Over at EvolutionBlog, Jason Rosenhouse has again taken on Chris Mooney’s critique of accommodationism. Jason has done such a good job that I have little to add. However, lest Mooney accuse me of hiding behind Rosenhouse, or of avoiding debate, let me briefly respond.
Mooney’s latest beef is that I have somehow confused methodological naturalism (the use of naturalistic techniques in investigating questions about the world) with philosophical naturalism (the view that there is nothing beyond nature). Because of my supposed confusion, says Mooney, my claim that religion and science are incompatible is flatly wrong.
I don’t get it. To channel the captain in Cool Hand Luke, what we have here is a failure to communicate. I clearly set out what I thought about this issue in my article in The New Republic, and Rosenhouse, who has apparently read that article, gets it right. Mooney, who also says he has read the article, gets it wrong.
I am a methodological naturalist, but I don’t think that all supernatural claims defy scientific analysis. Moreover, I don’t see that the methodological/philosophical distinction has a lot to do with the dissonance between faith and science. The real dissonance, as I have repeatedly emphasized, is between the scientific acceptance of only those claims adjudicated by empirical investigation, and the religious acceptance of “truth” claims that are discovered by revelation (or instruction by one’s parents) and are unfalsifiable. These are two fundamentally different and incompatible ways of ascertaining “truth.” In fact, I don’t see that religion has any way at all of ascertaining “truth,” since its claims cannot be falsified. The fact that the major “truths” of different religions are in permanent and irresolvable conflict testifies to this difference between science and faith.
o.k. Let’s go over what Mooney claimed. He relies heavily on Rob Pennock’s superb book Tower of Babel when claiming that science cannot test the supernatural.
The Jerry Coyne debate reached temporary hiatus late last week with Coyne invoking Rosenhouse to defend himself against my charge that he has violated the methodological vs. philosophical naturalism distinction. Coyne doesn’t appear to think he commits this foul; and yet he writes in The New Republic, in a line not quoted by Rosenhouse, that “supernatural phenomena are not completely beyond the realm of science.”
If you accept the MN/PN distinction as I have outlined it, or as Robert Pennock does in Tower of Babel, it is hard see how one can claim this. As Pennock writes:
The first and most basic characteristic of supernatural agents and powers, of course, is that they are above and beyond the natural world and its agents and powers. Indeed, this is the very definition of the term. They are not constrained by natural laws…. (p. 289)
Experimentation requires observation and control of the variables. We confirm causal laws by performing controlled experiments in which the hypothesized independent variable is made to vary while all other factors are held constant so that we can observe the effect on the dependent variable. But we have no control over supernatural entities or forces; hence these cannot be scientifically studied. (p. 292)
It is hard to see how Coyne thinks he can include supernatural phenomena within the purview of science without directly addressing the whole MN/PN matter, and indeed, wholly rejecting the MN/PN distinction as outlined by someone like Pennock. Let’s face it: “supernatural phenomena are not completely beyond the realm of science” is a pretty extraordinary assertion. Indeed, as far as I can tell it is a contradiction in terms.
Yet in what I have read so far (I have not read his book, so it may be there), Coyne doesn’t directly address the MN/PN matter. Certainly, given that he is dealing with these topics in some detail in the lengthy New Republic article, that would have been an ideal place to take on this philosophical point. But it isn’t there.
Let’s remember why this is important. I have argued that science and religion are at least theoretically reconcilable due to the MN/PN distinction. You can accept all the realities that science reveals through MN, and yet also have supernatural beliefs (not PN), so long as you don’t confuse the two.
This debate about PN vs MN didn’t really interest me. What did interest me was the notion about whether claims about the supernatural can be tested with science. And some of them can. The crucial passages of my piece (recognized by Jason but not Mooney) are these:
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. . .
. . .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.
What is so hard to grasp about all this? Clearly some claims about the supernatural can be tested (and rejected) by science. One deals with the efficacy of prayer. People claim that God answers prayers. This can be, and has been, tested by scientific studies of the efficacy of prayer. These studies have failed to show any effect. Now you can argue about whether those studies were done properly, but the fact is that they can be. And, as noted above, there are other ways to scientifically document supernatural phenomena. One that Jason mentions is observing a talking Mount Rushmore.
Does anybody doubt that some claims about the supernatural can be tested with science? Mooney seems to doubt this.
Well, maybe you can claim that any phenomenon amenable to scientific study must by definition not be supernatural. This is a philosophical/semantic argument that I don’t want to get into. It doesn’t seem important. Clearly, the claim that prayer works (or that moral people get cancer less often than immoral people) is a claim that science can study. Clearly, the claim that the Shroud of Turin was Jesus’s burial cloth can be investigated scientifically. Clearly, the claim that some religious icons weep blood, water, or milk, can be studied scientifically. And believe me, if the Shroud of Turin were shown to have been made around 30 AD, religious people would have trumpeted it to the skies. When it was shown to be a forgery, the faithful claimed that their faith didn’t depend on such claims. Ditto with the efficacy of prayer. Does anybody doubt that if the intercessory study had shown a significant effect of prayer, it would have been trumpeted from pulpits the following Sunday?
And despite my admiration for Pennock’s book, which I still think is the best analysis of intelligent-design creationism around, I think he’s dead wrong when he says, “But we have no control over supernatural entities or forces; hence these cannot be scientifically studied.” Just because we can’t control God and how he responds to prayer doesn’t mean that we can’t study whether prayer works.
Mooney ends his piece in this way:
I will add that I am not a philosopher, and without having read and studied Pennock, probably wouldn’t wade into these waters. But at the same time, it seems to me that MN/PN is a pretty basic distinction, as are the definitions of “natural” and “supernatural.” Furthermore, I suspect most scientists would agree that their work and their methodology does not allow them to make claims about alleged supernatural agents.
I will make this claim about supernatural agents based on scientific methodology: prayer doesn’t help cardiac patients recover faster. I will also claim, based on observations of the world, that if a god exists, he is not simultaneously omniscient, omnipotent, and beneficent.
I reiterate: the incompatibility between faith and science rests on how they determine “truth.” To quote from my New Republic article:
In the end, then, there is a fundamental distinction between scientific truths and religious truths, however you construe them. The difference rests on how you answer one question: how would I know if I were wrong? Darwin’s colleague Thomas Huxley remarked that “science is organized common sense where many a beautiful theory was killed by an ugly fact.” As with any scientific theory, there are potentially many ugly facts that could kill Darwinism. Two of these would be the presence of human fossils and dinosaur fossils side by side, and the existence of adaptations in one species that benefit only a different species. Since no such facts have ever appeared, we continue to accept evolution as true. Religious beliefs, on the other hand, are immune to ugly facts. Indeed, they are maintained in the face of ugly facts, such as the impotence of prayer. There is no way to adjudicate between conflicting religious truths as we can between competing scientific explanations. Most scientists can tell you what observations would convince them of God’s existence, but I have never met a religious person who could tell me what would disprove it. And what could possibly convince people to abandon their belief that the deity is, as Giberson asserts, good, loving, and just? If the Holocaust cannot do it, then nothing will.
Let me pose this question to Mr. Mooney. The “truth” claims of many faiths are flatly incompatible. Christians, for example, believe that Jesus was the Messiah, the son of God. Muslims claim that this is not only untrue, but that anyone who believes it will burn in hell. At most, only one of these claims can be true. Who is right? How do you decide? And whatever method you use (whether you were born in Kansas or Kabul; whether you get a personal revelation), doesn’t it differ from the way that science finds out things?