Tuesday, September 04, 2012

John Wilkins Defends Methodological Naturalism

Methodological Naturalism is an a priori argument in favor limiting science to investigations of the natural world. It serves to protect religion from science since most religious questions are concerned with the supernatural and science, by fiat, isn’t allowed to ask those questions. Coincidentally, it also protects philosophy from science since metaphysical questions now become the exclusive domain of philosophy.

There are some philosophers who see through this house of cards but they are few and far between. It’s mostly scientists—and those who think like scientists—who say "What the heck are they talking about?"

Maarten Boudry, Stefaan Blancke, and Johan Braeckman from the Department of Philosphy at the University of Gent (Belgium) represent the heretics and dissenters among philosophers. If you want a summary of posts on this topic go to: Is Science Restricted to Methodologial Naturalism?. Here’s an excerpt from Grist to the Mill of Anti-evolutionism: The Failed Strategy of Ruling the Supernatural Out of Science by Philosophical Fiat (Boudry et al. 2012).
A widespread philosophical opinion conceives of methodological naturalism as an intrinsic and self-imposed limitation of science, as part and parcel of the scientific enterprise by definition. According to this view (Intrinsic Methodological Naturalism or IMN) – which is the official position of both the National Center for Science Education and the National Academy of Sciences and has been adopted in the ruling of Judge John E. Jones III in the Kitzmiller vs. Dover case – science is simply not equipped to deal with the supernatural and hence has no authority on the issue.

In our view, however, methodological naturalism is a provisory and empirically anchored commitment to naturalistic causes and explanations, which is in principle revocable in light of extraordinary evidence (Provisory or Pragmatic Methodological Naturalism – PMN). Methodological naturalism thus conceived derives its rationale from the impressive dividends of naturalistic explanations and the consistent failure of supernatural explanations throughout the history of science.
I agree with this view. So far, the scientific way of knowing has uncovered no evidence of anything that exists outside of the natural world in spite of the fact that people who use that way of knowing have investigated thousands of claims of the supernatural. The fact that the scientific way of knowing hasn’t discovered god(s) or the Flying Spaghetti Monster does not mean that it is forbidden to look. It is quite possible, at some time in the future, that we will find evidence of something outside of the natural world.

The idea that we aren’t allowed a scientific investigation of claims of the paranormal or religion conflicts with the actual behavior of those who use the scientific way of knowing. In other words, it’s another example of philosophers just making up something while ignoring relevant evidence.

This is where John Wilkins begins his defense [Does philosophy generate knowledge?]
Finally, because I have some work to get done that I am not paid for, methodological naturalism. Larry thinks, and I quote, “As far as I can tell, philosophers just made this up without ever thinking seriously about the evidence of how scientific thinking actually works outside in the real world.” Really? Methodological naturalism has been the ruling view of science since Thales of Miletus in the 6th century BCE. It is the view that we cannot investigate through natural means what does not follow rules. It is the idea that the sensible world, at any rate, is ruled by laws and regularities. It is the invention of "nature" as an idea.

To reject methodological naturalism is to in effect reject science as a possibility. It is not the claim that there is nothing else, nor is it the claim that science must be restricted to the physical world (at various times scientists have thought the paranormal, the spiritual, and even the theological were amenable to scientific investigation). If Larry thinks that he can scientifically investigate something that has no empirical evidence, I invite him to demonstrate that. In the meantime, any claim that is, as I have often called it, "empirically inoculated" is beyond the scope of science to investigate.
The fact that an idea is 2600 years old does not prove that it is correct and it does not address my claim that is “made up” without relying on evidence. I suspect John knows this.

I certainly don’t claim that I can decide on the truth of something in the absence of evidence. I never said that. I said that, according to the scientific way of knowing it is silly and illogical to believe in something that is not supported by evidence. That’s why I don’t believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster. But if anyone wants to make a claim on behalf of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, I feel perfectly comfortable using the scientific way of knowing to investigate that claim. I do not feel guilty because I violating some arbitrary philosophical rule.

John refers to a natural world that is ruled by laws and regularities. So it is. That doesn’t mean that everything is predictable and it doesn’t rule out extraordinary unusual events. Imagine that I’m a historian using the scientific way of knowing to investigate whether the stories in the Bible are true and whether Jesus actually performed miracles. None of this research can be ruled out of order a priori just because it postulates the existence of the supernatural or because the events are unique.

The historian could, in theory, discover that there’s a high probability that Jesus really did live in 30AD and that he performed miracles—miracles that cannot be explained by known natural laws. That would be very exciting.

John is right about one thing, however. There are, indeed, some claims that are “empirically inoculated.” These are claims that cannot possibly be “contaminated” by anything as crass as “evidence.” The Ontological Argument for the existence of God falls into this category and so does the argument that a deceptive and powerful Flying Spaghetti Monster could be stealing meatballs without us ever being aware of it.

Can we investigate these arguments using the scientific way of knowing. You bet we can. We conclude that they cannot be true using the scientific way of knowing because there’s no evidence to support them. If you believe that the Flying Spaghetti Monster steals meatballs then that belief conflicts with the scientific way of knowing. The belief is "empirically inoculated," and stupid.

The question before us is whether there’s another way of knowing that works. There are many philosophers who think that there is another valid way of knowing. By limiting the domain of science they claim that metaphysics is the exclusive domain of theologians and philosophers. (Implicit in this argument is that there is knowledge to gained by a non-scientific way of knowing, although John Wilkins rejects this view.) Here’s how Massimo Pigliucci puts it in Nonsense on Stilts (page 185).
... let us remember once again that science does not and cannot pronounce itself on the truth of a metaphysical idea (such as the existence of God), something best left to philosophers and theologians; there lies the true distinction between science and religion.
And why can’t the scientific way of knowing draw conclusions about the possible existence of the Flying Spaghetti Monster god? Because the rule of methodological naturalism means that the scientific way of knowing is forbidden to make statements about the Flying Spaghetti Monster god.

My position is that the scientific way of knowing requires evidence. There is no evidence of gods or Flying Spaghetti Monsters, therefore they don’t exist if you adopt the scientific way of knowing as the only valid way of knowing. The burden of proof is on philosophers like Pigliucci to show us that metaphysics produces truth. If he can't do that then the distinction between methodological naturalism and metaphysical naturalism is a farce.

The methodological naturalism hammer can be used in strange ways to protect religion. Any person who strays from methodological naturalism is guilty of metaphysical naturalism and we all know how bad that is, don’t we? Imagine that someone thinking scientifically says, "There’s no evidence that evolution is guided or purposeful. Therefore, evolution is unguided and purposeless according to everything we know about biology." This seems like a perfectly legitimate thing to say if you’re employing the scientific way of thinking.

But, hold on a minute, that kind statement might upset philosophers and theists? It would be best to discredit statements like this in case they become widely known. Here’s how you do it using the a priori rule of methodolical naturalism according to Eugenie Scott in Evolution vs Creationism (page 67).
What are the relationships among religion, science, and philosophical naturalism? Everyone recognizes that there are differences, but there are similarities as well. All three of these terms refer to ways of knowing: a field of study that philosophers call "epistemology." The epistemology we call science is primarily a methodology that attempts to explain the natural world using natural causes. Although individual scientists may be concerned with moral and ethical issues, or rules of conduct, science as a way of knowing is not. The methodology of testing natural exclamations against the natural world will not tell us whether it is immoral for coyotes to kill rabbits, or whether members of one sex over another should keep their keep their heads covered in public, or whether marrying your father's brother's child is immoral but marrying your father's sister's child is not. Science is actually a quite limited way of knowing, with limited goals and a limited set of tools to accomplish those goals.

Philosophical naturalism relies upon science and is inspired by science, but it differs from science and being concerned with rules of conduct, ethics, and morals. When a scientist makes a statement like "Man is the result of purposeless natural process that did not have him in mind" (Simpson 1967:344), it is clear that he or she is speaking from the perspective of philosophical naturalism rather than from the methodology of science itself. As anthropologist Matt Cartmill has observed, "Many scientists are atheists or agnostics who want to believe that the natural world the study is all there is, and being only human, they try to persuade themselves that science gives them grounds for that belief. It's an honorable leader, but it isn't a research finding (Cartmell 1998:83).
According to Genie, there are three ways of knowing and some of the "knowledge" produced by one of those ways includes whether you can marry your father's sister's child. I think John Wilkins would disagree.

According to Genie, a scientist can't say that evolution is unguided because that's a nonscientific statement. Only philosophers and theologians can say things like that!

Now do you see why some scientists are questioning the value of philosophy?


56 comments :

  1. We conclude that they cannot be true using the scientific way of knowing because there’s no evidence to support them.

    This would appear to be too strong a statement. There are many natural phenomena for which there is currently excellent scientific evidence, but for which at one time there was no evidence, the absoluteness of the speed of light for example. There's currently no evidence for life in the universe other than on Earth. Does that mean there cannot be life in the universe other than on Earth?

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    1. There is evidence for the laws of nature implicated in the emergence of life here on Earth. That is the evidence for the possibility of life elsewhere. It takes special hypotheses to explain how these laws could not produce life elsewhere.

      By now, all supernatural hypothese have evidence against them. All evidence supports materialism. Any supernatural agent is therefore an ad hoc hypothesis. Any hypothesis resorting to the supernatural is ruled out, not a prior, but a posteriori to the entire history of the scientific enterprise. Or so I think.

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    2. It's silly to live your life with the hope that there MAY be evidence in the future for something you wish were true today.

      But that's not the only flaw in your logic. You are assuming that by not believing in something for lack of evidence means that you always have to believe in the opposite. I neither believe there's life on other planets nor believe that there isn't.

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    3. Anonymous, yes, it requires a lot of skill to always write with precise accuracy and most of us miss the mark at least occasionally. What is really happening is that we must conclude that we are not justified in believing an assertion is true when there is no evidence that it is true. We have no direct access to absolute truth, we only have evidence and belief and proper justification for reaching a conclusion.

      The absoluteness of the speed of light is a good example of the non-intuitiveness and counter- intuitiveness of most of modern scientific knowledge. No one guessed, using intuition, that light had an absolute upper speed. Evidence was required to reach that conclusion. Imagination in combination with empirical evidence goes places, human imagination undisciplined by empirical evidence produces fiction.

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    4. ...we are not justified in believing an assertion is true when there is no evidence that it is true.
      This is a much different statement than the initial claim, which was that we must conclude an assertion is false when there is no evidence that it is true.

      it requires a lot of skill to always write with precise accuracy
      Yes it does, but precision of language is required if you want to have a meaningful philosophical discussion.

      It's silly to live your life with the hope that there MAY be evidence in the future for something you wish were true today.
      Most of science is driven by the hope that there may be evidence in the future for something you wish were true today, where that hope is precisely the motivation for attempting to generate new evidence. Pursuit of experimental evidence to support the existence of the Higgs boson is a good recent example.

      ...not believing in something for lack of evidence means that you always have to believe in the opposite.
      This assertion was not made.

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    5. Anonymous, if we assert something is true without any evidence then the likelihood we are right is at most half. I would say that likelihood we guess correctly in many contexts is so close to zero as to be indistinguishable from zero. So in contexts where there are numerous candidates for the true answer, so the odds we will guess correctly are close to zero, it is appropriate to declare as false assertions that are unsupported by evidence.

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  2. Your link to previous posts says the page doesn't exist.

    A separate book online by Boudry may be of interest. https://biblio.ugent.be/input/download?func=downloadFile&fileOId=1191287&recordOId=1191286

    Most people seem to interpret "provisory" and provisional as equivalent to "temporary." Strictly speaking this is only true of experimental results in the process of being verified. I think the better word is "corrigible."

    Some people think that knowledge has to be immutable to really be knowledge, concluding that science doesn't produce knowledge or that there isn't really any such thing as knowledge. That strikes me as a religious/philosophical prejudice.

    Even the use of the word "corrigible" can be a little misleading, I think. It's the same problem as the notion of a paradigm. Neither corrections nor new paradigms are arbitrary. The empirical discoveries of previous science (and its paradigm) must incorporate in some fashion the old science (and its paradigm.) Further, the corrections (and new paradigm) are found and justified by the same empirical methods science has always used.

    All that no doubt seems pretty obvious. But it seems to have a bearing on whether it is reasonable to conclude that evidence for the supernatural might still be found. Such evidence would have to accommodate all the empirical evidence thus far accumulated by thousands of years of investigation of nature. It would have to explain how the supernatural acts in only exceedingly rare circumstances.

    I think that saying we might still find evidence of the supernatural is rather like saying that a mystery could have anyone, right up to the last page, be the murderer, performing the bloody deed by any means whatsoever. How, when the story so far has provided evidence that shows otherwise?

    I guess I'm saying that naturalism isn't a methodology isn't a method to choose, but an inescapable conclusion. Which I suppose also means I'm saying that metaphysical naturalism happens to be the philosophical position that is true, i.e., corresponds to reality.

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    1. I agree that is the case here, we have a rout, to wager on the opposing conclusion is to play against very large odds. But we cannot quantify the odds with numbers. Nor can we can deny that the future is unknown (and much of the present and past is also unknown) and we are limited to the evidence currently available. Nor can we deny that evidence can be misleading. Instead of hiding this uncertainty because some people have been indoctrinated to want certainty, or because some people are naturally wired to want certainty, or because some people don't like nuance, we can acknowledge the uncertainties and at the same time also acknowledge that we nevertheless cannot choose to disregard or reject the conclusions that the evidence imposes. When the evidence speaks it often dictates, we are obliged to follow the evidence when it takes us somewhere. Evidence is both powerful and imperfect. Power doesn't require perfection, power only requires a good track record of success, and evidence has a good enough track record to obligate our respect.

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  3. "It is the view that we cannot investigate through natural means what does not follow rules. It is the idea that the sensible world, at any rate, is ruled by laws and regularities. It is the invention of "nature" as an idea."

    As I pointed out in the comments to John's post, he really needs to pick _one_ of these three different definitions if he wants to have a productive discussion.

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  4. I would suggest to go back even one step more than this post does and ask whether there even is a satisfactory definition of supernatural in the first place. There seem to be three explicit definitions at work here: "outside of nature" (LM), "does not follow rules" (JW) and "has no empirical evidence" (JW). Implicitly, one could add, also the tautological "that which scientists should shut up about lest they antagonize the believers", but I will ignore that one for obvious reasons.

    I do not think that there is anything outside of nature because nature is best defined as everything there is. Problem solved as far as the first definition goes.

    It is obvious that you cannot formulate a physical law to describe something that is behaving completely erratically, but firstly there is simply no way of dealing with something that does that so all other hypothetical ways of knowing would be equally stumped, and secondly that is not really what people mean with supernatural anyway (see below), just like people do not mean completely erratic behaviour when they talk about free will.

    It is also obvious that science cannot deal with propositions for which there is no empirical evidence except to conclude provisionally that they do not exist. But claiming that they (may) exist after all but science is merely powerless to examine them has several problems. The first is that this amounts to special pleading because this "logic" is selectively applied only to religious claims but not to all other things that science rejects with reference to lack of evidence. The second is that this amounts to begging the question. As Larry Moran writes, the onus is on the proponent of the claim to demonstrate that there is any reason to take the claim seriously. If the reason involves any evidence whatsoever, hooray, you have just demonstrated that your claim falls into the field of science after all.

    I think the real definitions people implicitly use for supernatural are completely different. Supernatural means either (1) a natural and regular phenomenon that scientists are supposedly arrogantly overlooking (ESP, existence of ghosts, souls, etc.) or (2) the natural world supposedly contains super-powerful, sentient beings or forces or at least the effects of their actions (gods, angels, demons, etc.). The sentient part means that they will behave in some kind of regular fashion, and that is clearly one of the attractions of the belief in them. You worship god because you believe that he will not torture you in hell if you do certain things to please him; if he flips a coin over your destiny anyway, why bother?

    Both of these can of course be examined by science, and have been. Note that the proponents of ESP, telepathy and similar claims are continually trying to provide empirical evidence. Note also that, while certainly the idea of the enlightenment was to simply see what we would find without any preconceived notions getting in the way, the expectation of many scientists was indeed that examination of the natural world would demonstrate god's handiwork and confirm the bible stories, such as the world-wide flood. The idea that all this is metaphorical and science cannot really address religious issues was only really promoted after a long string of scientific discoveries had blown religious myths out of the water. In other words, goalposts were moved.

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    1. This has been my position, the concept of supernatural is incoherent.

      If it can be measured today then it's natural.

      If it can't be measured today then we provisionally assume that it doesn't exist and will modify our position if and when it can be measured.

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    2. We determine existence indirectly by measurement of properties or effects. No one has measured quarks, instead we measure quark mass, for example, which are properties of quarks imparted by the Higgs field. Supernatural consists of non-material minds and non-material willful agents, so we are similarly limited to indirect measurements of the effects of such super-natural entities on material things. So while only natural things can be measured, the existence of super-natural entities could be inferred from measurable interactions with natural entities. For example, if new species suddenly appeared, and there was no genetic relationship between species, then we can infer that the different species are created by some willful agent with a mind which could be a god. So while the god cannot itself be measured, it's existence could be evidenced via interactions with the material world that can be measured.

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    3. Explicit Atheist,
      It is not quite clear to me what you are suggesting. It sounds as if the conclusion to be drawn from what you wrote must be either that quarks are supernatural because they aren't demonstrated directly, just like gods, or that gods are natural because they could be demonstrated in the same indirect way as the natural quarks. Or maybe I misunderstand.

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    4. This has been my position, the concept of supernatural is incoherent.

      Exactly. And more to the point of the OP, a term used to shield ideas from rational discourse and empirical investigation (because these are fatal to nonsense).

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    5. @Alex SL

      Nice.

      The idea that all this is metaphorical and science cannot really address religious issues was only really promoted after a long string of scientific discoveries had blown religious myths out of the water. In other words, goalposts were moved.

      One can only imagine this dance has gone on for as long as whatever we call humanity has existed.

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    6. Alex, I am disputing what Steve said. When he says "if it can measured today then it's natural" is confusing two different "it" because what is measured can be the property or effect of something else. So while the first "it" must be natural the second "it" could be supernatural. Evidence is not always direct, indeed in some sense evidence is always indirect. So when the second "it" is super- natural, for example non-material mind or non-material willful agent, then when it interacts with the material world we can witness (a.k.a measure) that interaction via the effect on the natural which is thus the first " it". For example, new species with no genetic relationship to any other species suddenly appearing. Is the first " it" that is "measured" while the second it is a creator god.

      I also disagree with the notion that supernatural becomes natural when it is evidenced. Non- material mind and non-material willful agent, what you call "incoherent", is always supernatural, whether it is, or is not evidenced. You could say the supernatural is intrinsically self-contradictory and impossible. But regardless of whether or not it is incoherent and impossible and self-contradictory, it is still a concept that is subject to evaluation by empirical evidence. So in the name of being non- ideological and open- minded, we take the supernatural assertion at face value and than ask: what would be required for us to have any justification in taking the supernatural existence assertions seriously? And the answer is that we need empirical evidence of the effect of a willful agent interacting with the material world. And what we find when we search the material world is exactly that everything is self-contained, all of the evidence points in the direction that the universe works as a self- sufficient entity without any outside intervention by a willful agent.

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    7. @Explicit Atheist

      If it's non material then by definition it can't be measured and you have no evidence to support it's existence.

      There is, by definition, no such thing as a non material mind or willful agent.

      If you can't measure it then it's just spooks, a figment of your imagination, something to help you get to sleep at night when you hear strange sounds and see strange shapes just beyond the range of illumination of your camp fire.

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    8. Steve, the approach you are taking is intuitive. A non- material mind and non-material willful agent is strongly counter-evidenced, but that is not the same thing as impossible "by definition". Keep in mind that almost all of modern science is non-intuitive and counter-intuitive. Quantum mechanics, for example, is intuitively far-fetched and impossible. Again, it does you no harm to loosen up a little here and just take the supernatural existence claim at face value and deal with it like you deal with every other possibility, no matter how far-fetched it intuitively seems to you to be. An evidence based approach to justifying beliefs regarding the validity of factual assertions works equally well for factually assertions regarding how the world works of all sorts, and is much more reliable than intuition. Human intuition is an unreliable and a poor substitute for evidence. Intuition and faith are last resorts that should only be relied on when there is no alternative.

      Again, we can measure supernatural interactions with the material world insofar as it leaves empirical evidence. The issue is belief justification, not truth in some impossible to achieve, and therefore impractical and irrelevant, absoluteness. Empirical evidence of such interactions, or the absence thereof, is not a "figment of your imagination". We can look at how our universe functions and see evidence that it functions in a self-contained way or in a way that involves outside interventions by a non-human willful agent. Modern knowledge, across the board, favors the self- contained conclusion over the non-human willful agent intervention conclusion. Therefore we are rationally obligated to conclude that there is probably no supernatural entity, or at least no supernatural entity interacting with our universe.

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    9. steve oberski writes,

      This has been my position, the concept of supernatural is incoherent.

      Steve, I agree with Explicit Atheist that you need to loosen up a little. One of the themes of these posts is that philosophy seems to be staring too much at trees and missing forest.

      There's not much point in debating whether we can arrive at a precise definition of "supernatural" if it means that everything has to be put on hold while we do so. That's just a fancy way of begging the question.

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    10. Not sure if anybody claims that everything has to be put on hold before a clear definition can be found. The thing is just, it is hard to take serious the claims of some philosophers, accommodationists and theists that science cannot examine the supernatural if it is unclear what supernatural is even supposed to be.

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    11. "One of the themes of these posts is that philosophy seems to be staring too much at trees and missing forest."

      Heh. This made me chuckle.
      I'm just going to leave this here....

      "I fully agree with you about the significance and educational value of methodology as well as history and philosophy of science. So many people today - and even professional scientists - seem to me like somebody who has seen thousands of trees but has never seen a forest. A knowledge of the historic and philosophical background gives that kind of independence from prejudices of his generation from which most scientists are suffering. This independence created by philosophical insight is - in my opinion - the mark of distinction between a mere artisan or specialist and a real seeker after truth." Einstein. letter to Robert A. Thornton, 7 December 1944.

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    12. @Explicit Atheist

      Non-intuitive and counter-intuitive are not the same as non material. They are limitations of our poorly evolved (for doing science) brains.

      To say that something is "strongly counter-evidenced" seems to be admitting that there is absolutely no evidence for that something.

      Whether or not it is impossible is not the issue, the issue is that given that there is no evidence to back up a claim that claim should provisionally be assumed to be false until evidence is forthcoming. The onus is on the one making the claim to prove it, not for others to disprove it.

      If it leaves empirical evidence then it's material. If there is no evidence, direct or indirect, then it's just stuff someone made up.

      I'm not saying that "everything has to be put on hold", only that there is no reason to accept the fantasies of others without evidence to back up their claims.

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  5. Now do you see why some scientists are questioning the value of philosophy?

    No, Larry, I don't. You just cited a philosopher.

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    1. As I pointed out at John Wilkins blog, the first of the few times I've gone to Jerry Coyne's blog, he supported an argument by citing the authority of Plato. Not too well, either.

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    2. @Michael M

      Michael, try a little harder to keep up rather than continue to post inane comments criticizing every word I write.

      I cited an example of where philosophy has gone off the rails, in my opinion, and wondered how this could happen in a discipline that prides itself on logic and rationality.

      I also praised some aspects of philosophy and pointed out how valuable it has been to society.

      I'm sorry if that made you think that I disparaged absolutely everything that any philosopher ever said or did. I can't imagine how you could possibly have jumped to such a stupid conclusion. (Actually, I CAN imagine how you did that but I try not to attribute something to malevolence if it can be adequately explained by stupidity.)

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    3. Yeah, Larry, I totally get it: you only think that philosophy is a worthwhile endeavor that contributes to humanity pursuit of knowledge if philosophy supports you preconception about science and religion. As John has pointed out before methodological naturalism isn't a concept that philosphers of science have "made up" in the last 10 or 20 year to defend creationism or inttelligent design; methodological naturalism is the intellectual model that science has used for past 3000 years.

      Philosophers of science, such as Boudry, whom you unironically cite after indicting almost all of contemporary philosophy of science, do disagree about the articulation of methodological naturalism, but not its central importance to the process of scientific knowledge generation. Even Boudry calls the form of methodological naturalism that he advocates provisory/pragmatic methodological naturalism. No philospher of science, not even the one you (mis)cite, actually suggests that science can function on any other conceptual framework than methodological naturalism. They do, however, disagree on the relationship that methodological naturalism permits science to have with respect to other fields of knowledge, but such disagreements, as has been pointed out to you many times before, is philosophical in nature, not scientific.

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    4. Thank-you for responding. Now perhaps we can have a discussion about some of these ideas.

      I wonder why you say that "methodological naturalism is the intellectual model that science has used for past 3000 years" when there are, quite obviously, many scientists who disagree. (And science wasn't really different from natural philosophy until about 150 years ago.)

      Philosophers have invented, or made up a priori, a restriction on the scientific way of knowing. They say that there are certain questions that you can't address using the scientific way of knowing because those questions concern the supernatural.

      That's why Michael Ruse says that science and religion are compatible, "This is not to say that God did not have a role in the creation, but simply that, qua science, that is qua an enterprise formed through the practice of methodological naturalism science has no place for talk of God."

      It is true that if you accept the restriction of methodological naturalism invented by philosophers then you can't investigate whether God played a role in evolution or whether the Flying Spaghetti Monster steals meatballs.

      In practice, however, the scientific way of knowing is NOT restricted in such a manner. That's not how scientists, historians, etc. operate. They investigate claims of the supernatural all the time ... and they find them wanting. (I'm reminded of CSICOP ... look it up.)

      It is disingenuous to say that the activity of scientists isn't really science because it treads on the turf of philosophy (i.e. it's METAPHYSICAL naturalism and that's out-of-bounds for scientists). This is currently a way of protecting religion and philosophy from a hugely successful scientific way of knowing and it isn't working.

      What the scientific way of knowing has discovered is that there's nothing out there that indicates the existence of the supernatural. In other words, our knowledge of the universe is perfectly consistent with naturalistic explanations. It's pragmatically naturalistic. That's a CONCLUSION not a PROSCRIPTION. That's a big difference.

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    5. Philosophers didn't invent methodological naturalism, Larry; their alleged invention thereof is, in fact, your won fabrication. If one is going to try to find regularities in the natural world, positing an entity that can capriciously violate these regularities in a way that is not itself regular renders the search for any regularities impossible. It is impossible to practice science without methodological naturalism.

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    6. Regularities can be imposed by a willful agent. For example, criminal behavior regularly results in imprisonment. Make the willful agent all knowing and all powerful and there is no requirement that a supernatural agent act capriciously. Furthermore, as long as the supernatural entity reveals what it has done, and what it is doing, and what it wii do in the future, accurately, then a divine revelation based science is viable. The very capriciousness of such a supernatural agent would arguably make its revelations about the future all the more important, provided that the revelations are themselves reliably accurate and not misleading.

      Methodological naturalism is a property of our universe, it is not a property of science. If, in some alternative, imaginable, universe, irregularity and capriciousness prevailed, and there was no reliable divine revelation, then science would be unproductive in such a universe. But that doesn't change the fact that methodological naturalism is not a necessary pre-condition and constraint of science. Philosophers, theologians, judges, scientists, etc. who are asserting otherwise are wrong.

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  6. "whether marrying your father's brother's child is immoral but marrying your father's sister's child is not."

    Scott's question doesn't make sense. Why would either be immoral

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    1. Google "ortho-cousin" (or just read the Wikipedia article).

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    2. Scott's question doesn't make sense. Why would either be immoral

      "Morality" (ethical behavior) is determined by the society in which you live. Different societies have different rules and some of those rules are very bizarre.

      But you already knew that, didn't you? Your question was simply a way of saying that you and your society doesn't think that marrying your father's brother's child is immoral.

      That's fine. I'm pretty sure that their society doesn't much like the way you behave either. :-)

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  7. Methodological naturalism is an empirically supported rule for doing successful science. If miracles happened now and then, or if intercessionary prayer regularly worked in ways that could not be explained by natural laws, we scientists would have to drop our rule that explanations have to adhere to methodological naturalism.

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    1. It's not a rule that explanations have to adhere to MN.

      It's an observation that so far none of the supernatural hypotheses have proved necessary.

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    2. It is not mutual exclusive, either or. Scientists would need to seek out the viability of methodological supernaturalism in the context of, and according to, the specifics of any evidence for methodological supernaturalism. Keep in mind that intercessory prayer is not a method of obtaining knowledge even if it works. An example of methodological supernaturalism would be something like prayer seeking divine revelation of the explanation for the Anthropic Principle, or for abiogenesis, or for energy production technology that doesn't contribute to global warming, and the like which results in magically revealed answers which are then demonstrated to be solid answers.

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    3. "It's not a rule that explanations have to adhere to MN.

      It's an observation that so far none of the supernatural hypotheses have proved necessary."

      Which leads to a rule of thumb, which is what Pennock has called it. This is an a posteriori justification for MN. But it is also true that we have some very good a priori reasons to think that inclusion of the supernatural in science would be a poor, difficult-to-work proposition -- even if the supernatural were actually real! I don't think the a priori and a posteriori arguments conflict, and I don't think they lead to an absolute once and now forever determination of the issue even-if-a-900-foot-tall-Jesus-appeared-in-Manhattan. But they make for a good rule of thumb which is quite enough to be part of an argument in e.g. the Kitzmiller case.

      Also, yeah, Boudry is a philosopher doing philosophy. You don't get to generalize about the uselessness of philosophy when in fact you are just taking one philosophical position over another.

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    4. Larry, you say "It's not a rule that explanations have to adhere to MN. It's an observation that so far none of the supernatural hypotheses have proved necessary," as if you disagree with my comment. But I said it was an empirically derived rule that could be changed if circumstances warranted it. As NickM says, it is a rule of thumb based on experience, not something decided in advance. If theologians regularly make better predictions than scientists who follow the rule of thumb, the scientists would rightly throw out the rule. I think we agree.

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    5. Nick Matzke says this about methodological naturalism,

      Which leads to a rule of thumb, which is what Pennock has called it.

      Nick, do you remember being in Dover, Pennsylvania a few years ago? Here's what Robert Pennock said on the witness stand. You were in the courtroom. Tell me if you agree with him.

      A. As scientists go about their business, they follow a method. Science is probably most characterized by its way of coming to conclusions. It's not so much the set of specific conclusions that it comes to, but the way in which it reaches them. In philosophy we talk about this as epistemology, it's a way of knowing, and science has limits upon itself. It follows a particular method. It has constraints. It requires that we have testable explanations. It gives natural explanations about the natural world. Intelligent design, creationism specifically, wants to reject that. And so it doesn't really fall within the purview of science.

      Q. Is there a name or term of art for this rule of science that it must look for natural explanations for natural phenomena?

      A. Scientists themselves may not use the term. This is something that philosophers of science use, but the term is methodological naturalism, and the idea is that this is a form of method that constrains what counts as a scientific explanation.


      Do you see the words "limits," "constraints," "rule," and "requires"? Do you think they mean "rule of thumb"?

      And what would happen if a scientist was arrogant enough to conclude that there's no evidence of supernatural beings therefore belief in supernatural beings was in conflict with science as a way of knowing? In other words, a scientist who adopted a pragmatic methodological naturalism based on evidence?

      A. A philosophical naturalist would be someone who says the world as it is in its ultimate reality, its metaphysical reality, is nothing but material natural processes, and there is no supernatural, there is no god, there is nothing beyond. A philosophical position, sometimes with subtleties, one might call it a metaphysical naturalist or metaphysical materialist position, but it's a statement about the ultimate nature, the metaphysical nature of reality.

      Q. And a statement of that nature is not a scientific statement?

      A. That's right. Science is not in the business of making philosophical metaphysical claims.

      Q. Some scientists may make those statements, but that doesn't make it science?

      A. That's right.









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    6. Lou Jost says,

      But I said it was an empirically derived rule that could be changed if circumstances warranted it.

      It's not a rule. It's an observation.

      Many scientists think that the fine tuning of the universe is evidence for the existence of God. That's a perfectly valid hypothesis as far as I'm concerned and we can apply the scientific way of knowing to see if it stands up to close scrutiny.

      That's exactly what we do. Victor Stenger has shown that it is not correct. He didn't just throw up his hands and turn it over to the philosophers because scientists aren't allowed to think abut such matters.

      The postulates of Intelligent Design Creationism are not wrong because they violate some arbitrary rule about how you are supposed to use the scientific way of knowing. They are wrong because when we apply the scientific way of knowing they fail the test. The IDiots are practicing bad science. We would never know that if we followed the restriction of methodological naturalism because as scientists we would never be able to legitimately examine their arguments.

      We would have to leave it up to philosophers.

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    7. Again, I have been agreeing with you. This empirically-derived rule of thumb summarizes our observations about how to successfully make predictions about reality. You said "It's not a rule. It's an observation." This rule of thumb IS an observation about the world, not a binding limitation on the possible nature of valid scientific explanations.

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  8. if intercessionary prayer regularly worked in ways that could not be explained by natural laws, we scientists would have to drop our rule that explanations have to adhere to methodological naturalism

    Lou Jost, when you say "we scientists" do you exclude those scientists who believe in intercessory prayer? Because there have been more than a few quite important scientists who would seem to not be included by that statement. Or are you presuming to speak for people who, it would seem, wouldn't agree with what you said.

    I'm unaware of any rule of science that excludes the possibility of intercessory prayers working. Where is that stated? And, if it turned out to be possible, wouldn't your stand negate the entirety of science? Which is a problem with scientistic totalism, all it would take is one miracle and the entire edifice would crumble. And if anyone believed they had experienced one or seen one or if they are convinced by an assertion of one, your position would require that they disbelieve in all of science.

    Luckily, many, perhaps most people who accept science reject that conception of it.

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    1. ThoughtCriminal, all I said was that if intercessionary prayer worked in ways not explainable by physics, we would have to be open to other nonphysical explanations. I am explicitly saying that science would have to be open to that possibility. Why all the venom and straw men?

      At the moment, there is no rigorous statistically sound evidence that prayer works (when known natural confounding variables are controlled). That is why virtually all scientists now use the rule of thumb of methodological naturalism. If you think I am over-generalizing, look at the proportion of the peer-reviewed scientific literature that follows methodological naturalism, versus the proportion that explicitly invokes miracles or gods or supernatural causes.

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    2. I said was that if intercessionary prayer worked in ways not explainable by physics, we would have to be open to other nonphysical explanations. I am explicitly saying that science would have to be open to that possibility.

      Well, first, there are plenty of things that happen that are not explainable by physics, consciousness, for a good starter. Physics can't explain how we conceive of the physical universe.

      As for science being open to nonphysical explainations, science cannot deal with anything EXCEPT physical phenomena and it can't even deal with most of that, if the "dark matter dark energy" suppositions actually have even that level of nebulous conjecture correct. And if it isn't, physics has got a pretty big problem with its present models.

      look at the proportion of the peer-reviewed scientific literature that follows methodological naturalism, versus the proportion that explicitly invokes miracles or gods or supernatural causes

      Name some of the studies you are talking about in the second part of your proposed comparison. Then we can talk about proportions. Though I think they are probably like the massive research done by CSICOP someone once suggested I look at, a figment of the imagination.

      What do you mean by "straw men"? Identify any "straw men" I erected.

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    3. The incompleteness of science is recognized by everybody. Incompleteness is not evidence for the existence of non-lawlike supernatural factors. Something that might give naturalism a shock would be positive evidence of a personal, whimsical final cause, for example if the digits of the fine-structure constant spelled out (in binary code for Latin letters or some other very common alphabet) "Allah is great", successively in every current language on earth, with an occasional joke thrown into the sequence, a joke that could only be understood by reference to some current event. That would be hard to explain as a result of lawlike behavior and would seem to inject personality into the structure of the universe..

      I don't understand why you ask me to list studies that invoke miracles, when my point is that such studies are vanishingly rare in proportion to studies that employ methodological naturalism. You said "Lou Jost, when you say "we scientists" do you exclude those scientists who believe in intercessory prayer? Because there have been more than a few quite important scientists who would seem to not be included by that statement." It is you who need to list such studies to support your claim, not me.

      The entire second half of your post is about straw men. We must be completely misunderstanding each other. You criticize me for saying that there is "a rule of science that excludes the possibility of intercessory prayers working. Where is that stated?" Yet I said the opposite: "if intercessionary prayer regularly worked in ways that could not be explained by natural laws, we scientists would have to drop our rule that explanations have to adhere to methodological naturalism." The rest of your post, about "scientific totalism", is a further misrepresentation of what I said.

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    4. Incompleteness is not evidence for the existence of non-lawlike supernatural factors. Lou Jost

      I didn't propose it as evidence for the existence of non-lawlike supernatural factors. It's the freqently made assertion that the incomplete knowledge of "law" is proof of the non-existence of supernatural anything. One of the aspects of incompleteness is that it's not know how incomplete the knowledge humans have of even physical law is. What if our knowledge of physical law consists of -10^9999...+ of physical law? Given the "dark matter-dark energy" supposition, that's quite a reasonable question. I'd asked it concerning the E-8 figure they constructed a few years back. If those added dimensions are real and part of the universe we inhabit, contributing undefined qualities and possibilities to reality, it's a reasonable conclusion that we know an extremely tiny part of reality. Eddington, one of my favorite scientists of the past century, pointed out the possibility of physical law that human beings are incapable of imagining and which, so, would forever elude us.

      I don't understand why you ask me to list studies that invoke miracles...

      Oh, that's easy. You asserted their existence by implication. You said: look at the proportion of the peer-reviewed scientific literature that follows methodological naturalism, versus the proportion that explicitly invokes miracles or gods or supernatural causes As I had to point out to another atheist, if you make that kind of assertion about science anyone is within their rights to ask for your citations. That, Lou Jost, is how logical discourse works. Atheists are not exempt from the rules of logical discourse, not even if PZ Myers has granted them a plenary indulgence to that effect.

      http://zthoughtcriminal.blogspot.com/2012/09/atheists-granted-indulgences-by-pz-myers.html

      I would dispute your characterization of what I said as being a "straw man". But this comment is getting long.

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    5. But this comment is getting long.

      Indeed.

      The covers of this book are too far apart.
      Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary
      US author & satirist (1842 - 1914)

      This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.
      Dorothy Parker (1893-08-22 – 1967-06-07)

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    6. TC, your response is just bizarre. I made the point that publications which use miracles in their explanations are vanishingly rare in relation to publications which stick to naturalistic explanations. Any glance at any scientific journal proves that I am right; you won't find studies invoking miracles (except in dodgy religious "journals" like the ones published by creationist sects). The nonexistence of such studies in the real scientific literature proves my assertion, so if you doubt the existence of such studies, you concede my point.

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    7. Any glance at any scientific journal proves that I am right; you won't find studies invoking miracles (except in dodgy religious "journals" like the ones published by creationist sects). Lou Jost

      You went considerably past the point of saying that there were no scientific studies invoking miracles, you said:

      look at the proportion of the peer-reviewed scientific literature that follows methodological naturalism, versus the proportion that explicitly invokes miracles or gods or supernatural causes

      There aren't articles of peer-reviewed scientific studies that "invoke miracles or gods or supernatural causes". Nor do I think there could be because science can't study those things. To go from science being unable to study those knids of things to asserting that inability of science precludes their being real is illogical. You might as well deny that anything that science can't study exists. In which case there are plenty of things you'd immediately miss. Most of history, the law, etc.

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  9. In his article, Problems with Omniscience (pdf), philosopher Patrick Grim shows that "no being knows literally everything, no being is omniscient. If no being is omniscient, there is no God."

    That's knowledge, obtained via the Philosophy of Logic.

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  10. How would you distinguish a miracle from another sort of anomaly.

    An uncaused event, an unpredictable event, an act of god?

    If it violates every physical law you know, pretty much by definition, any claim about it that you could make is an argument from ignorance.

    How does one prove a miracle?

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    1. That's easy. A proven violation of the conservation of mass/energy. Other laws might have exceptions or special conditions, but the conservation laws are literally required for math to work in the real world.

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    2. You didn't answer the question.
      How does one prove this miracle, via the 'science way of knowing'?

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  11. In his article, Problems with Omniscience (pdf), philosopher Patrick Grim shows that "no being knows literally everything, no being is omniscient. If no being is omniscient, there is no God."

    That's knowledge, obtained via the Philosophy of Logic.
    NAL

    How does Patrick Grim account for the omnipotence of God. If God is omnipotent then God is not limited by the constraints of logic.

    NOT that I'd find his reasoning compelling as I'd ask how he knows that "no being knows literally everything"? If no one knows everything then how can he define the set of {everything knowable} as he uses it in that sentence in a way that would allow him to fit it into his argument?

    If it [a miracle]violates every physical law you know, pretty much by definition, any claim about it that you could make is an argument from ignorance. Joe

    Why would a miracle have to "violate every physical law"? You'd have to have an example of a miracle to make that judgement. If there are miracles then they would more likely be an exception to a physical law.

    Why do you think any claim about it would have to be an argument from ignorance? If there was a miracle there then any argument you could make against it would be an expression of ignorance.

    I'd like to know how the "we're all about evidence, you're not" people would account for their presumption that they can know other peoples' experience better than they do, not only uninspected but before they have even heard what that person concludes about it. Keeping in mind that miracles are generally held to be very rare.

    The assumption that science has a full law book of nature in hand, ready to check for violations seems to be one of the necessities of this kind of argument. Well, where is it? And, speaking of violations, I think many of you folks are guilty as sin of misrepresenting your beliefs as knowledge, your personal preferences as logical necessities. You're busted.

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  12. I see a lot of talk about 'natural' and 'supernatural' but not many definitions, let alone any agreed definitions, so let me put in my two penn'orth.

    For anything to exist as itself rather than just random background quantum fluctuations, to be signal rather than noise it must exhibit properties or regularities or conformation to laws that make and sustain it as itself and not something else. This is what we observe and it applies to the tiniest as well as the greatest, from the smallest sub-atomic particle and the entire observable universe.

    For me, this bundle of properties and regularities that make something itself and not something else is its nature. Its what makes me me and not Larry Moran, it's what makes me a human being and not an onion and it's what makes the universe Nature and not chaos.

    This also means that if ghosts exist as such and have distinct properties and exhibit regularities in their behavior then they are natural objects. The same would apply to any God or gods.

    It would also mean that miracles are simply phenomena for which there is currently no adequate explanation but that doesn't mean there isn't one. If St Joseph of Cupertino was actually able to levitate and fly around like Superman on a regular basis then all that would mean is that there was some as-yet-unknown phenomenon in play.

    Science is the human enterprise of observing, investigating the natures of things, the natures which comprise Nature, and trying to construct explanations or models of what is seen as a way of understanding it. In principle, it upholds the virtues of rigorous methodology and strict procedures although, in practice, they sometimes seem to be treated as, like the Pirates Code, "more what you'd call guidelines".

    On this view, there is no supernatural, only unexplained natural.


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    1. I think an important element of 'science-as-she-is-done' is some kind of regularity permitting independent confirmation (or not). One creates a mini-instance of a phenomenon in the lab, or pokes one's telescope at one or whatever, and one can publish and invite others to create their own mini-instance, or tell them where to look. From a body of instances of phenomena, one can propose a theory, using which one can hopefully devise further empirical tests.

      But if there is no regularity - it was a complete one-off, with nothing, not even a set of theoretical equations, that one can give to another, then ISTM it is beyond scientific investigation. Whether the phenomenon involved 'natural' caprice - the results occurred because Stebbins swapped the test-tubes when we weren't looking - or 'supernatural', is not really the stumbling-block; it's the caprice itself.

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  13. Here are working (coherent) definitions of "supernatural:" 1.any agent of change in the world identifiable with entities revealed by previous religions and revelations 2.any change in the world violating strongly verified laws of nature 3.effects without causes 4.effects achieved by human actions or desires with no possible causal efficacy

    The first definition highlights the strange ability of believers to assign supernatural effects to their favorite supernatural being, even though the work comes unsigned.

    The second definition highlights the point that poorly understood or exceedingly rare phenomena cannot be assumed to be supernatural.

    The third definition highlights the issues involved in defining causality. It seems to me that many supernaturalists tend to suddenly switch to a very narrowly physicalist definition of causality, playing on interpretations of probability to spread confusion.

    The fourth definition highlight the need to consider the bias from wishful thinking in our studies.

    I think supernaturalists also tend to share these basic definitions but commonly equivocate between the various meanings of "supernatural" while making arguments. That seems to be the problem, rather than a conceptual incoherence. Besides, an empirical approach can still make progress despite conceptual incoherence. If you consider science as a model of the universe, the existence of phenomena which are not yet understood implies that all science heretofore (and for the foreseeable future) are incoherent. Philosophy is interested in the valid instead of the incoherent, but science is concerned with the true, regardless of whether we understand it completely clearly.



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