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.


  1. #1 alistair
    May 25, 2006

    the supernatural can be considered that which hasn`t been measured yet. science doesn`t need to consider anything that can`t be measured by existing devices. that is it`s achilles heel. granted, science isn`t philosophy, but it comes off as myopic and arrogant to some observers without vested interest in tenure and funding. some want science to be looking for answers to the supernatural, which has a pervasive consistancy within the world of consciousness. some scientists sick of the tautology of it all show a willingness to follow thier questions into realms of the unmeasurable and unproveable. this is what science is all about………otherwise we are just re-measuring the same old things and going to the same old conferences and “proving” the same old positions. bit sad really.

  2. #2 a maine yankee
    May 25, 2006

    I noticed that Chromosome l has been successfully “decoded”. I can’t imagine that such an achievement is “just re-measuring the same old things and going to the same old conferences and “proving” the same old positions. bit sad really.”

    Nothing new under the sun, eh?

  3. #3 a maine yankee
    May 25, 2006

    (Sorry for the extra post)

    From Nature: The DNA sequence and biological annotation of human chromosome 1


  4. #4 alistair
    May 25, 2006

    what`s new about chromasomes? new would be something like how the mechanism got here in the first place. first cause please, not subsequent……….
    we can count all the bricks in a building and use that to develop a model to predict what the next building will look like and then if we find one similar then we can jump up and down an say how powerful our accounting procedure is in predicting the future. but the procedure would have done nothing about lending insight into the use of buildings, or why they were built, or who actually built them. or are these questions unimportant in the industry of measurement?

  5. #5 tnewell
    May 25, 2006

    Umm, alistair, I think you’ve missed the point. Yes we’ve known about chromosomes for a while, and we even know that chromosomes consist of genes that regulate processes in the body. But we didn’t have an inventory of what genes are are on what chromosomes. Now we do. We understand what the “building looks like” and it will actually help us understand “the use of [those] buildings”.

    On another note, I think the dual categories of science/not-science are fine. It’s just that some things are not yet categorizeable. You can go after all kinds of phenomena with the scientific method, that doesn’t make it science until you can get repeatable results.

    Nice article.

  6. #6 LiberPaul
    May 25, 2006

    The supernatural remains logically possible, and thus an option for belief, only because it is not susceptible to confirmation or disconfirmation on the basis of evidence. But this status is permanent–the metaphysical status of supernaturalism as at most a logical possibility will never change. To become more than a logical possibility, supernaturalism must be confirmed with unequivocal empirical evidence, and such confirmation would only demonstrate that this newly verified aspect of reality had all along never been supernatural at all, but rather a natural phenomenon which just awaited an appropriate scientific test. Barbara Forrest

    Enough said….. Thanks Barbara

  7. #7 Daniel
    May 25, 2006

    You seem to misunderstand the enterprise of science a bit. (The vast majority of) scientists aren’t trying to ignore that which can’t be currently measured, nor even that which can’t conceivably ever be measured (e.g. God and the assertions of Faith). The scientific community is merely saying that such speculation is not science.

    Maybe we should remind you of the flip side – religion is far more “myopic” than science is, often asserting faith-based dogma in the face of overwhelming contradictory evidence that science presents.

    Yet, we allow (and need) these two areas, religion and science, to exist separately. This is what the backlash against Intelligent Design is all about – theological scholars intruding into science’s domain. We don’t want preists dictating science to us from the Bible, just as you don’t want religion being instructed to you from Darwin’s Origin of the Species (or any other book of science).

    And you’re absolutely right, that there are some things in this world that are worth believing in, even if you don’t know for sure that such things are true. But Special Creation isn’t one of them, is it? I sure don’t think so.

  8. #8 Paul
    May 27, 2006

    I hope I am not duplicating any comments on the previous posts.

    Could not a conceptual difficulty be part of the body of science, when considering scientific theories? For example, Ptolemy was able to predict positions of the planets, but apparently had a severe difficulty in accounting for the apparent size of the moon.

    Also I can remember when popular science books would present the Big Bang and Steady State Theory side by side, since there was then no way of deciding bewteen them, although both theories had their conceptual difficulti

  9. #9 Pi Guy
    May 31, 2006

    LiberPaul hits the nail on the head. If it’s observed, it not suprenatural – just difficult to observe scientifically.

    I don’t think that IDers really want god to be observed. If a device is constructed that indicates the presence or actions of god, well, then that god is no longer supernatural but has been reduced to, dare I say, a natural phenomenom. Could such a god – sans omnipotence and omniscience – really create anything?

    I think that the best argument for excluding supernatural explanations from the Science Filing Cabinet is that it is not reproducible. If an experimenter doesn’t believe, will the supernatural still intervene? This CARTOON
    says a great deal about the Scientific Enterprise and what constitutes a reasonable premise to scientists.

    ID is contingent on just such a miracle (i.e.: an event that defies naturalistic explanation) having occured. Nobody says you can’t believe it. Scientists only ask to be left alone to determine what is and is not science.

  10. #10 Pi Guy
    May 31, 2006

    Ptolemy’s model was good at predicting some but not all things. So if you wanted to know where to look at night to find Venus, it worked well enough. How big is the moon? Not so swell. Later, when better observational and mathematical techniques were applied, the Copernican model was simpler and had more predictive power.

    The struggle over the Big Bang and Steady State models was that, at the time of the controversy, data that would have convinced scientists one way or the other was not available. That is not the case for evolution and ID. Scientists (and I generalize here) are overwhelmingly convinced that the data points toward the reasonableness of evolution. As far as I know, there is no body of evidence, data, confirmed predictions, peer-reviewed support, etc., that leads to an ID hypothesis other than rote, non-reproducible anecdotes.

  11. #11 paul
    May 31, 2006

    Pi Guy

    I appreciate your explanations. I’m not an ID’er, btw.

  12. #12 Robert Skipper
    June 5, 2006

    Predictability isn’t nearly strong enough. Differently put, saving the phenomena can’t be the goal of science. We’ve got to be right about how nature works, not merely predictively accurate. This is not to say that we can always achieve the truth. But, to be sure, it must be the goal.

  13. #13 island
    June 10, 2006

    This has nothing to do with ID nor god, but the current concept of “Methodological Naturalism” is a New-Age idea that falls from the *assumption* that there are no hidden variables that determine the evolution of the universe ala, LaPlace’s Demon. In which case, teleology is a perfectly valid concept, given intinsic finality… and the “why” questions CAN be answered in a scientific frame, within this context.

    So, it’s back to the drawing board kiddies… because you forgot Einstein’s view, where “god”, (meaning nature), does not throw dice”… and don’t hand me no crap about spinoza