Intelligent Design

Bradley Monton on methodological naturalism and “control of the supernatural”

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Seeking God in Science: An Atheist Defends Intelligent DesignOne of philosopher Robert Pennock’s arguments for methodological naturalism (which rules out evidence for design in nature in principle, because it cannot be considered) is that “we cannot control the supernatural:”

Experimentation requires observation and control of the variables. We confirm causal laws by performing controlled experiments in whichthe hypothesized independent variable is made to vary while all the other factors are held constant so that we can observe the effect on the dependent variable. But we have no control over supernatural entities or forces; hence, these cannot be scientifically studied.

Monton, author of Seeking God in Science: An Atheist Defends Intelligent Design (Broadview Press, 2009), replies,

For the moment let’s grant experimentation reqires observation and control of the variables. A problem arises when Pennock attempts to infer that, because we have no control over supernatural entities or forces, these supernatural entities or forces cannot be scientifically studied. What Pennock is ignoring is the distinction (standardly made in philosophy of science) between experimental science and historical science.

Consider paleontology: what scientists who are engaging in this practice are doing is making observations and drawing inferences based on those observations. We can’t do a controlled experiment to determine whether the dinosaurs died out as the result of an asteroid impact – we can’t vary an independent variable while holding all other fators constant. Nevertheless, we can make lots of observations in the world (of dinosaur bones, geological strata, asteroid craters, and so on) and we can make scientific inferences on the basis of these observations. Also, consider cosmology: we can’t do a controlled experiment to find out whether the universe started with a big bang, but we can make astronomical observations and make scientific inferences on their basis. I conclude that we can scientifically study aspects of reality that we can’t experimentally control. Thus, it doesn’t follow from the claim that we have no control over supernatural entities that we can’t study them. (p. 67)

(Readers may recall that Pennock was the philosopher who went after emeritus philosophy of science prof Larry Laudan in the controversial issue of Synthese. David Tyler has a look at Pennock’s style of argument here.)

Meanwhile, note: Monton will be guest authoring a post here on whether the universe has infinite spatial extent and how that might affect intelligent design theory. Physicist Rob Sheldon will reply. In addition to reading Monton’s book, he is delving into cosmology and transfinite numbers. Details TBA.

16 Replies to “Bradley Monton on methodological naturalism and “control of the supernatural”

  1. 1
    lastyearon says:

    One of philosopher Robert Pennock’s arguments for methodological naturalism (which rules out evidence for design in nature in principle, because it cannot be considered) is that “we cannot control the supernatural:”

    Hmm…That sounds like an admission that Intelligent Design is supernatural.

  2. 2
    DLH says:

    Objectively identifying intelligent causation does not require control. Forensic science commonly makes scientific observations and conclusions on the presence/absence of intelligent agents without any control over those agents. e.g. arson and crime investigations.

    Allowing for intelligent agents does not require supernatural agents.

  3. 3
    SCheesman says:

    lastyearon:

    Hmm…That sounds like an admission that Intelligent Design is supernatural.

    Except, you are referring to a quote of Robert Pennock. So yes, Robert Pennock is implying ID is supernatural. Your point?

  4. 4
    lastyearon says:

    Um, no. I’m not. Take a better look at the begining of the post. The author of the post makes the statement that.. “methodological naturalism (which rules out evidence for design in nature in principle, because it cannot be considered)”.

  5. 5
    Sonfaro says:

    Hi lastyearon,

    I’m not sure I’m undertanding you dude.

    you write:

    -“Hmm…That sounds like an admission that Intelligent Design is supernatural.”

    in response to:

    -“One of philosopher Robert Pennock’s arguments for methodological naturalism (which rules out evidence for design in nature in principle, because it cannot be considered) is that “we cannot control the supernatural[…]”

    But seeing as it’s Robert Pennocks argument, the paragraph is suggesting (to me anyway, maybe I’m wrong) that these are the feelings Mr. Pennock holds, not ID.

    Aside from that, Joeseph once pointed out that it’s possible that aside from the ‘natural’ there’s the ‘artificial’, which also seems to be something methodological naturalism stands against. Either way, ID’s compatible with any of the views, and isn’t pigeon hold into just one at the moment.

    So… yeah. Kinda feels like you’re reaching here. *shrugs*

    – Sonfaro

  6. 6
    myname says:

    Forensic science commonly makes scientific observations and conclusions on the presence/absence of intelligent agents without any control over those agents. e.g. arson and crime investigations.

    In forensic science you actually do a fair share of modeling, reconstruction and even full fledged experiments because in some cases it is impossible to distinguish between an accident an the actions of an intelligent agent another way.

  7. 7
    lastyearon says:

    Sonfaro,
    Pennock’s argument is simply that methodological naturalism is a requirement for science because we cannot control the supernatural. He makes no claim that methodological naturalism rules out evidence for design. Those are the author’s words..

    ..methodological naturalism (which rules out evidence for design in nature in principle, because it cannot be considered)..

    This suggest that the author of this post believes that ‘design’ is supernatural.

  8. 8
    Sonfaro says:

    Hi again lastyearon,

    ‘News’ isn’t suggesting ID is supernatural, just that he/she (I’m pretty sure this is O’Leary) believes Pennock (and anyone else who believes in methodological naturalism) thinks it is. Which is different altogether.

    And even if ‘News’ did believe the designer was supernatural, how does that mean that all of ID believes it’s supernatural? I happen to think it is… but I’m a Christian, so it comes with the territory. There are other ID proponents who don’t agree with me (if I understand Pantheism Bruce would probably count… maybe? Somebody correct me.)

    ID’s compatible with those who think the designer is supernatural. It’s also compatible with a natural designer emerging somehow. ID just says there’s design and we can find it.

    I hope I’m making sense here. I mean, ‘News’ could have worded things better but I still think you’re reaching, sorry.

    – Sonfaro

  9. 9
    lastyearon says:

    Sonfaro,
    I’m not making the case that all ID proponents believe the designer to be supernatural, just the author of this post.

    I stand by what I said. Pennock only rules out the supernatural from scientific inquiry. The author of this post thinks that includes ‘design’. If it was Pennock that thought design was supernatural, then the stuff in parentheses would be in quotes:

    One of philosopher Robert Pennock’s arguments for methodological naturalism (which rules out evidence for design in nature in principle, because it cannot be considered) is that “we cannot control the supernatural:”

  10. 10
    Joseph says:

    But we have no control over supernatural entities or forces; hence, these cannot be scientifically studied.

    We don’t have any control over the designers of Stonehenge yet we can study them by studying what they left behind.

    That is what ID is all about- the detecting and study of what the designer(s) left behind.

  11. 11
    Joseph says:

    Also methodological naturalism allows for a designer as long as said designer is reducible to matter, energy, chemistry and physics.

    And it has a problem right from the start-

    Natural processes only exist in nature and therefor cannot account fr its origin, which science says it had.

    By wanting to “define” design out of science, these chumps, by their own standards, they have defined their position out as well.

    But of course they will deny that even though it is right there fo all to see.

  12. 12
    Sonfaro says:

    Hi again lastyearon,

    you say:

    -“I’m not making the case that all ID proponents believe the designer to be supernatural, just the author of this post.”

    Which is cool I guess, but your original post was…

    -“Hmm…That sounds like an admission that Intelligent Design is supernatural.”

    Which is worded terribly if we’re keeping with your later position. It doesn’t focus on ‘News’ but ID in general.

    I mean ‘admission’? Like it’s a dirty secret or something? Dude…

    And again, I have to point out that ‘News’ just posted what (s)he believed Methodological Naturalism proponets assumed about ID: that it’s supernatural and thus can’t be studied. Which appears to be the whole point of including Mr. Pennock’s argument and Mr. Monton’s rebuttal.

    It’s ‘News’ opinion that Mr. Pennock includes design when he’s talking of the supernatural. Maybe (s)he’s right, maybe (s)he’s wrong. But that’s not the same as saying ID is supernatural though. Which is what you appeared to be reaching for in your first post.

    Anyway, that’s where I’m coming from, hope that makes sense.

    – Sonfaro

  13. 13
    Sonfaro says:

    @ lastyearon,

    Er… I just realized I’ve just been assuming you’re a guy, but your names a bit generic, so… sorry if I’m wrong… o^_^o

    – Sonfaro

  14. 14
    lastyearon says:

    Hi Sonfaro,
    Thanks for the engaging discussion.

    Methodological Naturalism doesn’t say anything about ID, per say. It just rules out the supernatural. I consider an ID proponent trying to discredit Methodological Naturalism to be implicitly stating that he believes the intelligent designer to be supernatural.

    I also happen to believe–based on my time observing and interacting with the ID community–that the overwhelming majority of ID proponents do consider the designer to be a supernatural entity. Those that don’t have nothing to fear from Methodological Naturalism.

    My first post, regarding the “admission” was poorly worded, that’s true.

  15. 15
    Joseph says:

    I consider an ID proponent trying to discredit Methodological Naturalism to be implicitly stating that he believes the intelligent designer to be supernatural.

    Why “super”natural, why not PRE-natural?

  16. 16
    Sonfaro says:

    @lastyearon

    -“Hi Sonfaro,
    Thanks for the engaging discussion.”

    No prob! 😉

    -“Methodological Naturalism doesn’t say anything about ID, per say.”

    I sorta see this, but I’ll have to comment on it again when I go farther down your post.

    -“It just rules out the supernatural. I consider an ID proponent trying to discredit Methodological Naturalism to be implicitly stating that he believes the intelligent designer to be supernatural.”

    Meh. I still think ‘News’ was suggesting ‘MethNat’ tends to throw ID in there regardless but it’s possible I’m wrong here.

    -“I also happen to believe–based on my time observing and interacting with the ID community–that the overwhelming majority of ID proponents do consider the designer to be a supernatural entity.”

    Well, yeah. It’s compatable with previously held worldviews for some of us (me anyway). It’s study however is only interested in descovering design in nature, and so like everything else, can’t really confirm or deny the existence of any particular God.

    -“Those that don’t have nothing to fear from Methodological Naturalism.”

    Here’s the issue I have with this… And I think it’s what ‘News’ was getting at.

    In my experience, those who support Meth.Naturalism automatically lump ID in with the “super”natural just because promenent(sp?) proponents believe it is – even though the same proponents willingly state that they could be wrong and the designer could be a natural agent or aliens or something else entirely.

    In other words, many methodological naturalists throw ID under the bus before really looking at it, because they’ve made up their minds based on what the religious among us are saying. So even those who don’t believe the designer is supernatural have issue with Methodological Naturalists.

    That’s my stance anyway. Could be wrong. Also, ignore the spelling errors… don’t know what’s wrong with me today…

    -_-‘

    – Sonfaro

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