Some Reflections on Methodological Naturalism in Science (and some friendly debate)

Some Reflections on Methodological Naturalism in Science (and some friendly debate)scientist

Methodological Naturalism (MN) is an important concept, one that involves issues that both scientists and theologians (not to mention philosophers) find significant and interesting. Dr. Joshua Swamidass has recently written a post on his personal blog, Peaceful Science, in which he seeks to explain and defend his commitment to methodological naturalism in science.

I met Joshua this summer at a retreat for seminary professors organized, run, and funded (with a little help from the Templeton foundation) by the American Academy for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).  He possesses two doctoral degrees, one in medicine (MD) and one in Information and Computer Sciences, specializing in Informatics in Biology and Medicine (PhD). He is currently an Assistant Professor at Washington University in the Department of Immunology and Pathology (Division of Laboratory and Genomic Medicine). And Joshua is a devout Christian, passionate and outspoken about his faith in Jesus (check out a couple of Veritas Forum videos that feature him here).

Dr. Swamidass’s basic position is summarized in the first couple of paragraphs of his post:

Mainstream science seeks “our best explanation of the world, without considering God.” This limiting clause,” without considering God,” is the rule of Methodological Naturalism (MN).

Currently, science does not search for all sorts of Truth. Rather, science is limited effort to explain the world on its own terms, without invoking God, His action, or intelligent design. There is a “line in the sand” in science, where consideration of God is explicitly disallowed by MN. Far from denying God’s existence, this way of doing science is strongly motivated by theism.

For those that doubt that MN is the current rule in science, and that it is applied to exclude ID, the William Dembski edited volume The Nature of Nature asks the right question on its back cover…

The culture war over theism versus atheism, traditional values versus secular progressivism, and transcendent versus material reality has focused on science as the prize. Who gets to define science?

The answer is simple. For the foreseeable future, scientists get to define science. Partly to stay out of the culture wars, scientists have defined science to include MN. This rule is a “line in the sand” that excludes both claims of both creationism and atheism from science itself. This does not exclude consideration of God in science-engaged philosophy and theology. Scientists can consider God in their philosophy and theology too, but in this must be clearly separated from their “science.”

That’s just the beginning. The entire post (linked here) is well worth reading.

Dr. Swamidass offers several intriguing arguments and observations in favour of MN. He also poses some provocative questions for those that reject MN or seek to compromise it (notably, in his view, proponents of Intelligent Design).

What do you think? Does MN make sense to you? Does it raise any questions or concerns for you? What would you want to affirm or challenge in Joshua’s post?

(NOTE: I am posting this at the invitation of Dr. Swamidass. He is interested in reading and considering thoughtful responses posted here).

Advertisements
This entry was posted in Philosophy of Science, Science and Christian Faith, Theology, Theology and Culture and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

30 Responses to Some Reflections on Methodological Naturalism in Science (and some friendly debate)

  1. Here’s a question I throw out there on the concept of design:

    It seems to me that the inference to design is something that one can make irrespective of one’s discipline of study or area of expertise. I don’t need to be a scientist to infer design from nature. Many do that without any training in science at all. If that’s the case, can design be regarded as a scientific principle per se? Or is it a broader principle of reasoning that various disciplines can employ, in various degrees?

    On his blog (in the series on ‘god of the gaps’ criticisms of ID), Hendrik gives the example of finding several Scrabble tiles placed together in the form of an intelligible sentence. One quite naturally infers design here, but one does not need to be a linguist to do so. Now, one might need the assistance of a linguist if the tiles appear to be in random order, let’s say because the sentence is in a foreign language one does not understand or even recognize. We don’t, however, need the linguist, as linguist, in order to make the step of inferring design. We need the linguist to help us discern if the necessary (but not sufficient) conditions are present in order for us (as non-specialists in the field) to infer design. But we already seem to take the notion of design for granted (and to include things beyond linguistics, such as the existence of the mind of the author, as well as motivations, ideologies, loyalties & commitments, etc.), on the way to asking if the linguistic evidence in question supports our (beyond linguistics) design inference or not.

    In short, one’s expertise in a field of study does not seem relevant to the discernment of design in general. It only seems relevant if one is considering whether certain observations (which are best understood by a particular field of study/expertise) support one’s overarching concept of design, which depends on other considerations in addition to the present observations. If the notion of design operates as I’m suggesting, it is not (it seems to me), strictly speaking, a scientific concept (though it can be one to which scientists as people/agents appeal to as a broader, more holistic explanation of reality).

    SO, HERE’S MY QUESTION FOR ALL: Do you agree that in the sense I’ve described, science can discern necessary but not sufficient conditions for an inference to Design?

    I think it would be interesting to tease this out.

  2. Thanks all for this thoughtful discussion. I hope it continues! Thanks especially to Joshua, who initiated the conversation, and to Hendrik, who – though his position is under-represented here – has interacted with grace, intelligence, and humility. There are some interesting comments on the Biologos Forum on this topic. I found that Jon Garvey’s comments provide a helpful cautionary note with respect to MN. See here: https://discourse.biologos.org/t/why-science-uses-methodological-naturalism/5441/2

  3. Joshua says:

    There an important confusion here. Mainstream science (and MN) decidedly do NOT rule out intelligence as a causal factor. Rather it rules out Divine Intelligence as a causal factor.

    This is why SETI and credit card fraud detection can be included in science, because they do not implicitly invoke a God like being and thereby violate MV, as ID arguments clearly do. This is for pragmatic reasons. Only by modeling what known (or hypothetical) natural agents are capable of can we form testable hypothesis and avoid “Design of the Gaps”.

    As a pragmatic factor, science can only recognize design by modeling the mind that produced it. Only by articulating limits to design by specific agents (which cannot place on God) can “design” be properly considered in a well formed scientific theory. This is the problem with Divine Design, because science cannot hope to model how God thinks in any authoritative way. Nor have ID proponents (with Walter ReMine being one notable, but unsuccessful, exception) showing any interest in articulating the design principles underlying the patterns we see in nature.

    I am well aware that ID proponents do not make a distinction between Divine Design and design, but this is a mistake. There is no case in science where design is detectable independent of modeling the mind that made it.

    • Joshua, I take it that your comment above is directed to me and my comments below (since I am thus far the only ID proponent in this discussion).

      Please know I’m not arguing that mainstream science rules out intelligence as a causal factor. Rather, I’m arguing that because mainstream science allows for intelligence as a possible explanation in some cases, it (mainstream science or at least an ID subset of it) should also do so in other cases, if empirical evidence points us in that direction.

      Yes, ID proponents don’t distinguish between divine design and design. This is deliberate. It’s because ID seeks to discern empirical evidence of design, regardless of whether its source is divine or alien or whatever. The question of the nature of its source (whether it’s divine, alien, or whatever) is a subsequent question, to be asked after the empirical evidence under investigation is discerned as smacking of design.

      Yes, in mainstream science intelligent agency is allowed as a causal factor, for examples, in archaeology, forensic science, cryptography. And, yes, in these sciences the detectable design inference is not independent of modeling the mind that made it, i.e., we’re modeling on known intelligent causes, which happen to be us. But with SETI (search for extraterrestrial intelligence) things get interesting. In SETI we don’t know whether ET is a natural agent or god-like being or angel or something else—yet we permit the discernment of design independent of modeling ET’s mind. We use known intelligence, i.e., ours. If this is reasonable in SETI, it’s reasonable elsewhere. To say it isn’t reasonable elsewhere is to assume that intelligence other than human intelligence can never be modeled on the known effects of human intelligence, but this is to assume what’s at issue—if the issue is whether such intelligence is in fact limited solely to us. It’s question-begging, in other words. We should look and see, and let the evidence lead us.

      Note: As an ID proponent, my argument isn’t theological at all, it’s wholly secular. But a theological argument in favour of promoting ID as a research program would be this: maybe there’s a Mind who made us in His image and so we are able, using empirical science, to discern this Mind’s empirical effects in the created order, if this Mind left empirically discernible traces of such effects. Strong MN seems to rule this out at the get go.

      Well, that’s how it seems to me. Of course, I could be (and often am) mistaken!

      Thanks, Joshua, for the discussion.

  4. Gregory says:

    Hi Patrick, First time post, following Joshua’s link. I’m awaiting comments from him on MN. But may I address something else in one of the responses?

    “we should allow the intelligent design (ID) hypothesis into science’s explanatory tool kit” – Hendrik

    It already *is* in “science’s explanatory tool kit,” but the DI undermines itself by not acknowledging that openly. It is used every single moment of every day in social sciences and humanities, which still adhere to the root Latin ‘scientia’. The ‘design theory’ of the DI isn’t the already common study of non-capitalised ‘design’, but rather of ‘Design’ using a capitalised ‘Intelligent Design theory.’ There are many ‘design theories’ that are ignored by the DI in pushing their ‘renewal’ right-wing USA political-educational ideology. Does Hendrik have an answer for why this is the case?

    Another problem for natural scientists like Joshua is that attributing ‘intelligence’ (non-capitalised) in anything other than human beings, there is a rather quick slide into vitalism (e.g. Denton is a quasi-vitalist). The difference between anthropocentric & anthropic however is fascinating. One can see an attempt to explore this in DI-affiliated Benjamin Wiker & Jonathan Witt’s “A Meaningful World.”

    As for the “small but growing number” of IDists, let me submit humbly to Hendrik for him to reconsider this DI marketing trope and look at the facts. Dembksi ‘retired’ almost a year ago from ‘Intelligent Design’ work (https://billdembski.com/a-new-day/) and Casey Luskin, their trusted lawyer-agitator also recently left the DI. Is this somehow spun as ‘encouraging’ for the fruits of IDism to harvest? It has been soundly walloped by Christians in the scientific community (e.g. Gingerich, Miller & Davis), many of whom have simply become bored with the continued insistence by the IDM that they have discovered what will eventually constitute ‘the greatest scientific revolution in hundreds & hundreds, maybe even thousands of years or even ever in history,’ maybe since the philosophes & the Euro Enlightenment! Etc. etc. yada, yada.

    “I think the ID folks are willing [to] keep MN as a general operating principle of investigation”

    No, this is inaccurate. The DI rejects MN as a general operating principle for ‘doing science.’ Their preferred term ‘Intelligence’ (which they usually don’t capitalise for rhetorical PR, not spiritual purposes) is either extra-natural or non-natural and thus cannot be encased or curtained by naturalism of any variety. Phillip Johnson’s the ‘father of the IDM’ was quite explicit about this (cf. wedge strategy).

    “they want to allow ID to compete with non-ID research programs”

    Then don’t tell us you simply ‘want’ to do something; compete by doing, not by talking & PR politicking for 20yrs (C[R]SC anniversary this year). Right now ‘ID research programs’ wouldn’t qualify for nap time & a massage between training sessions; they are so very far from being scholarly Olympians & thinkers, when you look at their work and speak with them personally (e.g. Meyer, Nelson, Wells, West) and up-close about their supposedly ‘strictly scientific research programs’ (SSRP). If Hendrik could list just 3 such ID SSRPs here, with even just a basic attention to detail as all Christians in scientific disciplines are expected to produce, it would be a pleasant surprise.

    Nevertheless, I agree with Hendrik’s caution to Joshua against ‘always MN’ and this is revealed by the fact that Joshua doesn’t always speak as a scientist, just sometimes. I await Joshua’s answer re: naturalistic and non-naturalistic ideologies in natural sciences. The BioLogos view of MN is rather primitive on the philosophical level, and there have been rumblings about some of its affiliated theologians, including most recently Thomas Jay Oord. Yet here, in this openly science, philosophy and theology/worldview discourse, there is no disguise that Joshua uses natural scientific methods (not naturalistic) within (& not beyond) his worldview an an evangelical Christian. That is where I’ll take leave from you in Canada & USA.

  5. Pingback: Why Methodological Naturalism? - Peaceful Science

  6. Lots of good thoughts from Joshua Swamidass—thanks again, Patrick, for posting this. Swamidass also asks LOTS of good questions! I think a thorough response from me would require several (many!) pages, so I’ll limit myself to a few comments on topics that strike me as salient/ important.

    Methodological Naturalism (MN). I favour MN but not in the strong sense that Swamidass does. I think that, yes, MN is the way to go in general. But I also think we should allow the intelligent design (ID) hypothesis into science’s explanatory tool kit—just in case some of the world’s empirical evidence does in fact point that way. This is not to use God or Scripture in science. Rather, it’s to allow science to discern evidence of ID if it happens to be there in actuality. (The identity of the designer would be a subsequent job for philosophy and theology. It might be God, or maybe not.)

    Who gets to define science? I agree with the author that scientists get to define science. Significantly, though, it turns out that some scientists (a small but growing number (?)) wish to include ID in the explanatory toolkit of science. I think they should be allowed to do that and engage in research programs which reflect this, while others who disagree engage in research programs which don’t reflect this. The test (which I think would be exciting) would be to see which research program is fruitful. Let the scientists “slug it out”, so to speak (i.e., using evidence, reason, etc.). The Center for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute has some scientists engaged in ID research. Also, there is Doug Axe at the Biologic Institute, and there are William Dembski and Robert Marks at the Evolutionary Informatics Lab.

    MN makes science neutral to God. Hmmm. I agree that MN in general is useful. But to ALWAYS hold to MN means MN is not neutral to a God that may actually leave scientifically observable evidence of intelligent causation.

    Should MN be removed from science? Swamidass reports that this is what ID proponents want. That’s not what I understand from my studies of ID (though I could be mistaken). As far as I can tell, they don’t want to remove MN. I think the ID folks are willing keep MN as a general operating principle of investigation, but in those (few) loci of investigation where evidence suggests ID, they want to allow ID to compete with non-ID research programs.

    Religious texts. I agree that religious texts should not be used as scientific evidence. Religious texts aren’t scientific evidence. However, they might be used as, say, idea/ hypothesis generators (as August Kekule allegedly had a dream which helped him discover the benzene ring). Ultimately, for science, the evidence of the world is what should speak and is what tests the ideas/ hypotheses about the world however those ideas/ hypotheses were gotten.

    The resurrection of Jesus. Contrary to what Swamidass seems to think, I think science is not useless in considering the claims about Jesus’ resurrection. Science helps us understand cell necrosis (cell death/ decay) and its irreversible effects (on naturalistic assumptions). Science helps us understand that the blood and watery substance that came from Jesus’ chest after a spear was thrust into it was probably from a piercing of the heart and the pericardium (a sack around the heart which contains a watery fluid). Science helps us understand that dead men, if left alone, typically stay dead and don’t resurrect in a new high-powered body. If we have good historical evidence of a resurrection (which I think we do), then science could help us understand that natural causes alone have trouble explaining a resurrection. (Note: I’m not just speaking of the cuff here. My PhD dissertation is titled “Miracle reports, moral philosophy, and contemporary science.”)

    ID versus the god-of-the-gaps objection. Swamidass doesn’t explicitly discuss this, but I find that often this objection lurks behind dismissals of ID. For a few of my thoughts on the topic of ID versus the god-of-the-gaps, my four-part Apologia series might be of interest:

    http://apologiabyhendrikvanderbreggen.blogspot.ca/2012/03/god-of-gaps-objection-part-4.html

    I’ll stop. These are just a few of my thoughts. I know much more can be said (for and against my views), but I’m pressed for time. I hope this is helpful.

    Thanks again, Patrick, for posting the article by S. Joshua Swamidass. It’s good food for thought!

    • (These are some postscripts I had on Patrick’s and my original Facebook discussion. I include them here, too, in case they’re of interest.)

      P.S. John A. Bloom has a helpful chapter (chapter 5) on Methodological Naturalism in his little book The Natural Sciences: A Student’s Guide (Crossway 2015). Here’s a link: https://www.amazon.ca/Natural-Sciences-Students-Guide/dp/1433539357/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1471279475&sr=8-1&keywords=john+a.+bloom

      P.P.S. A good panel discussion between defenders of ID and critics of ID is “ID Under Fire.” I often have shown this video in my Philosophy of Science course when we discuss the pros and cons of ID. Here’s a link (it’s 2 hours long): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GrSPmpMITNI

      P.P.P.S. My Apologia column of March 23, 2014, is on Origins, Science, and the Bible. I think you’ve seen this previously, Patrick. But it might be of interest to our readers. http://apologiabyhendrikvanderbreggen.blogspot.ca/2014/03/origins-science-and-bible-part-2_23.html

      Okay, I’ll stop now for sure!

    • Good thoughts and questions, Hendrik. Thanks.

      I think one of the problems that comes up in this discussion is that people employ the word ‘science’ in different ways. People that defend MN tend to see science as a method, specifically, a method that employs natural/physical explanations to account for observations of the physical world, whereas those that reject it seem to understand science to be something like “a body of knowledge about reality” (and for ID proponents, reality is not necessarily limited to the realm of the physical).

      To illustrate this difference: You write above that ID proponents seek “to allow science to discern evidence of ID if it happens to be there in actuality.” But what is meant by “science” here? Which science? And which particular scientific research method? (A chemist, in seeking to provide a scientific explanation about some observation concerning chemistry, is going to provide a chemical explanation, for example.) Or do you mean scientists as persons/agents employing both scientific and philosophical methods? Or do you mean science in the sense of what is knowable more broadly, or our combined ways of knowing put together, or a way of knowing more broadly (we used to talk about theology as a ‘science’ in this sense)? It seems to me that ID proponents blur these distinctions, whereas Joshua and others understand science, as science, to be limited to physical/natural explanations alone. (Though, clearly, Joshua has no problem with scientifically informed philosophical or theological explanations). A question I wonder about for you: in the discussion of ID and MN, how do you distinguish between science and philosophy? Is there a point where science ends and philosophy begins? Or are they doing the same thing. (I certainly agree that they can investigate some of the same realities, but it seems to me that they provide different explanations of those realities using different methods).

      Good points on the resurrection! Such information is enlightening for sure. But even here it doesn’t seem like “resurrection” can be a scientific explanation. Rather, it is a theological explanation that best makes sense of historical and scientific data (and is superior to alternate explanations, such as that the early Christians just made it up). But, I guess we’re back to definitions here!

      On who gets to define science, I too think I agree with Joshua that scientists get to do that. But, don’t we have a problem here in that any definition we give to “science” isn’t strictly speaking a scientific explanation resulting from science as a method? If that’s the case, scientists as scientists (employing science as a method of providing physical explanations/models to observations) are not necessarily better equipped to define science. (I.e. they need to venture outside of science, i.e., their realm of expertise, in order to define science). At least (perhaps) not exclusively. Of course, their immersion in scientific disciplines and practices makes them (the most) important people to reflect phenomenologically on what they are doing. But other perspectives may also illuminate. So, I guess here I am pushing back at Joshua a bit. You say scientists get to defend science, and I mostly agree, but you assert that rather than argue it. That seems a bit problematic, especially since “scientists get to define science” is not a scientific statement per se. Not a huge issue . . . I just thought the assertion needs to be unpacked a bit more.

      • Thanks for your comments, Patrick. I’ll respond to your points in piecemeal fashion, i.e., I’ll copy your paragraphs (or portion thereof) and then offer a comment immediately afterward. (I suspect this will eventually become unwieldy and will require further discussion in person. We’ll see how it goes!)

        Patrick wrote:

        I think one of the problems that comes up in this discussion is that people employ the word ‘science’ in different ways. People that defend MN tend to see science as a method, specifically, a method that employs natural/physical explanations to account for observations of the physical world, whereas those that reject it seem to understand science to be something like “a body of knowledge about reality” (and for ID proponents, reality is not necessarily limited to the realm of the physical).

        Hendrik’s reply:

        I think MN proponents and ID proponents both see science as a method. But I think MN proponents tend to limit that method to non-intelligent causal explanations, whereas ID proponents wish to allow for the possibility of sometimes empirically discerning the empirical effects of intelligent agents and leaving open (to philosophy/ theology) whether those agents are wholly natural/ physical or not. Think of the causal explanation of intelligent agency in the science of SETI (search for extra-terrestrial intelligence). SETI legitimately employs intelligent agency as a possible causal explanation of empirically detected stuff that smacks of design as a best explanation. I’m pretty sure ET hasn’t been communicated anything yet, but if ET did, it seems that MN wouldn’t allow it insofar as non-intelligent causes are precluded at the get go. ID wishes to consider intelligent agency causal explanations in other sciences, if empirical evidence warrants such consideration.

        Patrick wrote:

        To illustrate this difference: You write above that ID proponents seek “to allow science to discern evidence of ID if it happens to be there in actuality.” But what is meant by “science” here? Which science? And which particular scientific research method? (A chemist, in seeking to provide a scientific explanation about some observation concerning chemistry, is going to provide a chemical explanation, for example.) Or do you mean scientists as persons/agents employing both scientific and philosophical methods? Or do you mean science in the sense of what is knowable more broadly, or our combined ways of knowing put together, or a way of knowing more broadly (we used to talk about theology as a ‘science’ in this sense)? It seems to me that ID proponents blur these distinctions, whereas Joshua and others understand science, as science, to be limited to physical/natural explanations alone. (Though, clearly, Joshua has no problem with scientifically informed philosophical or theological explanations).

        Hendrik’s reply:

        In my above sentence, by “science” I mean science broadly speaking. I was being conscientious of space limitations, which is (in part) why I left a link to my discussion of the god-of-the-gaps objection wherein I address the matter you raise above. (Yes, I probably left too many links!) More specifically, ID proponents limit the discernment of ID to historical sciences as opposed to nonhistorical sciences (a nonhistorical science would include the chemistry example you mention). This is an important distinction (which often gets missed in criticisms of ID), so permit me to clarify here at length. In what follows I quote (copy and paste) from my above-mentioned column (if it’s of interest to anyone, a version of this is also found in my dissertation in the section “Defending the Legitimacy of Intelligent Causes as Explanations,” pages 226-237).

        In many sciences, explanations that appeal to intelligent agency constitute a syntactically/ categorically inappropriate response to the question motivating those sciences, so in these sciences an appeal to ID is inappropriate from the get go, whereas in other sciences ID is not inappropriate.

        Philosopher of science Stephen C. Meyer explains the constraint well, so I will follow him closely (subsequent quotes are from Meyer).

        Meyer points out that the sciences can be divided into two broad categories: historical and nonhistorical.

        The nonhistorical sciences consist of branches of physics, chemistry, and biology, and are “concerned primarily with the discovery and explication of general phenomena.” The goal of these sciences is to investigate the world’s regular operations, i.e., “to discover, classify or explain [via] unchanging laws and properties of nature.”

        The historical sciences, on the other hand, consist of such sciences as historical geology, evolutionary biology, and archaeology. Their concern is “to reconstruct the past and explain the present by reference to the past,” i.e., to “explain events or data not primarily by reference to laws but by reference to past causal events or sequences of events—what might be called ‘causal histories.'”

        Whereas Meyer uses the terms “nonhistorical science” and “historical science”, some thinkers use the terms “operation science” and “origin science,” respectively. Operation science has to do with the ongoing regularities of nature; origin science has to do with historical singularities or beginnings in nature.

        Clearly, an appeal to intelligent agency is not always inappropriate in the historical sciences. In archaeology it makes sense to claim that an intelligent agent was the cause of what appears to be a cave painting. Also, in historical biology it makes sense to claim that an intelligent agent may have been the cause of life’s origin. Of course, these claims might be false. However, with respect to the motivating questions of the historical sciences—i.e., questions of the sort “What is the cause of X?”—they are not logically inappropriate responses.

        On the other hand, in the nonhistorical sciences an appeal to intelligent agency is logically inappropriate always. The answer “an intelligent agent did it” fails to respond correctly to the kind of question motivating the nonhistorical sciences. Nonhistorical sciences ask questions concerning how nature operates normally, i.e., how nature operates without the interference or special actions of intelligent agency (whether human or divine or alien), and so these sciences seek answers which involve the descriptive and/or explanatory use of natural laws and non-intelligent processes.

        Meyer puts it this way: “To offer ‘God did it’ as an answer to a question such as ‘How does weightlessness generally affect crystal growth?’ clearly misses the point of the question. The answer does not so much violate the rules of science as the rules of grammar.”

        Appeals to intelligent agency in the natural realm, then, are constrained by the fact that they are syntactically inappropriate in the nonhistorical or operational sciences. This means that as a possible causal answer in the doing of science, ID is limited primarily to the category of historical or origin sciences. Significantly, this constraint reduces the chances of applying ID erroneously.

        I hope this distinction is helpful, Patrick, in answering your questions (or at least some of them).

        Patrick wrote:

        A question I wonder about for you: in the discussion of ID and MN, how do you distinguish between science and philosophy? Is there a point where science ends and philosophy begins? Or are they doing the same thing. (I certainly agree that they can investigate some of the same realities, but it seems to me that they provide different explanations of those realities using different methods).

        Hendrik’s reply:

        I don’t think there’s a simple or uncontestable definition of science, but I’ll venture (dare!) to say this: I think science is a discipline/ set of disciplines that involves a method/ set of methods for investigating the physical world empirically, rationally, and objectively (as much as is humanly possible) in an attempt to seek knowledge of truths about the physical world (truths that include patterns and relationships found in the world which are useful to us) and these knowledge/ truth claims are held tentatively/ provisionally because of our limitations (and thus are open to revision as more of the world is understood). (I’m borrowing this in a slightly modified form from Del Ratzsch’s book Science and Its Limits: The Natural Sciences in Christian Perspective.)

        I think philosophy is related to science/sciences in two ways. Philosophy provides/ clarifies the various assumptions of science: e.g., existence of a mind-independent world, our ability to know (fallibly, non-exhaustively), concept of truth, that language accurately represents/ communicates (at least to some extent), legitimacy of induction, deductive logic, nature of a good explanation, good of honesty in reporting findings, etc. (Note: This is not to say that this domain belongs to philosophers, though they do philosophize about this stuff; rather, it’s to say that when scientists think about this stuff, they’re doing philosophy.) Also, philosophy can take the various findings of science and attempt to package/ make sense of them in a larger worldview (e.g., atheism, Christian theism, pantheism, etc.). (Note: We all can do this, for better or for worse, whether we’re philosophers or theologians or scientists or truck drivers.)

        To answer your question (finally): I think that in the discussion of ID vis-à-vis MN, we’re having a philosophical discussion about the philosophical assumptions of a discipline called science, a discipline that generally purports to seek carefully what’s going on and has gone on in the physical world.

        Patrick wrote:

        Good points on the resurrection! Such information is enlightening for sure. But even here it doesn’t seem like “resurrection” can be a scientific explanation. Rather, it is a theological explanation that best makes sense of historical and scientific data (and is superior to alternate explanations, such as that the early Christians just made it up). But, I guess we’re back to definitions here!

        Hendrik’s reply:

        I was merely responding to Joshua’s claim that “science is useless in considering the claims of Jesus.” I think it’s overstated (or perhaps not clearly stated). As I pointed out, the biological/ medical sciences are helpful—useful—in understanding the claims of Jesus vis-à-vis His death and resurrection. I’m not arguing that “God raised Jesus from the dead” is a scientific explanation. It’s definitely, as you say, “a theological explanation that best makes sense of historical and scientific data (and is superior to alternate explanations, such as that the early Christians just made it up).” So science helps us understand the nature of a dead body plus the limits of natural explanation alone in explaining a resurrected body. This is useful in considering the claims of Jesus.

        Patrick wrote:

        On who gets to define science, I too think I agree with Joshua that scientists get to do that. But, don’t we have a problem here in that any definition we give to “science” isn’t strictly speaking a scientific explanation resulting from science as a method? If that’s the case, scientists as scientists (employing science as a method of providing physical explanations/models to observations) are not necessarily better equipped to define science. (I.e. they need to venture outside of science, i.e., their realm of expertise, in order to define science). At least (perhaps) not exclusively. Of course, their immersion in scientific disciplines and practices makes them (the most) important people to reflect phenomenologically on what they are doing. But other perspectives may also illuminate. So, I guess here I am pushing back at Joshua a bit. You say scientists get to defend science, and I mostly agree, but you assert that rather than argue it. That seems a bit problematic, especially since “scientists get to define science” is not a scientific statement per se. Not a huge issue . . . I just thought the assertion needs to be unpacked a bit more.

        Hendrik’s reply:

        I think scientists get to define science, for sure. Scientists are closer to the ground (so to speak), so we should listen to them carefully because of their scientific expertise. But it’s also important to realize that scientists are engaged in philosophy of science when they define science. I think that insofar as philosophy is being discussed, it allows the various perspectives you mention to enter and possibly illuminate. It also allows philosophically minded people to chime in. (I’m thinking here of Richard Dawkins’ and Stephen Hawking’s philosophical views pretending to be science, and how it was most appropriate for those views to be critiqued philosophically.) Anyways, that’s my two cents.

        Note: This discussion is taking much more time that I have available, so I may not be providing replies to everyone’s comments concerning my comments. I suspect my answers above may be challenged elsewhere. But I’ll try to respond as time permits. Thanks for the good discussion!

        • Thanks Hendrik for laying out this clear response. Much appreciated.

          I think there is much we agree on, and I won’t argue over disagreements just now. I’ll just state a couple of things that remain puzzling to me about the ID perspective.

          1. On your statement, “I think MN proponents and ID proponents both see science as a method. But I think MN proponents tend to limit that method to non-intelligent causal explanations, whereas ID proponents wish to allow for the possibility of sometimes empirically discerning the empirical effects of intelligent agents and leaving open (to philosophy/ theology) whether those agents are wholly natural/ physical or not.”: I’m not sure I follow. It seems to me that scientists always employ physical methods in their research; those methods, it seems to me, are limited in their purview to what is physical. So, for example, science has access to brains by direct observation and experimentation, but has to infer “Mind,” which is not a scientific concept but nevertheless real. A neuroscientist can measure the effects of prayer, but has no resources to determine the existence of the Being to whom prayer is directed (she can say, perhaps, that prayer ‘works’ but not that God answers prayer). Such must be inferred given the observations in light of a larger framework. We could say the same for bodies and souls. I think that physicalists (such as Nancey Murphy) are too quick to dismiss the existence of the soul (physicalist objections don’t answer satisfactorily pertinent issues treated in the philosophical and theological traditions, Aquinas’s view for instance). But I think they are correct that science gives us no direct access to the soul. This does not mean other fields/methods cannot conceive of it; the soul is a metaphysical reality that accounts for things science cannot fully explain. So, in sum, I’m not sure what specific methods can be employed in particular sciences to gain direct access to Mind as a causal explanation.

          2. I think part of the problem, for me, is that I’m not convinced that design explains the diversity of life as we know it. I think adaptation is a better overall explanation. Adaptation does more explanatory work than design (it accounts for the existence of the fossil record, the progressive order of fossils found in the layers, the geographical specificity of what we find where, the existence of countless extinct species, the presence of vestigial features in presently existing species, genetic evidence pointing to common ancestry, etc.) and gives not just an overarching explanation but specific, observable mechanisms that explain how it occurred. Does the evolutionary picture explain everything? Certainly not. But I think it explains more. (The origin of life is an interesting question, and a puzzle that remains unexplained by evolution).

          3. I think I’d quibble with the distinction between historical and non-historical sciences. Even the so-called historical sciences have to go beyond explaining “events or data not primarily by reference to laws but by reference to past causal events or sequences of events—what might be called ‘causal histories.’” They have to explain the specific causal mechanisms at work (for the examples you cited, things like plate tectonics in geography; natural selection, genetic mutation, genetic drift, migration, etc. in evolution). I don’t see how the same could be said of attempt to identify the presence of Mind. Though, philosophically, we are warranted in inferring Mind as the best meta-explanation (and avoiding the pitfalls of scientism or scientific reductionism). Archaeology does seem more ‘historical’ in the sense you describe, making use of scientific methods (carbon dating) as well as other contextual date (linguistic analysis, dating of technologies, etc.). That raises an interesting question as to whether is it properly considered a sub-discipline of science or of history/humanities. (?)

          That’s all for now . . . these are things I continue to ponder.

          • Patrick,

            Re: 1. I agree that science can’t get direct access to mind (intelligent agency) as a causal explanation, but I think it can get indirect access to mind via its effects (and whatever its metaphysical status). We do this in archaeology (e.g., cave paintings), forensic science (e.g. who dunnit), cryptography (e.g., a mind did the coding), and SETI (i.e., ET, an intelligent agent/ mind, is inferred to be the cause of the message/ structure, even though we haven’t a clue about its metaphysics). ID proponents wish to broaden this to other sciences if there’s positive evidence of effects of mind (intelligent agency) AND positive evidence that non-mind (non-intelligent causes) aren’t up to the task. The judgment would always be tentative/ provisional, depending on further positive/ negative evidence.

            Re: 2. I don’t think ID proponents are wholly against evolutionary mechanisms to explain life’s diversity. I think they question (on the basis of known evidence) the extent of those mechanisms’ creative capacities. And I think they differ among themselves about the extent. And, yes, the origin of life is still an unresolved and perplexing puzzle. I did a bit of thinking on the origin of life question on pages 284-290 of my dissertation. (I have a link to my dissertation on my blog and on my faculty profile page.)

            Re: 3. I will ponder.

          • O.K. Thanks Hendrik.

        • Joshua says:

          So, regarding your distinction between historical and operation science.

          I do not make this distinction, because in practice they are tightly connected and virtually inseparable. Moreover, it is an odd distinction for a theist to make (see my original post). Don’t we believe that God is CURRENTLY active in our world? Why do we just relax MN in the past but not the present? We believe understanding His current action in this world is just as important as his past work. Using this as a distinction to talk about the limits of MN seems, on face value, inconsistent and arbitrary.

          I do not think Meyer’s (and all the creationists that agree with him) is well considered here. The only reason I can imagine a theist would propose this is a fixation on proving creation with “science.” But what about everything else? I’m not comfortable with science “ruling” on the present work of the Holy Spirit. Why doesn’t that bother you?

          I see no consistent basis (other than MN) to make sense of this.

          • Joshua,

            About your claim on the tight connectedness and virtual inseparability in practice of historical and operation science: I will ponder that. I think some practicing scientists (in the ID camp) would disagree. I’ll have to check their arguments.

            About relaxing MN in the past but not the present: I think science should be open to discerning intelligent design in the past as well as the present, if empirical evidence warrants it. I think the focus on the past has to do with those (few) areas that suggest some sort of creating activity (primary causation) such as the origin of life. About the present (or very recent past), I’m inclined to think that in the case of, say, an apparently miraculous healing, if there’s empirical evidence (e.g., before and after X-rays, credible doctors’ reports, etc.), I would be open to letting science (as a truth-seeking discipline) have a look. This doesn’t mean science would “rule” on the Holy Spirit, but it would allow public glimpses of what might suggest the work of the Holy Spirit. I have a long-time friend who is sensitive to the Holy Spirit (and is a sober-minded tenured professor and scientist who runs a bioengineering research lab at a public university) tell me he saw a shriveled leg restored to good health in a matter of moments after prayer. I think examining this kind of thing which, if true, and if an actual work of the Holy Spirit, would bring glory to God.

            About the alleged “fixation” on proving creation with science. My reason (and Meyer’s, as far as I can tell) is this: I want to let the world speak for itself and let science, which purports to discern the actual goings on in the world, be able to hear what the world has to say for itself—and do so without artificial theory constraints (e.g., MN) which muzzle what it has to say. This is not a fixation on proving creation with science; it’s an attempt to let science be truth-seeking and be able to follow the evidence wherever it leads.

    • Joshua says:

      Hello Hendrik,

      In addition to Patrick’s thoughts (with which I largely agree) I’ll respond to you a bit more in the coming days.

      In the meantime, I was surprised by your claim, “Significantly, though, it turns out that some scientists (a small but growing number) wish to include ID in the explanatory toolkit of science.” Is that true? Is it really a growing number? From my vantage point as a professor in the science, this seems that the anti-MN contingent is not growing at all.

      None of my colleagues seems to think there is any debate about this at all. Contrast that with the 90s, where there did seem to be a growing number of ID advocates in the sciences. Now? I’m not so sure. Do you have any evidence of this?

      • Hello Joshua,

        My first post was from a Facebook discussion initiated by Patrick and copied over here to Patrick’s blog. I should have revised it and addressed you more directly and personally — sorry about that. It’s good to meet you!

        About my parenthetical remark “a small but growing number”: When I originally wrote my comment I had a question mark after “number”, which I probably should have left in. I didn’t leave it in because it seems to me that even though the number is (and remains) small (relative to the the larger scientific community), it appears to have grown over time. My evidence would be Doug Axe’s Biologic Institute, William Dembski’s and Robert Marks’ Evolutionary Informatics Lab, plus (an inference from) the growing number of peer-reviewed papers listed over at the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture. I don’t want my philosophical criticism of MN to hinge on this, so I’m willing to put the question mark back into my parenthetical remark — no problem.

        I appreciate your questions “Is that true?” and “Do you have any evidence of this?”

        • Thanks Hendrik. (I will edit your original comment accordingly).

        • Joshua says:

          Thanks for clarifying Hendrik, I appreciate both your civil tone and willingness to explain. I agree, this larger discussion is separable from this. I just found it very surprising that anyone thought that.

          About their movement’s “CV”, you can find it here: http://www.discovery.org/scripts/viewDB/filesDB-download.php?command=download&id=10141

          To help you see how scientists perceive their publications, there are about 80 publications in scientific publications. However, many of these are actually not scientific journals at all (e.g. the Design Inference) or are in BIO-Complexity, the DI run journal. Only 7 were published last year. The vast majority of the authors (with a few exceptions, like Kirk Durston, Doug Axe, and Ann Gauger) have been part of the movement from the beginning, and do not reflect growth at all.

          As a quantitative reference, I am a mere assistant professor that entered my independent career in 2010. I have 45 publications (about half that the ID movement has produced in 4x that time), about 11 of which were published in 2015. So, you can imagine my skepticism about ID research programs. As a junior scientist I am producing more scientific work per year than the entire peer-reviewed scientific ID effort.

          Of course, this is just a side discussion, and I’ll respond (one at a time) to the points you raised in a moment.

    • Joshua says:

      You write…

      “Religious texts. I agree that religious texts should not be used as scientific evidence. Religious texts aren’t scientific evidence.” [but they can be used for inspiration]

      Great! I agree. We both agree. All scientists agree too, because this violates MN.

      However, many people do not agree with us. If not MN, what is the consistent rule you propose in place of MN to exclude religious texts. If we are going to consider God’s action in nature, why exactly do you arbitrarily decide to exclude God’s action of speaking His Word to us? (A pugnacious YEC would accuse you of not accepting its authority.)

      I invoke MN to exclude it, citing this as a hard rule and limitation of science. What is your basis? I think you do not have one, and this is why I wonder if removing MN from science will break it.

      • As a proponent of ID (better: as a philosopher who is sympathetic to ID), in the present discussion I am not considering God’s action in nature. I am considering merely whether nature provides empirical evidence of design. Maybe it’s from God, maybe not—figuring this out is a subsequent matter for philosophers (of religion) and theologians.

        My rule for excluding religious texts here is this: If we are looking at nature to see if it—and it alone—provides empirically discernible evidence of design, we should look only at nature (not at texts written by humans and which claim, rightly or wrongly, to be inspired by God).

        I don’t think this is to decide arbitrarily to exclude from science God’s action of speaking His Word to us. It’s simply to ask: What does nature have to say? One can be consistent in thinking that God speaks His Word via a book/ document, which can be investigated using the tools of historical investigation appropriate for historical documents, and in thinking that God’s world can be investigated independently of that book/ document, using the various physical sciences to see if the world itself smacks of design. I don’t think MN is required for this distinction to hold.

        Maybe I’m missing something, Joshua. As my wife and kids remind me (too eagerly, I think): I have been known to be mistaken!

    • Joshua says:

      As to letting ID “slug it out” and “ID is not God of the gaps”.

      I’ll point out that they did “slug it out” in the 90s in science, and lost. They did again in 2005, and lost again. What they seem to want is a rematch. How many more rematches do you think they should get? Remember, no on is protesting them doing science-engaged philosophy. Many of us would welcome that. However, they have not made their scientific case.

      In my conversations with ID proponents, I regularly relax the rule of MN when I talk with them. Conversations regularly go like this: I’ll present patterns in genetic data. They cannot fathom how that pattern could have been produced by natural processes (e.g. look at this http://www.evolutionnews.org/2010/03/signs_in_the_genome_part_2032961.html ). Therefore, they conclude that this must be evidence of design. I ask them, “what design principle explains this pattern?” They either struggle to answer, or more regularly say some variation of “we cannot fathom the mind of God.” Then I show how a natural mechanism explains the pattern. Their response is, “well you do not know for sure.”

      To which I say, “well I have a clear natural mechanism (usually common descent + neutral theory) that quantitatively explains this pattern. This is exactly what makes it a scientific explanation. Your ignorance of this explanation left you confident of ID in this area and you were unable to present a design principle to explain the pattern.” This happens so frequently, that ID really does seem like an argument from the Gaps and that it cannot really slug it out scientifically, even when MN is relaxed to allow “design principles” as an explanatory tool.

      I read the article you linked to, but I have yet to see a strong positive scientific case for design arise from the ID movement. You discuss the hypothetical possibility (which I could grant), but where is the substantiation of that hope? Their focus (starting from Darwin on Trial) is showing the inadequacies of natural mechanisms as evidence for design, which is by definition “design of the gaps.”

      • The “slug outs” I envision would be of a scientific sort, not legal sort. (Aside: here in Canada, the law has decided the unborn child isn’t a human being, but the legal decision is mistaken scientifically.) There’s much that’s been written about the Arkansas and Dover court cases, and from what I remember (at the moment) the arbitrations were not philosophically astute. (For part of my PhD qualification area in philosophy of science I looked at the reasoning in the Arkansas case, finding it wanting, as my atheist tutor agreed.) Again, I think the “rematches” should be done in science labs, not courts. I readily admit my ignorance of the scientific merits/ demerits of ID in explaining genetic data, so I’ll have to leave it to you and your fellow scientists to work that out—including those scientists who don’t hold exclusively to MN.

        Yes, it’s important to keep in mind that you and Patrick and I (and many others) are not protesting the doing of science-engaged philosophy. I remind students that philosophical design arguments are not at issue when we discuss the merits/ demerits of ID as a scientific hypothesis. It’s good—very good—not to lose sight of this, as interesting as our present conversation is. Thanks for the reminder.

        I’m glad you grant the hypothetical possibility of a strong positive case for design, and I appreciate your candor in questioning the hope of its substantiation. I’m content to encourage ID scientists to give it their best shots and then see what happens. From what I’ve read and seen, they’ve had and continue to have an uphill struggle (often due to misrepresentation by others in influential positions).

    • Joshua says:

      Finally, about the Ressurection, I agree that science more resolutely states what we already know, that people do not raise from the dead, without God. That is only half the claim, and its the boring part that all cultures have known through history.

      It is blind (because of MN in my telling) to the Ressurection because of MN.

      But you missed my point in that section. If you reject MN, would you be okay with science textbooks and papers doing treatments of the ressurection, and concluding against it? Or that there is insufficient evidence? If not MN, how would you seperate science from this?

      While I think there is a strong evidentiary basis for the Ressurection, I do not think it is a remotely scientific case. I prefer the silence of science on this topic, and all religious concerns, to outright denial of them. Why do you think this risk is worth it? Why would you prefer a creation-affirming Resurrection-denying science to a creation and Resurrection silent science?

      • This resonates with me. I think the best evidentiary cases for the resurrection are historical in nature. NT Wright being a prime example of this approach (W. L. Craig too). This raises another debate, though, about whether or not history must restrict itself to something like MN, thus ruling out methodologically non-natural explanations (Bart Ehrman insists that it must, for example, though his logic is flawed). I think the difference is that history is not as precise as science (which is not to say “less true,” just different). Its primary aim is not to provide physical, causal, explanations (including identifying physical mechanisms), but to tell compelling stories about what happened in the past. I.e., what story (in the sense of narrative or account) best explains what happened? History also seems to be interested in personal agents, their influences and motivations, and the realm of minds and ideas in ways that science is not.

        The distinction between history and science is an interesting one to me. There are some links: history can make us of scientific facts and scientific methods (e.g., archeology, dating methods, etc.), in order to provide a compelling account of what happened. But history is not science per se, and historians are not scientists advancing scientific knowledge as such: they use different methods, have different skills, and are engaged in different practices to provide different kinds and levels of explanations. AND: Evolutionary science engages in something like history when it attempts to tell a compelling story about what happened. The difference is that it doesn’t just sketch an outline that accounts for observations; it also proposes specific physical mechanisms that explain how and why the “story” unfolded as it did. Also, it does not have in its purview non-physical things like minds, ideas, motivations, etc. (except perhaps in evolutionary psychology, but I understand this to be psychology (and sometimes ethics) informed by evolutionary science).

      • As I stated above: My rule for excluding religious texts here is this: If we are looking at nature to see if it—and it alone—provides empirically discernible evidence of design, we should look only at nature (not at texts written by humans and which claim, rightly or wrongly, to be inspired by God).

        I don’t think this is to decide arbitrarily to exclude from science God’s action of speaking His Word to us. It’s simply to ask: What does nature have to say? One can be consistent in thinking that God speaks His Word via a book/ document, which can be investigated using the tools of historical investigation appropriate for historical documents, and in thinking that God’s world can be investigated independently of that book/ document, using the various physical sciences to see if the world itself smacks of design. I don’t think MN is required for this distinction to hold.

        My response to your article regarding the resurrection was merely to address your claim that science was “useless.” No, it’s not useless—it informs us about cell necrosis, the effect of spear thrusts to the heart, the limitations of known natural causes for explaining a resurrection, etc. To say this isn’t to say we explain the resurrection wholly scientifically. It’s merely to say that the explanation (which would involve theology) of the relevant historical evidence for Jesus’ resurrection would be scientifically-informed.

  7. Joshua says:

    Thanks for the note Patrick. I would certainly welcome any thoughtful comments here. Thanks.

Comments are closed.