Uncommon Descent Serving The Intelligent Design Community

A Response to Joshua Swamidass’s Questions, Pt 1: A Dissection of Halvorson’s View of Methodological Naturalism

arroba Email

Dr. Joshua Swamidass, a computational biologist from Wash U, recently posted some questions to critics of methodological naturalism like myself, and also explicitly named the AM-Nat (Alternatives to Methodological Naturalism) conferences as an example of those searching for an alternative to methodological naturalism.  After some discussions with Dr. Swamidass, I thought I would take some time to write a response to his questions.  I apologize for the length, but these issues take some time to suss out.  Therefore, this response will be broken into two parts.

Part 2 is now available here.

Before I answer Dr. Swamidass’ questions (which should at least start in the next part), I want to provide a background about my own views on methodological naturalism, which will then be used to show how the answers follow naturally from the philosophy of science that I am talking about.  I feel it is important to get the underlying philosophy right first, and then apply it appropriately.  This is the only way to be principled.  If you were trying to include/exclude groups a priori, and then developed a half-hearted philosophy of science to support that, such a methodology would be unprincipled.  Instead, it is best to establish principles first, then judge on the principles.

I should note that my responses are my own, and do not represent the AM-Nat conferences as a whole, and especially not the individual participants, some of whom agree with methodological naturalism.  Nonetheless, as the organizer of the conferences, I feel I should make a response.

Halvorson’s View of Methodological Naturalism

There are two large questions that seem to be at play.  The first is the definitions of words, and the second is the application of them.  Note that, for certain definitions of methodological naturalism, I agree wholeheartedly with using it as a definition of science.  However, when doing so, the term must be applied evenhandedly to all, or else it is an unprincipled stand.

Therefore, we are going to focus this discussion around the definition of methodological naturalism.  Several times (both publicly and privately), Dr. Swamidass has pointed to Hans Halvorson’s paper “Why Methodological Naturalism?” as being closest to his own views on what science is and why methodological naturalism is inherent in science.  Now, I have to say that, for the most part, I actually agree 100% with Halvorson on his definition of science.  In fact, the only major point on which Halvorson and I differ is whether to call his definition methodological naturalism.  Tom Gilson, a presenter at the AM-Nat conference, is a critic of methodological naturalism but Gilson’s criticism of methodological naturalism (see also here) is the same as Halvorson’s defense of it – they are just using two different names for what they believe in.

The essence of it is this – science does not cover everything, it only covers the things for which we can develop a generalized schemata – a systematic way of thinking about facts.  Conversely, Halvorson also thinks that anything for which we can develop a generalized schemata on we can fit within science.  So, if we can develop generalized, systematic models that are helpful within certain contexts, then we are doing science.  I agree with this 100%.  Additionally, Halvorson correctly points out that if we utilize his theory of science (and his definition of methodological naturalism), that means that, if we can develop a generalized schemata for it, it is methodologically naturalistic.  Under this scheme Halvorson includes anything, including angels

To consider angels naturalistic seems quite a stretch to me.  If I asked someone “are you following methodological naturalism” and they said “yes” and then I asked them what they are studying and they said “angels” I would think that they lied to me on one of the answers to my questions.  This is why I think Gilson’s concept of “Regularism” is a much better term – it encapsulate’s Halvorson’s idea of generalized schemata, but without the metaphysical baggage of trying to identify the metaphysical status of the beings/phenomena you are working with.  So, if Halvorson’s generalized schemata is the final word on what it means to be methodological naturalist, I would claim it as my own.  However, I think if I went to Barbara Forrest, Michael Ruse, or Eugenie Scott (the self-appointed enforcers of methodological naturalism in science) if studying angels was methodologically naturalistic, I think their answer would be “no.”

Is God in Science?

First of all, before I answer this question, I should point out that it is not my main goal in criticizing methodological naturalism to include God in science.  In fact, my main goal for the past several years has been to include human creativity as a subject of science – this, in fact, is my own primary goal for criticizing methodological naturalism (if we are just the product of chemicals bumping around, then creativity is not real).  In fact, I agree with a lot of what Halvorson says about the subject, though I don’t think he is thorough enough in his thoughts about the subject, and, as I will show below, he applies this inconsistently.

Halvorson says that science is like a blueprint for the universe.  Thus, just as we won’t find a picture of the architect of a building in a building’s blueprints, we won’t find God in science.  To this I agree, with an important caveat – we can find things in science that give us clues to who God is.  Now, by that I do not mean that finding who God is is necessarily a part of science.  However, it does mean that just because something gives us a gigantic clue about who God is, doesn’t mean that it isn’t part of science.  Also, just because we found out about something in the world because we reasoned from theological premises, doesn’t mean it doesn’t count as science either. 

Two important points on this – the Big Bang Theory and Pasteurization.  The Big Bang Theory is held up by many, many theists, including scientists (and possibly Swamidass himself, though I am not sure), as pointing to God and God’s actions.  The actual moment of God’s action is invisible to science, but you can see in cosmic expansion a giant sign pointing to a beginning point, a creation.  It is interesting, no doubt, that LeMaitre, the founder of the Big Bang Theory was a Catholic Priest, and his view of beginnings had a very Thomistic ring.  In fact, in his unpublished writings, he remarked how the Big Bang confirmed important parts of the Genesis account of creation.  Additionally, Christian astronomers from the time of Kepler have noted that astronomy is simply thinking God’s thoughts after Him.

Therefore, if one includes the Big Bang Theory into science, then we cannot exclude theories on any of these bases: (a) that they conform heavily with the theological views of the person giving them, (b) that the person giving the theories is excited about how the theory confirms their theological views, (c) that it points to God’s actions (at least as long as the precise point of action is not included – in this Big Bang Theory the point of God’s action would be 10^-43 seconds before science can reach – so it can be really close as long as it doesn’t touch), and (d) that it says something about God or God’s nature.

Therefore, if your view of science excludes any theory for any of those reasons, it must also exclude the Big Bang Theory.

Next is Pasteurization.  At the time of Pasteur, the common thought was that life generated itself from material substances.  Pasteur held to the law of biogenesis – that life produces life.  This is a methodologically supernaturalist view (at least according to my definition of naturalism/supernaturalism) as it limits the abilities of the material, and drives a hard distinction between two metaphysical categories – the living and the non-living, and that living can become non-living, but non-living can never become living.  Pasteur even applied this to technology.  Because he viewed these categories as distinct, Pasteur noted that if he killed all of the living things in milk, then living things could not grow in milk.  Thus, the Pasteurization process aims at killing everything in milk, and then sealing it so that no new living thing can be introduced.

This is a supernaturalist view – it claims that life cannot come from non-life.  It builds technology from it – Pasteurization.  Thus, any time you are at a grocery store, and you see the words “Pasteurized,” then you are looking at a de facto implementation of supernaturalist science, and the resulting technological advances from it.

Therefore, if one includes Pasteur and his findings among things “scientific”, then we cannot exclude theories on any of these bases: (e) they are founded on metaphysical distinctions that are based on the person’s theological views, (f) they limit the possibilities of nature, and (g) they limit which things that we normally presently find can be formed from natural processes and ingredients.

Note that none of these had God as an explicit referent in their theories, but God is definitely being pointed to by the theories.

Let me add one more thing – if person A has a theory X that explicitly refers to God, but the theory would be allowed in science according to (a)-(g) by simply removing the reference to God, then you have a scientific theory that also refers to God.  If you think that science should not refer to God, but you think the Big Bang Theory and Pasteurization are a part of science, then you should have no problem with person A simply rewriting X by excluding God.  This would be no different than if someone had a paper on ice cream that included a short section on how much they enjoyed ice cream, and then someone said that it wasn’t appropriate, so they removed it from the paper and resubmitted.  It would not preclude them from ever writing a paper on ice cream again.  At least, that is, if you are holding your definition of science on a principled basis, and not on an ad-hoc one, and just using it to target others.

Personally, I don’t have any problem for a person A to include God in a theory, because, as a close reading of Halvorson would show, excluding God from science is actually based on theological principles that are part of Christianity, not science.  Therefore, while I would not directly include God in science for theological reasons, there is not a rule of science that would exclude God.  Halvorson could only come up with theological reasons.  If you differed with Halvorson on theology (as is allowed in science), then you might come up with a generalized schemata that includes God.  I don’t know (it isn’t my own view) – but it certainly would be allowed if (a) Halvorson’s reasoning is followed and (b) we don’t a priori exclude non-Christians from science.  Additionally, Halvorson says that God is not subject to natural laws.  Again, as a Christian I believe this, but it is theology-dependent.  Also, the laws do tell us about God, so we cannot prevent learning things in science that tell us about God. in some way.

Halvorson and Intelligent Design

When I originally read Halvorson, I thought he made the claim that Intelligent Design did not qualify as science by his definition of methodological naturalism.  However, upon re-reading it, I found out that I was mistaken.  Halvorson’s critiques of Intelligent Design are entirely theological.  Halvorson makes no claim in his work that Intelligent Design is not methodologically naturalistic by his definition.  In fact, in section 3.2.2, he seems to allow for the fact that Intelligent Design is methodologically naturalistic by his definition, but that, as a Christian, he is uncomfortable with the idea.  In other words, he doesn’t like Intelligent Design, but that is because of his theology, not because it doesn’t follow the rules of science.

Let’s let this sink in – the philosophy of science that Swamidass is using to say that Intelligent Design is not science because of methodolog failures actually makes the opposite case – that Intelligent Design is methodologically scientific, but it doesn’t follow his theological preferences.  Therefore, if Halvorson is Swamidass’s source for methodological naturalism, he needs to start accepting that Intelligent Design is, in fact, methodologically naturalistic.

Now, as to the theology, Halvorson makes a critical error.  Halvorson states, “a theist is faced with a question: should science aim at constructing models that include mathematical objects representing God, and that describe God’s actions in the same manner that they describe physical processes?”

Here, Halvorson conflates two entirely different ideas – that a mathematical object can represent God, and that a mathematical object can represent an action of God.  For those who believe that God sustains the physical world, then it is hard to see how the laws of physics are anything else other than a mathematical object describing regular actions that God takes.

Therefore, if God’s actions via physics, via the Big Bang, etc., are all on the table for discussion, why not other aspects of what God does?  In fact, no model of ID that I am aware of specifically asserts that God did X, because what it aims to capture is not an action but a teleological principle.  Teleological principles are much different than actions, but, just the same, can be brought out under a generalized schemata, and can be analyzed, and are not considered the totality of who God is or what God does.  In fact, because we are separating out teleology as a distinct principle, it is not required that one hold to the idea that God is behind the teleology at all, any more than it is required to hold that God is behind the upholding of the universe or that God is behind the Big Bang.  Even though the people who came up with each of these theories believed it to be the case, the theory-in-itself does not require this.  It is hard to imagine believing in the Big Bang without believing in God, but there is no requirement to do so in science, just as there is no requirement to believe in God in order to believe in teleology.

Thus, as long as theorists are not attempting to model all of what God is, it doesn’t seem any more problematic than any theory of physics, especially if one includes the Big Bang in the set of theories.

Halvorson and Critics of Methodological Naturalism

The most troubling aspect of Halvorson is his criticism of critics of methodological naturalism.  He seems to be totally uncognizant of the fact that his view of methodological naturalism is entirely different from theirs.  Again, Halvorson’s “methodological naturalism” is so broad as to include angels. In fact, the only ontological thing that Halvorson’s “methodological naturalism” doesn’t include is God Himself.  I would contend that many of the critics of methodological naturalism Halvorson lists are actually in favor of the version of methodological naturalism that Halvorson espouses, especially since most of them are specifically supporters of Intelligent Design, which Halvorson only gives theological arguments against, not arguments according to methodology.

I also think that there is a bit of a misunderstanding about “all truth” given by Halvorson and by others.  If I say that scientists should be allowed to investigate any truth, that doesn’t mean that any truth is amenable to such investigation.  What it does mean is that I am not able to determine, a priori, whether or not a given idea or truth is amenable to scientific investigation.  People are pretty creative, and can often find ways of investigating things that I had not the foggiest clue could be investigated beforehand.  Therefore, I would hate to prevent someone because my uninformed, dullard rules about what can and can’t be investigated stepped on someone’s amazing spark of creative genius.  I’m simply not smart enough to make a final and official rule on what can be known.  If I ran a lab, I can make expedient judgments however I wish, but that is not the same as making a rule for all of science.

I agree with Halvorson that his method does very little to shackle science, but I disagree that what he means by methodological naturalism is what other people mean by it.

Short Summary

Halvorson, the person to whom Dr. Swamidass often refers when talking about methodological naturalism, has a view of methodological naturalism which includes entities considered by most people to be supernatural, and must do so by its nature.  As such, then, it is difficult to see what Dr. Swamidass is worrying about for Intelligent Design, given that, according to Halvorson’s view, all of the things that Swamidass wants to ban is actually allowed by methodological naturalism.  Halvorson only excludes Intelligent Design for misguided theological reasons, not for any reason based on the definition of science or methodological naturalism.  Thus, as we will see in the answers to Dr. Swamidass’ questions, most of the questions actually have very little to do with science as such or methodological naturalism as Halvorson describes it. If Swamidass thinks that Intelligent Design or any of the other ideas we discussed in the AM-Nat conference violates methodological naturalism, he is going to have to find another definition of methodological naturalism.


Leave a Reply