I had not intended to go another round with Chris Mooney. But since his latest post mentions me specifically, and does so in a very unfair way, I feel compelled to respond.
Scientists do indeed rely on materialistic explanations of nature, but it is important to understand that this is not an a priori philosophical commitment. It is, rather, the best research strategy that has evolved from our long-standing experience with nature. There was a time when God was a part of science. Newton thought that his research on physics helped clarify God’s celestial plan. So did Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist who devised our current scheme for organizing species. But over centuries of research we have learned that the idea “God did it” has never advanced our understanding of nature an iota, and that is why we abandoned it.
I thought that was an admirably clear statement of what methodological naturalism is all about. Jerry Coyne subsequently confirmed that I had interpreted him correctly.
Here is Chris’ reply:
The Jerry Coyne debate reached temporary hiatus late last week with Coyne invoking Rosenhouse to defend himself against my charge that he has violated the methodological vs. philosophical naturalism distinction. Coyne doesn’t appear to think he commits this foul; and yet he writes in The New Republic, in a line not quoted by Rosenhouse, that “supernatural phenomena are not completely beyond the realm of science.”
If you accept the MN/PN distinction as I have outlined it, or as Robert Pennock does in Tower of Babel, it is hard see how one can claim this.
It is blogging 101 that you don’t present a single sentence fragment as definitive of an author’s views. I did not cite this particular fragment because the paragraph I did cite, the one in which Coyne very clearly expressed the distinction between methdological and philosophical naturalism and explained why scientists place such confidence in the methodological variety, seemed far more relevant.
So let’s look at that fragment. Most people would see the phrase “not completely beyond” and surmise that Coyne’s point was something like, “Most of the time science has nothing to say about the supernatural, but there could be certain very unusual situations where that is not the case.” Reading just one sentence further would have shown this interpretation to be correct. Coyne wrote:
Despite [Stephen Jay] Gould’s claims to the contrary, supernatural phenomena are not completely beyond the realm of science. All scientists can think of certain observations that would convince them of the existence of God or supernatural forces.
I’d say that second sentence provides important context for the first. How might science be able to say something about the supernatural? By discovering things that are so far beyond what natural causes can explain that the supernatural seems like the only reasonable explanation. Coyne gives a few examples in that regard. Here’s one of my own. Suppose the faces on Mt. Rushmore started talking. More than that, they are actually able to provide verifiable answers to any question put to them, including questions that have to date stumped human researchers. I would start thinking seriously about the supernatural, wouldn’t you?
Obviously that’s pretty flamboyant, but it’s just to illustrate the point. The issue becomes more salient when you consider that Coyne was responding to a specific statement from Karl Giberson:
In a common error, Giberson confuses the strategic materialism of science with an absolute commitment to a philosophy of materialism. He claims that “if the face of Jesus appeared on Mount Rushmore with God’s name signed underneath, geologists would still have to explain this curious phenomenon as an improbable byproduct of erosion and tectonics.” Nonsense. There are so many phenomena that would raise the specter of God or other supernatural forces: faith healers could restore lost vision, the cancers of only good people could go into remission, the dead could return to life, we could find meaningful DNA sequences that could have been placed in our genome only by an intelligent agent, angels could appear in the sky. The fact that no such things have ever been scientifically documented gives us added confidence that we are right to stick with natural explanations for nature. And it explains why so many scientists, who have learned to disregard God as an explanation, have also discarded him as a possibility.
Browsing through Giberson’s book just now I have not managed to locate that particular quote. But if Giberson really intended to argue that a scientist must accept wildly implausible naturalistic explanations rather than entertain a supernatural possibility then I think Coyne has it exactly right.
Methdological naturalism is an investigatory strategy that scientists have found to be consistently useful. Philosophical naturalism is a view of the universe that denies any role to supernatural entities like God or angels. The point of drawing a distinction between them is to stress that someone can accept MN for its usefulness in its proper domain, but reject PN as a way of viewing the world. Many ID folks, especially Phillip Johnson, have been keen to deny this point, which, as I recall, is why Robert Pennock first thought to call attention to the distinction in his writing.
None of that has anything to do with whether we can imagine observations that would convince a reasonable person of the reality of the supernatural, which was what Coyne was talking about here.
There are other parts of Chris’ post that I find objectionable, but I’d rather explore MN a bit further.
A number of years ago I attended an ID conference near Kansas City. The conference included a one-act play called “The Rule.” It told the story of an open-minded high school teacher who just wanted to teach “origins science” objectively, but was thwarted from doing so by an arrogant, dogmatic school board atheist and a humorless attorney from the ACLU. The teacher violated “The Rule,” you see. That is, he was not toeing the line on methodological naturalism, and therefore he was not allowed to get a hearing on the merits of his arguments.
Many scientists have played into the hands of this sort of argument by making, “It’s not science!” their lead argument against ID. I railed against this sort of thing in this post. The question of whether ID lives up to some particular definition of science is hardly the main issue in deciding whether ID has any good arguments to make.
If you are in court trying to prove that ID is religion masquerading as science, it is perfectly reasonable to show, as part of your case, that ID does not possess the sorts of attributes that one expects from science. An adherence to MN is certainly one of those attributes. If that were the sum total of the case against ID then I would not be very impressed. But as one part of a larger case that includes an understanding of the history of ID and an expose of the vacuity of ID arguments I think it is very powerful and reasonable.
The problem comes when you try to make MN into a hard and fast rule that now and forever defines what science is. I can imagine a counter argument to some of what I have said before. It could be argued that while it is easy to imagine fanciful events that would convince a reasonable person of the reality of the supernatural, it would still be true that that conclusion should not be regarded as part of science. It is instead a decision to abandon science, at least with regard to the event in question.
I would not agree with that. I would say that unambiguous evidence of the reality of the supernatural would be a good reason to change our notions of what science is. I think Coyne described the situation very well. MN is a position scientists have arrived at because of the repeated failure of supernatural hypotheses to advance our understanding of nature. It is an accurate description of how scientists carry out their work today. It is not, however, a weapon to be brandished as an excuse for ignoring possible supernatural explanations for some bit of data.
It might be argued that supernatural explanations are not useful in understanding nature. In science we measure usefulness via confirmed predictions, and it is hard to see how supernatural hypotheses can ever lead to any such things. For the most part I agree with that. I would only add that knowledge of a supernatural realm should be considered useful all by itself. If the evidence clearly pointed in that direction it would be silly to say that scientists, at least in their professional lives, would have to ignore it.
A final argument I have seen is that the whole natural/supernatural distinction is too simplistic to be useful. If Mt. Rushmore started talking, that would just be evidence that the natural world is far greater than we previously realized. If it happens, it’s natural.
I don’t accept this either. Think of fish swimming in a small tank in someone’s living room. For the fish there are clear laws that can not be violated. Their whole world is bounded by walls that are impenetrable for them, for example. They have very limited abilities to alter their physical environment. As a human being I am not subject to those restrictions. I can reach into their world and make all kinds of changes to their environment. Any fish scientist seeing the extraordinary changes I can make would be right to conclude that there is nothing from within the tank that can explain such wondrous changes. The best conclusion is that their are entities in the world not subject to the restrictions of the tank.
By the same token, we could imagine entities not bound by our known physical laws. They can reach in from outside, as it were, and make changes we can’t comprehend. In principle we could imagine evidence for such changes, events so miraculous and contrary to everything we think we know about nature that intervention from outside would be the best available explanation.
You could reply that the fish are genuinely ignorant of the extent of the natural world, just as we might be, but that misses the point. Sure, those agents who reach into our world from outside might be part of a larger natural world we know nothing about. It’s still useful to draw a distinction between creatures who have to abide by our known physical laws and other creatures who do not. If God came down to Earth and performed vairous tricks for our amusement, wantonly acting in defiance of known natural laws, our response would not be to abandon the laws. We would instead say simply that some entities in the universe are not bound by the same laws as human beings. From our perspective such entities would be supernatural.
Okay, enough. There’s much more to say, obviously, but I’ll call it a day for now.