Friday, April 05, 2013

Can Science Test Supernatural Worldviews?

Jerry Coyne's recent post on methodological naturalism was based on a recent paper by Fishman and Boudry (2013). Previously Jerry had addressed a paper by Yonatan Fishman from 2009 (Fishman, 2009) [Can science test the supernatural? Yes!!] I think it's worth highlighting that 2009 paper because it makes a strong case against limiting science. I'm a bit confused by the stance taken by John Wilkins (and others) as I mentioned in the comments to my recent post [John Wilkins Revisits Methodological Naturalism]. Perhaps they could respond to this argument from the Fishman (2009) paper?
The recent court ruling in the United States against the teaching of ‘Intelligent Design’ (ID) as an alternative to evolution in biology classes (Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District; Jones 2005) has sparked public interest and has been hailed as a victory by the scientific community. One of the reasons given for the verdict is the notion that science is limited strictly to the study of natural phenomena and therefore that ID and other claims involving supernatural phenomena are outside the proper domain of scientific investigation.

While the verdict is widely viewed as correct for other reasons cited in the court’s opinion, that particular rationale upon which it is based is questionable. Indeed, is science limited to the study of ‘natural’ phenomena? Does science presuppose Naturalism and thereby exclude supernatural explanations by definition? Are claims involving ‘supernatural’ phenomena inherently untestable and therefore outside the province of science? The present article argues that this is not the case. Science does not presuppose Naturalism and supernatural claims are amenable in principle to scientific evaluation [see Monton (2006) and Stenger (2006a) for a similar critique of Judge Jones’ verdict]. Indeed, science does have implications for the probable truth of supernatural worldviews (Gauch 2006, defends a similar thesis).

To exclude, a priori, the supernatural would validate the complaint voiced by some ID adherents and other creationists that science is dogmatically committed to Naturalism and thus opposed in principle to considering supernatural explanations (Johnson 1999; see Stenger 2006a). On the other hand, if there is no fundamental barrier preventing science from evaluating supernatural claims, then to declare the study of supernatural phenomena out of bounds to scientific investigation imposes artificial constraints on scientific inquiry, which potentially would deny science the noble task of purging false beliefs from the public sphere or the opportunity to discover aspects of reality that may have significant worldview implications.

Fishman, Y.I. (2009) Can science test supernatural worldviews? Science and Education 18:165-189. [doi: 10.1007/s11191-007-9108-4

Fishman, Y.I. and Boudry, M. (2013) Does Science Presuppose Naturalism (or Anything at All)? Science & Education (published online January 7, 2013) [doi: 10.1007/s11191-012-9574-1]


  1. Supernatural can be tested the same way the cause of gravity is...

  2. Of course science can test and disprove supernatural worldviews: see any experiment on fake spoonbenders to demonstrate how it does so.

    But, what conclusions can science draw about such claims? While disproving supernatural claims made charlatans and idiots is remarkably easy, I don't believe scientific methods can ever, even in principle, prove a supernatural claim. All science can do is fail to disprove a supernatural claim, you can never validly come to the conclusion, "Yes, something supernatural did do this". Therefore, the range of conclusions that science can draw are necessarily limited by the scientific worldview.

    I don't find this a problem, since I subscribe to ontological naturalism (i.e. supernatural beings do not exist). I do however recognise that were they to exist, I could never prove it within a scientific framework. The most I could do would be to get to the point of saying "Well, I have no explanation for this so far".

    1. How about we modify your argument a little, and replace supernatural with natural like this: 'I don't believe scientific methods can ever, even in principle, prove a natural claim. All science can do is fail to disprove a natural claim, you can never validly come to the conclusion, "Yes, something natural did do this".'

      This is also correct because you are equivocating on the ambiguity of the word "prove". Technically, science does not prove anything in a 1+1=2 sense. Everything we know scientifically we know provisionally, on a weight of the overall evidence basis. The natural versus supernatural distinction is irrelevant here, and your one-sided focus on supernaturalism is biased.

      The fact is that science reaches conclusions about how the world works based on best fit with the empirical evidences, regardless of whether the conclusions are natural or supernatural. The fact that we have discovered that our universe is natural, and not supernatural, is a conclusion of science. It is not, in any way, shape, or form, a built in, prior, requisite assumption of science.

  3. Clearly agree with you and Jerry Coyne on this. I fail to see even what supernatural is supposed to be. As I have written in more detail recently, any possible definition of the term appears to boil down to begging the question in some way. It sure looks as if the entire purpose of the concept is merely to arbitrarily protect some belief from critical examination.

    What is more, I am convinced that the proper purpose of methodological naturalism is to keep the scientist from invoking untestable explanations but NOT to keep us from applying the principle of parsimony, i.e. from concluding that things do not exist and processes do not take place for which there is no evidence. In other words: "I don't know how it works so goddidit" is not allowed, but "there is no evidence for god, so we conclude tentatively that it does not exist" would be perfectly legitimate.

    1. I agree...what exactly is supernatural supposed to be? And who gets to declare that some event or thing is supernatural? And if it were somehow immune from investigation and perception, how could its existence even be deduced in the first place?

      Surely the declaration is just as you say, offering protection from critical examination...but also it provides the basis for expecting that there should be no evidence, which is useful because there never is any.

      Very odd that one can perceive a supernatural thing or event and thus posit its existence, yet immediately run into that brick wall that prevents any subsequent perception.

  4. I found Yonatan Fishman's 2009 paper very convincing when I read it. It also supports the reason why I am an atheist not an agnostic in the Huxleyan sense. If we postulated that it is unknowable whether God exists or not, it then creates a purely ad hoc metaphysical assumption in order to places arbitrary limits on the questions that science can address.

    If one could have asked Huxley if biological science could disprove the existence of Adam and Eve it is likely he would have regarded as unknowable and beyond science. Now as Jerry Coyne often points out on his blog, modern genetic evidence show that at no time did Homo ever pass through a genetic bottleneck even remotely close to two thus disproving the existence of the said couple.

    I see no reason to set any metaphysical limitation on the questions that science can successfully address.

    1. Furthermore, even if we accept that we cannot "know" that a god exists by placing restrictions on what qualifies as knowledge, restrictions that go beyond the restrictions usually applied, the overall evidences can still favor or disfavor existence of gods that intervene in our universe. And that is what counts - what the evidences favor or disfavor. We don't have to know something in an impossible to achieve sense of "know" to reach a properly justified conclusion. On the contrary, when the evidences speak clearly in favor of a conclusion we are logically compelled to that conclusion. And that is the case here, people who claim the evidences are silent on this question are just flat out wrong.