Thursday, November 15, 2007

Are You as Smart as a Second Year University Student? Q1

Here's a question from last month's test in our class on the evolution/creationism debate. How would you have done?
Philip Johnson is one of the leading advocates of intelligent design creationism, He argues that science is unnecessarily atheistic because it requires methodological naturalism.
Creationists are disqualified from making a positive case, because science by definition is based on naturalism. The rules of science also disqualify any purely negative argumentation designed to dilute the persuasiveness of the theory of evolution. Creationism is thus out of court—and out of the classroom—before any consideration of evidence. Put yourself in the place of a creationist who has been silenced by that logic, and you may feel like a criminal defendant who has just been told that the law does not recognize so absurd a concept as "innocence."
Is this a good argument for intelligent design creationism? Explain your answer.

The Johnson quotation is from Johnson, P.E. (1990) "Evolution as Dogma: The Establishment of Naturalism" first published in First Things 6:15-22. reprinted in Intelligent Design Creationism and Its Critics Robert T. Pennock ed.


  1. It's about as dumb a comment as I've ever seen.

    The best response would probably be to ask Johnson this: What sort of "evidence" could be possibly be put forth for ID/creationism if science were not based upon "naturalism"?

    The next question is: Why don't IDists respond with actual evidence, of any kind (no, the Bible doesn't count unless it can be shown to be reliable), when we repeatedly ask them for evidence?

    The fact is that "naturalism" is a red herring, since science can only be said to be "based upon naturalism" if we define "naturalism" as that which is based upon acceptable observation. That's the only issue, that IDists cannot come up with observable evidence in favor of ID.

    The last point I'd like to make is that science really is not based upon "naturalism" at all, since "naturalism" is not "basic" either to philosophy or to science. "Naturalism" itself has to be based on other criteria, such as those involving observed "phenomena", our perceptual senses, and our understanding of logical and rational capacities to understand data coming from observation.

    I actually do wish that scientists would not resort to the derivative "naturalism" in order to discuss science, because science itself is based upon the criteria on which any meaningful "naturalism" itself must be based. "Naturalism" is a superfluous middle, which IDCists exploit to their rhetorical advantage.

    Glen Davidson

  2. I don't think science requires 'naturalism' or 'supernaturalism', what it requires is observable evidence. If evidence for something supernatural we observable, a model could be built and a theory developed. If something natural were observed that ultimately was a better model for the previously developed supernatural theory, then the supernatural theory is falsified.

    ID/creationism doesn't allow this kind of development. It merely assumes a supernatural event has occurred because the natural phenomena cannot (yet) be explained and further assume it never will be explained. End of story.

    'Natural' or not, it is the evidence and empirical data that are important for science. It just happens that all of the evidence and empirical data we have points to 'natural' phenomena and theories, not supernatural.

  3. This is easy...

    In short, this is a bad argument for ID, due to three flaws in the underlying logic. The 1st, is accusing science of being naturalistic, as others have said it's only naturalistic in so much that it relies on verifiable observations. The "supernatural" in theory can be invoked, but you better have solid backing evidence for it. Something which the ID movement lacks considerably in.

    Secondly, the ending analogy is a logical fallacy (false analogy) as scientific methodology and philosophy is not the same as the legal system.

    Thirdly, Johnson claims that the evidence for Creationism has been rejected without being looked at. On the contrary, it has been examined, as the archive and the many debates strewn across the internet attest to, and summarily rejected.

  4. At least one conservative understands that ID is 'the Da Vinci Code of Biology'.

  5. I took a swipe at this at my blog. Johnson is a silly silly man.

  6. Let's get the uninteresting bit out of the way first: "The rules of science also disqualify any purely negative argumentation designed to dilute the persuasiveness of the theory of evolution." This is uninteresting because it is so simply and evidently wrong. Quite obviously there have been and continue to be purely negative arguments against numerous aspects of many scientific theories (including the theory of evolution) that comport with "the rules of science." That is a traditional aspect of how science (ahem) evolves.

    The slightly more philosophically interesting complaint (despite the near-infinite number of times it's been made) is that science is based on "naturalism." Is this complaint valid, i.e., is this an unnecessary restriction to the "rules of science"?

    First, what is the alternative to "naturalism"? I suppose it would have to be "supernaturalism." So would the utility of a system of knowledge that admitted the supernatural thereby be superior to the utility of methodologically natural science?

    It seems to me that a system of knowledge is useful to the extent that it provides information allowing us to make better choices. Otherwise, our choices are effectively random. The ability to make better choices necessarily requires the capability to make effective predictions: "If I make choice 1, A will likely occur, and if I make choice 2, B is likely to happen. B is a better outcome, therefore I will make choice 2."

    In turn, predictive capability depends on the ability to effectively reconstruct, or "postdict." "All of the times I have had 3 of these in the past and have removed 1, I have had 2 left; thus it is highly likely that if I remove 1 of these 3, I will have 2 left." We may even be able to conceptualize "proofs" or "laws" from such repeatable behaviors, and perhaps go yet a step beyond to tie these proofs or laws to an underlying overall concept or "theory." All of this depends on the ability to derive at least better-than-random predictions of future behavior by verification from what has occurred. (This is true of chance events - you can model future behavior on probabilities, not just certainties or likelihoods. For example, you might not want to wager ownership of your home on the outcome of a coin flip, knowing you have as good a chance of losing it as you do of keeping it.)

    The difficulty with a system of knowledge that admits the supernatural is that actions are not even in principle repeatable. "5 + 9 = 14, except when Jesus does his trick with the loaves and fishes, 5 + 9 = 5000." Or, as one e-mail signature I've seen has it, "2 + 2 = 5, but only for very large values of 2." Thus, as the SEC requires communications regarding publicly traded companies to say here in the U.S., "Past performance is not a guarantee of future results." The Hebrews may have walked across the bed of the Red Sea, but perhaps you'd best not model their behavior the next time you try to get from one side of a body of water to the other.

    Such a system of knowledge cannot even in principle provide information allowing better-than-random choices.

    Of course we are human, and though most of us may attempt to model our behavior rationally, we often fail. Is a supernatural system better at helping us make decisions in "real life," where non-rational propensities operate?

    Since Philip Johnson is a lawyer, let's take justice systems for our examples. These are very human mechanisms that deal with all sorts of irrational behaviors. For justice systems based on supernatural systems of knowledge, we can choose from the Salem witch trials, modern systems enforcing shari'a law, or many other examples. For systems that, like methodological naturalism, value predictability in the connection between input (actions of the parties) and output (verdict, decision or judgment), we can choose from among many historical or modern justice systems not based on supernatural beliefs, such as the current Canadian (for Dr. Moran) or U.S. (for Dr. Johnson) one. My guess is that even the good Dr. Johnson would be hard-pressed to choose the Salem trials or a modern shari'a court over those of Canada or the U.S.

    Thus it appears that systems based on the supernatural, with their lack of predictability, don't serve us as well as those based on "naturalism," or whatever other name one wishes to give to systems that allow informed choices regarding our actions. If the price of allowing intelligent design creationism is getting rid of a knowledge system based on naturalism, that is pretty plainly too high a price to pay, and thus Dr. Johnson's argument for intelligent design creationism is not a good one.

  7. Creationism is thus out of court—and out of the classroom—before any consideration of evidence. Put yourself in the place of a creationist who has been silenced by that logic, and you may feel like a criminal defendant who has just been told that the law does not recognize so absurd a concept as "innocence."

    Obviously a terrible analogy - if a criminal is thrown out of court without consideration of the evidence, I'd think he'd be pretty pleased (it's interesting that he sees creationism as a criminal, though)!

    As others have said, there has been no positive evidence in favour of creationism put forward, and all their negative evidence against evolution has been shown to be either false or irrelevant.

    Creationists haven't been silenced any more than astrologers have. On the contrary, they have had and continue to have far more attention than they deserve.

    Scientific hypotheses are not considered innocent until proven guilty (i.e. they are not considered true until shown to be false); he's got that backwards as well.

    Also, in his and other creationists minds, creationism is innocent by definition and no amount of evidence could change the verdict. You might say that intelligent design is the ultimate 'just so' story.

  8. I've been trying to teach my students to distinguish between the value of a particular argument and whether or not you agree with the conclusion.

    In this case, we all know that Johnson is arguing in favor of Intelligent Design Creationism and most of us are opposed to that view.

    However, that doesn't mean that every argument is silly. In this case, Johnson has a valid point.

    If scientists declare by fiat that the supernatural has no place in science then most of the arguments by creationists are automatically ruled inadmissible in a scientific discussion. The creationists get a little frustrated when they're constantly told they can't talk about creation because it's not science, it's religion, and God isn't allowed in scientific discussions. (Unless you're Francis Collins or Ken Miller, but that's a different issue.)

    We know there's a reason why science adopts methodological naturalism, but that's of little comfort to those who "know" in their hearts that God created all species and performs miracles on a daily basis.

    Phillip Johnson wants to promote a different kind of science, one that's compatible with Christianity. Why does he want to do this? Because, from his perspective, God is active in the natural world and it makes no sense to artificially exclude Him.

    In one sense, Johnson is right, it seems to me. If his version of God is correct, then it would be silly not to incorporate this reality into the way we do science. Under those circumstances, scientists would have to consider religious explanations of some events, such as the Cambrian explosion or the origin of life. It will be logically ridiculous to ignore God if we knew for a fact that He is out there meddling.

    So, Johnson's argument is valid if you accept the premise. The real issue here is whether God actually exists and whether He plays an active role in nature. If He does, then science should recognize it and drop the requirement of atheistic methodological naturalism.

  9. In his essay, Johnson thinks like the lawyer he is, a field where rhetoric can win a case. He makes assertions, many of which are false, or are strawmen (i.e., he engages in typical Creationist tactics). But he presents no positive evidence for Creationism, no hint that any such evidence even exists. His essay basically says, "we don't understand how all of this works or came to be; therefore, Goddidit."

    The marginal note I made at this passage is to the effect that science (based on methodological naturalism) has worked very well answering questions and leading to new knowledge--where has Creationism led?

  10. Larry Moran wrote: "The real issue here is whether God actually exists and whether He plays an active role in nature. If He does, then science should recognize it and drop the requirement of atheistic methodological naturalism."

    If God actually exists and were recognized in a system of knowledge, could that system of knowledge be called science? Or would it more greatly resemble religious ways of "knowing"?

  11. No, Johnson's isn't a good argument. Even if we pass the usual fallacy of false choice, the formal and practical outcome of observability doesn't support him at all.

    Formally, "naturalism" and "methodological naturalism" is philosophical notions, but they describe the results pretty well. Both our ability of observation and the modeling of what we see constrain our concept of "natural". Repeatable observations are necessary and repeatable phenomena are natural.

    The remainder, such as putative haphazard but observable agency, is a "gap" that creationists can't bridge. But even if supernatural agency, however defined, is in principle observable they have refused to show up, the largest stumbling block for the Johnson anti-science crusade.