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Methodological naturalism: Darwin’s sucker punch

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From Steve Meyer, author of Darwin’s Doubt,

The discovery of digital code, hierarchically-organized information processing systems, and functionally-integrated complex circuits and nano-machinery would in any other realm of experience immediately and properly trigger an awareness of the prior activity of a designing intelligence — precisely because of what we know from experience about what it takes (i.e., what kind of cause is necessary) to produce such systems. But Bishop and O’Connor seem entirely unmoved by discoveries showing the existence of such informational and integrated complexity in living organisms, not because the existence of functional digital code or the nanotechnology in life is in any way in doubt, but because they have committed themselves to viewing the world as if it were the product of materialistic or naturalistic processes regardless of the evidence. (Of course, they conceptualize those processes as modes of divine action, that is, “secondary causes” in theological parlance, even when those same processes clearly lack the creative capacity necessary to explain the origin of the features of life that are attributed to them.)

Both Bishop and O’Connor are Christian defenders of the principle of “methodological naturalism” — a principle that specifies that scientists must explain all events by reference to materialistic (non-intelligent) causes whatever the evidence.2 For this reason, their affirmation that God designed the universe, but signed His work in undetectable “invisible ink,” should be taken with a grain of salt. True, the “signature” of design in nature can only be seen by those with eyes to see. But an a priori commitment to methodological naturalism ensures that we will never perceive (or at least acknowledge) design in nature whatever the evidence, and it codifies our innate tendency to avert our eyes from what is “clearly seen” — and from what modern biology has made increasingly clear — in “the things that are made.”3 More.

In practice, here is what methodological naturalism means: Science is coterminous with naturalism. The purpose of science, therefore, is to come up with theories that are in line with and support naturalist (nature is all there is) explanations.

If those explanations seem weak (cf crackpot cosmology and evolutionary psychology, we must wait for better naturalist explanations. No other explanations, however informative by comparison, can in principle be science.

The concept is tailor-made for the “faith and science” crowd among whom it apparently arose. After all, it promises grants, books, invitations to lecture or preach …

And having one’s perspective snubbed politely rather than contemptuously doesn’t hurt either.

Some people, nonetheless, prefer evidence to naturalism, to say nothing of sanity. After all, if there is a God, evidence may matter after all.

See also: What has naturalism done for science? Introducing “Science Fictions”

Note: In the quote above, at “in ‘the things that are made,’” Meyer is referencing a passage in the first chapter of the Letter to the Romans, Paul’s defense of Christian theology in the New Testament:

Romans 1:20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse

I used that on the flyleaf of a 2005 book, By Design or by Chance?, to make a point. I’ve heard at least one big name Christian for Darwin argue that Paul does not mean that evidence for design in nature can be “clearly seen,” despite what the passage obviously says.

Other C’s for D informed me that Paul doesn’t base his theology on Romans 1:20. No, he does not. He raises the matter to show that some people ignore what they can plainly see in the world around them, with bad results. The theology (the stuff they can’t plainly see) comes later.

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11 Replies to “Methodological naturalism: Darwin’s sucker punch

  1. 1
    harry says:

    Intelligence is known to be a reality. If one doubts that it is one suffers from a severe deficiency in it. Science that refuses to acknowledge the possibility that what is known to be a reality can ever be a causal factor in the emergence of phenomena has rendered itself unrealistic. Unrealistic science isn’t science at all.

    One might respond to the above assertion with “Well, science hasn’t done that. Forensic science regularly determines that intelligent agency was a causal factor in a given phenomenon coming to be, like that of a corpse, and then recommends that a murder investigation begin.” And one would be right — about that instance.

    It isn’t that there is no evidence that intelligent agency has been a causal factor in phenomena coming to be — there are countless instances of that. Science becomes unrealistic and therefore no longer science when it rejects even the possibility of intelligent agency as a causal factor because it doesn’t like the religious/philosophical implications of that being the case.

    Everyone knows intuitively what is the product of mindless natural forces and what could have only come to be via intelligent agency. If an unmanned (or should I say “un-aliened”) drone landed on planet Earth, which we initially thought was an approaching asteroid, but determined otherwise when it gently landed instead of crashing into our planet, we would have concluded immediately that it wasn’t a very peculiarly behaving asteroid, but that it was intelligently designed. Nobody would be objecting to that conclusion with “That is not science!” Everybody would be correctly concluding that intelligent agency must have been a causal factor in the drone coming to be.

    Unrealistic pseudo-science won’t arrive at such a conclusion regarding the digital information-based, self-replicating nanotechnology of life, not because there isn’t overwhelming evidence that life could have only been the product of intelligent agency, but because it doesn’t like the implications of that fact.

  2. 2
    Zachriel says:

    Design and naturalism are not incompatible positions. For instance, a naturalist will typically recognize design in the building of the Empire State Building.
    http://rarearchitecturaldrawin.....lding.html

    So, a naturalist might still posit that life was designed, but would suggest a naturally occurring designer. The fact that the evidence strongly suggests otherwise is not a philosophical question, but one of science.

  3. 3
    Zachriel says:

    harry: Forensic science regularly determines that intelligent agency was a causal factor in a given phenomenon coming to be, like that of a corpse, and then recommends that a murder investigation begin.” And one would be right — about that instance.

    Outside of an episode of Columbo, intelligence is not usually the issue, but murderous intent.

    harry: Science becomes unrealistic and therefore no longer science when it rejects even the possibility of intelligent agency as a causal factor because it doesn’t like the religious/philosophical implications of that being the case.

    Intelligence is not a causal factor, but the gun.

  4. 4
    Vy says:

    Intelligence is not a causal factor, but the gun.

    That explains why they sue guns to court and why guns are shot out of guns. Oh wait…

  5. 5
    Zachriel says:

    Vy: That explains why they sue guns to court and why guns are shot out of guns.

    The human with the gun is the causal agent, not “intelligence”.

  6. 6
    goodusername says:

    “methodological naturalism” – a principle that specifies that scientists must explain all events by reference to materialistic (non-intelligent) causes whatever the evidence

    I haven’t seen methodological naturalism described in this way before, and if one were to describe it in this way, I think it might be a principle with no proponents.

  7. 7
    Seversky says:

    The discovery of digital code, hierarchically-organized information processing systems, and functionally-integrated complex circuits and nano-machinery would in any other realm of experience immediately and properly trigger an awareness of the prior activity of a designing intelligence — precisely because of what we know from experience about what it takes (i.e., what kind of cause is necessary) to produce such systems.

    Describing biological organs and structures in terms of information-processing systems, codes and nano-machinery is arguing by analogy. It is inferring that, because they are similar in some ways to what we design, they must also be designed. Argument by analogy is not necessarily a fallacy but it should involve weighing the differences as well as the similarities.

    We recognize something as designed for two reasons: first, we do not observe it occurring in nature, it is always the product of artifice and, second, it looks like what we know is designed, in other words, like what we might design. Paley’s walker on the heath would recognize a watch as an artefact, even if he didn’t know what it was, because we do not see brass cases, glass lenses, cogs, levers and springs growing on trees. He would, however, be familiar with similar components and devices made by human artisans in workshops.

    As for information-processing systems, I seem to remember News pointing us towards a recent conference that was discussing the nature – if you’ll excuse the word – of information. If there is no agreement on what information actually is, isn’t it a little premature to argue that there are biological systems processing it?

    In practice, here is what methodological naturalism means: Science is coterminous with naturalism. The purpose of science, therefore, is to come up with theories that are in line with and support naturalist (nature is all there is) explanations.

    Science tries to understand and explain whatever we can observe, however indirectly, and explanations are preferably in terms of what we already know. That is Nature, if you like. If ghosts could be reliably observed and measured, they would be natural phenomena. If there were some way to prove the existence of God and His handiwork, He would be a natural phenomenon.

    This doesn’t mean science cannot handle the unknown and unobserved. The existence of the sub-atomic particle called the neutrino was not known or even suspected until there was a need to explain discrepancies between what the atomic theory of the time predicted and experimental observations. Wolfgang Pauli proposed a particle whose properties could account for those discrepancies. Unfortunately, those properties meant that it would be extremely difficult to detect since it would barely interact with other matter at all. Millions of them are streaming through our bodies every second and we are totally unaware of them. It took a lot of time and effort but eventually evidence of those particles was found.

    Science can handle speculation about extraterrestrial intelligent design but you need more that just analogies to human design to make it a testable hypothesis, let alone a theory. Neither can ID be a solution to the mystery of the origin of life. Maybe extraterrestrial intelligences were involved in the evolution of life on Earth, maybe they seeded the planet with life or its precursors but, if that were found to be true, it only pushes the problem back a stage. We would still be faced with having to explain the origin of the designers.

    You can create all sorts of natural or supernatural or fantastical explanations for all sorts of phenomena, whether observed or imagined, but if you want. But if you want to sort them out into those that are more likely to be true, methodologically naturalistic science is the way you do it.

  8. 8
    harry says:

    Seversky @ 7

    Science can handle speculation about extraterrestrial intelligent design but you need more that just analogies to human design to make it a testable hypothesis, let alone a theory. Neither can ID be a solution to the mystery of the origin of life.

    Why can’t ID be a solution to the mystery of the origin of life? A known reality — intelligence — is a required causal factor in many phenomena coming into existence. It is obvious that sophisticated technology is the result of ID. In the case of an extraterrestrial drone like I mentioned @ 1, it would still be obvious that it was the product of intelligent design and not just a very peculiar asteroid – even if its designers and their nature remained a mystery.

    Even more so than it would be for our hypothetical extraterrestrial drone, it is obvious that the the ultra-sophisticated, self-replicating nanotechnology of life, based as it is on massive quantities of extremely precise digital information, can only be the product of intelligent design. From the perspective of realistic science it has all the attributes of those phenomena science routinely and entirely legitimately attributes to a known reality: intelligence.

    Again, unrealistic pseudo-science, not because there isn’t overwhelming evidence that life could have only been the product of intelligent agency, but because it doesn’t like the implications of that fact, excludes consideration of a known reality — intelligence — as a causal factor in the emergence of life. Unrealistic science isn’t science at all.

  9. 9
    Virgil Cain says:

    Seversky:

    Describing biological organs and structures in terms of information-processing systems, codes and nano-machinery is arguing by analogy.

    LoL! And you hate that as your position doesn’t have an analogies. You can’t argue using analogy. You can’t argue using evidence. You can’t argue using models. YOu can’t argue using hypotheses.

    And yet you argue anyway.

  10. 10
    Virgil Cain says:

    Intelligence is not a causal factor,

    Of course it is. Artifacts wouldn’t exist without intelligence.

  11. 11

    Describing biological organs and structures in terms of information-processing systems, codes and nano-machinery is arguing by analogy.

    The ability we have to communicate to each other through this text is exactly the same – requiring the exact same physical organization – as the ability of the cell to read and translate the information contained in DNA. Not only is this confirmed by experiment, but these two instances of dimensional semiosis are the two only examples of this system found anywhere in the nature. I would say that is a step up from a mere casual analogy – I’d say it’s defining attribute.

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