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Monday, February 01, 2010

Methodological Naturalism

Here's the abstract from a talk given by Maarten Boudry at the Darwin Conference in Toronto last November (see Good News from Gent).
Maarten Boudry, Ghent University
Methodological Naturalism as an Intrinsic Property of Science: A Grist to the Mill of Intelligent Design Theory

In recent rounds of debate between evolutionists and supporters of Intelligent Design, the principle of methodological naturalism (MN) has been an important battleground. Creationists and intelligent design proponents have previously claimed that the commitment of evolutionists to naturalism and materialism constitutes a philosophical prejudice on their side, because it rules out any kind of supernatural causes by fiat. In response to these charges, some philosophers and scientists have argued that science is only committed to something they call methodological naturalism: Science does not deal with supernatural causes and explanations, but that does not mean that the latter do not exist. However, there has been some philosophical discussion about the correct understanding of MN. The principle of MN is often conceived of as an intrinsic and self-imposed limitation of science, as something that is part and parcel of the scientific enterprise by definition. According to this view (Intrinsic MN or IMN) - which is defended by people like Eugenie Scott, Michael Ruse and Robert Pennock 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 therefore has no authority on the issue. It is clear that this depiction of science and MN offers some perspectives for reconciling science and religion. Not surprisingly, IMN is often embraced by those sympathetic to religion, or by those who wish to alleviate the sometimes heated opposition between the two.

However, we will argue that this view of MN does not offer a sound rationale for the rejection of supernatural explanations. Alternatively, we will defend MN as a provisory and empirically grounded commitment of scientists to naturalistic causes and explanations, which is in principle revocable by future scientific findings (Qualified MN or QMN). In this view, MN is justified as a methodological guideline by virtue of the dividends of naturalistic explanation and the consistent failure of supernatural explanations in the history of science.

We will discuss and reject four arguments in favour of IMN: the argument from the definition of science, the argument from lawful regularity, the science stopper argument, and the argument from procedural necessity. Moreover, we will argue that defining the supernatural out of science is a counterproductive strategy against ID creationism, and, for that matter, against any theory involving supernatural explanations. More specifically, IMN has been eagerly exploited by proponents of ID to bolster their false claims about the philosophical and metaphysical prejudices of evolutionists. As ID proponent Philip Johnson rhetorically noted, if science is about following the evidence wherever it leads, why should scientists exclude a priori the possibility of discovering evidence for the supernatural? Therefore, IMN is actually grist to the ID mill.
We conclude that IMN is philosophically artificial and that its attempt to reconcile science and religion is ill-conceived. QMN, alas, does not provide any such ready reconciliation either, but it does offer a sound rationale for the rejection of supernatural designers in modern science.
Here's the problem. You can't just arbitrarily restrict science to methodological naturalism. That's like ruling out supernatural explanations by fiat and not by logic. If God exists, then there's no reason why supernatural explanations can't be a legitimate part of science. This is one of the arguments made by Philip Johnson and it hasn't been adequately addressed by most philosophers.

But there's another problem with using methodological naturalism as a defense of accommodationism. How do draw the line between methodological naturalism and philosophical naturalism? Obviously, there's no difference for an atheist; in fact, the distinction seems rather silly. If supernatural explanations are never found to be necessary in explaining the natural world then doesn't it make sense to conclude that fairies and Santa Claus don't exist?

But for theists it's important to make a distinction so that they can adhere to methodological naturalism as scientists without having to abandon their belief in supernatural beings outside of the laboratory.

Where is the boundary and how do you tell when the line has been crossed? Accommodationists are absolutely convinced that they can tell the difference between methodological naturalism and philosophical naturalism but they are never very clear about explaining this difference to others.

Here's your chance. Let's see if anyone can come up with a good way of telling when the practice of methodological naturalism becomes philosophical naturalism.

Good News from Gent

While in Gent I got a chance to meet up with some members of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Gent. Jan Verbeeren (right) is a regular reader of Sandwalk. Stefaan Blanke (below left) and Maarten Boudry (below right) are graduate students who I met at the Darwin conference in Toronto in November.

It was easy to convince Maarten to join Jan and I for a beer because Jan was buying. Unfortunately, Stefaan couldn't make it so I'll have to go back for another visit.

There are at least 500 different beers made in Belgium—or so I'm told [Belgium beers]. I doubt that I'll be able to sample all of them before I leave. The ones I had in Gent were "Delirium Tremens" and "Tripel Karmeliet." They were excellent.

We talked about adaptationism vs. pluralism. It seems to be a difficult controversy to grasp if you haven't been trained as a scientist. I think the problem is that the concept of random genetic drift as a mechanism of evolution is not widely accepted among philosophers.

We also spent an hour or so talking about methodological naturalism and philosophical naturalism. This was the subject of Maarten's talk in Toronto last November and I think he's on to something (with Stefaan). I'll write a separate post on this topic.

The title of this post is from How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix by Robert Browning.

I SPRANG to the stirrup, and Joris, and he;
I gallop’d, Dirck gallop’d, we gallop’d all three;
“Good speed !” cried the watch, as the gate-bolts undrew;
“Speed!” echoed the wall to us galloping through;
Behind shut the postern, the lights sank to rest,
And into the midnight we gallop’d abreast.


Sunday, January 31, 2010


Gravensteen is one of the castles of the Count of Flanders. It's located in the middle of Gent (Ghent in English) and it's an excellent example of an early medieval castle (extensively restored).

Anyone descended from William the conqueror is also a descendant of the early counts of Flanders (Baldwin IV, V, VI, Arnulf II)1 since William married Matilda of Flanders, the daughter of Baldwin VI (1030 - 1070). These early counts built a wooden fort on the site of the present castle. The present stone structure dates from about 1180 [Gravensteen].

I especially liked the back of the castle where the kitchen was located because it hasn't been completely restored and you get an idea of what Gravensteen must have looked like for most of the last five hundred years.

Even though it was a cloudy day, the view from the ramparts was spectacular. Gent is a beautiful city.

We spent a great deal of time in the torture chamber and Ms. Sandwalk took lots of pictures of the various instruments used to "persuade" the prisoners. She also got pictures of the guillotine that was used in the late 1700's and early 1800's.

Here's one of the more pleasant images.

[Photo Credits: top [Wikipedia], all others are by Ms. Sandwalk.

1. Assuming, that is, that you are a descendant of one of his legitimate children.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010


Yesterday we took Zoë on her first major outing. We visited the site of the battle of Waterloo. Here's a photo of Jane, Michael, and Zoë in front of the entrance to the visitor center located on the ridge overlooking the farms of La Haye Sainte and Hougoumont. This was the location of some of the bloodiest fighting of the entire battle (Ney's cavalry charge and the attack of the Imperial Guard).

Today there's a huge artificial hill on the site. You can climb the stairs to the top and see the entire battlefield.

The last time I visited Waterloo was 35 years ago with our niece and nephew. Ever since I've wanted to take my own kids to see this famous site and yesterday was the day for Jane and my new granddaughter. My son Gordon will be so sad that he missed this battlefield () but since he'll be here in a few months I'm sure his sister will take him to Waterloo.

For more pictures, see Family Outing.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Difference between Truth and Framing

Chris Mooney is at it again. This time he address the question What Should Science Organizations Say About Religion? Answer: A Lot.

It's the accommodationist debate all over again although this time it's more focused. What should scientific organizations say about the compatibility of science and religion? It seems like an question with an obvious answer. Since there is considerable debate about whether science and religion are compatible then there can't be a definitive answer. Why would any scientific organization claim that science and religion are compatible? It's not a scientific question and it's not a true statement. The correct statement is that philosophers are debating the issue. It may be true that science and religion are compatible or it may be true that science and religion are not compatible. That's all that scientific organizations should say.

Chris Mooney thinks that scientific organizations should not tell the truth. He says that in the interest of American politics these organizations should lie about the compatibility issue. They should say that science and religion are compatible. It's called "framing."

I call it lying.
Aware of this context, groups like the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) take a stance likely to help some religious believers reject what they’ve been told from the pulpit, and move toward a more moderate stance on science and religion–in essence, from anti-science fundamentalism to middle-ground reconciliationism. To this end, NCSE states something factually true and indeed, undeniable: that not every religious person thinks science and religion are incompatible.

The veracity of this statement is not really open to debate. The issue here is simply whether such people exist, and of that there’s no doubt whatsoever. In this blunt factual sense, at least, science and religion are compatible–they are reconciled all the time by actual living, breathing human beings. You might take issue with the logical basis for such reconciliation in a particular mind, but you can’t deny that it happens regularly.
Wow! According to this kind of "framing," science is compatible with Young Earth Creationism because it's undeniable that there are YEC's who are scientists. There are actual living breathing human beings who have no problem reconciling science and Genesis. I wonder if Chris Mooney would be comfortable if NCSE and NAS declared that science is compatible with the Bible?

Of course he wouldn't. Chris Mooney only wants scientific organizations to lie according to his version of reality.

A Philosopher's View of "Darwinism"

Most people think of "Darwinism" as equivalent to "evolution" but that can't be right. There are some mechanisms of evolutionary change—like random genetic drift—that clearly don't fall under the general beliefs of Darwin and his modern followers.

In today's terminology, Darwinism refers to a worldview that emphasizes natural selection as the most important mechanism of evolutionary change. Some extreme Darwinists even deny that change by random genetic drift counts as evolution.

Those of us who adhere to a broader view of evolution are called "pluralists" because we we consider several different mechanisms of evolution and several different levels of evolutionary change.

Jim Lennox is a philosopher. He has written a revised version of the "Darwinism" entry in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy [Darwinism]. Now we all know that philosophers can be wordy, if it can be said by a normal person in two paragraphs then a philosopher can't possible write anything less than a small book. However, at the very least you expect to see a conclusion that makes sense. Is "Darwinism" a viable position in the 21st century? What does "pluralism" mean?

And wouldn't you expect a serious discussion of adaptationism and how it relates to Darwinism? I would.

Read the entry and see if you can decide whether "Darwinism" is a good synonym for "evolution."

[Hat Tip: John Wilkins]

Monday, January 18, 2010

Epigenetics and the Calico Cat

This is our friendly calico cat. She lives on the farm where we are staying. Almost all calico cats are female—do you know why? It has something to do with epigenetics.

See: Calico Cats—it's one of my most popular postings.

Can anyone explain how some very rare calico cats might be male?

[Photo by Ms. Sandwalk]

Name This Tree

Seriously, what kind of tree is this? It grows in Belgium.

[Photo by Ms. Sandwalk]

Who Does This Remind You Of?


[Photo by Ms. Sandwalk]

Monday, January 11, 2010

Herent Belgium

We're staying in a town called Herent, in Belgium. Our apartment is in a renovated manor house on a working farm (goats, chickens, ponies, cat).

Herent is a few kilometers north of Leuvan and only 20 minutes from Jane, Michael and our new granddaughter Zoë.

It's an easy drive back and forth except for the snow and Belgium drivers. Today we're off to our first babysitting job!!!!

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Critical Thinking

Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy posted this video from QualiaSoup. It's one of the best descriptions of critical thinking I've ever seen. Critical thinking is what we're supposed to be teaching our students in school and university.

We're not doing a very good job.

Homeopathy and Avogadro's Number

Avogadro's Number, or it's more modern equivalent, Avogadro's Constant, is 6.022 × 1023 mol-1.

There's a new website called "Homeopathy: There's nothing in it" that explains why Avogadro's Number is important in understanding why homeopathy is a fraud.

[Hat Tip: Phil Plait]

Zoë Jane

This is my new granddaughter, Zoë Jane. Congratulations to my daughter Jane and her husband Michael. In a few hours we'll be flying to Paris then taking a train to Brussels to visit them. Meanwhile, there are more pictures at The First Picture's on Ms. Sandwalk's blog and a video of her first bath on Jane and Michael's blog [Zoë's First Bath].

Sunday, January 03, 2010

The Key Darwin and Design Science News Stories of the Year

The people at Access Research Network have compiled a list of the best stories of 2009. These are stories that lend support to the idea that God exists and that he plays an important role in creation of the universe.

The stories are supposed to fall into two categories; anti-science stories that cast doubt on modern scientific explanations, and stories about evidence supporting intelligent design creationism.

Here's the list from: “The Key Darwin and Design Science News Stories of the Year”. Judge for yourselves how many fall into each of the two categories.

  1. The Modern Synthesis is Gone
  2. Cell Motors Work in Concert
  3. Early Large Galaxies Stun Cosmologists
  4. The Ida Hype and Bust
  5. Walking White Blood Cells
  6. Signature in the Cell
  7. Cells Use Cloud Computing
  8. Peppered Moths Oscillates Back to Gray
  9. Reverse Engineering Biological Designs
  10. Cambrian Explosion Continues to Challenge Materialistic Theories
  11. The Collectivist Revolution in Biology
  12. Failed Assault on Irreducible Complexity
  13. Intelligent Input Required for Life
  14. The Edge of Evolution Confirmed
  15. The Ardi Hype and Bust

Communicating Science

The primary goal of science writers and science journalists is to be effective communicators of science. However, they have had little impact on the general public over the past few decades since the level of science literacy has barely budged.

Most citizens have little idea of how science works and many reject outright the basic fundamentals of science.

Having failed to achieve their goal, and finding themselves irrelevant when it comes to making a profit (largely because of their own failure), they are now looking for someone to blame. Chris Mooney has decided to blame scientists for not being science journalists. See his latest contribution at On issues like global warming and evolution, scientists need to speak up. He doesn't really mean "speak up" as scientists, of course. What he means is that scientists should learn how to "frame" and fudge their position in order to please the general public. Making friends with theists and promoting religious scientists is supposed to help.

What's interesting about this debate is that science writers like Chris Mooney are convinced they know how to teach the general public in spite of the fact that science writers—as a profession—have not been successful in the past.

Why should scientist listen to them?