Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Methodological naturalism at Dover

I'm one of those scientists who don't think that science as a way of knowing is restricted to investigating natural causes [John Wilkins Revisits Methodological Naturalism ]. I think that science can easily investigate supernatural claims and show that they are wrong. In theory, science might even show that the supernatural exists. Some (most?) philosophers agree. Maarten Boudry is the best known [Is Science Restricted to Methodologial Naturalism?].

This year is the tenth anniversary of Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District. At that trial, the plaintiffs successfully convinced Judge Jones that intelligent design isn't a science because it invokes supernatural causes. The expert witnesses testified that, by definition, science is limited by methodological naturalism. I disagree with the expert witnesses at the trial and I agree with many leading philosophers that science is not restricted to methodological naturalism [Can Science Test Supernatural Worldviews? ].

I've always wondered why the plaintiff team was so convinced they were right when they must have been aware of conflicting opinions. Genie Scott has supplied the answer in a commentary published in the latest issue of Reports of the National Center for Science Education (Scott, 2015).

Here's what she says,
We chose the philosopher Robert T Pennock, who had already written a book-length critique of “intelligent design” and edited a volume of readings on the topic, as our main philosophy of science spokesperson. But in truth, every single one of our expert witnesses addressed the definition of science, stressing the same bottom line: that because scientific explanations must be testable, they are restricted to natural causes. Falsifiability, peer review, and tentativeness of scientific conclusions were also discussed, but what we hammered on above all else was the practice of restricting scientific explanations to natural causes, or methodological naturalism. Even our theological, historical, and educational experts addressed this issue. We stressed that methodological naturalism was mainstream science and well-accepted by the vast majority of scientists, as well as promoted by authoritative science institutions such as the National Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

And over and over, in depositions and in cross examination, the expert witnesses for the defense agreed with us. They didn’t agree that methodological naturalism was the way science should operate, and in fact, they encouraged expanding the definition of science to include non-natural (in other words, supernatural—though they seemed allergic to pronouncing the word) causes so that ID could better be characterized as science, but they agreed that most scientists were in our camp, not theirs. Their admissions underscored the at best peripheral position of ID in the scientific community.
That's very interesting and it explains a lot. So there were expert witnesses—presumably experts in the philosophy of science—who didn't agree with the definition used in the trial. They recognized that ID might qualify as science by their preferred definition.

However, they were persuaded to stick to the restriction of methodological naturalism during the trial because they believed that most scientists (i.e. non-experts in the philosophy of science) think that science is restricted to methodological naturalism. Many of those scientists are religious so they have a stake in that definition.

It seems kind of strange to me to use a popularity contest to determine whether a definition is correct or not. I'd hate to use that criterion to arrive at a definition of "evolution," for example. I'd certainly be unhappy if we asked the average biologist what Francis Crick meant by the "Central Dogma." It would be silly to argue that most of our genome is functional just because a majority of biologists might believe the hype of the ENCODE Consortium.

In any case, I wonder what's going to happen at the next trial? Will it still be possible to claim that knowledgeable scientists (in the USA?) restrict science to methodological naturalism? If we took a poll, would 51% be sufficient to declare that ID has to be excluded because it deals with a supernatural cause?

UPDATE: I just realized that by publishing this article Genie must realize that NCSE can never use the methodological naturalism restriction at the next trial. She must realize that the tide has turned among philosophers of science.


Scott, E.C. (2015) A Tale of Two Trials. Reports of the National Center for Science Education 36(6) [PDF]

52 comments :

  1. There is another issue about Maarten Boudry: In that photo, is there a wind where he is standing? Or is his scarf taped to the window?

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    1. Perhaps, like Vinnie Barbarino's hair in Welcome Back Kotter, the scarves of contemporary hipsters are "blown by unseen winds".

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    2. I have seen more pretentious portrait photos, but not many...

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  2. This seems the heart of it: because scientific explanations must be testable, they are restricted to natural causes, which seems to define "supernatural" as "that which cannot be tested". And methodological naturalism then translates to a claim that we can test only that which can be tested. Who could argue with that? Perhaps we could compromise and distinguish between the supernatural (by the definition above) and those phenomena traditionally considered supernatural; if we think of a way to test any of them, then by definition they aren't supernatural.

    This has the advantage that it defines that word, which otherwise seems to have no definition other than a list of candidates for admission.

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    1. Scientific explanations are also bounded while supernatural explanations are not. Thus, for instance, the claim in the Book of Joshua that the Sun stood still in the sky for a day with no consequences for the earth would require suspension of the laws of physics and thus the intervention of an external intelligence, e.g. a miracle.

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    2. But what if we knew for a fact that this actually happened? If the laws of physics can be suspended, then they are not natural laws.

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    3. Re lutesuite

      If there was evidence that it actually happened (e.g. written contemporaneous testimony that it was observed by other civilizations extant at the time), then we would be forced to revise our position relative to methodological naturalism, as finding a natural explanation seems to have vanishingly small probability.

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    4. If there was evidence that it actually happened (e.g. written contemporaneous testimony that it was observed by other civilizations extant at the time), then we would be forced to revise our position relative to methodological naturalism, as finding a natural explanation seems to have vanishingly small probability.

      Why would we do that? It has happened many times in history that we observe something that seems to violate the laws of nature as we understood them. What we then do is try to understand better what is going on and revise our understanding accordingly. We usually succeed.

      If we developed a time machine, went back 1000 years and showed the people of the time some of the things we had invented since then (not necessarily complicated things like a cell phone, but just something as simple as a flashlight) they would likely think these were the result of supernatural magic of some sort. But they'd be wrong. Similarly, if some being existed that was capable of stopping the rotation of the earth without causing catastrophic destruction, it could just be that this being has a better understanding of the laws of nature than we do and is therefore able to manipulate them in ways that appear miraculous to our primitive understanding.

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    5. Re lutesuite

      Well, one possible explanation might be that the stopping the earth's rotation and revolution around the sun for a day didn't actually happen but that time was slowed down to the extent that it appeared to happen. Again, we know that time is only relative, i.e. it progresses more slowly in a strong gravitational field or in a system moving close to the speed of light. It is possible that there exists some other natural mechanism that would do the same, which is as yet unknown to science. I wouldn't bet the ranch on it, although the recent observation of quantum entanglement shows that there is much in physics that is still poorly understood.

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  3. Joe, I wonder whether you may be too hastily limiting your consideration of the scarf to naturalistic explanations?

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  4. The Abstract indicates Maarten Boudry thinks much like me. Your problem is from adhering to a philosophical "supernatural" and "natural" dichotomy that is best to completely remove from your vocabulary and do without, like I do. Needing a philosophical crutch like that really is feeding your enemy.

    Abstract
    According to a widespread philosophical opinion, science is strictly limited to investigating natural causes and putting forth natural explanations. Lacking the tools to evaluate supernatural claims, science must remain studiously neutral on questions of metaphysics. This (self-imposed) stricture, which goes under the name of ‘methodological naturalism’, allows science to be divorced from metaphysical naturalism or atheism, which many people tend to associate with it. However, ruling the supernatural out of science by fiat is not only philosophically untenable, it actually provides grist to the mill of anti-evolutionism. The philosophical flaws in this conception of methodological naturalism have been gratefully exploited by advocates of intelligent design creationism to bolster their false accusations of naturalistic bias and dogmatism on the part of modern science. We argue that it promotes a misleading view of the scientific endeavor and is at odds with the foremost arguments for evolution by natural selection. Reconciling science and religion on the basis of such methodological strictures is therefore misguided.

    http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11191-012-9446-8

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  5. I never understood what the supernatural is in the first place. The stories in the Bible are obviously natural, in that they occur in the natural world that humans (exclusively) live in. NOMA breaks down because of the claim that God hears prayers and performs miracles, but as he does, those events take place in our magisterium, and so we can use the scientific method to investigate them. No?

    Btw, I have often wondered by which mechanism(s) God supposedly acts in our world. Just saying it's 'his will' doesn't explain anything. Poofing something into existence surely must be done by some mechanism, like he wanted it, and God's brain-waves affected the state of the space-time continuum to change, or some such. In other words, when, in the process, does the supernatural become natural? (Not as tongue-in-cheek as you might suspect, really.)

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    1. Complete agreement! I have yet to read a definition of supernatural that is workable; it is always either vapidly circular (e.g. "that which is beyond nature" while leaving nature undefined), obviously insufficient (such as the "that which is untestable" discussed above - I could make lots of untestable claims that nobody would consider supernatural), or question-begging ("that which scientists should leave their hands off because some theologian or philosopher says so, thank you very much").

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    2. I agree that any god that acts in nature is part of nature.
      Some people argue for a deity, a god that just got things started here then went off to do something else.
      Maybe a god like that could be considered supernatural.

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    3. Jack Jackson wonders: Some people argue for a deity, a god that just got things started here then went off to do something else.
      Maybe a god like that could be considered supernatural.


      But then there is the problem of thoughts and prayers not being receivable, which certainly does not work in Islam and Christianity. We're then back to "supernatural" being unworkable in religion (other than maybe Atheism where it's more like a tenet).

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    4. Complete agreement! I have yet to read a definition of supernatural that is workable; it is always either vapidly circular (e.g. "that which is beyond nature" while leaving nature undefined), obviously insufficient (such as the "that which is untestable" discussed above - I could make lots of untestable claims that nobody would consider supernatural), or question-begging...

      On the contrary, I think a definition of the "supernatural" is quite simple to devise. We have physical laws of nature, which we apprehend thru observation and repeated testing. Anything that might happen that would be in violation of those laws would, therefore, be "supernatural."

      Admittedly, this definition is difficult to apply if something that might appear to be "supernatural" actually occurs. However, since there is no persuasive evidence that any such thing has ever happened, that is of little importance.

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    5. But if something happens in violation of those laws, then they have to have happened by some other laws, no? If God just willed it, then by which process did that happen? Can we not investigate those processes, and ultimately describe them by natural laws? By this way of looking at it I really think nothing that can ever happen in our realm of the natural can be supernatural.

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    6. I think all these disagreements among philosophers over the 'supernatural' occur because the concept itself contains an internal contradiction. On the one hand the supernatural is supposed to be utterly outside this world and doesn't follow the same rules, so it makes sense that we cant study it. On the other hand advocates of the supernatural claim that the supernatural constantly effects this world, which means we could study it. You can't have it both ways but advocates of the supernatural have an almost schizophrenic ability to switch back and forth as a rhetorical strategy

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    7. But if something happens in violation of those laws, then they have to have happened by some other laws, no? If God just willed it, then by which process did that happen?

      My definition of the "supernatural" is theoretical only. I have no idea how it could be utilized if we actually observe something that might be "supernatural." As I see it, the "supernatural" is a hypothetical category of things that, conceivably, could happen, but in reality never will. (Unless we could somehow define the "natural laws" in a way other than direct observations and experimentation.)

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    8. I think all these disagreements among philosophers over the 'supernatural' occur because the concept itself contains an internal contradiction. On the one hand the supernatural is supposed to be utterly outside this world and doesn't follow the same rules, so it makes sense that we cant study it.

      I don't actually see why there could not exist "natural laws" which apply to all us "natural beings" but which could be violated by "supernatural beings." That would leave open the question of what these "natural laws" actually are, and what causes them. But I don't see any inherent contradiction there. It seems to me that is the model used by most people who believe in the "supernatural."

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    9. I don't actually see why there could not exist "natural laws" which apply to all us "natural beings" but which could be violated by "supernatural beings."
      I'm not sure what it means to violate a natural law. When we deflect an object like a baseball moving along a trajectory have we violated Newtons laws of motion? When we intercede in nature our actions are explainable within natural law (even if we cant explain our conscious decisions). As several people have suggested above the same should be true of 'supernatural' beings. There should be a mechanism through with they interact with the world.
      As an example of supernaturalists trying to have it both ways, whenever experimenters get negative results for some ESP test, the ESP supporters will always say that somehow laboratory tests kill the ESP effect, or there is just something about ESP which makes it impossible to detect via experiment ... which shouldn't be the case if its actually real!

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    10. I'm not sure what it means to violate a natural law.

      The model I am suggesting is one in which God creates a universe that is governed by laws that are inviolable to all objects and beings that exist within that universe, with the exception of God himself. He can do whatever he wants. The job of science, then, is to understand the laws that God created. Science would be of little use in determining what God could or couldn't do, because that would be entirely up to God. But the rules God created would still be subject to scientific verification. This would not mean that existence of God, in itself, could not be verified by science.

      This would also not rule out the existence of other "supernatural" beings, like angels or jinn, that could also violate some of the laws of nature, though not with the same impunity that God could.

      The term "natural" would then be an entirely arbitrary one, with little ontological significance. It would simply be a heuristic term which designates the rules that must be followed by all living things and inanimate objects, except God and those granted special exemption by God.

      I only raise this because it seems to me the sense in which most religious believers use the terms "natural" and "supernatural". I'm not saying it bears any resemblance to the universe as it actually exists.

      Believers in ESP and other "paranormal" phenomena may have a different way of seeing things, as well.

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    11. I have yet to read a definition of supernatural that is workable; ...

      Do you really need an exact, precise, definition of the word "supernatural" in order to understand the issue we're discussing?

      I don't think science as a way of knowing is limited or restricted in any way. It can be used to investigate everything no matter what you call it.

      Are you looking for a way to define "supernatural" in a way that makes supernatural things immune to investigation by the science way of knowing? If not, what's the point of quibbling?

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    12. lutesuite,

      If something happens that violates the models and theories we have then we change the models and theories accordingly. That is how science works, that is how and why science can examine the supernatural (whatever that means) as long as it actually happens. And if it doesn't happens, then we can assume it doesn't exist. So 'violates the laws of nature' is not a useful definition for the purposes of explaining why science wouldn't apply to it.

      More generally, there might be stuff that exhibits predictable behaviour and stuff that is capricious. (Note however that random behaviour in large enough replicates also becomes predictable, leaving pretty much nothing in the capricious folder.) Everything that falls into the first folder is easily dealt with by science; things in the second folder nobody can know anything about, and that includes the religious believer.

      Finally, if you postulate a scenario of rule-like behaviour of a system only violated by god intruding from time to time, we face once again the binary of predictable versus capricious. Is god's behaviour somehow predictable? Then science will do no worse studying, examining, testing and predicting this being that it does studying e.g. human behaviour.

      Or is god's behaviour capricious? (E.g. does he reward piety one day, only to punish piety with a lightning strike the next day?) In that case, this being is clearly not the kind of god anybody has ever believed in. People believe in the predictable kind of god who consistently exhibits certain preferences and dislikes, just like any other person.

      Larry Moran,

      I agree with you about science being able to examine the supernatural. It is simply the case that I don't do it by merely pronouncing that science can test the supernatural but by drawing attention to the fact that 'supernatural' has no clear meaning, or at least no meaning that implies that science cannot examine something labelled as supernatural.

      Giving an actual reason for why one doesn't think the supernatural exempt from science seems helpful, and apart from that I am simply puzzled that people think the word has any content whatsoever.

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    13. Good points, Alex SL. I have no disagreement with any of that.

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  6. On another board I frequent, a Catholic member with whom I rarely agreed did share my opinion on one issue: We both agreed that, within the Catholic world view (as well as most other theistic world views) the concept of the "supernatural" is incoherent. The reasoning is that, to the Catholic, all of the "natural" universe is an expression of and sustained by the will of God. Therefore, the idea of something that is caused by God being apart from the "natural" world makes no sense, since everything is caused by God.

    For the Catholic, this means there could not, even in principle, be such a thing as the "supernatural." Whereas for myself, the idea of the supernatural is easily defined. e.g. It is contrary to the laws of nature for a person who has been dead for three days to come back to life. Therefore, such an occurrence would fall into the category of the "supernatural."

    This leaves open the question of how I would categorize an event like a dead person being resurrected if it actually happened. Would that be a supernatural event, or merely evidence that the laws of nature were not as I understood them to be? Until there is convincing evidence that an event of that sort has actually occurred, I'm not going to worry too much about that.

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    1. Technically, the laws of physics do not prohibit a man who has been dead for three days coming back to life. It's just extremely extremely improbable.

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    2. Technically, the laws of physics do not prohibit a man who has been dead for three days coming back to life.

      And modern science is now trying to go way past just a few days of being clinically dead:
      http://www.alcor.org/

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    3. It's actually quite funny now when I think about it -- under a strictly materialistic understanding of human life it is in fact possible for the molecules in your body to spontaneously rearrange themselves in such a way that you're alive again. It's extremely implausible and for all practical purposes impossible but it's not forbidden.

      While it absolutely cannot happen under a theistic understanding of human nature unless the deity intervenes directly...

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    4. Yes, OK. Bad example. But hopefully my point remains.

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    5. And modern science is now trying to go way past just a few days of being clinically dead:

      I think modern science has already succeeded.

      Most IDiots have been brain dead for many years but they're still alive.

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    6. Actually, lutesuite, I think that your point does not remain. If something happens against the laws of nature that we currently know, then all that means is that those laws will have to be updated. Such an event would point to our ignorance, not the supernatural.

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  7. To dismiss the supernatural is to dismiss it as a option for truth. So that means, by these judges of science rules, that God is already proven not to exist. Otherwise if he did it would be a option you could tell he create such and such.
    YES. These incompetent courts decided God did not create nature.
    If science is meant to discover origins, in these matters, and it can't discover a creator behind it, and remain science, THEN by definition a exosting creator who created could not be discovered. SO science could not be a effective way of knowing if it could never lead to knowing the truth.

    Yankee court cases on science rules are absurd. Canada would be too i guess.
    ID is a scientific investigation whose purpose is to be scientific and insists that it is despite Judges ruling otherwise.
    iD is about earth nature evidence Which simply can lead to a conclusion of the supernatural. Yet the supernatural is not being investigated.
    The judge is saying they are and so not investigating nature.
    fire the Judge and get more cases. Maybe better lawyers to for iD.
    I don't accept any lawyer judge having the right to judge a thinking person who strives to do science and concludes they do. The judge has no authority to override ones own opinion.
    If you can't study origins without boundaries then you can't study it and somebody has already decided whats , at least, not true.

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    1. "Which simply can lead to a conclusion of the supernatural."
      Mother Nature fits the bill.

      "fire the Judge and get more cases."
      For someone who's a fervent supporter of no censorship and freedom of speech, if we start firing judges who go against your view = censorship.

      "The judge has no authority to override ones own opinion."
      OK, so if my opinion would be that it's fine to have black slaves and beat/ rape/ kill them at will, no judge can prevent me from doing this?

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    2. > So that means, by these judges of science rules, that God is already proven not to exist.

      No, God could well be completely within the natural realm, using natural processes to create what is claimed. We just don't know what those processes would be.

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    3. ED
      The judge is overriding ones own opinion. They are saying one has no right to conclude one is doinf science if one is to obey the judge.
      this is crazy wrong.
      THE iD folk strive to do science and its crazy to say they don't, even if bad, and they are instead doing religious discussions.
      Its crazy, train, crazy.

      The judge , amongst other errors, is fixated that because a conclusion of a creator is drawn, or could be, then the investigation is by definition not scientific.
      Oh brother!
      that makes a creator conclusion impossible from a scientific investigation.
      The investigations merits in science is determined by its conclusion.
      Thats the judges error, amongst many. Thats the equation here.
      The jidge has no authority to judge science investigation but only, and this is bigger error but, authority to decide if the conclusions are religious ones.
      So , once again, religious conclusions equals impossible claim to scientific investigation.
      Absurd.

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  8. The problem with supernatural causes is that they work as an explanation for anything this in turn means that they don't in effect explain anything.

    Sure we can test things like the efficacy of prayer or whether NDEs are real or hallucinations.

    But we can't test the claim that God tinkers with genomes sometimes when he feels like it.

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  9. Aceofspades: But we can't test the claim that God tinkers with genomes sometimes when he feels like it.

    Why not?
    Tinkers with only?
    He?

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    1. I phrased my response like that because virtually all ID proponents are Christian creationists.

      The reason this can't be tested is because a god cannot be summoned to do our bidding. If we look for evidence of tinkering and we find none, the creationist can always cry that God didn't feel like tinkering in that instance.

      We can invoke God to explain all sorts of things when were too lazy to do the science. Why do planets stay in elliptical orbits? God's doing it? Why are the continents shifting? God's doing it. What causes thunderstorms? God! Why is there a plague spreading through the city? It's the will of God!

      Can you see how this is a non-explanation? This is why we stick to explanations that can be tested.

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    2. This is why we stick to explanations that can be tested.

      Science as a way of knowing relies on evidence. If you don't have any evidence for your belief then you should not believe in it. If it's something that cannot be tested in any way then, by definition, there's no evidence to support it and it is anti-science to believe in it in spite of the lack of evidence.

      If you believe that gods cause the planets to stay in elliptical orbits then that is not consistent with science as a way of knowing. It may be consistent with some other way of knowing but so far there's no evidence that any other way of knowing leads to true knowledge.

      That's why you are not using the science way of knowing properly if you believe there are teapots in orbit around alpha-Centauri. That claim can't be tested (yet) but it should still be rejected.

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  10. I'll just add that the reason the definition of "supernatural" is problematic is we do not really know what natural laws are. We can construct models that can be tested for how closely they match what we observe. But the reason these models work remains unknown. Maybe that's not even valid question to ask about them. I don't know.

    If the Laws of Nature were written down in a book somewhere, then we'd have no problem determining when something is "supernatural."

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  11. According to naturalism nature is what science finds (I think that means whatever the consensus says).
    http://www.naturalism.org
    So if the scientific consensus decides a magic wand produced some mutation or whatever, then that would be part of nature.
    So from that perspective everything that happens is part of nature and the producer of the effect is part of nature as well.

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    1. According to naturalism nature is what science finds (I think that means whatever the consensus says).
      http://www.naturalism.org


      Are you sure that's a correct understanding of naturalism as a philosophical position?

      That website you link does not seem very rigorous.

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    2. lutesuite-
      I have not commented on naturalism as a philosophy, I just mentioned what is used as evidence.
      Maybe the lack of rigor you refer to has to do with the updating of the site process.
      (From the site):
      “*Many thanks to Just Magic Design for their great work refurbishing Naturalism.Org. We're still in progress, so please forgive any missing content, broken links, etc.”

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    3. No. The lack of rigor is because that website is written by mush-brained woo-peddlers who have no idea what the term "naturalism" means, but do know how to register it as a domain name.

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    4. lutesuite
      Your conclusion is mistaken.
      http://naturalism.org/resources/books/encountering-naturalism
      I have no idea why you would spew such nonsense about Tom Clark and the philosophy of naturalism.
      Would you please retract your earlier possibly illegal libel?

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    5. "...possibly illegal...." You're so funny!

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    6. lutesuite
      I take it you are refusing to correct your earlier error.

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    7. No, the rest of the website looks not too bad.

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  12. I have never understood why science, even if "limited" to methodological naturalism, should not be able to examine claims of supernatural occurrences. There are quite prosaic ways of evaluating such claims, e.g., note things that occur in reality are recorded more often as the opportunities for observation and recording increase, while things which do not occur in reality are recorded less often as opportunities for observation and recording increase. Which of these is characteristic of Biblical miracles? Seen recordings/reports of anyone feeding multitudes with a handful of loaves and fishes lately?

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  13. From Mendelian genetics we expect that for two carriers of an autosomal recessive disorder, one quarter of the offspring will have the disorder. If we see this number in a population, we say it is consistent with probability. If we find that 99% of the offspring have this disorder, we have an obligation to explain why. The believer in the supernatural has no such obligation. He or she could say it happened because God, the Intelligent Designer, etc. caused it to happen that way. A supernatural explanation can be invoked for ANY experimental outcome, and so has zero value.

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