The Argument is as Bad as Ever

Jerry Coyne is once again promoting Maarten Boudry’s notions that miracles can be part of science and “God did it!” can be a true scientific explanation.  We’ve already seen the many serious flaws in Boudry’s arguments, nevertheless, let’s survey this latest attempt to misuse science by turning it into an apologetic tool for New Atheism.

Coyne and Boudry are under this impression that science can “study” the supernatural.  Consider some representative claims:

  • Although we do use the methods of reason, experimentation, replication, and so on to study phenomena in nature, we aren’t limited to studying purely natural phenomena
  • F&B agree, and argue in the paper that science can indeed study supernatural phenomena
  • Science could study other supernatural phenomena, like miracles, rain dances, witchcraft, and so on, so that religious claims are not off limits.
  • MN is meant to immunize religion from scientific study, and thus keep the faithful happy. And when the faithful are happy, perhaps they’ll join us in opposing creationism.
  • Science is simply a method of studying what’s real, and finding the best explanation using observation, prediction, replication, experimentation, and so on. There’s nothing in that method that dictates “study only natural phenomena.”

Yet there is nothing in Coyne’s essay, or the excerpts from Boudry’s paper, that indicates these men have offered a way to study the supernatural.

Perhaps I am biased by allegiance to the scientific approach, but I don’t consider the detection of some phenomenon an act of studying the phenomenon.  For example, let’s say that I am surveying a database of gene sequences and find a sequence from some bacterium that is significantly similar to that of an enzyme known as a tyrosine kinase.  So I next employ various lab procedures and techniques to isolate that gene and artificially express it.  Once the gene is expressed, there are other tests that can be used to determine if the gene product behaves just like a known tyrosine kinase.  If it does, I can then make the case that I have detected a bacterial tyrosine kinase.  But I have not yet studied it.  To study it, I have to proceed to the characterization steps, and begin to describe the features and functions of the enzyme in detail.  To scientifically study the enzyme, I need to put the enzyme in its context, relative to other enzymes and their behavior in other life forms. Put simply, in science, to detect is not the same as to study.  We only study after we detect.

So how in the world is a scientist supposed to study the supernatural? According to Coyne, F&B argue that “science can indeed study supernatural phenomena if one adheres to their definition of the supernatural:”

Thus, for the sake of argument, we will adopt a working ‘umbrella’ definition of ‘supernatural’ as referring to entities or phenomena that possess one or more of the following characteristics: (1) They operate in ways that fundamentally violate our current understanding of how the world works, (2) they exist outside the spatiotemporal realm of our universe (though they may still causally interact with our universe), and (3) they suggest that reality is at bottom purposeful and mind-like, particularly in a sense that implies a central role for humanity and human affairs in the cosmic scheme. We neither expect that this definition will encompass all uses of the term, nor do we expect complete agreement on the characteristics we have included under it.

None of this solves anything or helps in any way.  When we “adhere” to (1), we are simply committing to the God-of-the-Gaps approach.  If X, by definition, is supposed to operate in ways that fundamentally violate our current understanding of how the world works, then we can only detect X through a Gap that cannot be explained by our current understanding of how the world works.  So how does the God-of-the-Gaps approach study the supernatural?  When we adhere to (2), we, as beings whose experiences are restricted to time-space, can no longer safely invoke our own experience and extrapolate.  In other words, adherence to (2) strips away our ability to draw upon previous knowledge and experience to formulate a hypothesis.  And without the hypothesis, there is no scientific way to formulate a prediction.  And without the prediction, there is no way to design the experiment and conduct a test that has scientifically meaningful results.  When we adhere to (3), we immerse ourselves in the deep waters of subjectivity, for there is no objective, scientific way of detecting reality is at bottom purposeful and mind-like.  Purposeful and mind-like realities can only be subjectively perceived, by other minds that subjectively experience purpose.

So F&B are simply arguing that science can indeed study supernatural phenomena if one (1) adopts the God-of-the-Gaps approach, (2) gives up the ability to generate meaningful hypotheses with predictions entailed by those hypotheses, and (3) ultimately decides reality on the basis of subjective opinion.  In other words, we have to abandon science to study the supernatural.

Maybe things will improve once Boudry and his colleague provide a list of phenomena that could have been detected by science:

1. Intercessory prayer can heal the sick or re-grow amputated limbs
2. Only Catholic intercessory prayers are effective.
3. Anyone who speaks the Prophet Mohammed’s name in vain is immediately struck down by lightning, and those who pray to Allah five times a day are free from disease and misfortune.
4. Gross inconsistencies are found in the fossil record and independent dating techniques suggest that the earth is less than 10,000 years old—thereby confirming the biblical account and casting doubt upon Darwinian evolution and contemporary scientific accounts of geology and cosmology.
5. Specific information or prophecies claimed to be acquired during near death experiences or via divine revelation are later confirmed – assuming that conventional means of obtaining this information have been effectively ruled out.
6. Scientific demonstration of extra-sensory perception or other paranormal phenomena (e.g., psychics routinely win the lottery).
7. Mental faculties persist despite destruction of the physical brain, thus supporting the existence of a soul that can survive bodily death.
8. Stars align in the heavens to spell the phrase, ‘‘I Exist—God’’.

Coyne adds:

Some of you will say that these phenomena could be caused by space aliens and the like, and thus could be “natural” phenomena.

Yeah, that’s what a good scientist would say.

But I, for one, would regard some of these as support for religious truth claims (e.g., #2 or #3), and provisional evidence for a divine being.

Jerry, for one, is entitled to his subjective opinions.  But that’s all it would be.  Jerry’s opinion, not science.  But we are not talking about his views, intuition or spidey sense.  He is supposed to be making the case that it would be science that is discovering such things.  If he wants to make the case that #2 or #3 is scientific evidence for a divine being, he needs to explain WHY it is evidence for a divine being.  How did he rule out ETI?  What method did he use?  Is it because in his heart, he knows a space alien would never ever target a major world religion for manipulation?  Without independent evidence for space alien behavior and psychology, how can any honest scientist tell us #2 or #3 is scientific evidence for a divine being?

As for his provisionalism, what would be his next step?  What experiment would he set up to rule out ETI intervention?  Certainly he could add to his hypothetical thought experiment and tell us the next set of experiments.  Or can he?  Maybe he’s just stuck at “Those Catholics sure get healed more than others, so in my heart I know the Catholic God must exist!”  Jerry’s science in action.

If we go back to F&B, which one of those examples does not rely on the God-of-the-Gaps approach to be evidence?  All I see is a list of sensational Gaps cherry-picked precisely for the reason that they do not exist.  If F&B wants Gaps, why not list other gaps that do exist and allow others to adopt Jerry’s logic and “provisionally” accept that Gap as evidence of a divine being?

What’s worse, is that F&B don’t seem to understand that in science, evidence exists as a consequence of its relationship to the hypothesis.  It’s not enough to cherry pick a list of possible Gaps that supposedly defy all possible naturalistic explanation. In science, you need to explain precisely WHY those gaps SHOULD exist.  In other words, for the star alignment to count as scientific evidence for God, the existence of such a star pattern by itself is not enough.  We would have to have some hypothesis, informed by God’s behaviors and intentions, that would allow us to make the following argument:

  • If God exists, then He would, as a function of His existence, align some stars into a pattern that spelled out in English, “I Exist—God.’’

Without that hypothesis in hand, and solid reasons for thinking the hypothesis is serious, the failure to find such a star pattern is scientifically meaningless.  If you don’t predict it to exist, why think the lack of existence means anything?

New Atheists don’t seem able to grasp this point.  So let’s try another angle.  Let’s say you run into a Hardcore Young Earth Creationist who insists (and truly believes) there is no evidence for evolution.  How do you convince him?  He tells you science could have come up with such evidence.  For example, science could have shown that if a chimpanzee is subjected to a series of X-rays to mutate its DNA, it would begin to walk upright and start talking.  Of course, the failure to create a talking chimp with an X-ray machine is not scientifically meaningful, as the truth of evolution does not predict we should be able to get chimps chatting after a round of chest x-rays.  “Nevertheless,” the creationist insists, “that would be real evidence for evolution.”

Of course, this is not the only place where Coyne and Boudry think just like creationists, now is it?

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2 Responses to The Argument is as Bad as Ever

  1. Crude says:

    Jerry, for one, is entitled to his subjective opinions. But that’s all it would be. Jerry’s opinion, not science.

    That’s pretty much the heart of it. Coyne seems utterly confused about this, to the point where he thinks that if a scientist has an opinion, his opinion is now a ‘discovery of science’ – at least if that scientist has the right opinion.

  2. “The fact that the scientist has succeeded where the magician failed has put such a wide contrast between them in popular thought that the real story of the birth of Science is misunderstood. You will even find people who write about the sixteenth century as if Magic were a medieval survival and Science the new thing that came in to sweep it away. Those who have studied the period know better. There was very little magic in the Middle Ages: the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are the high noon of magic. The serious magical endeavour and the serious scientific endeavour are twins: one was sickly and died, the other strong and throve. But they were twins. They were born of the same impulse. I allow that some (certainly not all) of the early scientists were actuated by a pure love of knowledge. But if we consider the temper of that age as a whole we can discern the impulse of which I speak.

    “There is something which unites magic and applied science while separating both from the wisdom of earlier ages. For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique; and both, in the practice of this technique, are ready to do things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious….”

    C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, ch. 3
    http://www.columbia.edu/cu/augustine/arch/lewis/abolition3.htm

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