The natural, the supernatural, and the nature of science

paul_book_-12by Paul Braterman

Science, it is often said, is restricted in principle to the search for natural causes and the rejection of the supernatural; call this intrinsic methodological naturalism (IMN). Here, following the work of Boudry et al. [1], I argue that this view is misguided and damaging. We have not precluded supernatural claims from discussion. On the contrary, we have investigated them and found them wanting, as I show here using both historical and present-day examples.

“I have no need of that hypothesis.” So, according to legend, said the great astronomer and mathematician Piere-Simon, marquis de Laplace, when asked by Napoleon why he had not mentioned God in his book. If so, Laplace was not referring to the hypothesis that God exists, but to the much more interesting hypothesis that He intervenes in the material world. And Laplace’s point was not, fundamentally, philosophical or theological, but scientific.

The planets do not move round the Sun in circular orbits, but in elliptical pathways, as Newton had explained using his laws of motion, combined with his inverse square law for gravitational attraction. There is one small problem, however. The planets are attracted, not only to the Sun, but to each other, perturbing each other’s pathways away from a perfect ellipse. These perturbations are not trivial, and in fact it was the perturbation of the orbit of Uranus that would lead to the discovery of Neptune. Newton himself surmised that they could, eventually, render the entire system unstable so that God would need, from time to time, to intervene and correct it. Laplace devoted much of his career to developing the mathematical tools for estimating the size of the perturbations, and concluded that the Solar System was in fact stable. So Newton’s hypothesis of divine intervention was redundant, and it was this hypothesis that Laplace was supposedly referring to.

There is an irony here. As Henri Poincaré was to show a century later, a system of three or more gravitationally interacting bodies is potentially chaotic. Under certain circumstances, an initially minute difference in starting conditions can lead to an ever increasing divergence of outcomes, so that eventually planets can adopt highly elongated orbits, or even be thrown out of their solar systems altogether. Modern computer simulations [2] show that over the long term the solar system is indeed chaotic, with the possibility that Mercury may leave the Solar System, and that in some 3.5 billion years Mercury’s instability could be transferred to the other inner planets, including Earth, leading to the possibility of collision.

Stephen Hawking has commented [3] on Laplace’s remark, in much the same spirit as I am suggesting, but going much further:

I don’t think that Laplace was claiming that God didn’t exist. It is just that He doesn’t intervene, to break the laws of Science. That must be the position of every scientist. A scientific law is not a scientific law, if it only holds when some supernatural being decides to let things run, and not intervene.

A similar point of view had been put forward by Richard Lewontin, in his uncomfortably perceptive review [4] of Sagan’s Demon Haunted World, a review that I consider required reading for those defending science because of its all too rare recognition of creationism as a complex social problem:

Perhaps we ought to add to the menu of Saganic demonology, just after spoon-bending, ten-second seat-of-the-pants explanations of social realities.

I cannot do justice to Lewontin’s complex reasoning by brief truncated quotations. It is clear, however, that he uses two very different arguments in rapid succession:

Nearly every present-day scientist would agree with Carl Sagan that our explanations of material phenomena exclude any role for supernatural demons, witches, and spirits of every kind, including any of the various gods from Adonai to Zeus … We also exclude from our explanations little green men from Mars riding in spaceships, although they are supposed to be quite as corporeal as you and I, because the evidence is overwhelming that Mars hasn’t got any …

It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door … To appeal to an omnipotent deity is to allow that at any moment the regularities of nature may be ruptured, that miracles may happen. [I have since learnt that, as is apparent on close reading, this much quoted paragraph deoes not represent Lewontin’s own opnion, but rather his unflattering summary of Sagan’s.]

The first paragraph is one that I can accept and advocate in its entirety. We reject supernatural causes in the same way that we reject implausible material explanations, because the evidence tells us that they don’t exist. The second, a statement and defense of IMN, is of a very different kind. Science, he says, is committed in advance to exclusively material explanations, and the reason for doing so is, again, to exclude divine intervention.

Leave aside for now the problem of defining “materialism,” on which more later. Leave aside also the deliberately provocative anti-religious language, inconvenient though that be for coalition builders. After all, Lewontin has, and is entitled to, his own agenda here. Leave aside for the moment even the possibility that miracles need not disrupt the normal business of science, as long as they are sufficiently rare. Hawking has followed Lewontin into the trap that awaits all those who would legislate the metaphysical out of existence. They lay themselves open to the charge that they are, themselves, arbitrarily introducing yet another metaphysical rule.

So, alas, does the National Science Teachers Association, whose commitment to IMN is quoted with approval by the National Academy of Sciences: [5]

Science is a method of explaining the natural world. It assumes the universe operates according to regularities and that through systematic investigation we can understand these regularities. The methodology of science emphasizes the logical testing of alternate explanations of natural phenomena against empirical data. Because science is limited to explaining the natural world by means of natural processes, it cannot use supernatural causation in its explanations. Similarly, science is precluded from making statements about supernatural forces because these are outside its provenance. Science has increased our knowledge because of this insistence on the search for natural causes. [Emphasis added]

This is very bad. We slide from an innocent-seeming description of the domain of science as the “natural” world, through the uncontroversial idea of testing explanations against each other, to the non sequitur of the sentence I have highlighted. There is an illusion of logic, based on an assumed dichotomy between the natural and the supernatural, but this is mere wordplay. We are given no other reason for this leap, even though it could have been justified, as Hawking and Lewontin justify their own exclusion of the supernatural, by reference to the assumption of regularity. As I will show, the claim that “science is precluded from making statements about supernatural forces” is simply untrue. Time and again, science has refuted the appeal to the supernatural by providing alternatives — if this is not “making statements about supernatural forces”, what is?

Natural and supernatural

Can we even make a meaningful distinction between the natural and the supernatural? I was initially inclined to say no. If something occurs, it’s part of nature. It is a law of nature that water doesn’t turn into wine, but if you believe that the miracle of the wedding feast of Cana really happened, then you need to modify the law to say “Water doesn’t turn into wine, except when Jesus tells it to.” Maarten Boudry persuaded me that this was not a helpful line to take. Like all attempts to define a problem out of existence, it is logically unassailable, but useless. It denies us access to the very distinction that we should be clarifying.

The question, however, is more difficult than it seems. After all, we do not know everything that there is to be known about nature. The limits of natural explanation have been extended in the past, by invoking action at a distance (gravity, then other forces), intrinsic randomness (quantum mechanics), and more recently particle entanglement (quantum mechanics again). Presumably they will be in the future, in ways yet undreamt of. So the fact that something cannot be explained by today’s science need not force us to invoke the supernatural. What would, then? Boudry and Taner Edis [1c] have suggested a test for what they call unphysical causation, but it is highly technical, with their criterion based on demonstrated access to uncomputable numbers (I will not attempt to reproduce their argument). However, they suggest some examples. What, for instance, if Lourdes started producing undeniable miracles in large numbers, including the regrowth of amputated limbs, but only for devout Catholics? What if all organisms were found to contain an identical section of DNA, whose diffraction pattern spelt out the message “© Yahweh 4004 BC”?

Some case histories

Searching for messages is not a new idea. There are cottage industries within both Christianity and Islam, producing evidence that the authors of the Bible or the Qur’an are referring to scientific facts unknown by mere mortals when these books were first written. For instance, does the reference to the “circle of the earth” in Isaiah 40:22 imply that the author knew that the earth goes round the sun? Do the numerous biblical references to God stretching out the heavens show an awareness of the expanding universe? Mohammed is said to have “split the moon”; is this a reference to its formation by accretion? Few of us would find these examples convincing. What of the “Bible code” claim, which put three successive books on the best-seller list, that computer searching of the Hebrew text according to certain counting rules reveals messages hidden there for us? This was debunked [6] by showing that normal secular writings would also confess to similar secrets when subjected to similar torture.

Present-day science does indeed make statements highly relevant to the existence or otherwise of supernatural forces. To raise the stakes to their utmost, some consider the Universe to be fine tuned for life, and regard this as scientific evidence for a purposeful Creator. Others regard it as yet another argument from ignorance, since it may well be that the Universe is not really all that special, or that there are as yet unknown constraints of some kind on the relevant physical constants, or that quantum fluctuations will generate such a superabundance of Universes that some, statistically, are bound to have the required properties. While it may be premature to test these suggestions, they are part of a clearly scientific agenda [7]. The suggested causes would be “natural” by any standards, but if established would have the effect of making the appeal to a supernatural Creator unnecessary. Science would then have made a clear statement about the purported supernatural force responsible for fine tuning, exactly as it did about the purported supernatural force responsible for the stability of the Solar System, namely that there was, in Laplace’s words, no need for that hypothesis.

Two other examples spring to mind. First, the argument from Intelligent Design as applied to the mammalian eye. This fails, because the mammalian eye is in one crucial detail very poorly designed. The nerve endings, and the blood supply, run in front of, rather than behind, the photosensors, partly occluding them and giving rise to each eye’s blind spot. It does not have to be that way, since the octopus eye is built the right way round. At this point, the defender of design has two options. He can admit defeat, or at least accept that the Designer’s options are restricted by our evolutionary history. So in this case the argument from design is refuted or, at any rate, enfeebled. Or he can argue, as Behe does in Darwin’s Black Box, that the refutation fails because we do not know the Designer’s full intent. At this point, we lose interest because the argument from design has become so well immunized against observation, to borrow a term from Maarten Boudry’s PhD thesis Here be Dragons [8], that it has ceased to be science. In neither case have we referred to the supernatural nature of the argument as the reason for dismissing it.

Secondly, there is a version of theistic evolution in which the Creator intervened at the level of quantum mechanical indeterminacy to set in course one mutation rather than another, and used this to ensure the evolution of intelligent humans. I first heard this suggestion from Alvin Plantinga [9], and if I understand Ken Miller’s Finding Darwin’s God correctly I think that on this topic, for once, he and Plantinga would agree. Certainly there is nothing here that violates the laws of physics and chemistry, since the chance breakdown of one single radioactive atom at one moment rather than the next may well disrupt a growing chain of DNA, and a single mutation may well have far-reaching consequences [10]. Were such a mutation to have happened under the Creator’s guidance, that would be supernatural causation par excellence.

I would argue against this on the grounds that there is little or no evidence of a bias towards beneficial mutations, and that since intelligence has emerged independently in cephalopods, cetaceans, parrots, velociraptors (if cerebral capacity is anything to go by), and simians, the emergence of such little intelligence as we have requires no special explanation. Now you may regard my argument as mistaken, banal, or ill-informed, but I do not see how you can describe it as outside the domain of science.

It is only after the Bible Code claims have been convincingly shredded that we can decide that claims of this kind are not worth our time and trouble. It was only after exhaustive card-guessing experiments had failed to reveal any evidence for ESP (and after the published evidence for its reality was found to be faulty if not fraudulent) that people decided it was just not worth their while to continue in that direction. It was only after spiritualists had repeatedly been exposed as fakes that scientists more or less stopped investigating them. For a while, even such distinguished scientists as Alfred Russel Wallace took their pretensions seriously. However, nowadays such investigations are undertaken more to unmask fraud and protect the public than in the hope of new discoveries. (In this endeavor, scientists have been joined by professional magicians, from Houdini to James “the amazing” Randi, illustrating to my mind the artificiality of separating off “science” from other kinds of factual enquiry.) Much the same, but with less emphasis on fraud, can be said about hunting for ghosts. In this century, there have been several studies of the effects of intercessory prayer on recovery from illness. No effect (or in one case, a small negative effect, tentatively attributed to the added stress of the situation), and a recommendation [11] from Cochrane Reviews, which collate data from clinical trials, that no further work of this kind be undertaken. In each of these cases, the scientific search has been abandoned, not because of some overarching principle about the nature of science, but because plain experience showed it to be pointless. A priori rejection of the supernatural had nothing to do with these decisions, which were based purely on experience. Experience that would never have been attained if scientists really were debarred from submitting the supernatural to investigation.

In all these examples, we do indeed use scientific reasoning to discuss the claims of supernaturalists, so IMN is untrue. It was untrue in the 18th century when science explored solar system stability; it was untrue in the 19th when natural selection rendered Paley’s watchmaker redundant; it was untrue in the 20th when claims of extrasensory perception were scientifically examined and found wanting; and it is untrue in the present century as we prepare to grapple with such problems as the origin of our Universe and its appearance of being fine-tuned for the emergence of life. To propagating IMN is to propagate a falsehood.

The appeal to intrinsic naturalism is unnecessary

One argument for IMN is that in its absence the possibility of invoking supernatural explanations may discourage the search for natural ones. This is a purely pragmatic argument, and I cannot imagine it having any real effect. Those who prefer supernatural explanations invoke them anyway. Millions of Americans believe humans to have arisen through a special supernatural act, but this is not for lack of a naturalistic explanation. Intelligent Design creationists argue that undirected evolution cannot possibly generate new information, or that protein sequences are too improbable to have arisen naturally. Young Earth creationists, a separate group (although in the UK the two strongly overlap) point to anomalies in radiometric dating, or to polonium halos in rocks that did not contain polonium’s ultimate parent, uranium, and claim that these somehow cause the naturalistic account of earth’s geological history to unravel. This they do because of their prior commitment to mystification. Debunking their nonsense is a proper matter for science, and the talkorigins website has a page [12] listing numerous such claims and their rebuttals [13], although experience shows that mere refutation will not stop their proponents from repeating them. And there are important unsolved problems, such as the origin of life, which some claim as evidence for supernatural intervention, but I do not think that any scientist interested in the topic would be so easily fobbed off. In any case, defining their activities as unscientific would not make the supernaturalists disappear. On the contrary; they would (and do, see below) triumphantly hail such definitions as proof that we impose arbitrary limitations on our science.

So why do we tend to avoid problems whose solution would involve the supernatural? For practical, rather than for philosophical, reasons. Science, as P. J. Medawar pointed out in his devastating critique [14] of Koestler’s Act of Creation, is an extremely practical activity, and it is commonplace for lines of enquiry to be abandoned because they were getting nowhere (I can confirm this from bitter experience, as a sometime experimental chemist). Thus, as Boudry and colleagues remind us [1a], the Royal Academy of Sciences in Paris decided in 1775 to have nothing more to do with proposals to build a perpetual motion machine. This was many years ahead of the development of the laws of thermodynamics, which tell us that such a machine is impossible, but so much effort had been spent to so little effect that the Academy decided no more was warranted. Not because (as we might now be tempted to say) such a machine would require a supernatural mechanism, but because they didn’t think there was any chance of it working. If we turn aside, as we often do, from investigating this or that claim to supernatural agency, we do not do so on principle but because experience warns us that we would be wasting our time.

Our faith in the regularity of nature derives from our having lived and evolved in a world where it holds good, not from some special rule about the nature of science. It is confirmed, over huge reaches of space and time, by observation, and we can interpret the spectra of galaxies whose light has taken 12 billion years to reach us.

And that faith itself is subject to examination, and has its own limits. Careful measurement of these distant spectra led to the suggestion (since subjected to highly critical scrutiny) [15] that the constants of physics might have changed even in the fourth decimal place, a possibility that was enough to arouse the interest of The Economist [16]. Thus the assumption of regularity is itself testable, and tested. On current thinking, the early Universe underwent a period of rapid inflation, in which space expanded at such a rate that the distance between points initially close together grew at a rate faster than the speed of light. Thus during this expansionary stage the laws of nature were very different from what they are today, and to describe it we must abandon the assumption of regularity altogether. And the state of the Universe before this stage may be to us in principle unknowable.

The appeal to intrinsic naturalism is damaging

We do, most of the time, practice a form of naturalism, but it is a form derived from experience (sometimes called Provisory or PMN), as opposed to the a priori injunction of IMN). Does this distinction matter, other than perhaps to professional philosophers? Yes, very much indeed. There is a war on, between the supporters of science as we know it, and the creationists and endarkeners who wish to replace it with what the Discovery Institute’s Institute for Science and Culture, in its notorious “Wedge document” [17], calls “the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God.”

The unwarranted and inaccurate grafting onto the methods of science of the arbitrary rule that it must not traffic in the supernatural exposes a flank to its enemies, which they have been quick to exploit. The central argument of Phillip Johnson’s Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds, which predates the Wedge Document, is that mainstream science (including, crucially, the study of human origins) is illegitimate because it arbitrarily excludes explanations that lie outside the limits of naturalism. His disciple Alastair Noble, director of the Glasgow-based, Centre for Intelligent Design, says in the Centre’s introductory video [18]:

One of the key questions posed by the world around us is whether we are here by chance or by design. There is a strident strain of science which insists that all the design in the world is apparent, not real, and that natural selection acting on random mutations is sufficient to explain it all. That kind of science is derived from a view that the only explanations which are acceptable are those which depend purely on physical or materialist processes. That is not a scientific finding that is derived from the evidence. It is, in fact a philosophical position, and a biased one at that, which is brought to the actual evidence. It excludes other types of explanation which the evidence may merit.

Here the claim that mainstream science excludes design-based explanations a priori is used to bolster the common creationist tactic of misrepresenting the outcomes of its investigations, including evolution, as inputs. Going further downmarket, we come to the creationist claims that evolution science is a religion like any other, or that evolution and creationism differ only in their starting assumptions, and as long as the scientific community itself presents the rejection of the supernatural as an input rather than an output, we have scant grounds for complaint against such vulgarizations.

In short, IMN is untrue and carries a heavy rhetorical cost to science. But everything that can be accomplished by including IMN in our definition of science and then appealing to that definition as criterion, can be accomplished on its own merits by less circuitous means. So let’s cut out the middleman.

A simple alternative

Instead, I would appeal once more to Laplace, who took as examples such purported phenomena as animal magnetism, dowsing, and solar and lunar influences on mood [19]:

We are so far from knowing all the agents of nature and their diverse modes of action that it would not be philosophical to deny phenomena solely because they are inexplicable in the actual state of our knowledge. But we ought to examine them with an attention all the more scrupulous as it appears more difficult to admit them, and it is here that the calculation of probabilities becomes indispensable, to decide to what point one must multiply observations or experiments, in order to obtain for the agents that they indicate a probability that outweighs the reasons we would otherwise have against admitting them.

Or, in the abbreviated form that has come down to us to us through Carl Sagan,

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

That’s all we need.

_____

I thank Maarten Boudry and Stephen Law for helpful discussions. Earlier versions of some of this material have appeared on 3 Quarks Daily and on my blog.

Paul Braterman spent most of his career in chemistry at Glasgow University (his present base) and the University of North Texas. He has published over 120 scientific papers and book chapters, and is on the committee of the British Centre for Science Education. During his career, Braterman has collaborated with NASA’s Astrobiology Institute, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and the Sandia/UNM Materials Research Laboratory. His first non-technical book is From Stars to Stalagmites: How Everything Connects. He is writing a book on creationism in the classroom, and blogs on 3 Quarks Daily and at paulbraterman.wordpress.com.

[1] a) How not to attack intelligent design creationism: philosophical misconceptions about methodological naturalism, by Maarten Boudry, Stefaan Blancke and Johan Braeckman, Foundations Of Science (2010) 15:227; b) Grist to the mill of anti-evolutionism: the failed strategy of ruling the supernatural out of science by philosophical fiat, by Maarten Boudry, Stefaan Blancke and Johan Braeckman, Science & Education (2012) 211151-1165 ; c) Beyond Physics? On the Prospects of Finding a Meaningful Oracle, by Taner Edis and Maarten Boudry, Foundations of Science (2014), March.

[2] Large-scale chaos in the solar system, by J. Laskar, Astronomy and Astrophysics (2009) 287:L9-L12; Existence of collisional trajectories of Mercury, Mars and Venus with the Earth, by J. Laskar and M. Gastineau, Nature (2009) 459:817-819.

[3] Stephen Hawking, Does God Play Dice, 1999.

[4] Billions and Billions of Demons, by Richard Lewontin, New York Review of Books, January 9, 1997.

[5] Teaching About Evolution and the Nature of Science, 1998 but still current, and freely available here, p. 124.

[6] See e.g. Hidden Messages and The Bible Code, by Dave Thomas, Skeptical Enquirer 21.6, November / December 1997. My discussion refers to Michael Drosnin’s Bible Code books, rather than to the original statistical puzzle posed by Eliyahu Rips, who has dissociated himself from them.

[7] Capital letters for Creator and Designer because I do not wish to collude in the polite fiction that the Intelligent Design program is anything other than an argument for the existence of God. For a very recent discussion of the fine tuning and multiverse concepts by Coel Hellier on this site, see here, and references therein. Separate technical questions have been raised about the validity of the statistical argument from fine-tuning, but these do not affect my argument.

[8] Here be Dragons. Exploring the Hinterland of Science, by M. Boudry.

[9] Personal communication, ca. 2006.

[10] Consider the mutation that made Queen Victoria, grandmother of the last Tsarevich, a carrier of hemophilia, and what difference this might have made to Russian history.

[11] L. Roberts, I. Ahmed, S. Hall, and A. Davison, Intercessory Prayer for the alleviation of ill health, Cochrane Summaries, 9 November 2011.

[12] Mark Isaak (ed.), Index to Creationist Claims, TalkOrigins Archive, 5 November 2006.

[13] Alternating mutation and selection can and demonstrably does generate new information; protein sequences have considerable flexibility and do not arise in a single step; polonium halos in uranium-free rocks can be traced to the diffusion of radon; dating anomalies are exceptional and indeed informative, since they can be traced to heating episodes and other post-depositional events; and so on.

[14] New Statesman, 19 June 1964, reprinted in Pluto’s Republic, OUP 1984.

[15] Michael T. Murphy, John K. Webb, and Victor V. Flambaum, Revision of VLT/UVES constraints on a varying fine-structure constant, arXiv:astro-ph/0612407v3, 11 November 2007.

[16] Ye cannae change the laws of physics, The Economist, 31 August 2010.

[17] The Discovery Institute’s Wedge document.

[18] Available at http://www.c4id.org.uk/

[19] Pierre Simon marquis de Laplace, Essai philosophique sur les probabilités, 1814, p. 50.

132 thoughts on “The natural, the supernatural, and the nature of science

  1. The first sentence of my previous comment says the exact opposite of my intention, an all too common mistake for me for some reason.

    It should be “So you think it is not sensible to discuss the existence of a concept that is NOT well defined.”

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  2. Hi shaun2000,

    I agree that phenomenal consciousness is outside the scope of science. I don’t think that makes it supernatural. As I said upthread, I think naturalism is about explaining physical events with physical causes. I don’t think phenomenal consciousness causes any physical events. Physical events, such as the expulsion of air to vibrate the larynx while moving the tongue and lips so as to say “I am conscious” can all be explained in terms of neural activity, the contraction of muscles and so on.

    Phenomenal consciousness is a philosophical problem. It is the problem of figuring out how we can match our personal experience of consciousness to what appears to be an almost mechanical process of information processing. There is no physical phenomenon to explain, only intuitions which at least superficially seem to be contradicted by reality. As such, it’s a problem of conceptual analysis only.

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  3. I wasn’t disagreeing with the idea that causal descriptions at different levels of organization are sometimes preferable, but rather with the idea that anything is “non-physical”.

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  4. Thank you, Massimo, for clarifying your position. (I read your other posts, too.) You and Disagreeable Me are in good company. At the beginning of his popular exposition of Darwinism Emil du Bois-Reymond claimed that since the task of science was to make sense of nature, everything supernatural had to be ignored, regardless of the consequences. “Is it any different in jurisprudence? Fiat justicia, pereat mundes” (let justice be done, though the world perish).

    Du Bois-Reymond’s perspective owed much to Hermann Helmholtz’s treatise on the conservation of energy: “… jedenfalls ist es klar, daß die Wissenschaft, deren Zweck es ist, die Natur zu begreifen, von der Voraussetzung ihrer Begreiflichkeit ausgehen müsse…” (in any event it’s clear that science, whose purpose is the understanding of nature, has to begin with assumption of its intelligibility).

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  5. A possible callback to the blog post on post-empirical science. Sorry to bring in the shadow of old forms of Idealism, but would admitting non-empirical realities necessarily mean accepting supernatural entities. The model would be logic: I do not have to provide an explanation of the natural, causal processes that led to the principles of non-contradiction or the excluded middle. To accept the reality of relationships or principles that do not register on human senses, on involve the transfer of energy or mass, isn’t to admit eternal intelligences or the conformity of the external world to dreams or spell casting.

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  6. I note that the assertions about what Richard Wiseman and Ray Hyman have said come without any indication of where they might have said these things. I know Hyman and I’ve heard Wiseman speak within the last year and I strongly suspect that the asserted statements were either never made or are taken completely out of context. Both of them are active members of the “scientific skepticism” movement and are currently convinced that no paranormal phenomena has ever been convincingly demonstrated.

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  7. Hi Asher,

    While I disagree with you there, I’m trying to avoid getting into a debate on that while navigating between the views of those who think reductionism is problematic (you can’t explain the experience of love by talking only about atoms) and those like you who think only physical things exist.

    So when I say something isn’t a physical event, I am not making any claims about the existence of non-material things. I’m just saying that attributing high-level semantics to a thing is something you do from a non-physical perspective. Naturalism is therefore not about trying to explain the significance of a kiss in terms of atoms, but about the idea that all physical events, including the physical movements of kissing lips, can be understood and explained in physical terms (at least in principle).

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  8. I would say that logic is not an instance of the supernatural, because I think the supernatural is the view that certain physical events cannot in principle be explained with reference to physical laws expressed mathematically. The principle of the excluded middle is not a physical event. The use of logic by a reasoning mind can of course influence physical events, but those events can also be explained (in principle) with reference only to physical forces and particles, the chain of events being traced back to the neural correlates of logical reasoning.

    Unless, of course, you think human reasoning is supernatural.

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  9. Hi MP,
    The kernel here seems to be that for anything that would ” transcend the laws of nature…there would be no testable hypothesis, no experiment that could be done, nothing [scientific] at all.” What I am wondering is whether or not “supernatural” directly implies “transcending the laws of nature” or better “transcending all laws” since “super-nature” can have its own laws. Consider ESP researches who test accuracy under certain conditions or investigators into ghosts who measure temperature and electricity and expect changes in both to announce the arrival of a ghost. They seem to expect and sometimes even posit a regular causal mechanism which I would be hard pressed to call “natural”. This is quite different from the search for meanings or messages which, I agree which you, is even at its most convincing worlds away from the kind of mechanistic, causal reasoning which is the sole domain of science.

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  10. Paul,

    “In this spirit I would say that there seemed to me to be two tenable positions, his and mine. My entire post is an attempt to point out the costs of his; he neatly encapsulates one of the major costs of mine.”

    Yes, I think that’s a fair characterization!

    “Miracles such as those claimed for Jesus would indeed undermine the assumption of regularity that underpins science, but only in rare and very special cases; so rare and special that they can hardly constitute a serious threat to our business.”

    I would instead argue that even one such miracle would throw the “business” out of the window, because then you would never know when and in what way the supernatural powers intervene. Some “miracles” could be small and undetectable, and I really think that would radically change the way we look at the world. Intelligent Design, for instance, would suddenly become a notion to reckon which (as opposed to the massive exercise in wishful thinking that it is now).

    Gabriel,

    “in any event it’s clear that science, whose purpose is the understanding of nature, has to begin with assumption of its intelligibility”

    That’s right, and that’s just one of the assumptions that need to be made. That said, as I wrote in my previous comment, every time we do make sense of a natural phenomenon we confirm the assumption of intelligibility.

    David,

    “What I am wondering is whether or not “supernatural” directly implies “transcending the laws of nature” or better “transcending all laws” since “super-nature” can have its own laws.”

    Good question. From our perspective there would be little or no difference between a truly supernatural entity (unbound by any laws of nature) and the case of the cosmic programmers who might be bound by their own (likely entirely different) set of natural laws. But the distinction is interesting, since I wouldn’t call the latter “gods.”

    “Consider ESP researches who test accuracy under certain conditions or investigators into ghosts who measure temperature and electricity and expect changes in both to announce the arrival of a ghost. They seem to expect and sometimes even posit a regular causal mechanism which I would be hard pressed to call “natural”.”

    Right, though I am inclined to treat ESP as (potential) natural phenomena, therefore subject to scientific investigation (which has turned out to be empty handed), and ghosts as essentially supernatural phenomena not so easily approachable. But these two examples do show a point about which I agree with Paul and with my colleague Maarten Boudry: there is a continuum of alleged extraordinary phenomena, and somewhere in this continuum one crosses from strange but natural to downright supernatural. Unlike Maarten, though, I don’t think that just because a sharp line cannot be drawn there is therefore no distinction to be made.

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  11. naturalism is a philosophical assumption that makes science possible

    Except that a good deal of our best science somehow gets done without the use of this allegedly necessary assumption.

    Bohr and Schrodinger seemed to find it possible to do science without this assumption, I think their contribution to physics was not entirely trivial.

    Incidentally, why does everybody assume “God” is the only alternative to Naturalism. One popular alternative is simply to be metaphysically agnostic, for example.

    Science does not even need the assumption of mathematical regularity, only the hypothesis.

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  12. Thanks. Very clear. Except, “There is no physical phenomenon to explain, only intuitions which at least superficially seem to be contradicted by reality.” Of “our personal experience of consciousness” and “an almost mechanical process of information processing” which is intuitions and which is reality? And which is involved in “conceptual analysis”?

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  13. Massimo, I am glad to see you equating the Simulation Argument with Miracles. I have always felt that it was an inherently theistic argument. And everything Hume had to say about miracles would apply to a simulation. But despite my inclination to think that way, I find myself wondering if a simulation, unlike miracles, would ultimately reveal some sort of regularity that comes from the simulator’s world. Maybe a programmer who is on this site could clarify. Yes the simulation could change at the simulator’s whim, but isn’t all programming on some level rule bound in a way that an extremely clever being in the simulation might possible detect? For instance UP could suddenly become DOWN in a simulation, but could 2 plus 2 become something other than four, could the basics of logic be violated? Could a graphic world built on hexagons suddenly be based on something else? Oy, I’m out of my depths here.

    One of my biggest complaints about the SA is that it makes a ton of assumptions about what a simulation is, as though we have an example of a simulation in our world. But we don’t. We have examples of virtual reality, and computer models that make predictions, but we don’t have anything close to a simulation in which artifacts within the simulation are themselves being presented with a simulation of reality. This is just a round about way of saying, we don’t yet know, in other words, if we can simulate consciousness. The SA puts that cart before the horse.

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  14. This comes dangerously close to conceding the IDologue’s claim that we deliberately set up our science so that it will not notice non-natural processes (whatever that might mean) even if they occur. If we don’t believe that miracles happen, why, apart from pragmatic considerations, should we refuse even to examine the possibility? And if the answer is that the implications of finding one would be unacceptable, we are indeed guilty, as Phillip Johnson charges in Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds, of begging the question.

    Consider also this toy problem. We are in a universe which is part of a computer simulation, with well laid down rules. Very rarely, something takes place that violates the rules, either because the Player allows Himself to cheat, or through malfunction of the simulator. You are saying that the actors within this simulation would need, contrafactually, to deny that such violations occurred, before they could set about trying to discover the rules. I don’t see this.

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  15. Hi Shaun2000,

    Both consciousness and information processing could be things that occur in reality. The problem is to analyse both of these ideas so that they can be made to fit. Some solutions discard consciousness as some kind of illusion, and others think that certain kinds of information processing manifest consciousness. Still others hold that consciousness is something manifested only when certain chemicals or materials are present.

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  16. Hi Aaron,

    Maybe a programmer who is on this site could clarify. Yes the simulation could change at the simulator’s whim, but isn’t all programming on some level rule bound in a way that an extremely clever being in the simulation might possible detect? For instance UP could suddenly become DOWN in a simulation, but could 2 plus 2 become something other than four,

    I am a programmer, but I’m not sure this is really a programming question.

    I think just the only thing that a being within a simulation could deduce about the world outside the simulation is that physics are such that making such a simulation is feasible. This is enough to suggest that if our world is a simulation, then the physics of the external world are probably quite different.

    I do not believe it is possible to make a simulation where 2 plus 2 do not equal 4, because this is a tautological truth that must hold because of how these terms are defined. The only way to get a different result is to change the definitions, which is not really changing anything of importance.

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  17. I’m trying to avoid getting into a debate on that while navigating between the views of those who think reductionism is problematic (you can’t explain the experience of love by talking only about atoms) and those like you who think only physical things exist.

    Yeah, I’m just trying to convey that the debate you’re navigating around is more important to the debate you want to have than you might think ;).

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  18. For instance UP could suddenly become DOWN in a simulation, but could 2 plus 2 become something other than four, could the basics of logic be violated?

    I am a programmer, and I think that being one totally affects the way I think about both simulations and causality.

    In a computer simulation, the “code” that is “executing” is really nothing more or less than a complete description (a “mandatory recipe”, if you will) for the causality of the simulation’s universe. Anything that is “caused” within the simulation is defined by that description.

    So whether one can change 2 plus 2 or violate basic logic really depends on what level of reality you’re modeling. If your simulation has a rule (a “function”) called “addNumbers(x,y)” you could add a statement that says, in effect, “if x = 2 and y = 2, return 5”. But no simulation that does anything meaningful works this way, and if our universe is a simulation, it almost certainly doesn’t work this way.

    In a normal simulation, there is no code for “define the rules of logic”, or “define how numbers are added together”. Those facts about the universe emerge from the causes that are defined at a much lower level. What this means in practice is that the only thing at the programmer’s “whim” is to change some low-level cause (think “subatomic particle constants”). And since the higher-level causes that emerge are determined by the lower-level ones, any change is going to have huge effects throughout the system. There is, in other words, no way to effectively “target” a particular high-level behavior without vastly changing the whole nature of the “world”.

    Another way to think about it is this: If you have a universe (simulation) that operates according to inviolable rules, then the system is *forced* into consistency. If you change one little thing, everything else changes to adjust.

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  19. I am reading John Locke and astonished to find that in 1690 he was already an agnostic dualist. He describes reality without reference to God or soul but in terms of logic, perception and cognition only. He distinguishes between material and spiritual substances, where by material substances he means having location and dimension, mass and motion only; by spiritual substances he means human mental capabilities. Secondary properties of matter such as color and taste lie on the spiritual side (qualia, to us, I think). He tries to get these all to fit. He talks of the mind acting as a vehicle for the will, then the will is subject to judgment–only judgment has liberty, he says. But all three, mind, will and judgment, are part of “spirit” as opposed to matter. He’s struggling to find language for what we’re talking about here, as much without reference to the supernatural as us.

    Has science between his time and ours proved him wrong, that mind, will and judgment are all part of material substance? What have we discovered that qualifies us to contradict him? Is it something specific, or merely the weight of data on the side of matter– are we still free to side with him, and be agnostic dualists?

    Here’s a test: would I rather live at the time of Shakespeare and have conscious experience, or live without conscious experience today, when science is so advanced? Which is more crucial, in our own lifetimes and those of our children? If some of us opt for conscious experience, should we encourage our children to recognize it in themselves and deliberately develop it, or assume their behavior will be unchanged no matter what they experience?

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  20. Consider also this toy problem. We are in a universe which is part of a computer simulation, with well laid down rules. Very rarely, something takes place that violates the rules, either because the Player allows Himself to cheat, or through malfunction of the simulator

    The interesting thing about this toy problem to me is the question of how our intuitions are modified by saying it’s a computer simulation. If the simulation operates according to strict rules at a sufficiently low level to model a physical reality, what would a “glitch” or “cheating” even mean?

    But the real question is why a computer simulation in this scenario would seem any different to us than our actual universe. Why is it easier to imagine a computer program glitching or a devious coder changing the rules than it is for us to imagine the regularity of our universe suddenly not being regular anymore? I think it has to do with the fact that in a computer simulation, the causality at the level of the simulation is actually itself caused by an outside cause (the “code” or “instructions”).

    I think this toy problem, much like Searle’s Chinese Room, sweeps the things that are hard to think about under the rug. If a simulation can glitch – or its creator cheat – then the important facts to know concern the exact nature of how the glitches and cheating take place. And that’s exactly what the toy problem ignores.

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  21. Paul Braterman: “In short, IMN is untrue and carries a heavy rhetorical cost to science.”

    A great improvement but no cigar.

    Paul Braterman: “… unsolved problems, such as the origin of life, … origin of our Universe, … And the state of the Universe before this stage may be to us in principle unknowable.”

    Yes, you have pointed out two key issues here. Without giving out definite answers on these two key issues, 99.9% of the world population (street walking humans) will take Atheism as a clown in this world circus, very entertaining and funny. Most of science supporters and even many scientists themselves will not take Atheism seriously if these two issues are not answered.

    Yes, Mars Rover is a great human technological achievement. Yes, the Space-station is a scientific wonder. But, they are ‘rootless’ peanuts in comparison to the Mother Earth, the Sun and many other ‘perpetual motion machines’ in the sky. Every (every, every, …, every…) street walking illiterate knows that the fate of the Space-station is hanging on a thin (very, very, …, very thin) thread to the Mother Earth. So, stop arguing this scientific nonsense for Atheism.

    No, don’t even mention the Darwinism. With all the Darwinian dances, the ‘origin’ of life cannot be explained by the ‘current’ mainstream physics, while the physics should be the rock bottom laws for governing the ‘entire’ universe, that is, including lives.

    No, don’t even mention the ‘inflation and big bang’. Even if they were true, they do not provide the answer of ‘why is there something rather than nothing?’ And, this simple question is understood by every illiterate in this world. No, ‘inflation and big bang’ is not the ‘answer’ for the origin of universe. The best that they can be is just the two processes in the ‘evolution’ of the universe, not the origin of it. Again, every illiterate in this world knows this difference.

    Life is an information processing system, and it needs a bio-computer. If a bio-computer (such as Turing machine) is ‘embedded’ in the elementary particles (such as proton or neutron), the physics law can give rise to life. Indeed, it is (see, http://www.prequark.org/pq05.htm ).

    As you can see that Paul Steinhardt is now embracing the ‘bouncing-cosmology (BC)’ [see https://scientiasalon.wordpress.com/2014/07/10/string-theory-and-the-no-alternatives-argument/comment-page-1/#comment-4599 ], this BC will push this ‘origin’ of universe issue back to the point of ‘nothing/something’ transformation, and this transformation is described in detail in the book ‘Truth, Faith, and Life (ISBN 9780916713034)’, page 23 to 33.

    With these two issues answered, those intelligent design creationists’ nonsense can then be throwing into the trash can once and for all.

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  22. Aaron,

    “I have always felt that it was an inherently theistic argument. And everything Hume had to say about miracles would apply to a simulation.”

    I consider it theism for the atheist, just like I think of the Singularity as the Rapture for nerds. Apparently, everyone needs some mythology in their life.

    “UP could suddenly become DOWN in a simulation, but could 2 plus 2 become something other than four, could the basics of logic be violated?”

    Excellent question! No, I don’t think so. Then again, even theologians agree that god is bound by the laws of logic…

    “One of my biggest complaints about the SA is that it makes a ton of assumptions about what a simulation is, as though we have an example of a simulation in our world. But we don’t.”

    Yup, that’s one of my chronic reactions to DM’s positions as expressed on this site, as you know if you have read some of our exchanges.

    Paul,

    “This comes dangerously close to conceding the IDologue’s claim that we deliberately set up our science so that it will not notice non-natural processes (whatever that might mean) even if they occur.”

    Frankly, I give less and less of a hoot about what Idologues think or say. The Discovery Institute has so often willfully misused my writings that I think they are either intellectually dishonest or willfully self-deluded. At any rate, no, we don’t set up science to do anything, we simply reason philosophically and practice science, and the result of the confluence in the two is our confidence in naturalism.

    “If we don’t believe that miracles happen, why, apart from pragmatic considerations, should we refuse even to examine the possibility?”

    We don’t refuse the possibility, we just begin with exceedingly high Humean priors, so to speak.

    “if the answer is that the implications of finding one would be unacceptable, we are indeed guilty, as Phillip Johnson charges in Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds, of begging the question.”

    Not at all. I didn’t say that discovering an actual miracle would be unacceptable. I said it would undermine science as we practice it. Fine, we’d do something else.

    “You are saying that the actors within this simulation would need, contrafactually, to deny that such violations occurred, before they could set about trying to discover the rules. I don’t see this.”

    No, I’m saying that there is no way for the actors to discover the rules by which the simulators’ own universe works. They could discover the rules of the simulation, but those rules could change at a moment’s notice, at the whim of the simulators.

    schlafly,

    “So where do you stand on Lehigh University denouncing one of its own professors with this statement?”

    Don’t know whether the question was addressed to me, but I say good for the biology faculty at Lehigh University.

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  23. Yup, that’s one of my chronic reactions to DM’s positions as expressed on this site, as you know if you have read some of our exchanges.

    Although, to clarify, I don’t actually endorse the simulation argument. I do refer to simulations in various arguments though (much as you did here).

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  24. Hi again,
    I’m a bit fuzzy as to why you think science would go “out the window” if miracles were allowed. Leibniz, Newton and many others believed they were discovering the laws God chose to use and sometimes suspend in ordering nature. What they could could conclude seems to be much less than the materialist scientist (particularly concerning whether laws are necessary) but it seems to me they were still doing science. Empirical investigation would still be meaningful (I think) even if God could suspend the rules any time. Thoughts?

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  25. I care as little as you, except from the practical point of view of their contaminating public space, about what the IDologues think and say. Perhaps introducing them was an ill judged rhetorical flourish. My concern is whether, under IMN, their accusation of begging the question might be justified.

    Imagine this scenario. We are doing science, and have discovered the laws of conservation of mass/energy and of baryon number. Once in a millennium, along comes this guy who turns water into wine, a process that must violate at least one of those laws. The Humean barrier is surmounted to our satisfaction (something that may be practically impossible but is not impossible logically). In this situation, do you turn round and give up on science altogether, as you threatened to do, and abandon half-done that environmentally important work on the selection dynamics of invasive species? Or do you carry on doing it, on the grounds that it nearly always works? Or do you modify your laws to include an escape clause?

    I would say that this scenario is so absurdly unlikely that I don’t feel the need to answer the question until it arises. If you say the same, I would ask why we need IMN anyway. And we would then, presumably, repeat all the above exchanges, but just possibly with a deeper understanding of what was at stake at each stage.

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  26. Massimo didn’t write that science would go “out the window”. He wrote that it would be “undermined” by which I think he meant that a significant amount of the laws of nature as science currently understands them would be shown to be wrong. At least that’s what I think finding a “miracle” means.

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  27. How exactly is quantum mechanics done without the assumption of naturalism?

    Exactly as it is done now and as it has always been done, as far as I know.

    Is there really some necessary step in scientific methodology “Step #4 assume Naturalism”?

    What exactly would you be assuming and what part does that assumption play in the business of science?

    Can you even define Naturalism rigorously enough for this?

    Isn’t science the process of finding out what nature is?

    How do scientists know what they are supposed to assume ahead of completing that task?

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  28. Hi Aaron,

    One of my biggest complaints about the SA is that it makes a ton of assumptions about what a simulation is, as though we have an example of a simulation in our world. But we don’t. We have examples of virtual reality, and computer models that make predictions, but we don’t have anything close to a simulation in which artifacts within the simulation are themselves being presented with a simulation of reality. This is just a round about way of saying, we don’t yet know, in other words, if we can simulate consciousness. The SA puts that cart before the horse.

    We have, as you point out, many examples of simulations of many things in this our world – we could not go about the business of engineering these days without simulations.

    So, for simulations of these types, there are two separate questions:

    1. Can we simulate the biological processes of a human being so that it will demonstrate the externally observable behaviour of the organism?

    2. Assuming we can do the simulation in 1. would it actually be conscious, ie have conscious experiences in just the way you are having them right now?

    If 1. is not possible even given a complete understanding of the physical processes of our bodies and sufficient computing power then the interesting question would be “why not?”. We naturally assume that C Elegans can be simulated completely with it’s 520 neurons. But if so then why could the same not be done for a human?

    If 1. is possible then the simulation would naturally exhibit all the behaviours we associate with consciousness including claiming to be conscious and discussing the concept.

    If the answer to 1. is “yes” and the answer to 2. is “no” then it would suggest that all our language about consciousness is not actually about consciousness since the cause and effect in the mechanisms of our bodies can produce that language without actual consciousness.

    If the answer to both 1. and 2. is “yes” then we could not possibly know that we are not a simulation.

    So it is not that the SA makes tons of assumptions, rather that various forms of simulation arguments explore the various possibilities.

    We know that we can do simulations in the sense of mathematical models which exhibit the behaviour of the system being modelled and we only need this sense of the word.

    And the possibilities, given my questions above, are “1. No, 2. N/A”, “1. Yes, 2. No” and “1. Yes, 2. Yes” so we can explore each of those possibilities about the types of simulations we know we can do.

    So what is being assumed?

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  29. ““Miracles such as those claimed for Jesus would indeed undermine the assumption of regularity that underpins science, but only in rare and very special cases; so rare and special that they can hardly constitute a serious threat to our business.” -Paul Braterman
    “I would instead argue that even one such miracle would throw the “business” out of the window, because then you would never know when and in what way the supernatural powers intervene.”
    -M-to-the-P
    Even one!

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  30. Apparently the Lehigh faculty needs IMN in order to denounce one of their own professors. Do you agree with that or not? They could have used scientific reasoning to discuss his ID claims, as you suggest, but instead they insist ID must be dismissed out-of-hand, without even testing it.

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  31. If physicalism means that all available data sets are best explained by combinations of “algorithmic rules and randomness”, and science is defined by the study of the physical, then what would be “outside” science would be a data set that cannot be explained by such combinations. But it seems to be a challenge to find such a data set: I don’t know how we could be convinced that such a data set is an outlier since there remains the hope that it can be explained in some future “rules and randomness” combination.

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  32. Hi Massimo,

    In fact, my position is very much along the lines of Lewontin’s: naturalism is a philosophical assumption that makes science possible, not a result of scientific inquiry.

    It won’t surprise anyone that I disagree, so let me reply to your stance:

    And that in turn is because the notion of supernatural causation is entirely mysterious … If there really were such thing as gods that could transcend the laws of nature on a whim we would have no clue as to how such gods would operate, by definition.

    Yes we would have a clue about how such gods would operate: by watching the effects. That’s how science works, it observes what happens and develops accounts of it. If there were some god causing all sorts of weird effects then what is to stop us including those effects and those causes into our scientific models?

    Yes, gods might be capricious and hard to fathom, but then so are, for example, chimpanzees, and yet the study of chimpanzees is scientific. All postulations of gods say that god has a “nature”, a way of behaving, and we can deduce things about god from that behaviour. We simply detect the regularities in the behaviour and start building scientific hypotheses about that. Maybe the god’s behaviour shows no regularities at all, and is thus completely random, but even in that case we can cope with a “random cause” as part of scientific models, and indeed we already do as part of quantum mechanics.

    That said, it is still the case that every scientific success *confirms* the philosophical notion of naturalism because it constantly shows that supernaturalism is, as Laplace allegedly said, a superfluous hypothesis.

    Exactly, and thus the rejection of gods is a *product* of scientific enquiry. Models invoking gods are superfluous, useless and less parsimonious.

    But Laplace was, in a sense, wrong even in that: “god did it” is not a testable hypothesis, because god is an entirely amorphous entity, …

    The reason that gods are “entirely amorphous” is that there are no known aspects of the world that result from gods, because they don’t exist, and thus there is nothing that is “god did it”. If there *were* gods and if they were things done by god, then there would be such effects, and gods’ effects and thus nature would no longer be “amorphous”.

    To recap: since god can does whatever she wants, …

    Maybe, but what “god wants” is never conceived of as randomness, it always has a pattern to it, owing to “god’s nature”.

    … in ways that are impossible in principle to investigate, …

    Sorry, why? Whether the god’s interventions show regularities or are simply random, either way we can incorporate that in our models. What is stopping us?

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  33. I found Braterman’s criticism of intrinsic methodological naturalism (IMN), the defenses of this these by Me and Pigliucci and the discussion of their arguments interesting and illuminating. Thanks!

    I have some questions about Massimo’s view.

    If I understand him well he defines supernatural beings more or less as beings (in a broad sense of ‘beings’ that may include God, gods, organisms, powers, forces, properties and more) that can influence the world in a way that violates the causal laws.

    Again if I have understood Massimo well enough, his view consists of four key ideas:

    (1) science proceeds by constructing and testing hypotheses about the world

    (2) (in David Ottlinger’s words:) “mechanistic, causal reasoning is the sole domain of science”

    (3) (IMN) by its very nature, science cannot appeal to or investigate the supernatural

    (4) (the intrinsicness of IMN:) (3) follows from (1) via (2)

    While it seems to me that (1) is pretty uncontroversial, I don’t see how it would imply (2). Can someone explain this to me?

    Actually I think (2) is highly implausible. As Bertrand Russell pointed out in his “On the Notion of Cause” (1912), the laws of physics are not causal in character, but functional (in the mathematical sense of a one-or-many to one relation): they describe a dependence between physical quantities but say nothing about cause and effect. Russell uses the law of gravity as an example, but the same holds true for many other laws, such as the general gas law and Kepler’s laws of planet trajectories.

    I myself have argued (first in my dissertation ‘Explanation Without a Cause’ (1999) and in my ‘design explanation’ (2007)) that functional explanations in biology (‘functional explanation’ in the sense in which functional biologists use that term – explanations that appeal to conditional needs) aren’t of a causal nature .

    I don’t think there is anything mysterious too functional laws in physics, nor that there is anything supernatural, vitalistic or teleological to functional explanation in biology, but I do think that these laws and explanations pose a problem for IMN. For, although I can see how IMN follows from (2), I don’t see how it would follow from (1) if (2) doesn’t follow from (1).

    Suppose, there exist human-like beings with supernatural powers (let’s call them Zeus and Hera) in the sense that they are able to influence the world in a way that violates the laws of physics. I agree that it is impossible to investigate *how* these beings intervene in the course of events. If these beings would intervene in the capricious ways described by Homer they would indeed escape scientific investigation, but there is no a priori reason to assume that natural beings are capricious. So supppose there is some structure in their madness. Why would the impossibility to understand *how* these supernaturals intervene, preclude science from testing hypotheses about *when* (in what conditions) and *why* they do?

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  34. Hi Gabriel,

    (in any event it’s clear that science, whose purpose is the understanding of nature, has to begin with assumption of its intelligibility).

    Why? Why can’t that be part of what we investigate? Are there patterns and regularities to nature? Do we see, for example, regular patterns of day/night? From that we build science’s models.

    Then we ask, are there things that are entirely random and that we cannot build a predictive model of? Maybe there are, for example the occurrence of radioactive decays and similar quantum mechanical events. No problem, we simply build quantum indeterminacy into our models.

    Are there agents showing deliberation and purpose in nature, and if so, can we study them? Yes we can, since we incorporate “chimpanzees” and other mammals in our models, and science proceeds studying those agents.

    Could we cope with a “supernatural” agent operating according to its own nature and internal rules? Sure we can, we just study that behaviour and those effects, just as we do with chimpanzees. I don’t see how having slapped the label “supernatural” on there in any way stops us (indeed I’m not even sure what the label “supernatural” actually means).

    Could we cope with some entirely unpredictable “supernatural” agency? Yes, sure we can, in the same way that we cope with quantum indeterminacy. We simply build it into the models as appropriate. Where is the problem?

    In such ways we can investigate anything and everything with the same scientific approach, looking for regularities in reality and building models about it.

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  35. All,

    this isn’t really my essay, so my responses here will be limited. I may write something separately about the whole topic at some point.

    David,

    “Leibniz, Newton and many others believed they were discovering the laws God chose to use and sometimes suspend in ordering nature.”

    Yes, this is often brought up in this context. But regardless of what they thought they were doing, they derived precisely nothing from the assumption that the laws of nature are of supernatural origin. In effect, they worked strictly within methodological naturalism, regardless of their philosophical position.

    Paul,

    “My concern is whether, under IMN, their accusation of begging the question might be justified.”

    I don’t think it is, for the reasons I have detailed. It is, rather, an honest appraisal of the philosophical foundations of science, which I don’t find problematic at all.

    “do you turn round and give up on science altogether, as you threatened to do, and abandon half-done that environmentally important work on the selection dynamics of invasive species? Or do you carry on doing it, on the grounds that it nearly always works?”

    Oh it would “work,” of course, but now for entirely different reasons: science could no longer claim that it is investigating nature, it would be investigating a supernaturally created universe, in which the laws are actually arbitrary whims of the creators, and with the understanding that such creators could change or suspend the rules, at any time, for any reason. You don’t think that would be a significantly different “science” from what we practice now?

    Robin,

    “Is there really some necessary step in scientific methodology “Step #4 assume Naturalism”?”

    Not explicitly, but it is an implicit step, which of course most scientists are unaware of because they are not philosophers or metaphysicians.

    “Can you even define Naturalism rigorously enough for this?”

    The view that there are no supernatural (i.e., nature-transcending) forces or entities.

    “How do scientists know what they are supposed to assume ahead of completing that task?”

    They don’t, they are pragmatic about it. But philosophers do recognize assumptions, even when they are implicit. That’s their job.

    schlafly,

    “They could have used scientific reasoning to discuss his ID claims, as you suggest, but instead they insist ID must be dismissed out-of-hand, without even testing it.”

    Test what? How?

    Coel,

    “Yes we would have a clue about how such gods would operate: by watching the effects.”

    No, you would simply have a behavioral pattern, no access to their reasons and, more importantly, their causal powers. I didn’t say that the supernatural would turn us into imbeciles, we would still be able to use reason.

    “That’s how science works, it observes what happens and develops accounts of it.”

    Right, but that accounts is based on a number of assumptions, about natural laws, regularities, causality, etc. All that goes out the window when we talk supernatural.

    “Yes, gods might be capricious and hard to fathom, but then so are, for example, chimpanzees, and yet the study of chimpanzees is scientific”

    Not even remotely in the same ballpark, and you should know that.

    “the rejection of gods is a *product* of scientific enquiry. Models invoking gods are superfluous, useless and less parsimonious.”

    Please find me a single example of a scientist who actually used Laplace “no longer necessary” hypothesis. Not a Newton who piously said the laws of nature are given by the creator but then did absolutely nothing about it. I’d like to see an actual example in the history of science of someone having considered, tested, and rejected supernatural causation.

    “The reason that gods are “entirely amorphous” is that there are no known aspects of the world that result from gods, because they don’t exist, and thus there is nothing that is “god did it”.”

    You are missing my point. Of course there are no gods. But “god did it” would be an empty phrase even if gods did exist. Because, again, we have no access at all to the concept of supernatural causation.

    Arno,

    good points, though as I said, this is a much longer conversation which I need to postpone for another day. However:

    “supppose there is some structure in their madness. Why would the impossibility to understand *how* these supernaturals intervene, preclude science from testing hypotheses about *when* (in what conditions) and *why* they do?”

    You might, in the way in which Coel talks about patterns. But is your view of science really reduced to finding patterns and making predictions? What happened to explanations? They may or may not be causal, but I reject the idea that science is simply a utilitarian way of generating predictions from observed patterns, i.e. it isn’t just a branch of statistics. Unless scientists formulate explanatory hypotheses (causal or otherwise) they are not doing science, in my book.

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  36. Hi DM,

    Anything that cannot be reduced to mathematics is defined only imprecisely, and so if there is anything that cannot be reduced to mathematics even in principle, it is fundamentally vague or ambiguous and I find it hard to imagine that such a thing can actually exist if it is not composed of simpler things which can be so reduced.

    So you want to restrict science to things that can be described precisely by mathematics? I don’t agree with you that this is workable. Take chimpanzees and their behaviour (to use this example for the third comment in a row!). There is no way that we can describe, for example, political rivalry between chimps in a troop in terms of precise mathematics, the situation is just too complicated. Yet, to me the study of chimps is definitely within science.

    But, you might reply, *in* *principle* we could reduce chimp behaviour to maths. OK, agreed (though stretching the “in principle” very far!). But that fact is something that we know as a consequence of having studied chimps. It would not have been known at the time of Galileo, but is now known after Darwinism etc.

    Suppose we encounter something that appears “supernatural”, how do we know whether it can be described by precise mathematics? We cannot know that a priori; we could only know it, if at all, as a product of scientific enquiry into it, just as we do with the chimps. Thus science must be allowed to investigate things without knowing whether or not they are reducible to maths.

    So again we can apply science to everything, and conclusions about the existence of “supernatural” and the applicability of maths are then derived products of that investigation.

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  37. schlafly, why do you think the Lehigh faculty needs IMN in order to denounce intelligent design?

    They say “It is our collective position that intelligent design has no basis in science, has not been tested experimentally, and should not be regarded as scientific.”

    How would this imply that they need IMN? Or even that they use it?

    There are other reasons to regard intelligent design as unscientific than IMN, for example, the lack of a testable theory, the lack of coherence with the accepted body of scientific knowledge, and the lack of qualified researchers!

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  38. Schlafly, where does it state that the Lehigh faculty used IMN to denounce Behe? It seems like they said they support evolution because it is supported by good science and “Intelligent Design” is not.

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  39. Hi Massimo,

    “Can you even define Naturalism rigorously enough for this?”. The view that there are no supernatural (i.e., nature-transcending) forces or entities.

    So natural is defined as not supernatural and supernatural is defined as not natural? This doesn’t actually mean anything, and the problem is that no-one has properly explained what “supernatural” does actually mean.

    No, you would simply have a behavioral pattern, no access to their reasons and, more importantly, their causal powers.

    Ditto with chimpanzees, or a lifeform that we discovered on another planet. All we have are the behaviour patterns. And from *that* we deduce what we can about their reasons and casual powers.

    Right, but that accounts is based on a number of assumptions, about natural laws, regularities, causality, etc. All that goes out the window when we talk supernatural.

    There again we slap on the entirely meaningless label “supernatural” and then claim that it stops science in its tracks. Why does it do that? All of those supposed “assumptions” are not assumptions, they are products of science, they are what we deduce from observing the world, and we can do that just as well with the effects of agents that are “supernatural”.

    Not even remotely in the same ballpark, and you should know that.

    The supposed change in ballpark comes merely from the slapping on of this undefined label “supernatural”. But there is no explanation of why science’s methods stop working.

    I’d like to see an actual example in the history of science of someone having considered, tested, and rejected supernatural causation.

    Science as a whole has done this. In past times scientists made lots of appeals to divine action, nowadays they no longer do.

    But “god did it” would be an empty phrase even if gods did exist.

    Why? Why could we not discern the effects of god’s actions?

    Because, again, we have no access at all to the concept of supernatural causation.

    There again is the slapping on of the meaningless label. Why does it stop us investigating the nature and causation of this god?

    But is your view of science really reduced to finding patterns and making predictions? What happened to explanations?

    The “explanations” *are* the account of the patterns and the thing that links patterns to predictions.

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  40. There is no way that we can describe, for example, political rivalry between chimps in a troop in terms of precise mathematics, the situation is just too complicated.

    I basically agree with that statement. But I wonder if describing the political rivalry is really what scientists are trying to do. Aren’t they trying to understand the causal factors at work in the political rivalry? In other words, the scientific purpose is not to *describe* something, but rather to *understand* something — to answer some specific question(s) about cause and effect. This involves formulating a regularity, which is the domain of mathematics.

    Plus, what is *imprecise* mathematics?

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  41. Coel, so now we are playing word games? You mean to say that you really have no idea what supernatural means? Of course supernatural means not natural, but I defined it a bit more precisely: any entity or force that can arbitrarily transcend natural laws. What’s circular about that?

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  42. Belatedly, I realise that we have a real life example. The structure of DNA tells us, both what the pairing rules are for the bases, and the physicochemical basis for those rules. This works even though the rules sometimes break down, causing mutations. So occasional exceptions cannot prevent us discovering a well founded rule.

    I would take this one even further. Some believe that a supernatural being regulates evolution, through very occasionally interfering with the mutation process, either at the molecular noise or at the quantum mechanical level, and such intervention could indeed have important results. For example, exactly when a 14C atom decayed (an event subject to quantum mechanical uncertainty) could make all the difference. I have argued (http://wp.me/p21T1L-gW) that the fact that mutations are pretty well random and lack any noticeable direction is evidence against this, and, more to the point, that in using this argument I am applying a scientific test to a supernatural hypothesis.

    Would IMN supporters say I was mistaken here? Even more to the point, do they think that theistic evolutionists of the kind that I describe (some names might spring to mind) are being inconsistent in continuing to do science at all?

    Alternatively, as has been hinted at here, IMN supporters might maintain that people claiming to find a pattern in mutations caused by divine intervention were merely extending our concept of natural causation, and adding the mind of God to the list of subjects amenable to scientific study. This escape route also undermines IMN, by making the definition of “supernatural” so flexible that the principle becomes useless.

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  43. Dear Coel,

    Pardon me for sitting this out. As a historian, I’m interested in tracing continuity and change in the philosophy of science. The views I quoted were Helmholtz’s and du Bois-Reymond’s from the 1840s and 1870s.

    You guys are all really bright, and it’s fascinating to follow this debate. Sometimes I wish you’d pay more attention to what scientists said in the past. You’d see how closely many of your positions resemble positions staked out in another time and place. I think that exercise is helpful in suggesting which debates might be hard to settle.

    But maybe the point isn’t identifying tractable problems; maybe the point is identifying important problems. It’s gratifying to see that other people think this stuff is important.

    By the way, a colleague of mine, Andreas Sommer, works on the history of the supernatural in science. His blog is

    http://forbiddenhistories.wordpress.com

    He seems to side more with you.

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  44. And – sorry, Massimo, I only just saw your latest – ” investigating a supernaturally created universe, in which the laws are actually arbitrary whims of the creators, and with the understanding that such creators could change or suspend the rules, at any time, for any reason. You don’t think that would be a significantly different “science” from what we practice now?”

    Some of our colleagues think they are working for the greater glory of God, some are working to put God out of business, and some (including I expect most advocates of both IMN and PMN) regard the idea of God as an irrelevant nuisance, to be excluded either in principle, or as the result of experience, respectively. But I don’t think we are doing three or four different kinds of science.

    And (to come back to where we came in) there was indeed one scientist who consciously invoked divine intervention in nature, and another who showed as the result of a lot of hard work that (over the immediate timescale, at least), there was “no need for that hypothesis”.

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  45. There are lots of arguments that could be given against ID. Braterman (above) argues against it by saying that the eye “is in one crucial detail very poorly designed”, and that Behe’s explanation “has become so well immunized against observation”. He also says that supernatural explanations have been refuted. Fine, but that is not what the Lehigh faculty says. Their statement does not give any example or observation or reference to a refutation or anything like that. On the contrary, they say that ID has not been tested and should not be tested. They are rejecting ID a priori. They do say that Darwin’s work has been supported by findings over 140 years, but presumably Behe would agree to that, so that is not a refutation of Behe. I read their statement as saying that IMN rejects ID. They obviously gave their statement very careful consideration, and they would have said something else if they meant something else.

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