In what seems to be a bit of a continuation on his earlier post (which I talked about yesterday), Larry Moran has another post up on the whole “is science ever compatible with religion” thing. At the end of the post, he asks a very good question – one that gets right at something that’s very important:
So, what exactly are the limitations of science that we are supposed to adhere to? Earlier I criticized the concept of methodological naturalism because it seemed to rule out investigations of the paranormal as well as investigations of miracles. Robert Pennock, another philosopher, was asked about that during his testimony and he had a ready answer. See if you are convinced.
Q. Isn’t it true that as we sit here today scientists are investigating what some people call psychic powers?
A. I know that there are a few scientists who did that I believe. Mack is one name, someone who’s done this. So there are a few scientists who have done that, that’s right, and what they do in that case is really the same thing. It’s often misunderstood to think, to call something paranormal means that it is supernatural. Essentially what’s going on in those scientific investigations is to say no, that’s not so. We will again treat this purported phenomenon, ESP or telekinesis for example, as though this is a natural, still yet unknown, but ordinary causal process, treating it essentially in the same way we treat other things under the constraints of methodological naturalism, reconceptualizing it as a natural thing rather than a supernatural.
Cool. You can investigate the paranormal because it’s not supernatural and you can treat it as a potential natural phenomenon. Presumably you will reach the conclusion that is is not a paranormal event.
But for some reason you can’t do that for miracles and the role of God in theistic evolution. That’s forbidden science.
Excuse me if I’m confused.
Actually, there are cases – quite a few of them, in fact – where theological statements can be investigated scientifically, and where they can, and have, been shown to be false. The circumstances that surround these cases are very similar to cases where ESP, ghosts, ghoulies, and things that go bump in the night have been investigated by science.
The common thread that connects these cases, and, more importantly, excludes quite a few others, is fairly simple: there is some sort of set of measurable criteria that all parties – skeptic or otherwise – recognize as a required consequence of whatever is being investigated.
I’m aware that might not be as clear as I’d like, so let me try to illustrate it with an example that most of us are familiar with: the Biblical Flood.
If the physical evidence we see in the world around us clearly indicates – and it does – that there has not been a recent flood covering the entire world, there are really only two possible explanations: either a flood did not take place, or it did, but the same supernatural power that created the flood also caused all of the evidence for the flood to vanish.
Theists (for the most part) reject that second option because it would require the action of a malicious and dishonest deity that they do not believe in. This means that both theists and atheists accept that any global flood should have left behind physical evidence, and that scientific evidence can decide the question. That’s why those who believe that the flood really did happen exactly the way the Bible says it did go through such extensive contortions to try to show some scientific foundation for their beliefs.
Going back to the example of transubstantiation, there are cases where no such test can be found. You might believe that such a substantial transformation should require physical evidence of a change, but the longstanding church doctrine specifies that there will be no discernible difference. Believers have absolutely no reason to accept scientific tests that show that nothing physically changes in the bread as evidence that transubstantiation is false. You can test for what you think should be there, but at that point you are testing what you think they should believe. You still have not scientifically investigated what they actually believe.
There are theists who believe in a God who is interested in and intervenes in the world, but who do not expect to ever find physical evidence for intervention. They see no reason to assume that an artist capable of creating the universe would leave fingerprints all over the thing anytime he touches it. They do not think that the existence of a naturalistic explanation for something means that it cannot also be the product of divine intent. You cannot effectively investigate that belief, because there is nothing you could find that would be inconsistent with it. It’s a belief system that relies entirely on faith.
You can argue that such a belief system is totally insane, completely irrational, entirely unreasonable, and just plain silly. But that’s not a scientific investigation of the belief system itself. You can even try arguing that those beliefs are internally inconsistent with other beliefs that they profess having – but there you are not just failing to make a scientific case, you’ve shifted and are arguing the case on purely theological grounds.
So what’s left? I can only see two options. You can come up with a scientific test that is compatible with your own determination of what people should actually expect to see based on your own view of what the nuances of their beliefs should be. The results of such a test can even reasonably be used to justify your own personal rejection of that belief. Attempting to apply the results more broadly simply doesn’t work – you wind up arguing with what you think should exist, rather than what’s actually there. Or you can simply admit, however reluctantly, that there are some beliefs that science cannot investigate, because there is no set of physical findings that is incompatible with those beliefs.
I can see that being frustrating, but I’m not sure why it’s all that confusing.