Methodological Naturalism

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.

Chris has decided that Jerry Coyne is confused about the distinction between methodological and philosophical naturalism. In my last post I pointed out that Coyne wrote, in his New Republic essay:

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.”

Say what?

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.

Comments

  1. #1 TomS
    June 9, 2009

    Have you seen Sahotra Sarkar’s recent online Synthese paper, “The science question in intelligent design” DOI:10.1007/s11229-009-9540-x?

    I believe that he agrees with you that methodological naturalism is not a necessity for science – although he does argue that ID is not science, but for the simple reason that there is no substance to it, there being no treatment of concepts such as “intelligent”.

  2. #2 qetzal
    June 9, 2009

    Nice post.

    Part of the problem in these debates is the common tactic of defining supernatural as entirely outside the realm of science. Advocates of this definition seem to think that proves that God (or whatever) could exist and not be amenable to scientific investigation.

    The problem with that approach, IMO, is that anything able to interact with the physical universe cannot be totally outside the realm of science. If angels appeared in the sky, or the earth suddenly stopped rotating, or we found a deep sea bacterium whose DNA encoded the King James Bible, science might not be able to explain, but it could certainly observe it. Science could document that the phenomenon was real, and inconsistent with all known ‘natural’ explanations (as you point out). In other words, such phenomenon would not be entirely outside the realm of science.

    If you truly want to define supernatural as completely beyond science, that’s fine with me. But in that case, I don’t think a supernatural God could interact with our universe at all. And if He can’t interact with us, ever, does it even mean anything to argue whether He exists?

  3. #3 Magnetic Lobster
    June 9, 2009

    Jason, well said.

    Mooney is so thoroughly rebutted by the commenters on his own blog I almost feel sorry for him.

  4. #4 Moq
    June 9, 2009

    Why is the supernatural explanation any less “wildly implausible” than a “wildly implausible naturalistic” explanation?

    To me the supernatural seems less useful than “I don’t know”.

  5. #5 NJ
    June 9, 2009

    Mooney is so thoroughly rebutted by the commenters on his own blog I almost feel sorry for him.

    Does that mean he’ll close up shop there and move to another venue?

    {/idle snark}

  6. #6 Jason Rosenhouse
    June 9, 2009

    TomS –

    I haven’t seen Sarkar’s paper yet. Synthese is having a special issue on ID and I’ve read several of the other papers. I liked Sarkar’s book on this subject, so I wouldn’t be surprised if I like his paper as well.

  7. #7 John Kwok
    June 9, 2009

    @ 3 –

    Am not really impressed with most of the posts over at Mooney’s blog. Only Glen Davidson makes some really useful points about the difference between methodological and philosophical naturalism, but I don’t quite agree that the strengths of the arguments rest slightly on Coyne’s side.

  8. #8 smijer
    June 9, 2009

    Very well said. I’m in substantial agreement in my understanding of the methodological/philosophical distinction.

    I don’t know how well Coyne understands it. You’re right that he doesn’t betray a misunderstanding in the paragraph Mooney quoted from. But, he seems to believe that science and religion are irreconcilable, but he generally makes arguments that apply to philosophical naturalism, but not to methodological naturalism. Likewise numerous of the commenters on some of Mooney’s posts. I wish everyone understood it as well as you do.

  9. #9 bad Jim
    June 10, 2009

    Those who draw a distinction between philosophical and methodological naturalism seem to take as a given that the supernatural has no discernible effect upon the natural world, and indeed NOMA is untenable without that assumption, which is tantamount to deism.

    Coyne and Rosenhouse are agnostic in that respect, and note correctly that scientists historically have excluded supernatural explanations on practical grounds rather than on principle. As Laplace famously said concerning God’s influence on celestial mechanics, “Je n’avais pas besoin de cette hypothese-la” (I don’t have no need of that there hypothesis).

  10. #10 Jason Rosenhouse
    June 10, 2009

    smijer –

    Glad you liked the post. There are a few places where I think Coyne goes overboard a bit, even though I’m mostly in agreement with him on these sorts of issues. For example, he seems to think that it is genuinely anti-science to ever invoke a miracle, say, to explain the virgin birth of Jesus. I wouldn’t say it is necessarily anti-science to do that, just that it is not really reasonable or evidentially justified.

  11. #11 solomon
    June 10, 2009

    Chris Mooney,
    I’am coming to your rescue.For all the Atheists out there,please believe there is God, God of the heavens & the earth,that is the God of Moses,Abraham,Jesus(the real one) & Mohammad.Don’t you see people, when someone mention about ID only, the non believers has no answer to it.I see that they are just creating reasons to twist it.When some foolish scholars bring about the lousy evolution or big bang theory, suddenly flocks of fools believe it,without realy think & reasoning it.If man evolve from apes we all might have been running around naked on the streets like their animal forefathers.That does’nt happens why?Humans are themselves a special creation or breed,different from all animals.They are given by God ‘Thoughts’the feelings of ‘SHYNESS’and many other Human values.Thats the difference between human & animals.And another thing why only human fuck their mate front to front.You can witness all the animals,even the insects fuck their mate from the back.Does that show Charles Darwin is a big liar??And what is nature?It’s just a word created by the Atheists scholars.Is it a living being with intelligent mind & imagination which can create everything you see around you??Can nature create the earth & stars with its heavenly bodies,with its perfect systems??That is only a minute part of Gods creation.How can the Atheists become so silly to believe nature create all that.Even a simple table needs to be imagined & build by a carpenter.
    And one thing they(the Atheists)have misused the knowledge of science God has granted them.God have only granted a minute part of his knowledge yet you can see how they behave.Can’t they imagine there is a far higher knowledge than science.Science is a chicken feed subject to God.Think people,think & re think.I’am only paving the way for one who is seeking for truth.

  12. #12 Richard Wein
    June 10, 2009

    Jason, you wrote: “I thought that was an admirably clear statement of what methodological naturalism is all about.”

    It was an admirably clear statement of what Coyne means by MN. But accommodationists usually mean something else. They define MN to be an absolute exclusion of supernatural claims from science. Interestingly, when I first discussed this issue with Nick Matzke some years ago, he agreed with me that MN should be considered a “rule of thumb” to which there could in principle be exceptions. Subsequently, after he went to work for the NCSE, he adopted the accommodationist party line, and switched to the absolutist definition of MN.

    I would be interested to know who first coined the phrase MN, and how they defined it. But that’s not really important. Given that it can mean two different things, you just have to be careful to ensure you are clear about the sense in which it is being used.

    Strictly speaking, I would argue that the whole natural/supernatural distinction is pointless as far as science is concerned. It’s the principle of parsimony that leads scientists to reject far out explanations. The sort of explanations that we label “supernatural” are particularly unparsimonious. But suppose that, instead of claiming that “God did it” or “ghosts did it”, I proposed the explanation “unknown extraterrestrials did it using super-advanced technologies based on unknown laws of physics which enable them to do things that seem impossible given the laws of physics as we understand them”. We probably wouldn’t call that a “supernatural” explanation, but it’s scarcely less unparsimonious than those that we do.

    Russell Blackford makes the point very well here:
    http://metamagician3000.blogspot.com/2009/05/natural-and-supernatural-again.html
    http://metamagician3000.blogspot.com/2009/05/nas-on-compatibility-of-science-and.html

  13. #13 Dunc
    June 10, 2009

    All scientists can think of certain observations that would convince them of the existence of God or supernatural forces.

    I’d always opt for “sufficiently advanced aliens” over “God or supernatural forces”…

  14. #14 John Kwok
    June 10, 2009

    @ Dunc –

    Just to irritate the IDiots, I tell them that there’s more proof for Klingon culture than there is for the mendacious intellectual pornography known as Intelligent Design cretinism.

  15. #15 smijer
    June 10, 2009

    @Jason #12

    It’s funny though, that the importance for NOMA or other reconciliation schemes is in the distinction itself, not in whether MN is a “philosophical commitment”. In fact, the name “MN” implies that it is not a philosophical commitment – and also implies that wider epistemological questions do not belong under the heading of it.

    Science – that is empirical method does not and cannot rule out the possibility of anything that it cannot directly falsify on the observed evidence. Instead, it (as Coyne says) “discards” those ideas that have become useless to it. After this, we enter a philosophical discussion about whether ideas useless to science but unfalsified by same might still be true or have value. It’s a long chain of reasoning, but I believe they do not have value and have no claim on truth. Yet my differences with those who believe such things may be true & have value are epistemelogical in nature, not empirical.

  16. #16 llewelly
    June 10, 2009

    Part of the problem in these debates is the common tactic of defining supernatural as entirely outside the realm of science. Advocates of this definition seem to think that proves that God (or whatever) could exist and not be amenable to scientific investigation.

    Hm? It seems to me advocates of defining supernatural as entirely outside the realm of science believe that if God existed it would be amenable to scientific investigation, and therefor, natural.

  17. #17 KeithB
    June 10, 2009

    What you are saying seems to be the opposite of the Sherlock Holmes quote. There are some observations that, once you eliminate the improbable leave only the impossible.

    We could also call this parody of scientific thinking as the “Horror Movie Skeptic” syndrome. There is always a character that will declare that the horrors they are experiencing are not real even though the evidence is literally painfully obvious.

  18. #18 Anthony McCarthy
    June 10, 2009

    It might be argued that supernatural explanations are not useful in understanding nature.

    It might be even more useful to admit that science can only study that part of the material universe which it can observe, quantify, analyze, and review. Which I’d always been told was the definition of what science was able to do. But Coyne and a number of new atheists don’t like that because they so, so want science to address the supernatural.

    As you can see from this post, that pseudo-scientific assertion can cause problems when you want to keep religion out of public high school science class rooms.

    Science is too involved and exigent in its requirements to handle even the material problems that it could possibly explain now. There isn’t the staffing or funding available. And yet Coyne wants it to do things that it clearly can’t. That’s a mighty big problem for science, considering that idea has already become influential within science to a far greater extent than religious belief ever will be.

  19. #19 smijer
    June 10, 2009

    @Anthony McCarthy #18

    It might be even more useful to admit that science can only study that part of the material universe which it can observe, quantify, analyze, and review.

    Coyne, et al, suggest specific cases where the supernatural would be available for observation, analysis and review. I can imagine also quantification. He is technically correct, certain types of supernatural claims can be scientifically assessed. Rosenhouse is also correct in thinking that in a world where the supernatural were ubiquitously manifested in observable ways, science as methodological naturalism would be insufficient and without value – science would need to incorporate a method that could involve supernatural explanation.

    Where Coyne goes wrong (to my understanding) is that he blurs or fails to grasp the distinction between scientific method – which everyone agrees is near-universally a naturalistic one – and epistemic or metaphysical philosophy – which comes in more than one flavor.

  20. #20 smijer
    June 10, 2009

    I notice my comment #15 should have been addressed to Richard Wein instead of Jason. Sorry.

  21. #21 KeithB
    June 10, 2009

    It is very easy, and studies have been done, to study the efficacy of prayer. Now, if any of these studies had shown any conclusive results, Science may have had to adjust things.

  22. #22 Anthony McCarthy
    June 10, 2009

    Coyne, et al, suggest specific cases where the supernatural would be available for observation, analysis and review

    I don’t buy that, but even if it was true you would have no way of knowing how much if any of what you know from the experience and observation of the natural universe would apply or whether or not your assumptions about it were valid and applicable. If you could be certain of all of those, you wouldn’t be talking about the “supernatural” but of the natural universe.

    You know, this reminds me so much of that old atheist “proof” that there couldn’t be an immaterial soul, that there would be no way for the two realms of existence to interact. Not that I bought the validity of that idea, just it’s so strange to see the ultra-atheists now claiming that there could be an intersection between the two.

    KeithB, those studies on the “efficacy of prayer” were so stupidly conceived and carried out that none of them could be of any knowable validity. There is no evidence that “prayer” was happening in any of the trials or that any two people who were “praying” were actually doing the same thing. Just for a start.

  23. #23 smijer
    June 10, 2009

    I think Rosenhouse’ suggestion of a talking Mount Rushmore would certainly be open to observation, etc… surely such things would pose difficult questions on classification and definitions and bring difficult epistemological questions… I’m just pointing out that Coyne, et al, aren’t entirely wrong to suggest special cases where the supernatural could impinge on the natural in measurable ways. And also pointing out that it doesn’t matter in context of the reconciliation debate.

  24. #24 Anthony McCarthy
    June 10, 2009

    I’d have suggested a cable channel but the new atheists would take it over and drive even more people into the arms of the creationists.

  25. #25 Jim Harrison
    June 10, 2009

    These discussions presuppose that the practice of science really does or at least should follow some unitary methodology and that this methodology (empiricism, naturalism, whatever) is independent of the content to which it is applied. It seems to me, however, that the rules and procedures discussed in the introductory chapter of the textbook have little to do with science in the lab. Discussions of methodology have an apolegetic or public relations function and also serve to create a positive self-image for the scientists. The recommended methods are far too abstract to actually distinguish legitimate science from crank science or mere magic: the sciences do have their methods. These ways are inextricably bound up with particular subject areas and are learned, like other complex cultural activities, by a process of imitation and initiation.

  26. #26 KeithB
    June 10, 2009

    The point is that you *can* study the efficacy of prayer – I know that all the current studies are bunk.

  27. #27 Anthony McCarthy
    June 10, 2009

    Jim Harrison, in this discussion on several blogs, it’s always seemed as if a lot of the people involved are afraid of religion flooding into science and ruining it. Where’s the evidence of that happening? There isn’t any law against someone trying it but it doesn’t happen because people know it’s not the purpose of what they’re doing. Maybe more so, they know they’d immediately become a laughing stock and likely see their career end.

    It’s really odd that so many professional scientists don’t have real faith in the normal mechanisms of what they do. I’d point out some real problems that are there and which have nothing to do with religion but which they aren’t concerned with. Making up stories about behavior and culture in the Pleistocene, based on absolutely no evidence has given me a real problem. It’s all too self-serving to not produce false conclusions.

    The problems of the dueling -isms seems to be largely make believe too.

  28. #28 Jr
    June 10, 2009

    Great post.

    I have always fought of the commitment to methodological naturalism as akin to the commitment to the laws of thermodynamcis. It is no part of the definition of a scientific theory that they can’t contradict the laws of thermodynamics buy we have found that all successful scientific theories are compatible with the laws of thermodynamics.

  29. #29 cm
    June 10, 2009

    Does anyone else get the feeling that all this discussion between Coyne, Mooney, and Rosenhouse (and others?) need not be anywhere near this drawn out?

  30. #30 John Kwok
    June 10, 2009

    @ cm,

    Absolutely. However, I wouldn’t start with the online squabbling amongst Coyne, Mooney ahd Rosenhouse. I’d begin at the beginning, with Coyne’s New Republic essay condemning science advocacy/professional scientific organizations such as NCSE, NAS and AAAS for having an “accomodationist” stance with respect to religion. I regard that as especially silly since NCSE doesn’t have an official position, contrary to what Coyne, and then, later, Myers – as well as others – have contended. I regard it as especially stupid since all of those opposing “accomodationist” positions seem to have forgotten that they live in a country, the United States, where the freedom of religion is guaranteed under the First Amendment. So for that reason alone, it seems utterly pointless to criticize scientists and scientific organizations for having an “accomodationist” stance. They also ignore the possibility that they are merely giving creos ample more ammunition for them to contend quite inanely that “belief” in evolution EQUALS DENIAL OF GOD.

  31. #31 cm
    June 10, 2009

    John Kwok said:

    I regard it as especially stupid since all of those opposing “accomodationist” positions seem to have forgotten that they live in a country, the United States, where the freedom of religion is guaranteed under the First Amendment. So for that reason alone, it seems utterly pointless to criticize scientists and scientific organizations for having an “accomodationist” stance.

    Uh…I don’t see the connection at all–I don’t think there is one–and no one seems to have forgotten that provision of the 1st Amendment.

    In any case this is besides my point. While I think sorting out these matters is useful, and Coyne, Mooney, Rosenhouse and commenters are offering some interesting ideas in an earnest attempt to hash this out, I just feel that maybe people are speaking past each other needlessly, and the disputes ought to boil down to something that can be addressed in perhaps two medium sized paragraphs from each party. I admit I haven’t bothered to “run the simulation” and see that it does in fact reduce to that smaller set of verbiage; it is just my suspicion.

  32. #32 John Kwok
    June 11, 2009

    @ cm –

    I think we can respectfully disagree here. I believe one can trace the current online arguments back to Coyne’s New Republic “accomodationist” essay. Moreover, we could even go back to some of his comments dating back to January, when he reviewed Miller’s and Giberson’s books.

    While I don’t think anyone is deliberating forgetting the First Amendment, I have read too many comments, both here and elsewhere online, where people have been acting as though they have.

  33. #33 Dan S.
    June 11, 2009

    n this discussion on several blogs, it’s always seemed as if a lot of the people involved are afraid of religion flooding into science and ruining it. Where’s the evidence of that happening?

    Creationism is the obvious example here, but we’d have to qualify your statement a bit. The danger isn’t that all real scientists would suddenly turn into creationists, but that creationists would become (even) more successful at attacking real science’s access to resources and influence. After all, by targeting public education and public opinion, they’re going after some of the major mechanisms that produce both public understanding and acceptance of science, as well as new scientists. This may sound a bit petty, but given that science is our most successful – really, only – way of accurately understanding the natural world on its own terms,* it’s actually incredibly serious.

    * Of course, there are various often quite fascinating ways to understand the natural world on our terms, as a kind of version of human society filled with intentional agents and forces, etc., and there are specific cases where this can actually be effective, either through sheer coincidence, ‘natural selection’ (of beliefs, that is), or cultural encoding of hard-won trial-and-error experience over generations. Specific beliefs about forest spirits may help with conservation, viewing mice as agents of disharmony to be avoided may help keep you from catching hantavirus, etc. – but you can’t get anywhere from there in terms of further knowledge and efficacy.

  34. #34 Dan S.
    June 11, 2009

    }}It might be argued that supernatural explanations are not useful in understanding nature.

    It might be even more useful to admit that science can only study that part of the material universe which it can observe, quantify, analyze, and review

    Well, it depends what you’re using it for, no?

  35. #35 Anthony McCarthy
    June 11, 2009

    The danger isn’t that all real scientists would suddenly turn into creationists, but that creationists would become (even) more successful at attacking real science’s access to resources and influence.

    The fight to keep religion out of the schools is a political, not a scientific fight. That has been the fundamental misunderstanding of the science side of that fight, it is one of the stupidest political mistakes of the past fifty years. You will not win that political fight with the new atheism because it’s based in the pipe dream of converting an effective majority of people to atheism through telling them how stupid they are.

    You show me how anyone has ever won an election by insulting the voters and I’ll reconsider my belief that anyone who thinks that’s the way to win a political fight is truly stupid.

  36. #36 Anthony McCarthy
    June 11, 2009

    Well, it depends what you’re using it for, no?

    Well, Dan, the history of the behavioral sciences where entire schools come and go with almost predictable regularity, could lead some to believe that using science that way leads to unreliable results. You get people in the hard sciences together and bring up the topic and they can be quite expressive about the pseudo-scientific content of the behavioral sciences. Including Evo-psych. I think Richard Dawkins’ place in history will be as a figure who led a large number of scientists down a dead end. Some times I suspect that’s why his career has taken the path it has, it’s a salvage operation.

  37. #37 John Kwok
    June 11, 2009

    @ Anthony,

    I agree completely with your latest comments. For the reasons you’ve stated, it is why the scientific community created “Committees of Correspondence” back in the 1970s to oppose “Creation Science”, and this led directly to the establishment of the National Center for Scienc Education (NCSE) in the 1980s. Much of the subsequent legal success that the scientific community has had against creationists here in the United States is due to NCSE’s role as a “clearinghouse”, not only in disseminating information, but in assisting the creation of suitable legal strategies to deal with creationists, of which,for example, the 2005 Kitzmiller vs. Dover Area School District trial and the 2008 – 2009 Texas State Board of Education science standards hearing have been among the most noteworthy recent examples.

    Speaking of NCSE, those who contend – like Coyne and Myers, in particular – that it has an “accomodationist” stance with religion are sadly mistaken. It doesn’t have an official position. And those who think that it does simply because NCSE has clergy and religious people as part of its executive staff, should check its voluminous writings that are available freely to the public on its website (http://www.ncseweb.org). The only reason why these people are part of the NCSE since they help NCSE accomplish its mission of educating the public on what is – and what isn’t – valid science, and that includes observing that religion and science are not necessarily in conflict with each other. I’ve correspondend with senior members of the NCSE staff and they have told me that NCSE DOES NOT have anything remotely resembling what Coyne and Myers and others have been insisting both in print and online for weeks now.

  38. #38 Kevin (NYC)
    June 11, 2009

    dang…

    another Kwok/McCarthy love fest….

    gettin so you can’t swing a cat in here without hitting a obfuscating deliberately misunderstanding obtuse blowhard.

    oh well

  39. #39 Dan S.
    June 11, 2009

    The fight to keep religion out of the schools is a political, not a scientific fight.
    I’m pretty sure I sorta agree with you here, if you’re saying that evolution vs. creationism is not only not a genuine scientific controversy (obviously, and for the record you’re not a creationist, etc.) but among much of the general public not really a scientific question at all, so that it’s quite a serious misunderstanding to think it’s a question that could be settled by patiently explaining why evolution is true … and on a wider scale, when it comes to thing like school prayer and the historical revisionism of ‘Christian Nationalism’, we’re talking pretty naked political questions of what kind of nation and society we are to be, and who should have power and influence. It seems more accurate to me to say it’s a political and cultural fight (see for example, though slightly dated, Eve and Harrold’s “The Creationist Movement in Modern America, but whatever . . .

    The funny thing is, the “new atheism” (and you may well be acknowledging this, I’m just not sure from your wording) totally gets this; indeed, is to a fair extent an explicit response to this, in both evo/creo and other areas. (The “new accommodationism” get this too, of course – although there are individuals on both sides that maybe haven’t quite caught up).

    You show me how anyone has ever won an election by insulting the voters

    The GOP, 1980 – 1992 and 2004-2008 (Not 2000, of course, because you specified won an election . . .). It’s just that enough folks didn’t notice or didn’t care enough ( I’d say that the seriously outraged response to Sarah Palin among certain Republican and Republican -leaning voters had a fair-sized component of ‘what the hell!? what sort of empty-headed idiotic cattle do you take us for!?-ness to it)

    {Thinks a bit . . } Ok, we may have to widen that range a little. Is ‘anyone who’s ever won an election’ going to far?

    Yes, yes, I know what you’re saying.

    It’s based in the pipe dream of converting an effective majority of people to atheism through telling them how stupid they are.

    I don’t think that’s actually what the “new atheism” is trying to do, though (granted, it can seem that way at times . . . )

    And the thing is . . . looked at in the worst light, the idea – again, one I agree with – that this is a political fight can be seen as incredibly insulting to folks, y’know? One could say that the “new atheism” (in it’s best light) at least takes people seriously enough to insult and challenge them, instead of just patting them on the head and smiling indulgently while they color in little pictures. Now, I don’t think this works – it’s comparing rotten apples to retouched oranges. Even so, if one truly believes that religion and science aren’t really compatible, the honest thing to do is to say so. I don’t, but even so, it’s understandable that folks would wish for a little simplicity. But that’s the whole problem, after all.

    Well, Dan, the history of the behavioral sciences where entire schools come and go with almost predictable regularity, could lead some to believe that using science that way leads to unreliable results

    Well, I’m with you up to a point, except this isn’t an issue of science trying to study part of the material universe which it can’t observe, quantify, analyze, and review – the problem lies in social, political and general human issues. (incidentally, Coyne’s one of the folks who’s rather skeptical of ev psych). I think the point that supernatural explanations haven’t been useful in understanding the natural world (see caveat in previous post) is quite an important one, which doesn’t diminish the importance of , for example, being able to put “teh womenz can’t do math! science says so!!’ in a proper social and historical context (I’ve lost a bunch of saved pdf’s of early 20th C. letters to the NY Times arguing over whether women were just naturally unsuited to medicine, a debate so depressingly familiar that I kept waiting to see if a Mr. Brooks or Tierney (or Douthat) appeared) – I need to dig them up again)

    John Kwok – I’m perfectly happy to believe that the NCSE doesn’t have an official position along the lines of what those folks are arguing, but is the claim that this is its official position, or that this is its unofficial or defacto position? Although at this point I’ve lost track of what exactly the position seems to be – certainly, they do generally seem to end up referencing the idea that there isn’t a necessary conflict between science and religion (a policy I agree with, fwiw).

  40. #40 Anthony McCarthy
    June 11, 2009

    except this isn’t an issue of science trying to study part of the material universe which it can’t observe, quantify, analyze, and review – the problem lies in social, political and general human issues.

    It doesn’t matter at all if someone wants to use science for something that is a problem, if the prerequisites aren’t available to use science on them, you can’t do it. Making believe you can fill in for those with Just So Stories doesn’t yield science, it yields garbage.

    Kevin, sorry if talking about things on an adult level isn’t to your taste, doesn’t mean I’m going to stop it though. You can go to PZ’s. He didn’t like being refuted either and banned me. I told him all he had to do is ask and I wouldn’t comment there. Though I am going to start mining the new atheist brilliance all over the blogs for my weekly ten stupidest new atheist statements of the week post.

    Didn’t expect to start a new blog till one of them started trolling me at C. Mooney’s blog. Now I’m going to put it to use.

  41. #41 John Kwok
    June 11, 2009

    @ Dan S. –

    NCSE doesn’t have an official or unofficial position period, except to note that one can be devoutly religious and still accept evolution as valid science. This is their rationale for having religious laypersons and clergy as members of their staff at their Oakland, CA office.

    As for Coyne’s criticism of NCSE’s – and other professional scientific organizations’s – “accomodationist” stance towards religion, Chris Mooney has just reported on Ken Miller’s rebuttal to Coyne (I was aware of it from Ken, but didn’t realize that he would respond so quickly. Am sure it will be discussed at the World Science Festival roundtable discussion – the one which Coyne refused to attend – this Saturday here in New York City.):

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/intersection/2009/06/11/ken-miller-why-jerry-coyne-is-wrong/

  42. #42 John Kwok
    June 11, 2009

    @ Anthony –

    Welcome to the club. At least in your case, PZ didn’t make a public spectacle of it as he did on my behalf both at Pharyngula and Facebook (I have heard privately from some others – I won’t name mames – that PZ has damaged his own credibility with some by banning me at Pharyngula. Incidentally, he seems to take great pleasure of banning me too over at Panda’s Thumb, since I haven’t been able to post any useful comments to his Panda’s Thumb posts.).

    Just to remind PZ fans who are lurking here. Yes, I did, in jest, tell PZ that I was going to “defriend” him over at Facebook (But I wasn’t serious about my threat, and, in fact, I have had gotten a lot more friends there ever since.). I was also kidding about my demand for some expensive photographic equipment as legal compensation for his infantile conduct towards me at Pharyngula. However, what he hasn’t told you is that after I told him privately that I was joking, he was still insisting in public that I was making this demand. Whatever residual respect I had had for PZ evaporated immediately.

  43. #43 Dan S.
    June 11, 2009

    Anthony – human behavior isn’t, in itself, outside of the measurable material world. And as much as I dislike pop evo-psych, the “so? were you there on the pleistocene savannah? criticism kinda is the weakest (at least in an ideal sense – in practice, when we’re talking about folks whose “ideas” (if we elevate them to that status) about pleistocene life occasionally drop to the level of “women kinda just sat around in caves waiting for the mighty hunter to come home”, that’s another story.) But this is a complicated point that might genuinely make folks think I’m defending pop-evo-psych (I’m not sure if I’d rather be thought a creationist . . . ), so maybe later w/ more time.

    except to note that one can be devoutly religious and still accept evolution as valid science.
    Which is perfectly true. But they do note it. . . Ack, I need to go read those posts again and get clear on who’s saying what how. Will read Miller’s rebuttal, though.

  44. #44 Anthony McCarthy
    June 11, 2009

    pop evo-psych

    Kevin Macdonald and John Hartung ain’t pop evy-psych, and that’s the tip of the iceburg.

    John Kwok, I think PZ suspected I was a take no prisoners kind of guy. He’s really pretty cowardly when someone stands up to him on an adult level.

  45. #45 John Kwok
    June 11, 2009

    @ Anthony,

    Unfortunately he does have a penchant for “infantile” behavior, as his infamous “cracker incident” episode from last summer clearly demonstrates.

  46. #46 Dan S.
    June 11, 2009

    I’m increasingly trending towards the idea (re: PZ/Krok, PZ/McCarthy (. . ..PZ/cracker, etc.) interactions) that everyone’s a bit, well, crazy. But not me. I’m completely sane. Sane, I tell you . . haha ha ha HA HA. . .

    er, sorry about that. Seriously though, this is kinda depressing. I miss the old days when Mooney was eviscerating the republican war on science and Coyne and Miller weren’t yelling at each other (to the extent that they are). And I can’t say it’s obviously the best use of time. Why now, though? Is it that there’s – given political events – just enough less of a common enemy? I should go look at the last time there was a sciblog dust up along these lines – how long was that after winning Dover?

  47. #47 John Kwok
    June 11, 2009

    @ Dan S. –

    Aah, yes those were the good “old days” indeed (I should note that, as a registered Republican, I am in complete agreement with Mooney’s excellent – and quite effective – criticism of Republican abuse of science.). But you should have seen that this was coming, especially when Coyne hasn’t disguised at all his own personal preference for a cultural and political climate whereby militant atheism would reign supreme.

    What I find especially troublesome with militant atheists like Coyne and Myers is that their notion of religious “tolerance” is not at all dissimilar from what one might expect from, for example, Dembski or Ham, Indeed, in a roundabout way, this is in fact what Ken Miller is alluding to in his latest rebuttal to Coyne as noted here:

    http://www.millerandlevine.com/evolution/Coyne-Accommodation.htm

  48. #48 Dan S.
    June 11, 2009

    Customers Who Bought This Item [Mooney's upcoming Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future] Also Bought

    The Republican War on Science by Chris Mooney

    Why Evolution Is True by Jerry A. Coyne

    Just found that amusing – see, we can all get along. At least in terms of book-buying . . .

  49. #49 John Kwok
    June 11, 2009

    @ Dan S. –

    Without giving too much of a “plug” for myself, you may have noticed that yours truly is the author of two of the most favorable reviews of both books.

    I can be critical of Coyne’s “accomodationist” perspective while still recognizing that he’s the author of one of the best, most persuasive, books documenting the extensive scientific evidence on behalf of evolution. And of course, if you haven’t already, then you must buy Coyne’s book!

  50. #50 Kevin (NYC)
    June 11, 2009

    “Kevin, sorry if talking about things on an [obstinately trolling and smugly misunderstanding other people's comments and making false analogies] level isn’t to your taste, doesn’t mean I’m going to stop it though.

    you just rehash refuted points as if they make sense. and with friends like Kwok you have a partner in your madness…

    plz go setup your blog and take Johnnie with you….

  51. #51 Kevin (NYC)
    June 11, 2009

    “(I have heard privately from some others – I won’t name mames – that PZ has damaged his own credibility with some by banning me at Pharyngula”

    will the crazy voices never stop!!!

  52. #52 John Kwok
    June 11, 2009

    @ Kevin (NYC) –

    If you’re looking for voices that aren’t “crazy” then I hope you’ve purchased tickets for this year’s World Science Festival. If I’m not mistaken, you can still buy tickets to hear Ken Miller discuss, I presume, his thoughts on Coyne’s and Myers’s risible commentary on “accomodationist” stance towards religion which they – and others including Jason Rosenhouse – contend is the very stance taken by NCSE, NAS and AAAS.

    You can purchase your ticket here:

    http://www.worldsciencefestival.com/2009/science-faith-religion

    Incidentally this is the panel discussion which could have had Jerry Coyne as one of its participants, but he opted out, condemning the World Science Foundation’s support from the “evil” Templeton Foundation.

    Maybe I’ll see you there.

  53. #53 John Kwok
    June 11, 2009

    @ PS to my last comment –

    In haste, I wrote in error “World Science Foundation”, when I meant, of course “World Science Festival” (I should know better since I’m working as a volunteer for two of its panel discussions.).

  54. #54 Anthony McCarthy
    June 11, 2009

    PZ Myers damages his credibility by being a gusher of irrational bigotry. I figured it out while at Coyne’s blog. Thinking about William Schockley, no matter how smart someone is in their professional life, when professional ethics and editors make them put a sock in it, when they can take it out their bigotry makes them stupid. It seems to be a rule of life, from what I’m seeing all over the blogs.

    And fear, that explains why the owners of science blogs don’t correct the new atheist logical and scientific illiteracy that their comments carry.

  55. #55 Kevin (nyc)
    June 11, 2009

    “Bill Blakemore hosts scientists Lawrence Krauss, Ken Miller and Guy Consolmagno, and philosopher Colin McGinn to find out.”

    okay so which are the religious types?

    a) ABC’s Vatican correspondent
    b) before entering the Jesuits in 1989

    the science types?

    c) Director of the Origins Initiative

    and who are the accomodationists?

    d) particularly consciousness, intentionality and imagination
    e) popular book, Finding Darwin’s God

    and who stands up and says that science knowledge is incompatible with the religious beliefs of over 50% of the US population?

  56. #56 John Kwok
    June 11, 2009

    @ Kevin (nyc) –

    You wouldn’t be claiming now, would you, that evolutionary geneticist Francisco J. Ayala wasn’t a “science type” when he was still an ordained Dominician monk working on his Ph. D. in genetics under the supervision of the great evolutionary geneticist – and devout Russian Orthodox Christian – Theodosius Dobzhansky? Or insinuating that Dr. Guy Consolmagno of the Vatican Observatory – which, incidentally, has its base of operations in the vicinity of Tucson, AZ – isn’t somehow a credible scientist because he is an ordained Jesuit monk?

    By any chance, using your line of reasoning, would someone who has served in the United States Navy as a highly decorated petty officer be considered inferior to another equally qualified officer simply because he is gay in his sexual orientation? Because I think that’s how one could interpret your inane reasoning, condemning a well-qualified scientist simply because that scientist is also a Catholic monk.

    If you are really from New York City, then can you explain your penchant for bigotry, as exemplied by your recent comments?

  57. #57 Anthony McCarthy
    June 12, 2009

    John Kwok, Kevin doesn’t do evidence, he doesn’t do logic. He does ad hominem.

  58. #58 Franklin Percival
    June 12, 2009

    Dear Kevin,

    I have to say that a quantum physicist who believed that the moon was made of green cheese would be fighting an up-hill battle to convince me of his argument!

  59. #59 Keith Douglas
    June 13, 2009

    Just simply showing that there are first rate scientists who happen to be sincerely religious devout in any number of ways does not show the “compatibility” of science and religion, other than in the most narrow of ways. Consider Bunge’s analogy: there are physicians who smoke. Does that indicate that smoking is compatible with health? (Again, in the narrow sense it does, but that’s surely not the point. Godwin prohibits me from using even more extreme cases, but there are some.)

  60. #60 Alex Deam
    July 7, 2009

    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.

    I disagree completely with this. Yeah, “fish scientists” would be totally confused about these humans breaking all their laws, but what they don’t realize is that there is a larger set of laws (our “laws of physics”) of which the “laws of the tank” are only a small subset. If they knew that, they would realize that no laws have been broken, and no supernatural explanation needs to be posited.

    In a similar vein, if some “god” came down and started doing miracles, why posit supernatural or magical explanations, when a more reasonable (and scientific) explanation would be that said god isn’t breaking any laws, it’s just that our known laws are a subset of the correct laws.

    Such an explanation wouldn’t be science. It would be giving up.

    I reject the natural/supernatural distinction. If prayer worked, either science would explain it, or it would be impossible to investigate. If science couldn’t come up with a mechanism to explain something, wouldn’t that mean that the data was filled with contradictions, and therefore impossible?

    I fail to see how replacing science with faith if science fails is supposed to help. If science can’t explain something, the correct response is not “Goddidit”, but “I don’t know”. Modesty is much better than being completely confident in a wrong idea. Which god would you pick anyway?

  61. #61 believeordoubt
    January 30, 2012

    I agree with this post completely. I think it’s silly to try to proscribe a priori exactly what science may not do. But placing a heavy burden of proof on supernatural explanations works for science. And that’s all we can hope infer about methodological naturalism from the success of science, and all we should want.

    Any purely a priori principle about what science can or cannot do would have to be supported by a priori arguments: something along the lines of what the definition of science is (Has anyone actually come up with a good definition of science?). But even with such arguments in place, it still seems an open question whether or not scientists could or should ever consider, say, the actions of God in an explanation; intelligent people could intelligently disagree. This wouldn’t be possible if one could simply exclude God from science because of some alleged definition of science (this is basically the old open question argument from GE Moore applied to science).

  62. #62 Wow
    January 31, 2012

    (Has anyone actually come up with a good definition of science?)

    No

    But why? We rather talk about the scientific method.

    And we have good definitions for that.

    Science is explaining experience and the world around us. Since God doesn’t explain a darn thing, it’s not needed.

  63. #63 SLC
    January 31, 2012

    Re John Kwok @ #56

    One should be a little careful about including Prof. Ayala with the theistic scientists as we sit here today. He has steadfastly refused to discuss his religious view, with the possible exception of an interview which he allegedly gave a Spanish newspaper in 2000 where he admitted to no longer being a theist.

The site is currently under maintenance and will be back shortly. New comments have been disabled during this time, please check back soon.