WM the Third keeps on digging the pitfall he’s bound to fall into himself.

    “feel that God would leave no empirical evidence of himself”
    No way WM the Third is going to explain how this particular supernatural entity is pulling off such a thing.

    “if sufficient empirical evidence were presented”
    No way WM the Third is going to tell us when empirical evidence is sufficient for any and which supernatural entity0 and when not.

    “I have denied metaphysical doctrines the right to testify for or against any physical theory.”
    BWAGAGAGAGA! (that’s me, MNb, almost choking). WM the Third is a fan of the guy who wrote this and still does exactly that – testifying against Evolution Theory ‘cuz a metaphysical Grand Old Designer!

    Of course we cannot expect any IDiot to the one thing necessary to validate IDiocy: developing a reliable method independent of methodological naturalism. Exactly the observation that there is no such method is the justification of philosophical naturalism, so yes, it’s a small step.

  15. Ah well, TomS above essentially gave the same critique as I did, except far more concise and far less wordy. My compliments, you’re spot on.

  16. If I may, I would suggest that there is another domain of rules other than methodological naturalism.
    Mathematics and logic.
    And the fact that scientists, as well as historians, lawyers and others, including us ordinary folks, accept another methodology other than naturalism, just goes to show the weakness of supernaturalism. There is no methodological supernaturalism.

  17. @ TomS: thanks for alerting me to the ‘Wicked Bible’ of 1631!

    …But this raises a new question. How can we know that Moses hadn’t misheard God’s dictation of the 7th commandment atop Mount Sinai (he was elderly, after all, and likely suffered some standard age-induced impairment in hearing), and that the 1631 ‘misprint’ was actually the result of a divine intervention to set things straight?

    If ever there was a real need for a methodology of the supernatural, surely this is it!

  18. Paul states “…a Designer would probably do no harm, but be an explanation as mysterious as the thing to be explained.”

    Well put. This is a fundamental flaw of ID and any other belief which proposes supernatural explanations for natural phenomena. Regardless of how improbable, a sequence of natural events which happen without violating the known laws of nature will always be more likely than anything operating outside of the laws of nature.

  19. Michael Fugate

    I believe wholeheartedly that design is empirically detectable in nature.
    Talk about a priori beliefs – an agent god has to do something and Myers has no imagination, therefore his god made Adam out of dirt and spit.

  20. Design is in rules. It is a response to the way things behave, with a goal of changing behavior by applying rules.
    The only designs that we know about, by human designers (and by other living things, like birds, mammals, arthropods and others) are restrained by the laws of nature. The laws of thermodynamics, for example, were discovered by the restrictions on the clever designers of the Industrial Revolution.
    If the proponents of Intelligent Design have some different sort of “design”, something which breaks the rules of nature, then it is up to them to give us some idea about what rules that their “design” follows. If there are no such rules, then they are just saying “anything goes”, and that has no prospect of explaining “why this, rather than something else”.

  21. Eric Lipps

    Both Dembski and Forrest would agree that methodological naturalism is, in principle, metaphysically neutral. Both would also agree that methodological naturalism has no bearing on what practicing scientists may actually believe about the supernatural. Yet Dembski thinks that methodological naturalism effectively impedes scientific progress, in that it limits science to pursuing only natural causes. [Hee hee!] Forrest counters that methodological naturalism keeps science focused where it should be, on natural causes.

    Dembski thinks? I haven’t seen much evidence of that.

    As for his complaint that “methodological naturalism effectively impedes scientific progress, in that it limits science to pursuing only natural causes,” the exact opposite is true. If scientists were free to say, “Well, we haven’t found a natural explanation for this, so there has to be a supernatural one instead,” they’d stop looking for a natural explanation and (methodological?)supernaturalism would win by default. Which, I suspect, would please folks like Dembski no end, but would make scientific progress virtually impossible. If anything, it would reverse scientific advancement.

  22. At the point EricL arrived at I always like to point out that IDiots and other creacrappers never bring up superconductivity at relatively high temperatures as evidence for anything supernatural.

  23. Michael Fugate

    Narrow minds devoid of imagination. Intolerance, theories cut off from reality, empty terminology, usurped ideals, inflexible systems. Those are the things that really frighten me. What I absolutely fear and loathe. Of course it’s important to know what’s right and what’s wrong. Individual errors in judgement can usually be corrected. As long as you have the courage to admit mistakes, things can be turned around. But intolerant, narrow minds with no imagination are like parasites that transform the host, change form, and continue to thrive. They’re a lost cause, and I don’t want anyone like that coming in here.

    Appropriate rant from Oshima in Haruki Murakami’s “Kafka on the Shore”.

  24. docbill1351

    As an actual working scientist the only time I “worried” about this nonsense was in my sophomore college courses on the History and Philosophy of Science. An arcane 6 hour credit, fun and interesting, but totally useless in my life as a scientist.

    The Tooters, on the other hand, have a one trick pony and that is to sow doubt about science by waffling over all this nonsense as if it mattered. Silly Tooters, science is for adults!

  25. docbill, I think that history and philosophy of science should be built into our teaching, in the same way that safety is built into our teaching of laboratory practice, not just segregated in a separate course. What the evidence is for a particular conclusion, why it counts as good evidence, how the discovery came to be made, and what was at stake at the time of the discovery; for the last two decades of my teaching career I used this to leaven the mass, and wish I had done some from the outset.

    And we should also get rid of that infantile twaddle about “the” Scientific Method, (Start by making observations…), as if our discovery processes had not moved on since Francis Bacon

  26. docbill1351

    @Paul B

    I see your point. I could have written that “the history and philosophy of metallurgy was fun and interesting, but totally useless for my life as a blacksmith.”

  27. No it wasn’t. Would you ever have invented that new metal-pickling process if you hadn’t known about Herod’s Corinthian bronze?

Make a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s