Over the past week or so we’ve had a bit of to-and-fro about whether there is any evidence that could in principle count as supporting the existence of gods. My answer of “yes” seems to be a minority view, but it’s true in the sense that yes, I would indeed believe—provisionally—in gods or supernatural forces if I encountered certain types of evidence.
I’m not going to defend my opinion in detail here, but I do want to dispel the accusation, leveled by The Great Decider among others, that that view is not shared by serious philosophers. For the many of you who appear really engaged by this debate, I urge you to read a new paper in Foundations of Science by Maarten Boudry and two colleagues from the Department of Philosophy at Ghent University (you can download it either here or here). I’d also urge you not to pass judgment on Boudry et al. from my brief post here: their manuscript merits reading in entirety.
Methodological naturalism (“MN”) is the commitment of scientific investigation in practice to studying only naturalistic causes and explanations. Boudry et al. observe, though, that there are really two types of MN:
Intrinsic methodological naturalism (IMN) is the a priori philosophical commitment to not even consider supernatural explanations (see the authors’ definition of “supernatural” below). As Boudry et al. state in a forthcoming paper, under IMN “science is simply not equipped to deal with the supernatural and therefore has no authority on the issue.” This is the view expressed by people like Eugenie Scott, Kenneth Miller, and Rob Pennock. It also appears to be the official position of the National Center for Science Education and the semi-official position of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Academy of Sciences.
Provisional (or pragmatic) methodological naturalism (PMN),“a provisory and empirically grounded commitment to naturalistic causes and explanations, which in principle is revocable by extraordinary empirical evidence.” As the authors note:
According to this conception, MN did not drop from thin air, but is just the best methodological guideline that emerged from the history of science (Shanks 2004; Coyne 2009; Edis 2006), in particular the pattern of consistent
success of naturalistic explanations. Appeals to the supernatural have consistently proven to be premature, and science has never made headway by pursuing them. The rationale for PMN thus excludes IMN: if supernatural explanations are rejected because they have failed in the past, this entails that, at least in some sense, they might have succeeded. The fact that they didn’t is of high interest and shows that science does have a bearing on the question of the supernatural.
I’m a proponent of PMN, of course; others who seem to agree are Victor Stenger and Richard Dawkins. P. Z. Myers and the others named above go with IMN. Boudry et al. go on to claim that IMN is “philosophically indefensible.”
Of course much of this hinges on what you see as the definition of “the supernatural.” (I’d recommend reading Russell Blackford’s analyses of this slippery term here and here.) Here is Boudry et al.’s definition:
. . . we propose to define ‘supernatural’ as referring to any phenomenon which has its basis in entities and processes that transcend the spatiotemporal realm of impersonal matter and energy described by modern science (for a similar approach, see Stenger 2008, pp. 14–16).
Here’s an example they give of a “supernatural” phenomena that could be studied by science:
. . . suppose the RCT [randomized controlled trial] in American Heart Journal turned out to confirm the hypothesis of therapeutic efficacy of intercessory prayer. Moreover, suppose that further experimental work following this demonstration, which would arguably mark a complete revolution in science, indicated that this form of supernatural causation is predictable because it exhibits certain regularities. For instance, it works only with prayers officially sanctioned by the Catholic Church, only if the ill person is baptised by a Catholic priest, etc. Though it may be ridiculous to speculate that anything of the sort would ever happen, as no alleged case of miraculous healing has even been authenticated scientifically, if it would, there is no obvious reason why the scientific enterprise would immediately and entirely collapse. The fact that some prayers actually do help people recover would admittedly cause a complete metaphysical revolution in science (imagine the enthusiasm of theologians), but if the range of action of this supernatural power turned out to be restricted, why would it endanger the rest of our scientific endeavours?
Using this definition, they show that the most common arguments for IMN—those used by the NCSE and others—are philosophically weak. It’s simply not kosher to say, as does the NCSE that “science has nothing to say about the supernatural.”
The authors also assert that, if you’re philosophically consistent, refuting things like intelligent design under the IMN requires only this dismissal: “we can’t even scientifically discuss or debate this issue because there is no empirical evidence that bears on the supernatural.” That’s not the way scientists—and the NCSE—attack creationism, of course. They take a Designer seriously an an explanation, and then show that the evidence better supports the alternative of evolution. If you’re an adherent of IMN, why bother?
That in fact seems to be the sentiment of many who are posting on this point. The definition of a god is claimed to be so slippery, so nebulous, that it shouldn’t even be considered as something scientists should debate. But doesn’t that argument also apply to a creationist Designer—or an Intelligent Designer? After all, how do we know what people mean by an “intelligent Designer”? Without a precise definition of “intelligence” and an explication of how an intelligent Designer should behave, can’t we just wave away the problem without argument? I would agree with Boudry et al. that even given the absence of a precise specification of “god”, one can still use science to study the supernatural.
The authors also note that IMN can be and has been used as prop for accomodationism:
Elsewhere (Boudry 2009 [reference below]) we have demonstrated that the principle of IMN is also an ill-advised attempt to reconcile science and religion. By excluding the supernatural from science by philosophical fiat, IMN has been grist to the mill of anti-evolutionists intent on accusing scientists of philosophical prejudice and dogmatism. To this end, they have exploited some of the specific philosophical weaknesses discussed in this paper. In our view, the conception of PMN salvages these philosophical problems and provides a more accurate picture of the proper role and rationale of science’s naturalistic methodology.
Do go read the paper, as I’m sure that my precis leaves out important points.
Boudry, M., S. Blancke and J. Braeckman. 2010. How not to attack intelligent design creationism: philosophical misconceptions about methodological naturalism. Foundations of Science (online) DOI 10.1007/s10699-010-9178-7
Boudry, M. (2009). Methodological naturalism as an intrinsic property of science: Grist to the Mill of intelligent design theory. Paper presented at the conference “150 years after origin: Biological, historical and philosophical perspectives”, November 2009, Toronto. [JAC: this talk is now a manuscript that is submitted for publication].