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Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Methodological Naturalism - How Not to Attack Intelligent Design Creationism

My philosopher friends from Ghent have published their paper ...

Boudry, M., Blancke, S., and Braeckman, J. (2010) How Not to Attack Intelligent Design Creationism: Philosophical Misconceptions About Methodological Naturalism. Foundations of Science doi:10.1007/s10699-010-9178-7.

In recent controversies about Intelligent Design Creationism (IDC), the principle of methodological naturalism (MN) has played an important role. In this paper, an often neglected distinction is made between two different conceptions of MN, each with its respective rationale and with a different view on the proper role of MN in science. According to one popular conception, MN is a self-imposed or intrinsic limitation of science, which means that science is simply not equipped to deal with claims of the supernatural (Intrinsic MN or IMN). Alternatively, we will defend MN as a provisory and empirically grounded attitude of scientists, which is justified in virtue of the consistent success of naturalistic explanations and the lack of success of supernatural explanations in the history of science (Provisory MN or PMN). Science does have a bearing on supernatural hypotheses, and its verdict is uniformly negative. We will discuss five arguments that have been proposed in support of IMN: the argument from the definition of science, the argument from lawful regularity, the science stopper argument, the argument from procedural necessity, and the testability argument. We conclude that IMN, because of its philosophical flaws, proves to be an ill-advised strategy to counter the claims of IDC. Evolutionary scientists are on firmer ground if they discard supernatural explanations on purely evidential grounds, instead of ruling them out by philosophical fiat.


  1. It sounds promising, but I wish they could so something about their tone. It sounds so... shrill.

  2. So, how do they define "naturalistic explanations" and distinguish them from "supernatural explanations"?

    Surely, they define their terms, right?

  3. Thanks for the link. It's a really good paper and very close to my own views. But it isn't against methodological naturalism, just FYI. ;-)

  4. PS: There are a few issues they don't hit, though, the biggest of which is, if we really did observe, say, verifiable, undeniable miracles, would we really still be doing science when studying those events? Or would we be doing something else? Imagine applying more and more scientific instruments to the study of some repeatable miracle, like resurrection. Sooner or later you would realize it was pointless -- at one nanosecond you have a dead guy, and the next, "poof", magically you have a live one. I guess narrowing down the location of that nanosecond is scientific, but it's not like you'll ever figure out the biochemical mechanism -- because there isn't one, that's the whole point of a supernatural explanation!

    So deciding whether or not the study of the hypothetical true verified repeatable miracle should be included within "science" isn't decided even if you decide that you're convinced that the miracle happened. This isn't so much a matter to be decided by the "definition of science" so much as it is a matter of what you think science ought to be doing, and at what point you would give up on the scientific approach and try something else (like understanding the phenomenon through prayer to God, or whatever).

    All IMHO...

  5. NickM - it sounds like there would be a lot we could investigate and learn about miracles. I often compare quantum weirdness with hypothetical miracles because it shows so clearly that science can deal with non-determinism very well so I can't think of any reason why science couldn't study miracles. Maybe there will be some limits but we won't know until we look and it's a funny thing but the limits that people have declared exist on human knowledge have a way of falling.

  6. I suppose this all depends on what you are trying to do.

    If you are interested in spending your time exploring how nature works, why waste your time on non-naturalistic explanations?

  7. > If you are interested in spending your time exploring how nature works, why waste your time on non-naturalistic explanations?

    Because we want a real explanation, wherever that might lead? That's the root of the scientific method, in fact.

    Yes, I like this viewpoint, trying to prove too much, such as universal negatives, and you can wind up looking silly. Such as claiming virtual omniscience, whilst declaiming that there is no supernatural. That would be well, supernatural knowledge...

  8. I've found a link to final draft PDF at:

    Looking forward to reading it.

  9. John Pieret, I think this might answer your question
    Supernatural claims do not fall beyond the reach of
    science; they have simply failed.
    Supernatural explanations are failed or falsified explanations. I guess ID comes under this.

  10. Brian,

    That would make caloric a supernatural thing. That's utterly ridiculous.

  11. NickM, the concept of the "repeatable miracle" raises further issues along the lines I believe you're raising: Repeatable by whom? Science, ISTM, has the concept at its heart of experimental verification, which I take to mean capable of repetition by mere mortals.

    If confronted with your "repeatable miracle" and observations eliminated known natural mechanisms, I suppose the alternatives would be supernatural causes, or I For One Welcome Our New Alien Overlords.

  12. That would make caloric a supernatural thing. That's utterly ridiculous.
    How so? I'm not following the logic. If the supernatural is a proper subset of failed science, failed explanations of natural phenomena, how does that make caloric supernatural? It seems that caloric is part of the set of failed science, but not the proper subset of supernatural.
    Think of a Venn diagram where the universe is scientific explanations, a circle A with failed scientific explanations and a smaller circle B that is fully included in A that is supernatural explanations. Caloric can be part of A without being included in B.
    1. Some failed science are supernatural. (Some A are B)
    2. Caloric is failed science.
    (X is A)
    It doesn't follow that Caloric is supernatural. (X is B).

    At least not in my sleep deprived mind. If I'm wrong, I blame my newborn son. :)

  13. Brilliant, thanks for posting about this paper. Recently had a frustrating discussion about this and would like to read up on it.

    My two cents: So far I fail to understand the problem with examining the supernatural, because I have no idea what it is supposed to be. There are only two half way sensible definitions: that which does not have any impact on nature that can be measured, and that which does not exhibit understandable, regular, reproducible or whatnot patterns. In the first case, it can be rejected by science like all other purely imaginary phenomena as superfluous to our best model. In the second, I found the argument convincing that then it would simply be non-understandable by any means, meaning that the believer also could not say anything coherent about it. There is no supernatural, as a god intervening in the world would instantly enter the sphere of nature through this intervention. And complaining that we could not study the biochemical mechanism of miraculous resurrection sounds, at least to me, like complaining that we cannot study the reproductive strategy of a block of granite. We can't because that concept does not apply, but that does not make geology less of a science. Likewise, if you are living in a universe where a superhuman intelligence intervenes, that is just the rules you are stuck with, and it would be absurd to deal with e.g. reproducible and testable necromancy by saying that it cannot be accepted because of methodological naturalism. Naturalism would cover it because necromancy would simply be a part of nature if it existed.

  14. God is a crafty bastard, and not dumb enough to leave traces of his hand in his handiwork for some dozy ape to spot (although I blame supernatural causes for my failure to get a decent result in my PhD). The rules of the game are quite clearly spelled out in this here 2000-year-old book: faith tests you; you don't test faith.

    You might also care to check out my book: Naturological Methodalism: On The Integration Of Science and Things-That-Can't-Be-Studied-By-Science. Look out for it in the bookshop, between Mind, Body and Spirit and Popular Science. It's very short.

  15. sez john pieret: "So, how do they define 'naturalistic explanations' and distinguish them from 'supernatural explanations'?"
    How do the guys who argue for "supernatural explanations" distinguish them from "naturalistic explanations"? Myself, I don't pretend to be exhaustively well-informed about candidate definitions of "supernatural explanations", but as best I can tell, the word "supernatural" is either (a) meaningless, or else (b) functionally synonymous with "something I don't understand". Can you cite any candidate definitions for "supernatural" which fail to fall within one of those two categories?

  16. Thanks for this link Larry Moran,

    "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy."
    William Shakespeare - Hamlet

    Further note on how NOT to attack ID,,,, as far as discarding ID on purely evidential grounds:

    What One Famous Scientist Said About Evolution

    “One morning I woke up and something had happened in the night, and it struck me that I had been working on this [evolution] stuff for twenty years and there was not one thing I knew about it. That’s quite a shock to learn that one can be so misled so long. Either there was something wrong with me or there was something wrong with evolutionary theory. Naturally, I know there is nothing wrong with me …..”

    “[The] question is: Can you tell me anything you KNOW about Evolution? Any one thing? Any one thing that is true? I tried that question on the geology staff at the Field Museum of Natural History and the only answer I got was silence. I tried it on the members of the Evolutionary Morphology Seminar in the University of Chicago, a very prestigious body of Evolutionists, and all I got there was silence for a long time, and eventually one person said, “I do know one thing – it ought not to be taught in high school”.”

    Part of a keynote address given at the American Museum of Natural History by Dr Colin Patterson (Senior Palaeontologist, British Museum of Natural History, London) in 1981. Unpublished transcript.

  17. further note:

    Comparing Materialism to Theism within the Scientific Method:

  18. 16 August 1993:
    Dear Mr Theunissen,

    I seem fated continually to make a fool of myself with creationists. ...I think the continuation of the passage shows clearly that your interpretation (at the end of your letter) is correct, and the creationists' is false.

    That brush with Sunderland (I had never heard of him before) was my first experience of creationists. The famous "keynote address" at the American Museum of Natural History in 1981 was nothing of the sort. It was a talk to the Systematics Discussion Group in the Museum, an (extremely) informal group. I had been asked to talk to them on "Evolutionism and creationism"; fired up by a paper by Ernst Mayr published in Science just the week before. I gave a fairly rumbustious talk, arguing that the theory of evolution had done more harm than good to biological systematics (classification). Unknown to me, there was a creationist in the audience with a hidden tape recorder. So much the worse for me. But my talk was addressed to professional systematists, and concerned systematics, nothing else.

    I hope that by now I have learned to be more circumspect in dealing with creationists, cryptic or overt.

    Yours Sincerely,
    Colin Patterson