The BECB Discussed on Think Atheist Radio

I recently had a conversation with Greg Gorey of Think Atheist Radio about my book Among the Creationists. We discussed the history and cultures of creationism, the problem of evil, methodological naturalism, my experiences socializing with creationists and several other things besides. From my end I can honestly say it was one of the most interesting conversations I have had on these topics, so I hope you enjoy it. The discussion is fifty minutes long. So go have a listen and let me know what you think!

At the bottom of the web page linked above, there is a crawl at the bottom showing the previous guests of the show. It's a real thrill to be in the company of Elliott Sober, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Lisa Randall, Graham Oppy, and so many other brilliant folks. I can see I have lots of listening to get caught up on!

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I just got through listening to Prof. Rosenhouse's interview and once again, I have to admire his patience in interacting with fools, which is what most of the creationists are. Most scientists do not suffer fools gladly.

However, I would take exception to the professor's take on methodological naturalism. There is a reason why scientific investigations require methodological naturalism which is that the claim that god did it is both a science stopper, as argued by Ken Miller, and is unbounded. Thus, any outcome of an experiment or observation is possible as god, at least the Christian god, is all powerful and can do anything; this violates the notion of prediction and falsifiability. A hypothesis that, by its nature can make no prediction and is not falsifiable cannot be a scientific theory.

Laplace put it best, when asked by Napoleon what part god might play in the motions of the planets, he stated that he had no need of that hypothesis.

Hey Jason,

I wanted to say that it was a pleasure interviewing you and I am glad you enjoyed it as well. Just for clarification, Nelson is the producer of the show and I am the host (it really isn't a big deal, just pointing that out for future reference). If you actually do follow through with writing a book about atheist communities and get-togethers, feel free to come back and chat about your book.

Also to SLC:

If you don't have methodological naturalism, there is no reason to think that science would stop because there are plenty of other reasons for not taking the God hypothesis seriously (its very low prior probability which stems from its historical failure and its lack of a mechanism or ability to predict future events). Just because people do not rule out God a priori does not mean that scientists are going to be tempted to use him as an explanation. Martin Boudry's dissertation "Here Be Dragons" really explains these issues better than I can do in this short space.



Re Greg @ #2

Excuse me, I said nothing about philosophical naturalism or philosophical theism. I suggest that Mr. Greg look at some youtube videos by Neil Tyson on the subject as to why abandonment of methodological naturalism is a science stopper (a view also held by Ken Miller, no atheist he). In particular, note his discussion of Isaac Newton pointing to god's intervention as the cause of the maintenance of a stable Solar System. By appealing to divine intervention, Newton was stopped from investigating natural explanations. It was Laplace a century later who proved that the Solar System was stable for long periods of time by using perturbation theory. Newton, the most brilliant scientist who ever lived according to Dr. Tyson could have invented perturbation theory and proved what Laplace did 100 years later if he had not been content with the supernatural explanation.

Greg --

Aaarrghhh! Sorry about that. I was trading so much e-mail with Nelson I got confused. I'll correct the opening post. I enjoyed the interview very much. Thanks you for inviting me on the show.

SLC --

But if supernatural intervention is the correct answer, then the science should be stopped!

Just to clarify my position, my objection is not to methodological naturalism (MN) per se. I think it's fine to say that science has had so much success with it, and so little success with anything else, that it's fine to adopt it as a convention of modern scientific practice. My objection is to declaring that it is a hard and fast rule to which science must always adhere. Such a position is tactically unwise, since it plays into ID hands by making scientists seem dogmatically opposed to any talk of the supernatural, and I think it is philosophically unjustified, since in principle there could be strong evidence of supernatural intervention into the natural world.

Re Jason Rosenhouse @ #4

Oh come on Prof. Rosenhouse. There is no way to tell if a supernatural explanation might be correct unless all possible natural explanations are eliminated. The problem, in the case of Newton, was that he was content to accept a supernatural explanation before even attempting to eliminate natural explanations.


I completely disagree. When Newton appealed to God he wasn't making an argument from ignorance or stopping science. Instead, he seem to be appealing to teleology as a way of explaining phenomenon. According to what was known at the time, objects were thought to have inclinations towards certain states. If there were reason to think that there were non-natural inclinations (teleology), then appealing to it would be in no way be a god of the gaps. Instead, it would be a genuine supernatural mechanism. Since we do not believe in the metaphysical apparatus that makes this view work, it is easy to anachronistically strawman it as an appeal to ignorance.

Also, I think you misunderstood what I said. I merely stated that not abiding by methodological naturalism is not a science stopper because people would still not appeal to God. God-did-it is a bad explanation and has historically failed. This is enough to not take it seriously without any sort of dogmatic banning.



Re Greg @ #6

Well, here's what Neil Tyson has to say about it.

Mr. Greg can rationalize until the cows come home. The fact is that Newton was stopped. As I stated previously, he could have developed perturbation theory to calculate the interplanetary effects, as Laplace did a hundred years later but chose not to do so. Period, end of story. And word salads like the comment #6 won't get the job done.

I rather like the way that Tyson puts it, ID is a philosophy of ignorance.

Re Jason Rosenhouse @ #4

To put a little spin on my comment @ #5, I will quote one of Prof. Rosenhouse's favorite fictional characters, namely Sherlock Holmes: "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth."


I am not rationalizing anything. Dr. Tyson is just incorrect on this issue. It isn't his fault and this doesn't take away from his awesome work. However, he just isn't a historian of science. Also, none of the terms I used are incoherent. The type of teleology I mentioned has been clearly defined since Aristotle first proposed it. IN addition, it isn't an "of the gaps" response no more than phlogiston was. Both are simply concepts that were around before major breakthroughs were discovered and they were discarded.

Also, Newton was not doing Intelligent Design in the modern sense and it is just incorrect to anachronistically tack that label on a pre-Darwinian scientist. It would be like calling communalists before the Industrial Revolution Marxists.

Re Greg @ #9

Let's see if I've got this straight. Newton says that god's intervention is required to maintain the stability of the solar system because he can't come up with a natural explanation. And Mr. Greg says this isn't a god of the gaps argument. Therefore, by Mr. Greg's reasoning, Laplace didn't close a gap 100 years later by coming up with a natural explanation. Well, to paraphrase George Patton, reacting to a speech by General Montgomery, I may be old and I may be slow but it don't make no sense to me.


I don't think Newton was saying "I don't get this so God did it". I think he was using teleology to explain why the heavenly bodies have the inclinations they do. This is in no way an inference to the best explanation (like God of the gaps arguments are), but part of an interwoven metaphysical system. You have to understand that when Laplace was writing, he had the benefit of coming after Newton and mechanism had replaced teleology. Newton himself was still casting off the medieval framework and replacing it with the clockwork universe.

I hope this is getting through. If not, I can recommend some of the books I used to do my grad thesis on the topic.

I probably also should do this on iTunes, but I want to put in a plug for Greg's Think Atheist podcast. I started listening maybe 5 or 6 episodes ago, and they've all been very good. Greg is very knowledgeable, and he books some great guests. The format is such that the topics can be explored in depth.

This episode with Jason was the best yet.

One small criticism: Greg, I'd love to hear you improve the audio quality. I don't know much about audio, but some podcasts come through crystal clear while others sound like they're in a small, echoey chamber.

Itchy --

This episode with Jason was the best yet.

Thanks for the kind words! I'm glad you enjoyed the interview.

Re Greg @ #11

I am afraid that Mr. Greg and I are just going to have to agree to disagree on this issue, hopefully not disagreeably.


Thanks for the kind words. About the quality of the show: We have already upgraded microphones and switched to a better recording program since the show started. As the show continues to grow in popularity, the audio quality will also grow. Since Nelson (the show's producer) and I put on Think Atheist Radio free of charge, we rely on donations from our listeners to keep the show going. Every penny of this goes towards operational costs and upgrades. If you desire to help us make another upgrade but do not want to make a direct donation, you can do your amazon shopping using our store link on This will not cost you anything, but TAR will get a small commission for encouraging people to shop on Amazon. Regardless, I really appreciate you listening to our show and I hope you keep listening.




Its all gravy to me. ;)

On the methodological naturalism thing: there have been perfectly legitimate experiments done on, for example, the medical effects of intercessory prayer. This is clearly testing a supernatural hypothesis (and falsifying it, since prayer was found not to help, and there's a possibility that it actually hurts if the recipient knows about it).

What exactly is unscientific here?

(Just finished reading my copy of the BECB, which arrived today even though Amazon UK originally gave a delivery date in June.)

By Andrew G. (not verified) on 09 May 2012 #permalink

Greg --

Perhaps you can indicate how one would go about making a donation to the show?

Andrew G --

Don't be coy! Did you like the book?

Re itchy @ #12

If one is using Firefox, the add-on download helper can download the mp3 file for the interview. One can then play it back on Itunes or the VLC player which have the capability of making adjustments to the sound which may improve its quality.