The problem of using
“methodological” naturalism to define science
One of the problems that keeps on cropping up here at UD and elsewhere is as captioned. Accordingly, I just noted to JDK et al in the “complaining” thread as follows:
KF, 66: >>I should note on the subtly toxic principle that has been injected in such a way as to seem reasonable (especially to those who have been led to be ever-suspicious towards or at minimum forever apologetic over, our civilisation’s Judaeo-Christian heritage).
Namely, so-called “methodological” naturalism.
The first key trick in this, of course is that there is a grand suggestion that “methodological” removes the philosophical agenda involved in the naturalism.
It does not.
Instead, it subtly converts the effective meaning of “Science” into: the “best” evolutionary materialist narrative of the world and its origins, from hydrogen to humans.
In short, when the NSTA Board said “The principal product of science is knowledge in the form of naturalistic concepts and the laws and theories related to those concepts” they obviously meant it, and we should take due notice of that ideologically, institutionally imposed philosophical question-begging and associated censorship.
(Of course, those who have been led to believe that Big-S materialistic Science has effectively cornered the market on knowledge and truth, will often imagine that Truth has rights to “protect” itself from pernicious, nefarious error. Especially error propagated by those ignorant, stupid, insane or wicked, right-wing, bomb-throwing fundamentalists. Besides, one does not let accounting fraud convicts teach accounting principles.
The toxic prejudice involved in such projections should be duly noted for what it is, and it should be set aside. And, one should be willing to recognise that when one has been deeply polarised against the stereotyped and scapegoated other and has been led to enable ruthless action, something is seriously wrong.
I repeat, we have here a case where, for the thought-crime of proposing a traditional, historically and epistemologically well-warranted schools level understanding of science: “Science is a systematic method of continuing investigation, that uses observation, hypothesis testing, measurement, experimentation, logical argument and theory building, to lead to more adequate explanations of natural phenomena,” the children of the state of Kansas were held hostage over the accrediting of their education, held hostage by NSTA and NAS.
Where, we can directly see that in 2000 the NAS put up an ideologically loaded re-definition of science and that — patently not coincidentally — it was in 2001 that the slightly reworded loaded definition was pushed into the Kansas education system: “Science is the human activity of seeking natural [–> notice, not, observationally grounded, empirically reliable] explanations of the world around us.” “Natural,” of course, given the context, should be translated: natural-ISTIC.
Whatever the real or imagined motives of those who argued for the 2005 corrective, that extreme response should be a warning. Where, let us note that JDK, above, has noticeably failed to inform us as to the letters of warning issued to the many states that c. 2005 had very similar schools-level definitions of science.
Recall at 57 above, I cited from Wisconsin as a capital case in point:
Scientific knowledge is developed from the activities of scientists and others who work to find the best possible explanations of the natural world. Researchers and those who are involved in science follow a generally accepted set of rules to produce scientific knowledge that others can confirm with experimental evidence. This knowledge is public, replicable, and undergoing revision and refinement based on new experiments and data… [Scientific inquiry] should include questioning, forming hypotheses, collecting and analyzing data, reaching conclusions and evaluating results, and communicating procedures and findings to others.
Notice, the studious silence on the demonstrable fact that the Kansas 2005 corrective definition was in line with the obvious general pattern of the states.
[–> Something, which I believe, was drawn to JDK’s attention over ten years ago by Eric Anderson, right here at UD; that sort of long-term background should be borne in mind as one reads on.]
And of course, the definitions we can find in good quality dictionaries of the generation before the big push to redefine Science itself in materialism- in- a- lab-coat terms.)
That direct world-view level implication — that science is being re-defined in ideologically materialistic terms by ruthless activists with questionable agendas — should be a first clue (and it is one Lewontin inadvertently let the cat out of the bag over).
The second key, is that most people [especially today] lack a good understanding of philosophical issues and the relevant history of science, including on the worldviews of many of its founders. To such (having been steeped in agenda-serving, one-sided secularist narratives from childhood), the following will sound like near-self-evident nonsense, though it is in fact a readily supported, sound summary:
Sometimes the most obvious facts are the easiest to overlook. Here is one that ought to be stunningly obvious: science as an organized, sustained enterprise arose only once in the history of Earth. Where was that? Although other civilizations have contributed technical achievements or isolated innovations, the invention of science as a cumulative, rigorous, systematic, and ongoing investigation into the laws of nature occurred only in Europe; that is, in the civilization then known as Christendom. Science arose and flourished in a civilization that, at the time, was profoundly and nearly exclusively Christian in its mental outlook.
There are deep reasons for that, and they are inherent in the Judeo-Christian view of the world which, principally in its Christian manifestation, formed the European mind. As Stark observes, the Christian view depicted God as “a rational, responsive, dependable, and omnipotent being and the universe as his personal creation, thus having a rational, lawful, stable structure, awaiting human comprehension.” That was not true of belief systems elsewhere. A view that the universe is uncreated, has been around forever, and is just “what happens to be” does not suggest that it has fundamental principles that are rational and discoverable. Other belief systems have considered the natural world to be an insoluble mystery, conceived of it as a realm in which multiple, arbitrary gods are at work, or thought of it in animistic terms. None of these views will, or did, give rise to a deep faith that there is a lawful order imparted by a divine creator that can and should be discovered.
[–> Clue: why do we still talk about “Laws” of nature? Doesn’t such historically rooted language not suggest: a law-giver? (And indeed, that is precisely what Newton discussed at length in his General Scholium to his Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy.) Of course, that will not move the deeply indoctrinated and polarised, but it is a clear marker to those who are willing to think more open-mindedly.]
Recent scholarship in the history of science reveals that this commitment to rational, empirical investigation of God’s creation is not simply a product of the “scientific revolution” of the 16th and 17th centuries, but has profound roots going back at least to the High Middle Ages . . . .
Albertus Magnus — prodigious scholar, naturalist, teacher of Thomas Aquinas, and member of the Dominican order — affirmed in his De Mineralibus that the purpose of science is “not simply to accept the statements of others, that is, what is narrated by people, but to investigate the causes that are at work in nature for themselves.” Another 13th-century figure, Robert Grosseteste, who was chancellor of Oxford and Bishop of Lincoln, has been identified as “the first man ever to write down a complete set of steps for performing a scientific experiment,” according to Woods.
WHEN THE DISCOVERIES of science exploded in number and importance in the 1500s and 1600s, the connection with Christian belief was again profound. Many of the trailblazing scientists of that period when science came into full bloom were devout Christian believers, and declared that their work was inspired by a desire to explore God’s creation and discover its glories. Perhaps the greatest scientist in history, Sir Isaac Newton, was a fervent [–> though of course, unorthodox] Christian who wrote over a million words on theological subjects. Other giants of science and mathematics were similarly devout: Boyle, Descartes, Kepler, Leibniz, Pascal. To avoid relying on what might be isolated examples, Stark analyzed the religious views of the 52 leading scientists from the time of Copernicus until the end of the 17th century. Using a methodology that probably downplayed religious belief, he found that 32 were “devout”; 18 were at least “conventional” in their religious belief; and only two were “skeptics.” More than a quarter were themselves ecclesiastics: “priests, ministers, monks, canons, and the like.”
Down through the 19th century, many of the leading figures in science were thoroughgoing Christians. A partial list includes Babbage, Dalton, Faraday, Herschel, Joule, Lyell, Maxwell, Mendel, and Thompson (Lord Kelvin). A survey of the most eminent British scientists near the end of the 19th century found that nearly all were members of the established church or affiliated with some other church.
In short, scientists who were committed Christians include men often considered to be fathers of the fields of astronomy, atomic theory, calculus, chemistry, computers, electricity, genetics, geology, mathematics, and physics. In the late 1990s, a survey found that about 40 percent of American scientists believe in a personal God and an afterlife — a percentage that is basically unchanged since the early 20th century. A listing of eminent 20th-century scientists who were religious believers would be far too voluminous to include here — so let’s not bring coals to Newcastle, but simply note that the list would be large indeed, including Nobel Prize winners.
Far from being inimical to science, then, the Judeo-Christian worldview is the only belief system that actually produced it. Scientists who (in Boyle’s words) viewed nature as “the immutable workmanship of the omniscient Architect” were the pathfinders who originated the scientific enterprise. The assertion that intelligent design is automatically “not science” because it may support the concept of a creator is a statement of materialist philosophy, not of any intrinsic requirement of science itself.
The redefinition of science in materialist terms — never wholly successful, but probably now the predominant view — required the confluence of several intellectual currents. The attack on religious belief in general, and Christianity in particular, has been underway for more than two centuries . . . . IT WAS THE AWE-INSPIRING SUCCESS of science itself, nurtured for centuries in a Christian belief system, that caused many to turn to it as the comprehensive source of explanation. With the mighty technology spawned by science in his hands, man could exalt himself, it seemed, and dispense with God. Although Darwin was by no means the sole cause of the apotheosis of materialist science, his theories gave it crucial support. It is perhaps not altogether a coincidence that the year 1882, in which Darwin died, found Nietzsche proclaiming that “God is dead…and we have killed him.”
The capture of science (in considerable measure) by materialist philosophy was aided by the hasty retreat of many theists. There are those who duck any conflict by declaring that science and religion occupy non-overlapping domains or, to use a current catchphrase, separate “magisteria.” One hears this dichotomy expressed in apothegms such as, “Science asks how; religion asks why.” In this view, science is the domain of hard facts and objective truth. Religion is the realm of subjective belief and faith. Science is publicly verifiable, and is the only kind of truth that can be allowed in the public square. Religion is private, unverifiable, and cannot be permitted to intrude into public affairs, including education. The two magisteria do not conflict, because they never come into contact with each other. To achieve this peace, all the theists have to do is interpret away many of the central beliefs of the Judeo-Christian tradition.
This retreat makes some theists happy, because they can avoid a fight that they feel ill-equipped to win, and can retire to a cozy warren of warm, fuzzy irrelevancy. It also makes materialists happy, because the field has been ceded to them. As ID advocate Phillip Johnson remarks acerbically:
Politically astute scientific naturalists feel no hostility toward those religious leaders who implicitly accept the key naturalistic doctrine that supernatural powers do not actually affect the course of nature. In fact, many scientific leaders disapprove of aggressive atheists like Richard Dawkins, who seem to be asking for trouble by picking fights with religious people who only want to surrender with dignity.
But the ID theorists do not go gentle into that good night. That’s what’s different about intelligent design. ID says that the best evidence we have shows that life is the product of a real intelligent agent, actually working in space and time, and that the designer’s hand can be detected, scientifically and mathematically, by what we know about the kinds of things that are produced only by intelligence. It is making scientific claims about the real world. Because it relies on objective fact and scientific reasoning, ID seeks admission to the public square. Rather than retreating to the gaseous realm of the subjective, it challenges the materialist conception of science on its own turf. It thus threatens materialism generally, with all that that entails for morality, law, culture — and even for what it means to be human.
THOSE WHO NOW OCCUPY the public square will fight to keep possession of it. The advocates of Darwinian materialism believe that they are in possession of The Truth, and are perfectly willing to invoke the power of the state to suppress competing views [–> which should be a big warning-sign that something has gone very wrong] . . . [“What’s the Big Deal About Intelligent Design?” By Dan Peterson, American Spectator, Published 12/22/2005; also cf his earlier popular level summary on ID here. (HT: Wayback Machine.)]
If the just above sounds like nonsense to you, I am sorry to have to advise you in this way, but you have been led to make a crooked yardstick into your standard of straightness, accuracy and uprightness. The problem with that, is that if crookedness is the reference standard, what is really straight or accurate or upright will never be able to measure up to the standard.
This means, we need a plumb-line test. In this case, the actual history of the founding of science and of the views and approaches of its pioneers. No definition of Science that cannot accept the work and approach of the founders of scientific methods and disciplines across centuries can be correct.
So, here is Newton in Opticks, Query 31:
As in Mathematicks, so in Natural Philosophy, the Investigation of difficult Things by the Method of Analysis, ought ever to precede the Method of Composition. This Analysis consists in making Experiments and Observations, and in drawing general Conclusions from them by Induction, and admitting of no Objections against the Conclusions, but such as are taken from Experiments, or other certain Truths. For Hypotheses [= metaphysical speculations not backed by empirical support] are not to be regarded in experimental Philosophy. And although the arguing from Experiments and Observations by Induction be no Demonstration of general Conclusions; yet it is the best way of arguing which the Nature of Things admits of, and may be looked upon as so much the stronger, by how much the Induction is more general. And if no Exception occur from Phaenomena, the Conclusion may be pronounced generally. But if at any time afterwards any Exception shall occur from Experiments, it may then begin to be pronounced with such Exceptions as occur. By this way of Analysis we may proceed from Compounds to Ingredients, and from Motions to the Forces producing them; and in general, from Effects to their Causes, and from particular Causes to more general ones, till the Argument end in the most general. This is the Method of Analysis: And the Synthesis consists in assuming the Causes discover’d, and establish’d as Principles, and by them explaining the Phaenomena proceeding from them, and proving the Explanations.
And yes, this is likely the root source of traditional summaries of science and its methods.
What you have likely never been told is what else Newton said in that immediate context:
Now by the help of [the laws of motion], all material Things seem to have been composed of the hard and solid Particles above-mention’d, variously associated in the first Creation by the Counsel of an intelligent Agent. For it became him who created them to set them in order. And if he did so, it’s unphilosophical to seek for any other Origin of the World, or to pretend that it might arise out of a Chaos by the mere Laws of Nature; though being once form’d, it may continue by those Laws for many Ages . . . .
And if natural Philosophy in all its Parts, by pursuing this Method, shall at length be perfected, the Bounds of Moral Philosophy will be also enlarged. For so far as we can know by natural Philosophy what is the first Cause, what Power he has over us, and what Benefits we receive from him, so far our Duty towards him, as well as that towards one another, will appear to us by the Light of Nature. ”
So, if we have a proffered definition c 2000 and echoed 2001 and 2007 that cannot deal with this history, it is patently wrong. Period.
In short, there is serious and broadly applicable force to Philip Johnson’s response to Lewontin’s cat-out-of-the-bag comments. Force, that a reasonable and responsible person should ponder rather than dismiss:
For scientific materialists the materialism comes first; the science comes thereafter. [Emphasis original] We might more accurately term them “materialists employing science.” And if materialism is true, then some materialistic theory of evolution has to be true simply as a matter of logical deduction, regardless of the evidence.
[–> notice, the power of an undisclosed, question-begging, controlling assumption . . . often put up as if it were a mere reasonable methodological constraint; emphasis added. Let us note how Rational Wiki, so-called, presents it:
“Methodological naturalism is the label for the required assumption of philosophical naturalism when working with the scientific method. Methodological naturalists limit their scientific research to the study of natural causes, because any attempts to define causal relationships with the supernatural are never fruitful, and result in the creation of scientific “dead ends” and God of the gaps-type hypotheses.”
Of course, this ideological imposition on science that subverts it from freely seeking the empirically, observationally anchored truth about our world pivots on the deception of side-stepping the obvious fact since Plato in The Laws Bk X, that there is a second, readily empirically testable and observable alternative to “natural vs [the suspect] supernatural.” Namely, blind chance and/or mechanical necessity [= the natural] vs the ART-ificial, the latter acting by evident intelligently directed configuration. [Cf Plantinga’s reply here and here.]
And as for the god of the gaps canard, the issue is, inference to best explanation across competing live option candidates. If chance and necessity is a candidate, so is intelligence acting by art through design. And it is not an appeal to ever- diminishing- ignorance to point out that design, rooted in intelligent action, routinely configures systems exhibiting functionally specific, often fine tuned complex organisation and associated information. Nor, that it is the only observed cause of such, nor that the search challenge of our observed cosmos makes it maximally implausible that blind chance and/or mechanical necessity can account for such.]
That theory will necessarily be at least roughly like neo-Darwinism, in that it will have to involve some combination of random changes and law-like processes capable of producing complicated organisms that (in Dawkins’ words) “give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.”
. . . . The debate about creation and evolution is not deadlocked . . . Biblical literalism is not the issue. The issue is whether materialism and rationality are the same thing. Darwinism is based on an a priori commitment to materialism, not on a philosophically neutral assessment of the evidence. Separate the philosophy from the science, and the proud tower collapses. [Emphasis added.] [The Unraveling of Scientific Materialism, First Things, 77 (Nov. 1997), pp. 22 – 25.]
So, for “methodological” naturalism, we should simply read: naturalism. That is, evolutionary materialism.
It is time to address and correct the ideological captivity of science to evolutionary materialism.
For, science at its best should ever seek to be:
the unfettered — but ethically and intellectually responsible — progressive, observational evidence-led pursuit of the truth about our world (i.e. an accurate and reliable description and explanation of it), based on:
a: collecting, recording, indexing, collating and reporting accurate, reliable (and where feasible, repeatable) empirical — real-world, on the ground — observations and measurements,
b: inference to best current — thus, always provisional — abductive explanation of the observed facts,
c: thus producing hypotheses, laws, theories and models, using logical-mathematical analysis, intuition and creative, rational imagination [[including Einstein’s favourite gedankenexperiment, i.e thought experiments],
d: continual empirical testing through further experiments, observations and measurement; and,
e: uncensored but mutually respectful discussion on the merits of fact, alternative assumptions and logic among the informed. (And, especially in wide-ranging areas that cut across traditional dividing lines between fields of study, or on controversial subjects, “the informed” is not to be confused with the eminent members of the guild of scholars and their publicists or popularisers who dominate a particular field at any given time.)
As a result, science enables us to ever more effectively (albeit provisionally) describe, explain, understand, predict and influence or control objects, phenomena and processes in our world.
It is high time that so-called methodological naturalism was put out to retirement pasture. END