Intelligent Design

When Will They Learn the Ethics of Elfland?

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Over at ENV Walter Myers III takes a sledgehammer to the argument that the success of science compels acceptance of metaphysical naturalism, this time as argued by Barbara Forest:

[Forest] reasons, however, that based on the success of methodological naturalism, and the great knowledge it has contributed to the world, along with the simple dearth of evidence for the supernatural, that the “only reasonable metaphysical conclusion” from an empirical and logical perspective is philosophical naturalism.2 She sees methodological naturalism as procedural and epistemological, as opposed to philosophical naturalism which is a metaphysical position. The heart of Forrest’s argument is as follows:

“Adopted in the sciences because of its explanatory and predictive success, methodological naturalism is the intellectual parent of modern philosophical naturalism as it now exists, meaning that philosophical naturalism as a world view is a generalization of the cumulative results of scientific inquiry… It is neither the a priori premise nor the logically necessary conclusion of methodological naturalism, but the well grounded a posteriori result.”

Myers responds aptly:

I don’t think this holds up logically. Methodological naturalism has, indeed, shown great success in describing the natural world through physics and chemistry. We think, notably, of the incredible technological advances in medicine, robotics, cell phone technology, and soon-to-be-ubiquitous self-driving cars. But descriptions are not explanations, as they don’t tell us why things are the way they are. There are a great many things we can’t explain or describe that seemingly defy physics and chemistry, such as human consciousness, dark matter, or life itself. So I think Forrest displays considerable “epistemological arrogance” in saying that philosophical naturalism naturally follows from the success of methodological naturalism.

Consider Newtonian physics, the paradigm for the physics of everyday life. At a time when people believed bodies could only interact through contact, Newton introduced the notion of action at a distance. He challenged the mechanical philosophy of the day by focusing on forces operating in nature that could be mathematically described, though not observed. Forces, such as gravity, could produce effects that did not require any mechanical contact and had no apparent cause. This approach to science is known as “phenomenalism,” where phenomena can be described without knowing actual causes. For Newton, this permitted belief in the divine order of the universe by a creator whose work could be described (but not explained) by mathematics. The same approach was taken by the great astronomers whose work Newton synthesized — such as Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo, who likewise believed God ordered the universe through mathematical laws.

When are they going to understand that “gravity” does not cause water to run downhill.  “Gravity” is not an explanation. It is a mathematical description. What actually causes water to run downhill?  We have no idea.  There really is no better explanation than Chesterton’s.  Water runs downhill because it is bewitched.

10 Replies to “When Will They Learn the Ethics of Elfland?

  1. 1
    Axel says:

    I thought your use of the word, ‘reasons’, right at the start of your post, in relation to Barbara Forest’s ‘apercus’, might be a misnomer, Mr Arrington ! Though I suppose in a strictly linear sense it would be correct.

  2. 2
    News says:

    Responding to Walter Myers III at ENV, Barry Arrington brings up a name that rings a bell:

    Over at ENV Walter Myers III takes a sledgehammer to the argument that the success of science compels acceptance of metaphysical naturalism, this time as argued by Barbara Forrest More.

    There are over 18,000 posts here but I remember Forrest from the curious case of her wholly unjustified attack on fellow philosopher Frank Beckwith in a philosophy quarterly a few years back.

    The story, so far as we knew it, is this: Beckwith used to hang out with ID theorists. Forrest published a savage attempt at a takedown in Synthese, without apparently having paid much attention to what Beckwith actually said. He, naturally, protested, and the editors sort of apologized. A petition materialized against the apology (who knows why?) And various sources were predicting the death of Synthese. Again, why? Shouldn’t she just have done her homework?,

    Was she trying to “fix” Beckwith for associating with Bad Elements? Or was it, as I (O’Leary for News) suspected at the time, she was as mad as stink at him but hadn’t actually kept up with the file.

    The New York Times was, of course, sympathetic but ultimately even they couldn’t help much. As I wrote at the time, addressing the literary fiction version of the story:

    No, Dembski didn’t know. There was no campaign. I was the only person clearly sympathetic to the ID community who knew anything at all, and I did not tell Dembski. Or anyone else. I made that clear after the “Save Our Forrest” campaign started, which should have ended its ongoing insinuations, but didn’t, of course.

    When Beckwith talked to me late in January, he talked like a man who had been mugged, determined to get justice, all alone if need be. But he wasn’t all alone.

    Distinguished Christian philosopher Plantinga contacted the journal, as did another Christian philosopher known to be unsympathetic to ID, both accusing Forrest of “character assassination.” Apparently, Beckwith had never even asked them to complain:

    I don’t know these guys well, but to have philosophers of that stature come to your defense – I was blown away by that.”

    I myself warned Nick Matzke, Forrest’s defender, not to continue turning the debacle into a [debris] storm. Which raises an interesting question: Now that the Times has markedly failed to just rush in obediently to help Matzke, … will it all blow over now? Or will the “Save Our Forrest” campaign roll on oblivious?

    Seems to have blown over.

    Note: This comment is also posted here: https://uncommondescent.com/philosophy/barbara-forrest-metaphysical-naturalism-and-the-end-of-science-rent-a-riot/

  3. 3
    Bob O'H says:

    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.

  4. 4

    Bob O’H,

    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”.

  5. 5
    Bob O'H says:

    WJM – I think you’re making a huge category error, but perhaps you’re just using MN as shorthand for something slightly different. It also doesn’t seem to be Myers’ argument.

    You write that “methodological naturalism has not, ultimately, offered an explanation for anything we experience”. Well, no. But that’s not the point of MN. Methodological naturalism is an assumption that underlays scientific explanations: it is the science that does the explaining. Thus, you seem to be guilty of a category error, as MN does not itself seek to explain anything.

    So perhaps you mean something else?

  6. 6

    Bob,

    Forest said:

    Adopted in the sciences because of its explanatory and predictive success, methodological naturalism is the intellectual parent of modern philosophical naturalism as it now exists, meaning that philosophical naturalism as a world view is a generalization of the cumulative results of scientific inquiry… It is neither the a priori premise nor the logically necessary conclusion of methodological naturalism, but the well grounded a posteriori result.”

    I’m pointing out the gaping categorical flaw in this statement. As you agree, Methodological Naturalism has no explanatory power whatsoever, even if it does have great ability to predict. Being able to predict outcomes without explanation doesn’t mean you have a good reason to extrapolate your predictive success into metaphysics.

    If M/N had come up with explanations, then a metaphysics might be justified, but instead, because it relies entirely upon phenomenalist models for its causative “explanations”, science has actually proven metaphysical naturalism false.

  7. 7
    hnorman5 says:

    Has methodological naturalism (the assumption that the observable is all there is) ever done anything for us that empirical science (the study of the observable) could not have done just as well?

  8. 8
    Barry Arrington says:

    Bob O’H writes:

    “I find Myers’ argument really weak – it’s simply an argument from ignorance.”

    This remark is odd. The whole issue is whether, on the one hand, the adherents of naturalism have explained a matter, or, on the other hand, whether they remain ignorant of the explanation. Myer points out that they remain ignorant. Bob, pointing out someone else’s ignorance in the face of claims of knowledge is not an “argument from ignorance.”

    UPDATE: I see that WJM has already pointed this out far better than I.

  9. 9
    Bob O'H says:

    Barry – but Myers is referring to cases where nobody has the explanation. This is what he wrote (emphasis added):

    We think, notably, of the incredible technological advances in medicine, robotics, cell phone technology, and soon-to-be-ubiquitous self-driving cars. But descriptions are not explanations, as they don’t tell us why things are the way they are. There are a great many things we can’t explain or describe that seemingly defy physics and chemistry, such as human consciousness, dark matter, or life itself. So I think Forrest displays considerable “epistemological arrogance” in saying that philosophical naturalism naturally follows from the success of methodological naturalism.

    So if these explanations – should they be arrived at – rely on methodological naturalism then Myers’ claim will be false. The point is that at the moment we don’t know what such explanations will be, and Myers’ argument relies on precisely this. He needs his ignorance as much as anyone else’s to make his argument. If he had an explanation that defied philosophical naturalism, then he could use that as a counter-argument.

  10. 10
    Bob O'H says:

    Ah, I see – we’re reading what you quoted differently. I read him as saying that we don’t have scientific explanations for some things. You read him as saying that we don’t have scientific explanations for anything, as what we call explanations are not really explanations. So we’re back to the epistemic issue of what is an explanation.

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