In my week long visit to Ireland, I only had one encounter that left a bad taste in my mouth. Everyone I talked to was forthright and willing to state their views clearly, even if I thought they were dead wrong and rather stupid (my radio interview with Tom McGurk comes to mind — he was an unpleasant person more interested in barking loudly than having a conversation, but his views were plain), and most of my conversations were fun and interesting. The one exception was with a creationist in Belfast.
After my talk, this one furtive fellow who hadn’t had the nerve, apparently, to ask me anything in the public Q&A, came down front to confront me with his, errm, ‘irrefutable’ argument, which came straight from Answers in Genesis. I later learned that he’s one of the leaders of a creationist organization on campus.
He first declared that creationists and evolutionists all use the same evidence, we just differ in our presuppositions. AiG makes this claim all the time, and it’s complete nonsense. The creationists deny almost all of the evidence, using their catch-all excuse: if it contradicts the Bible, it is false. It’s not just a difference in starting premises, but a willingness on the part of the faith-based crowd to stick their fingers in their ears and shout “LA-LA-LA” at the majority of the reality-based evidence.
The only way to call it merely a difference in presuppositions is if they’re willing to admit that their fundamental presupposition is an unthinking obtusity.
That was just his prelude, though. His real goal was to try and trap me. He asked me if I admitted that the scientific position demands that we reject all alternative explanations — whether we can consider supernatural causes. I’ve thought about this before, and I told him no. I am willing to consider other possibilities, if someone provides a useful, testable, confirmable means for evaluating truth claims.
Then I asked him what alternative method to science he was suggesting.
He didn’t give me one — he simply announced with a grin that he was just confirming that I automatically rejected alternative explanations, and as I repeated my simple statement, that no, I did not, but that he was obligated to explain what his alternative might be — after all, I reject tarot cards and entrails-reading as methods for interpreting the world, and it’s a bit silly to pretend that I should have blanket acceptance of just any alternative method without telling me what it is — he thanked me for confirming his opinion and the sneaky little git scuttled away.
That’s what I detest most. Lying weasels who won’t listen honestly, and especially won’t even speak honestly.
Anyway, what brought up this recollection was an interesting post on Sandwalk on methodological naturalism. It nicely points out that there is a convention in the scientific community that treats methodological naturalism as a straitjacket that arbitrarily binds us. I don’t think that’s true at all.
The principle of MN is often conceived of as an intrinsic and self-imposed limitation of science, as something that is part and parcel of the scientific enterprise by definition. According to this view (Intrinsic MN or IMN) – which is defended by people like Eugenie Scott, Michael Ruse and Robert Pennock and has been adopted in the ruling of Judge John E. Jones III in the Kitzmiller vs. Dover case – science is simply not equipped to deal with the supernatural and therefore has no authority on the issue. It is clear that this depiction of science and MN offers some perspectives for reconciling science and religion. Not surprisingly, IMN is often embraced by those sympathetic to religion, or by those who wish to alleviate the sometimes heated opposition between the two.
However, we will argue that this view of MN does not offer a sound rationale for the rejection of supernatural explanations. Alternatively, we will defend MN as a provisory and empirically grounded commitment of scientists to naturalistic causes and explanations, which is in principle revocable by future scientific findings (Qualified MN or QMN). In this view, MN is justified as a methodological guideline by virtue of the dividends of naturalistic explanation and the consistent failure of supernatural explanations in the history of science.
I think science is primarily a pragmatic approach that takes whatever tools work to build a better (as evaluated by testing against real-world observations) understanding of how the universe works. My major objection to creationism isn’t that it violates a set of dogmatic rules established by scientists playing a formal game, but that it provides no working alternative that I can use. The creationists mistake a series of assertions about history for a bank of operational methods for creating and answering new questions about the world.
Exclusion isn’t quite the right word for what we’re doing. Science’s job is to fill up the silos of the world with the grain of useful information, and we’ve found that applying the principles of the scientific method and operating under the guidelines of methodological naturalism means we’re productive: we can keep trundling up with wagonloads of corn and wheat and rice. The creationists are showing up with broken-down, essentially empty carts, containing nothing but chaff, a few dirt clods, and some fragrant manure, and they’re being turned away because they have nothing to contribute. You’re not being excluded if you have nothing to offer.
I imagine that Belfast creationist went back to his clique of ignorant pissants with a sense of triumph, and proudly announced that I had dogmaticly refused to include his offering of hot air and dust as nutritious and fit for a feast, and therefore was yet another tool of the establishment who unfairly discriminated against their way of knowing. Sorry, guy; a wealth of ignorance is no substitute for even a grain of knowledge.
Oh, cool: somebody standing there actually recorded the conversation in question.