Over at Telic Thoughts, macht has posted this reply to some of my earlier posts on the nature of science. I believe he is still missing most of the important points. But in the interest of making this into something constructive I will eschew a point-by-point rebuttal. Instead let me emphasize what I believe the key points to be, and clarify some things that may have been left unclear in some of my earlier posts.
First, science is not something that exists “out there,” with properties and characteristics that we come to know by experiment and hard work. Rather, science is a human invention. It is a project undertaken with a specific goal in mind. That goal is to understand nature, where understanding is measured by our ability to predict the results of experiments. (The term “experiment” should be construed broadly here). A commenter to macht’s post suggested that I came up with this criterion simply to try to justify MN as a doctrine. But that is not true. I picked that criterion because I believe it accurately describes how scientists view their enterprise.
The goal of science does not change. But the methods used to attain that goal do. We now have centuries of experience with what works and what doesn’t. The writings in holy books have frequently led us astray in the past, and so their testimony is no longer considered relevant to scientific practice. A commitment to naturalistic explanations and a rejection of the supernatural, even when the supernatural seemed like our only explanatory option, has routinely paid enormous dividends. So much so that virtually all practicing scientists today roll their eyes at the very idea of considering the supernatural.
The next point relates to something I wrote in my original essay. I said that science and nonscience are opposite ends of a continuum, not rigidly defined categories. I would now revise that somewhat. In theory, science and nonscience are, indeed, rigidly defined categories. If something moves us closer to our goal of predictibility then it is science, otherwise it is not. In many cases this criterion is easy to apply. Evolution clearly passes and creationism clearly does not. But there are many other cases where it is simply difficult to apply the criterion. String theory comes to mind. The effect of this in practice is that there is a grey area where it is not clear if something is science or nonscience. That was what I had in mind in talking about a continuum in my essay.
So what about the supernatural? Can hypotheses involving the supernatural ever bring us closer to our goal? Well, I would first note that it has never once happened that scientists have found supernatural hypotheses to be helpful in predicting the outcomes of experiments. Scientists have been inspired by supernatural ideas certainly, but those ideas play no role in their finished work. Indeed, it is precisely the observed futility of supernatural hypotheses that has led so many people, myself included, to think of science as an activity characterized by methodological naturalism. A further problem is the vagueness of the term “supernatural.” Many people simply define supernatural in a way that makes “a testable, prediction-making theory based on the supernatural” an oxymoron. Every philosopher I am aware of who makes MN an essential part of science, not just as it is conceived today but forever, is thinking of MN in that way. In other words, I don’t think they would disagree with my emphasis on predictibility.
I won’t go quite as far as saying that it is fundamentally impossible that supernatural hypotheses could ever be part of science. It seems to me that in principle you could hypothesize not only that a certain supernatural entity exists, but that it has certain motives that render its actions predictible. I’ll be amazed if anyone ever makes such a hypothesis actually work in practice. But its bare possibility is enough to make me stop short of saying that the supernatural could never, under any circumstances, be part of science.
We can say a few things though. The first is that the possible truth of supernatural hypotheses is of zero relevance to deciding whether they can properly be considered part of science. This is a fundamental flaw in the reasoning of Alvin Plantinga, as I described in my original essay.
The second is that it will never be scientific to offer a hypothesis of the form, “A designer with unspecified motives and abilities took some unspecified action at some point in the course of natural history.” Since that is precisely what ID folks offer us (they are adamant that we can infer nothing about the motives or abilities of the designer from their work), there is no hope that anything like modern ID will ever be scientific.
The third is that any hypothesis that is a “science stopper,” in the sense that it doesn’t lead to any experimental predictions, can never be part of a proper scientific theory. This is a second flaw in Plantinga’s argument.
The burden of proof lies with people who believe scientists should abandon their commitment to naturalistic explanations.
The final point is that this discussion really does matter. It is unfortunate that this is so. As I note in my essay, in a better world everyone would simply note that the specific arguments ID folks make are wrong on the merits and that would be the end of it. But as I also note in my essay, sometimes this issue ends up in court, and in that conext it is important to decide what is science and what is not. And it is certainly true that MN provides an excellent criterion for deciding, by today’s standards, whether something is scientific or not. I know of nothing that modern scientists commony regard as science that violates MN, and I know of nothing related to explaining some aspect of the natural world that both adheres to MN and is considered out of bounds to modern science. Whether you construe it as a rule that scientific practice must adhere to, or whether you view it as a shorthand way of affirming our commitment to rendering nature predictable and controllable makes little difference. The fact remains that it works pretty darn well in separating science from nonscience.
And by every standard considered important by modern scientists, whether you call it MN or falsifiability or whatever, ID plainly isn’t science. It isn’t even close.