Replying to macht

My essay on the nature of science has provoked this limp response from macht, over at Telic Thoughts.

My essay emphasized the fact that science has a specific goal in mind: To understand the workings of nature. Understanding is measured via predictability and control. Investigative methods are scientific to the extent to which they bring us closer to this goal. I went on to emphasize that many of the terms used in discussing the problem of defining science - such as testability, falsifiability, or methodological naturalism (MN) - are just short hand ways of saying that science cares about predictiability and control (or evidence, if you prefer). In particular, I described methodological naturalism as a pragmatic rejection of supernatural hypotheses on the grounds that they do not bring us closer to our goals.

Pretty straightforward, I thought. But Macht thinks he's caught me pulling a fast one.

He writes:

Recently, some ID critics have been re-defining methodological naturalism as a “preference” - rather than a rule - for natural causes or, more recently as “pragmatic rejection.”

This comes after two paragraphs in which macht repeatedly describes MN as a rule. He writes:

Methodological naturalism is a recent term for the rule that science must be restricted to natural processes or the rule that science cannot refer to the supernatural or the rule that scientists, while doing science, must act as if the supernatural does not exist. Keep in mind that this is very often claimed to be part of the very definition of science. It is a rule that has to be followed in order for something to be science.

So macht first lays out his purported definition of MN and then suggests it is I, among others, who is redefining it. But that is nonsense. The definition I provided is the definition it has always had. Macht's definition, by contrast, is simply the creationist/ID perversion of MN. It was Robert Pennock more than anyone else who made the term methodological naturalism a central part of the debate over whether ID is science. Here is how he defined it (in essay three from Penncok's Intelligent Design Creationism and its Critics)::

Ontological Naturalism should be distinguished from the more common contemporary view, which we can call Methodological Naturalism. The Methodological Naturalist does not make a commitment directly to a picture of what exists in the world, but rather to a set of methods as a reliable way to find out about the world - typically the methods of the natural sciences, and perhaps extensions that are continuous with them - and indirectly to what those methods discover. An important feature of science is that its conclusions are defeasible on the basis of new evidence, so whatever tentative substantive claims a Methodological Naturalist makes are always open to revision or abandonment on the basis of new, countervailing evidence. Because the base commitment of a Methodlogical Naturalist is to a mode of investigation that is good for finding out about the empricial world, even the specific methods themselves are open to change and improvement; science may adopt promising new methods and refine existing ones if doing so would provide better evidential warrant.

Just as I said.

I also asserted that ID folks often present MN as an arbitrary rule used to exclude ID from its place at the table. Macht demurs:

But Rosenhouse goes on to say that IDists think “MN is nothing but an arbitrary rule used to exclude ID from its place at the table.” But I think he misunderstands those who are against MN. They aren't arguing against the “preference for natural causes” nor are they arguing against the “pragmatic rejection” of supernatural causes. What they are arguing against is when people take this preference, this convention, this pragmatic rejection and make it into a “rule” or make it part of the very definition of science. They are saying that if a well-tested, prediction-making theory came along that was useful to scientists, then despite any rules you put forth, scientists are probably going to go with what works. That's all (most) MN critics are saying.

There is much to criticize in this paragraph, but let's just have a look at what prominent ID defenders have to say on this subject:

Here's Steve Fuller, who testified for the ID side in the Dover trial:

Methodological naturalism is just an attempt to impose thought control on what sort of person is eligible to do science. If you follow the mainstream philosophical literature - not the parallel universe that consists of Pennock and the other philosophers who make a living out of defending evolution - you repeatedly find philosophers not only disputing methodological naturalism on its own terms, but also wondering why such 'naturalists' don't stress the traditional anti-monotheistic provenance of the metaphysical doctrine (from Spinoza). The answer of course, is that 'methodological naturalism', unlike metaphysical naturalism, is afraid of upsetting Christians who want to be evolutionists and believe in a monotheistic god too: i.e. so-called methodological naturalism is a bit of PC pseudo-philosophy tailor-made for our times.

Here's Phillip Johnson (from essay 4 in Penncok's book, cited previously):

Is the “blind watchmaker thesis” true, or false? Prior to that, is the thesis empirical, or is it philosophical? If science disqualifies any consideration of intelligent design, and if the most plausible unintelligent mechanism is protected by a rule against negative argument, then something at least roughly like Darwinism follows as a matter of logic, regardless of the evidence.

Here's William Dembski (from No Free Lunch, pg. 332-333):

It may well be that the evidence to justify that a designer acted to bring about a given natural structure may be insufficient. But to claim there could never be enough evidence to justify that a designer acted to bring about a given natural structure is insupportable. The only way to justify the latter claim is by imposing on science a methodological principle that deliberately excludes design from natural systems, to wit, methodological naturalism. But to say that design is not testable because we have defined it out of existence is hardly satisfying or legitimate.

Here's an excerpt from a one-act play called “The Rule” that was performed at the third Darwin, Design and Democracy conference (this conference was devoted to presenting the arguments for ID to the public). The play was authored by John Calvert and Daniel Schwabauer. In this excerpt, NATE is a high school biology teacher, STEGNER is a generic School Board member, and TRENT is a Board member and retired professor of anthropology. I have omitted the stage directions:

NATE: Well for starters I just taught them about the Rule.

STEGNER: The Rule? What rule?

NATE: The rule is sort of an exception to the scientific method. It assumes that everything in the universe is explainable in terms of natural causes. Intelligent causes are not allowed. The technical term for the Rule is “Methodological Naturalism.”

TRENT: Oh, for heaven's sake, Nate, that's not an exception to the scientific method. It's part of it.

NATE: Oh, really? Our text book describes the scientific method pretty thoroughly. And yet it doesn't mention Naturalism.

TRENT: It's implied, Nate. Every scientist knows that.

NATE: The point of the scientific method is to get factual explanations instead of ones based on preconceptions. The Rule is a preconception. It answers a question before it is asked.

STEGNER: So how does this get us into a discussion of religion?

NATE: The Rule says that we can't consider even the possibilitiy of a deisgner to explain the origins of life. That kind of assumption smashes the basic beliefs of all theistic religions.

STEGNER: So why talk about it at all? Why not just keep the Rule out of the discussion altogether?

NATE: Because we're not being honest. Look, in science we're supposed to disclose the assumptions we're using. How can I discuss with my students “where they come from” and not tell them about a hidden philosophical assumption that life is not designed. That's indoctrination, not education.

STEGNER: Indoctrination-that's a pretty strong word.

NATE: If we were really using the scientific method, we'd look at the evidence before making up our minds. But when we don't tell the kids that there are really two explanations, not just one, they come away thinking that evolution is the only possibility. Then it's a fact.

TRENT: Evolution is a fact!

NATE: Evolution is a theory.

TRENT: How can you deny the obviosu fact that things change over time?

NATE: Malcolm, you know Darwin didn't get famous by saying that things change over time! Darwinism says that all living things are descended from a common ancestor through natural selection and random variations. That's not a fact! It's a hypothesis. And it's apparently so fragile that it has to be protected from criticism by a hidden assumption.

Had enough? Surely these quotes justify my statement that ID folks argue “that MN is nothing but an arbitrary rule used to exclude ID from its place at the table.” They are not saying simply that scientists should be open to well-tested, prediction-making theories even if they invoke the supernatural (as if there were anyone who disgarees with that). They are saying that MN forces scientists to accept ridiculous naturalistic explanations, that it prevents them from even considering the possibility of a designer, and that it represnts a departure from an evidence-based conception of science. It is macht who is redefining things here, not me.

Macht then writes:

Also, despite what Rosenhouse implies, very few (if any) philosophers "“imply that 'science' and 'non-science' are simply arbitrary labels that reflect cultural biases.” Even the much misunderstood Feyerabend didn't think that. I really can't think of any philosophers who have said that “science” and “non-science” are “arbitrary labels.”

These exchanges would be more fruitful if macht bothered to do his homework before posting his thoughts.

Here's philosopher of science Larry Laudan from his essay, The Demise of the Demarcation Problem:

If we would like to stand up and be counted on the side of reason, we ought to drop terms like “pseudo-science” and “unscientific” from our vocabulary; they are just hollow phrases which do only emotive work for us. As such, they are more suited to the rhetoric of politicians and Scottish sociologists of knowledge than to that of empirical researchers.

Here's Stephen Meyer quoting Laudan favorably:

The “demise of the demarcation problem,” as Laudan calls it, implies that the use of positivistic demarcationist arguments by evolutionists is, at least prima facie, on very slippery ground. Laudan's analysis suggests that such arguments are not likely to succeed in distinguishing the scientific status of descent vis-a-vis design or anything else for that matter. As Laudan puts it, “If we could stand up on the side of reason, we ought to drop terms like 'pseudo-science.'. . . They do only emotive work for us.”

Plainly there are philosophers who believe that science and non-science are arbitrary labels.

Macht continues:

He then goes on to say that it is better to think that “science and non-science are opposite ends of a continuum, as opposed to rigidly defined categories.” I tend to agree but this way of viewing science and non-science is devestating to those who think there are strict rules that one must follow in order for their theories to be called “scientific.” It also puts him at odds with the many people who say that MN is part of the very definition of science.

Devastating? Please. The criterion for whether something is scientific is whether it helps us understand nature, as measured by our ability to predict the outcomes of experiments. Some things, like evolution, plainly pass that test. Other things, like creationism, plainly don't. Then there are things in the middle where it's not clear yet whether they are helping us towards our goal. String theory comes to mind. This isn't complicated.

Macht is committing a simple logical error here. Having clear criteria for separating science from non-science does not imply it's always simple in particular cases to determine if the criteria are met.

As for people who say that MN is a part of the definition of science, I would encourage macht to scratch about a nanometer below the surface of what they are saying. By doing so you quickly realize that they are simply defining naturalistic theories to be ones that can be tested against empirical data. I know a handful of philosophers who have said things similar to what macht is describing, but I don't think any of them would disagree with the way I have presented things.

Macht's final criticism concerns a quotation from Alvin Plantinga that I used in my essay. He writes:

Rosenhouse next quotes Alvin Plantinga and then summarizes Plantinga's argument as:

(1) Science encompasses all that is true. (2) God is true. Therefore, (3) God is part of science.

Unfortunately, Plantinga doesn't come close to saying anything like this. I'm having trouble even imagining where he pulled this syllogism from (it is quite ridiculous to think that Plantinga would accept premise 1, for example). The quoted text comes from a section titled “Science Stoppers?” and Plantinga is discussing a common reason people say that MN is a necessary part of science - namely, that “[a]scribing something to the direct action of God tends to cut off further inquiry.” Plantinga's argument is essentially that if supernatural causation is a “science stopper,” then “it doesn't follow that God didn't directly create life.” That's his argument. He is essentially arguing that “being a science stopper” is not a strict rule that disqualifies something from being science.

He can't imagine where I pulled that syllogism from. He's furrowed his brow, rolled up his sleeves, searched high and low, but just can't find a trace of it. The fact that I included a paragraph from Plantinga to jutsify my assertion, with the really important part in bold-face type, seems to have escaped him.

Here's the quote from Plantinga:

The claim that God has directly created life, for example, may be a science stopper; it does not follow that God did not directly create life. Obviously we have no guarantee that God has done everything by way of employing secondary causes, or in such a way as to encourage further scientific inquiry, or for our convenience as scientists, or for the benefit of the National Science Foundation. Clearly we cannot sensibly insist in advance that whatever we are confronted with is to be explained in terms of something else God did; he must have done some things directly; to know this would be an important part of a serious and profound knowledge of the universe. The fact that such claims are science stoppers means that as a general rule they will not be helpful; it does not mean that they are never true, and it does not mean that they can never be part of a proper scientific theory.

What could be more unambiguous than that final sentence?

First, Plantinga is clear elsewhere in his essay that what he means by a claim being “helpful” is what I mean by saying that scientific theories should improve our understanding of nature by providing predicitibility and control. So here we see Plantinga specifically saying that something that isn't helpful can still be part of a proper scientific theory.

As I pointed out in my essay, that's totally wrong. Saying that something isn't helpful is equivalent to saying that it can't be part of a proper scientific theory. But why does Plantinga think that something that is a science stopper can still be part of a proper scientific theory? He tells us very clearly. Because statements involving God's direct action might be true.

So he is clearly substituting “possibly true” for “helpful in understanding nature” as a criterion for something to be potentially part of science. And that only makes sense if you view science as consisting of precisely those statements about the natural world that are true.

None of macht's criticisms hold water. More to the point, they do nothing to change the fact that science is an enterprise that seeks to understand the workings of nature via predicitiblity and control, and that ID makes no contribution at all towards helpding us do that.

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Well argued. I for one appreciate the time you have taken to fisk this guy, but don't you have a day job? While it is certainly important to make sure your arguments are well supported, if you take this much time to smack down every crank on the net, I fear you will soon be out of work. Thanks again though, DS

By dogscratcher (not verified) on 22 May 2006 #permalink

I'll try to respond to this later on but can you clarify something for me? What do you take Pennock to mean by this

"Because the base commitment of a Methodlogical Naturalist is to a mode of investigation that is good for finding out about the empricial world, even the specific methods themselves are open to change and improvement; science may adopt promising new methods and refine existing ones if doing so would provide better evidential warrant."

He says we should be open to changing even the specific methods of science itself. Do you think that Pennock is saying that this includes rejecting MN, if there were a good reason to do so?


Methodological naturalism is not a method for doing science. It is a convention based on many years of experience seeing what works and what doesn't. If someday scientists encounter a situation where invoking the supernatural will help them understand some phenomenon of nature, then the convention will go out the window.


I'm an academic. During the summer my day job does not have regular hours!