In my last post I pointed to Walter Meyers’ destruction of Barbara Forest’s three-step argument from (1) the success of science to (2) the superiority of methodological naturalism as a way of knowing about the physical world to (3) the superiority of metaphysical naturalism generally.
To which Bob O’H responded:
Weird. I find Myers’ argument really weak – it’s simply an argument from ignorance.
What makes it weird is that Forrest’s argument is inductive, so there are better ways of constructing a counter-argument. Even weirder, Forrest’s argument for why methodological naturalism isn’t compatible with supernaturalism seems really weak: essentially she suggests that one would need more than one methodology and epistemology, and these should be compatible with each other. I can see why this might be difficult, but I’m not sure why it’s impossible.
To which William J. Murray aptly replied:
Myers is pointing out that methodological naturalism has not, ultimately, offered an explanation for anything we experience. Also, methodological naturalism is itself limited to describing only that which can be described as the effects of the very forces, laws and constants Myers (and Arrington) is talking about. Methodological naturalism cannot explain or address that which produces the set of effects that M/N describes. It would be a category error to think it could.
That’s not an “argument from ignorance”; that’s pointing out the glaring flaw in Forest’s reasoning. Not only has M/N not provided any explanations (only providing descriptions), it is categorically unable to tackle that which is causing the set of effects it can only describe. Thus, concluding that Metaphysical Naturalism logically follows the “success” of Methodological Naturalism is a rather obvious mistake when Methodological Naturalism requires explanatory forces to exist outside of its descriptive range.
Methodological Naturalism has, if anything, disproved Metaphysical Naturalism and has tacitly agreed it cannot be true ever since it accepted Phenomenalism and began using phenomenalist models as “causes”.
Bob does not seem to understand the underlying point of Meyers’ argument. Metaphysical naturalism offers no explanation whatsoever – zero, nada, nil, zilch – for why things are the way they are or behave the way they behave. It is true that methodological naturalism has achieved a great deal of success in building mathematical models that describe the way things behave. But a description of an observed regularity is not an explanation for why that regularity exists in the first place.
Let me repeat that, because it is the whole point of the matter that seems to elude Bob: A description of an observed regularity is not an explanation for why that regularity exists in the first place. I don’t know why this is so difficult for many people to grasp. Bob is surely not alone; this rather obvious point has eluded Barbara Forest as well. Nevertheless, my point is both glaringly obvious and not that difficult conceptually. Methodological naturalism sees no need to explain why phenomena are the way they are. It is content to simply accept that things ARE the way they are and build models that describe how those things behave. Therefore, as WJM goes on to point out, it is a (I would think obvious) category error to leap from success in describing observed regularities (methodological naturalism) to support for a metaphysical position that purports to explain the ultimate nature of those regularities and why they obtain in the first place (metaphysical naturalism).
Another way to put it is this: for both methodological naturalism and metaphysical naturalism, the physical universe and all the phenomena within it are BRUTE FACTS that are accepted as givens. Neither makes any attempt to explain the ultimate reason why those brute facts exist. Indeed, at a very basic conceptual level, both are unable to offer any such explanation.
In contrast I have often offered The Ethics of Elfland as an explanation. Chesterton writes:
The only words that ever satisfied me as describing Nature are the terms used in the fairy books, ‘charm,’ ‘spell,’ ‘enchantment.’ They express the arbitrariness of the fact and its mystery. A tree grows fruit because it is a MAGIC tree. Water runs downhill because it is bewitched.
Of course, Chesterton does not really believe water is bewitched. He is saying in a tongue-in-cheek way that the explanation “water runs downhill because it is bewitched” is a superior explanation to “water runs downhill because of gravity.” There cannot be the slightest doubt that Chesterton is correct, because “bewitchment” whether it is correct or wrong, is at least an attempt to explain. Whereas, “gravity” merely describes what water does. It makes no attempt to explain why water does it.
You might ask: OK, Barry, if you are so smart, why do you think water runs downhill? Good question, in response to which I give you atheist Fred Hoyle:
From 1953 onward, Willy Fowler and I have always been intrigued by the remarkable relation of the 7.65 MeV energy level in the nucleus of 12 C to the 7.12 MeV level in 16 O. If you wanted to produce carbon and oxygen in roughly equal quantities by stellar nucleosynthesis, these are the two levels you would have to fix, and your fixing would have to be just where these levels are actually found to be. Another put-up job? . . . I am inclined to think so. A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a super intellect has “monkeyed” with the physics as well as the chemistry and biology, and there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature.
Hoyle, Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics, 20 (1982): 16
If Hoyle were speaking in the vernacular of Elfland, he might have said the reason water runs downhill is because “a super intellect has “bewitched” the physics.” I agree with Hoyle. A commonsense explanation for why phenomena are the way they are is that a super-intellect has willed them to be that way. And while this is an explanation that our friends who subscribe to metaphysical naturalism will likely not find salutary, it is at least an explanation – as opposed to the mere description masked as an explanation which they have offered.