Tuesday, May 23, 2006


3rd Post on Lawrence M. Krauss

Theoretical physicist Lawrence M. Krauss, wriging in Free Inquiry, quotes from some pro-ID literature from Science Excellence for All Ohioans:

'Science standards use a little-known rule to censor the evidence of design. The rule, which is usually unstated, is often referred to as methodological naturalism.'

Krauss responds:

'We have a different name for it where I come from. It's called the scientific method. Advocates of creationism and Intelligent Design ultimately stand opposed to the scientific method, because the scientific method is based on the assumption that natural effects have natural causes and that human beings can try to understand those causes. Obviously, that's incompatible with their particular theological view of reality - and that is the heart of the problem.'

This is a fascinating response. It is true to say that the assumption that all natural effects have natural causes is incompatible with the theistic theological views of creationists. It is not necessarily true to say this of all ID theorists, since not all ID theorists have a theistic theological view. However, given that theism is incompatible with the assumption that all natural effects have natural causes (the assumption that naturalism is true), what follows? Either that theism is false or that naturalism is false. Krauss is obviously of the opinion that theism is false and that is naturalism true. Many would disagree. Anyone who disagrees with Krauss on this score will of course see 'the problem' as being quite the reverse of the one that Krauss sees as being at 'the heart of the problem'.

Krauss substitutes the lable 'the scientific method' for the lable 'methodological naturalism', but the substitution has a purely rhetorical value, implying that anyone who disagrees with methodological naturalism is thereby disagreeing with Science (with a captial S). Of course, those who disagree with methodological naturalism do not see themselves as disagreeing with Science, but rather with a specific and highly questionable philosophy of science. Note that Krauss does not disagree with the Science Excellence for all Ohioans definition of methodological naturalism. Krauss believes that methodological naturalism is a good rule to follow, and that this rule defines the very essence of Science, 'the scientific method'. He gives no indication of the precarious status of this claim among professional philosophers of science.

However, here is a dilemma for Krauss. What does he mean when he says that the scientific method assumes that 'natural effects have natural causes'? Is this paragraph a natural effect? If not, then Krauss must say that science cannot say anything about the causes of this paragraph. Either nothing can be said about the cause of this paragraph, or something can be said - but by a subject other than science (in which case, scientism is finnished). If, on the other hand, this paragraph is a natural effect, then Krauss has to say that it has a natural cause. Is the obvious fact that this paragraph is the result of intelligent design - in this case the designer is a human (me) - to count as a 'natural' cause? If it is, then clearly 'intelligent design' must count as a scientifically legitimate explanation according to Krauss! If it is not, then Krauss' definition of science means that science is forever barred from knowing the true cause of this paragraph. Science is not, according to this definition, a search for true explanations. Rather, is a search for explanations compatible with a particular interpretation of the 'methodological naturalism' rule!

In several places I have distinguished between hard and soft versions of methodological naturalism. Hard methdological naturalism (HMN) excludes all intelligent causation from scientific explanations - thereby exhiling from science many fields of study currently considered scientific and risking the ceding of epistemological compitency from science to philsoophy. You see, an argument and conclusion can be rational, sound and true without being scientific. Anyone arguing to the contrary would be contradicting themselves! Onthe other hand, soft methodological naturalism (SMN) excludes supernatural causation from science but permits explanation in terms of intelligence. This has none of the obove problems associated with hard methodological naturalism, but of course, this permits ID as well.

What if the best philosophical explanation of intelligent design in the fabric of nature (assuming that such design is detected by reliable criteria) is supernatural (although supernatural does not necessarily equate to divine), and ID is therefore ultimately appealing to a supernatural explanation?

If you think that this means that ID is excluded from science even by 'soft' methodological naturalism, then you have a problem. Given that the argument for ID is sound, we once again face demoting science, ceding epistemological ability to philosophy, and turning science into a subject that isn't concerned with truth. This last issue is of particular concern.

Of course, we could simply ditch 'methodological naturalism' per se, go back to thinking in terms of 'natural philosophy', transfer funds from science to philosophy, and admit that 'science' is an exercise in counterfactual research ('What explanations of the world would be true if the rule of methodological naturalism did not risk subverting the truth seeking function of the quest to understand material reality?').

However, I think the better part of wisdom is to stick with SMN and to use this as an agreed line of demarcation between science and philosophy; holding that even if the best philosophical interpretation of ID is ultimately supernatural, this should not detract from the scientific status of ID, since 'intelligence' is the proximate explanation and this is admissable to science so defined.

Why do this, given that demarcation arguments are out of favour among philosophers of science? Well, I'm not arguing that SMN is a necessary and/or sufficient essential definition of 'Science' with a capatial S. Rather, I'm proposing that there are good epistemological reasons for not accepting HMN and good practical reasons for agreeing to accept SMN.

Accepting SMN allows science to continue as a 'big tent' for people of widely differing worldviews. Rather than theists just doing 'natural philosophy' or 'theistic science', and atheists just doing 'science' (HMN deifnition), we can all co-operate in doing science (SMN definition). SMN allows Platonists and Muslims and Agnostics and Naturalists and Raelians all do science together. SMN does not risk subverting the truth-seeking intent of science. Whether an intelligent cause is supernatural or not (and whether intelligent causes are supernatural by deifnition is a discussion that SMN leaves to philosophers), it is still an intelligent cause and still true to note that it is an intelligent cause, even if we disagree philosophically as to whether or not it is also a supernatural cause. That debate, if we adopt SMN, is left for philosophy.

I agree with Krauss when he writes that 'After all, the essence of open-mindedness is forcing your beliefs to conform to the evidence of observations, not forcing observations to conform to your beliefs.' (p. 38.) The heart of the problem is that by depending upon the 'its not science' response to ID Krauss committs himself to a definition of Science that forces him to make observation conform to his philosophical assumption that all natural effects have natural (i.e. non-intelligent) causes. Only by ditching HMN and either adopting SMN, or by rejecting any form of 'methodological naturalism', is is possible to make science an open-minded search for truth that forces our beliefs to conform to the evidence of observation.

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