Let me repost a previous blog entry that many new readers might find interesting. I take a rather detailed look at the central New Atheist argument – science shows God does not exist – that was advocated by New Atheist activist/philosopher Maarten Boudry.
Maarten Boudry, Stefaan Blancke, and Johan Braeckman recently published an on-line article entitled, Grist to the mill of ID creationism: the failed strategy of ruling the supernatural out of science by philosophical fiat. The article comes across as a glorified blog posting designed to help the Gnu atheist movement in their ongoing death struggle with the “accomodationists.”
The basic argument of the article seems to be that because the “Intelligent Design Creationists” (IDCs) are correct in arguing that methodological naturalism biases science against supernatural causes, those who advocate methodological naturalism are helping the IDC by supplying “grist to their mills.”
The abstract reads:
According to a widespread philosophical opinion, the methodology of science is intrinsically naturalistic. It is simply not equipped to deal with supernatural claims, so it has no authority on questions of metaphysics. This (self-imposed) limitation of the epistemic reach of science is often used as a way to reconcile science and religion. We argue that ruling the supernatural out of science for intrinsic reasons is not only philosophically untenable, but has actually been grist to the mill of Intelligent Design Creationism (IDC),
The authors clearly think the whole “grist for the mill” saying is important, as not only is it in their title and abstract, but they repeat this saying several times in their paper:
- IMN is actually grist to the IDC mill on several accounts,
- In fact, Johnson’s remarks show that IMN, which is clearly his focus of attack here, is actually grist to the IDC mill.
- their writings show that IMN is actually grist to their mill.
According to the dictionary, the saying is supposed to mean “something that you can use in order to help you to succeed.” As such, I find this whole “grist for the mill” complaint to be strikingly irrational for two reasons.
First, whether or not X is “grist for the mill” is quite irrelevant. For example, if a leading evolutionary biologist was found guilty of fraud, this would obviously become “grist for the IDC mill.” Does that mean scientists should somehow try to excuse and defend the fraud? Of course not. The simple fact is that just because something is grist for someone’s mill does not mean it is untrue. On the contrary, truth is often the best type of grist for someone’s mill. Thus, the whole “grist for the mill” complaint comes across as little more than an appeal to the bogeyman.
Second, and more importantly, the authors provide no evidence that appeals to MN have helped the ID movement to succeed. All they offer are a few quotes from leading members of the ID movement who make the argument that MN = built in bias. But just because the authors admit to being very sympathetic to this argument does not mean they have provided any evidence is has led to any success in the ID movement. In fact, the authors seems oblivious to the fact that empirical reality contradicts their claim, even though they are aware of this empirical reality. They write:
A widespread philosophical opinion conceives of MN as an intrinsic and self-imposed limitation of science, as something that is part and parcel of the scientific enterprise by definition. According to this view (Intrinsic MN or IMN) – which is defended by people like Eugenie Scott, Michael Ruse and Robert Pennock and has been adopted in the ruling of Judge John E. Jones III in the Kitzmiller vs. Dover case – science is simply not equipped to deal with the supernatural and therefore has no authority on the issue (Pennock 1999; Scott 1998; Haught 2004; Ruse 2005; Jones 2005; Miller 2009).
Since “MN as an intrinsic and self-imposed limitation of science” played a crucial role in the Kitzmiller vs. Dover case, and Kitzmiller vs. Dover played (and still plays) the major role in thwarting the success of the ID movement, it is clear that MN has not been grist for the IDC mill, but has instead been a tornado that has flattened the IDC mill. Ironically, Dawkins himself has said that if he had been called as a witness for the Dover Trial, the ID side would have probably won.
So all that “grist for the mill” hand-wringing is a) irrelevant, b) not supported by empirical evidence, and c) is contradicted by the evidence, it seems clear to me a core argument of this paper has imploded.
A Clever Fail
When reading this paper, one gets the impression that Boudry et al. don’t like methodological naturalism because they’d like to make the argument that science leads to atheism. You can almost sense the irritation in the following excerpt:
The term itself was coined in 1983 by evangelical Christian and philosopher Paul deVries, who used it to make room for “other sources of truth” besides science…..Not surprisingly, IMN is typically embraced by philosophers sympathetic to religion, by theistic evolutionists and religious liberals intent on safeguarding a special epistemic domain for religious faith (Haught 2000), but also by ‘accomodationist’ atheists who simply wish to alleviate the heated opposition between religion and science (Ruse 2001; Ruse 2005). Although these atheistic defenders of IMN have brought forward interesting philosophical arguments for their position, it is apparent from their writings that their position is also inspired by the desire to “protect the religious sensibilities of theistic evolutionists” (Schafersman 1997) Just like Stephen Jay Gould’s idea of Non-Overlapping Magisteria (NOMA) (Gould 1999), for many IMN embodies the modern modus vivendi between science and religion. However, for the creationist and the IDC proponent eager to make a scientific case for supernatural design, this polite stand-off will just not do.
This excerpt comes across as a typical complaint that we might find on some Gnu blog, complete with reference to the ‘accomodationist’ atheists and the dreaded NOMA. Yet when the authors mention that this polite stand-off will just not do for creationists, they fail to mention that this polite stand-off will also not do for Gnu atheists. In fact, given that this paper cites people like Stenger and Coyne, ask yourself why it is the authors fail to mention this anywhere.
Later in the article, when the authors are trying to rationalize their attacks on MN, they also let the kitty out of the bag by complaining that MN is “soft-pedaling science.” They explain:
Modern science has been increasingly successful in finding impersonal and blind material explanations for phenomena that were previously held to be inexplicable in anything other than supernatural terms. IDCers have rightly sensed that this enormous success of naturalism makes the idea of a supernatural Creator alarmingly implausible. By contrast, advocates of IMN have tried to soft-pedal these implications……Defenders of IMN think that the mere logical consistency of science with the God hypothesis closes the case, but they ignore the other important ways in which science can bear on the God hypothesis. Although this strategy may be well-intended as a means to protect religious sensibilities, and may look like a convenient solution in the context of the separation of Church and State in the US, it does not hold up to philosophical scrutiny and is arguably a little sanctimonious.
As we will show, IMN is actually grist to the IDC mill on several accounts, and the attempts to reconcile religion and science on its basis is doomed to fail.
It looks to me like someone badly wants to make the Gnu’s “science leads to atheism” and “religion and science are irreconcilable” arguments here. And that means we have a new way of looking at the authors’ attachment to the saying, “grist to the mill.” I showed above that the authors had no evidence MN was grist to the IDC mill and the evidence indicated otherwise. So there was no problem there. But now we can see the real problem. MN is preventing the Gnus from using science as a grist for their mill. Now it makes sense. So maybe if we can get some scientists to think that MN is grist for the IDC bogeyman mills, they can abandon it so the Gnus will be free to use science as grist for their mill.
It’s a clever bit of rhetoric, but it all falls apart once we begin exploring just how it is that science is supposed to bear on the “God hypothesis.” We’ll look at that next.
Turning methodological naturalism into rhetoric
In trying to make the argument that science can bear on the “God hypothesis,” Boudry et al. have to deal with the fact that “According to a widespread philosophical opinion, the methodology of science is intrinsically naturalistic. It is simply not equipped to deal with supernatural claims, so it has no authority on questions of metaphysics.”
They try to get around this widespread philosophical opinion by making a distinction between two types of methodological naturalism. They begin their article as follows:
For over a long time, creationists and intelligent design proponents have complained that modern science is biased towards materialism and naturalism, and that it rules out any supernatural forces by fiat (Gish 1973; Macbeth 1974; Johnson 1993; Nelson 1996; Behe 2006). In response to these charges, many philosophers and scientists have recently argued that science is only committed to something they call methodological naturalism (MN): science does not deal with supernatural causes and explanations, but that is not to say that the supernatural does not exist. However, there has been some philosophical discussion about the correct understanding of MN and its proper role in science. In an earlier publication (XXX), we have made an often neglected distinction between two conceptions of MN, which involve two quite different views on the limits of science and the proper role of its naturalistic methodology.
Okay, before we look at their two versions, pay careful attention to an important fact. The authors do not define science, never define science, and make no effort in trying to define science. This is inexcusable. Because they fail to define a term so important for their argument, they will be free to tap into any definition of science available as they go along crafting their rhetorical case. We’ll see how this plays out later on.
Here are their two versions of MN:
- A widespread philosophical opinion conceives of MN as an intrinsic and self-imposed limitation of science, as something that is part and parcel of the scientific enterprise by definition. According to this view (Intrinsic MN or IMN)….. science is simply not equipped to deal with the supernatural and therefore has no authority on the issue.
- Instead, we defended MN as a provisory and empirically grounded commitment of scientists to naturalistic causes and explanations, which is in principle revocable in the light of extraordinary empirical evidence (Provisory or Pragmatic MN – PMN).
Given that Gnu atheism is scientism in a cheap tuxedo, one could only imagine how offensive it must be to hear someone claim science “has no authority on the issue.” PMN thus becomes a way to try to recapture that authority. But it succeeds only in a rhetorical sense among those inclined to embrace such rhetoric. Since I am not so inclined, PMN appears to be nothing more than an attempt to reframe IMN in way that makes it look like such authority has always been there.
You can detect the rhetorical essence of PMN by its reliance on two catch phrases:
“In principle.” Another way of saying “in principle” is “not in empirical reality.” Or, “in my imagination.” Yep, “in priniciple,” (wink, wink), science can revoke its commitment to naturalistic causes and explanations, complete with formulas, statistics, and models and replace it with “God did it!” Trust me, it can. In principle, that is. Several years ago, when pestered about how God was supposed to have actually designed something, Michael Behe joked, “In a puff of smoke.” At the time, his critics thought he was serious and mocked him for this answer because it was so unscientific. But according to Boudry et al., in principle, there is nothing at all unscientific about the answer. They think scientific explanations can terminate with “God did it” or “A puff of smoke.” They may believe this. I don’t. I don’t think any scientist, trying to understand how our world works, would ever be satisfied, as a scientist, with “God did it.” And I see no evidence to think I am wrong.
The second catch phrase is “extraordinary evidence.” Y’see, in principle, in some hypothetical imaginary world, science would gladly abandon its attempt to explain the world through laws and contingency if only we had something called “extraordinary evidence.” But what in the world is “extraordinary evidence?” In fact, at what point does evidence become extraordinary evidence? How do we tell if we truly have extraordinary evidence? The appeal to extraordinary evidence is simply an appeal to subjectivity. We will call this evidence extraordinary only when it looks extraordinary to us. And if it looks extraordinary to you, not us, we’ll make our subjective opinions about this look objective with a vote. If most of us do not think you evidence is extraordinary, it is not.
So PMN is nothing more than a convenient promise that someday, someplace, science will abandon its commitment to natural laws and processes and embrace “God did it!” as a scientific explanation if folks like Dawkins, Coyne, and Boudry et al. could just subjectively perceive something as not only “evidence” of God, but super-duper “extraordinary evidence” of God. Yeah, right.
That PMN roots its distinction in an imaginary world responding to criteria shrouded in a thick cloud of obscurity tells us it is a distinction without a difference. The real distinction between IMN and PMN is that of intellectual honesty. IMN openly acknowledges its biased approach (a bias forced on it by the limitations associated with human inquiry) and PMN does not.
When an argument completely unravels
We have seen that PMN purports to be some open-ended approach, where science, “in principle,” can embrace “God did it” as a scientific explanation if only we had some mysterious, ill-defined substance called “extraordinary evidence.” But what might this extraordinary evidence look like? In principle, of course (wink).
Boudry et al. never really try to answer this question, but they let the cat of the bag again in one place:
As science made progress, most scientists were led to abandon supernatural explanations altogether. However, in their polite reluctance to make theologians face the embarrassment, defenders of IMN now pretend that there really was no discussion to begin with, because science simply cannot deal with supernatural causes in principle. IMN suggests that natural explanations inevitably had to come out at the end of the day, and that things could not have been otherwise.
But there is no compelling reason to think that this is so. The pioneers of science could very well have bumped into phenomena that defied their every attempt at naturalistic explanation (but they didn’t). In the world we happen to live in, science is capable of giving a comprehensible natural explanation for many phenomena that were previously deemed ‘mysterious’. But this perspective can easily distort our view on what is logically and metaphysically possible. We are so accustomed to the absence of any evidence for the supernatural that we are tempted to conclude that such evidence has to be impossible.
Did you see the kitty?
No, not that one. I’ll pick it out for you:
The pioneers of science could very well have bumped into phenomena that defied their every attempt at naturalistic explanation (but they didn’t).
Still don’t see it? I’ll highlight it for you:
The pioneers of science could very well have bumped into phenomena that defied their every attempt at naturalistic explanation (but they didn’t).
See? The “extraordinary evidence” that is supposed to purchase “God did it!” as an explanation is nothing more than something that defies their every attempt at naturalistic explanation. A Gap? A Gap. Boudry et al. not only endorse the creationist’s criticism of MN, they also embrace the God-of-the-gaps approach for science!
And do you want to see just how subjective a gap can be?
Boudry et al. also write:
But as Pennock knows, modern science has extended its explanatory reach far beyond, including many domain that were traditionally reserved for the action of God: the origin of life, the beginning of the universe, the human mind, the edges of the observable world etc.
I think you will find that most creationists and IDers would consider the origin of life, the beginning of the universe, and the origin of the human mind to be plagued with massive gaps. They offer up what Boudry et al. demand. Boudry et al. respond by insisting science has explanations for these events. But when it comes to the origin of life, for example, the scientific “explanations” are really more along the lines of speculations and hypotheses (i.e., there is no Theory of Abiogenesis). So whether or not an “explanation” truly does exist is a matter of opinion.
Here is how it shakes out. Boudry et al. claim that their version of MN, PMN, is superior to IMN because it is not biased and takes supernatural claims seriously. They argue that “in principle,” science (something they never define) could incorporate supernatural causation (something they never define) as long as someone comes up with something called “extraordinary evidence” (something they never define). It turns out that this “extraordinary evidence” is supposed to be something that defies every attempt at naturalistic explanation. In other words, a gap. A super-duper gap. And it’s not about defying attempts at naturalistic “explanation.” It’s about defying all attempts at vague, naturalistic speculations and hypotheses. By the time one runs this gauntlet of shrouded obstacles, there is no reason whatsoever to think that Boudry et al.’s subjective god-of-the-gaps approach is any more objective than IMN. Thus, they fail to make the case that their version of MN is any improvement over the classic formulations of MN.
But it continues to get worse. For not only is the existence of a super-duper gap a pure judgment call, but whether to take the next step and attribute the gap to God is entirely arbitrary. Pay close attention to the way Boudry et al. introduce their PMN:
According to PMN, scientists are justified in adopting the guideline of MN in light of the huge success of naturalistic explanations and, correspondingly, the consistent failure of supernatural ones. To a reasonable scientist confronted with an empirical problem today, pursuing supernatural explanations is a waste of time and effort. However, the fact that supernatural explanations have turned out premature in the past does not necessarily mean that they are impossible. All scientific knowledge is fallible, and in principle supernatural explanations might be vindicated one day, although the prospects are rather dim, to say the least.
Since PMN adopts the guideline of MN in light of “the huge success of naturalistic explanations and, correspondingly, the consistent failure of supernatural ones,” and given that the proponent of PMN thinks “pursuing supernatural explanations is a waste of time and effort,” how can the proponent of PMN ever escape the conclusion that a discovered gap is just another in the long line of “premature” supernatural explanations? In other words, imagine a proponent of PMN is shown a gap and no one can come up with a naturalistic speculation to explain it. At this point, the proponent of PMN has two choices:
- Acknowledge this as extraordinary evidence and conclude “God did it!” as a scientific explanation, while abandoning further effort to explain it through naturalistic causes.
- Acknowledge that we cannot currently explain the phenomenon, but given the track record of success with naturalistic explanations, and track record of failure with supernatural explanations, the scientific approach would be to file this away as an “current unknown” that requires further scientific explanation with the scientific expectation that a naturalistic explanation would eventually be found.
Since option #2 fits perfectly within the framework of PMN, there is no reason whatsoever to think any proponent of PMN would ever reject it and reach for option #1. None. So when the authors insist that a “commitment of scientists to naturalistic causes and explanations” “is in principle revocable in the light of extraordinary empirical evidence,” we can now see that PMN contain no mechanism to trigger such revocation of naturalistic causes. The promise of such revocation is smoke and mirrors.
To sum up, Boudry at al.’s insistence that science could/would incorporate supernatural explanations is incoherent nonsense rooted in the god-of-the-gaps philosophy. The existence of a gap is a matter of subjective opinion; the seriousness of a gap is even more of a matter of subjective opinion; and there is no mechanism to connect the gap to an abandonment of naturalistic explanations and an embrace of supernatural explanations. In their effort to move IMN away from bias by offering PMN in its place, the authors succeed only in stripping away MN’s definitional clarity and tossing it into a swamp of subjectivity and obscurity. PMN does not remove the inherent bias of MN; it only tries to hide it as if it was something to be ashamed of.
Time to turn to theology
Having shown that Boudry at al.’s attempt to provide a new and improved version of MN is just the god-of-the-gaps approach in a new Trojan Horse, let’s turn to their more “theological” arguments. For example, they write:
After all, a complete disregard for possible supernatural causes makes sense only if we already have airtight a priori reasons that the supernatural does not exist, or that if it does, it never interferes with our material universe. Advocates of IMN do not provide such reasons, precisely because they do not want to commit themselves to metaphysical naturalism. However, in the absence of a sound rationale for disqualifying the supernatural, the dictum of IMN to proceed “as if” only natural causes are operative looks quite arbitrary.
Here the authors offer up a false dichotomy purely as a function of not taking Christian theology seriously. For the Christian, it is obvious there is a third possibility that exists as a consequence of classic, traditional Christian theology – God is a personal being. Thus, whether or not God interferes with our material universe is a matter of His will. Now, unless Boudry at al. can come up with a strongly supported hypothesis about when, where, and how God would choose to interfere with our material universe, they have no testable hypothesis. Since they have no testable hypothesis, they are not doing science. Science has no authority over the “God hypothesis” because God is not in the class of things that science can study. His actions flow from His will, not some laws or contingency. He is not a member of some population with shared characteristics; He is unique. And any human who thinks the human brain can grasp the will of God well enough to make scientific predictions about when, where, and how God would choose to interfere with our material universe is building their fantasy on a straw man version of God.
The authors then try to support their false dichotomy by actually citing Dawkins (reminiscent of the way of Christian fundamentalist might quote a Bible verse):
This becomes clear as soon as we imagine what would happen if supernatural forces were really operative in our universe. In such a world, IMN would be a very bad methodological device indeed, because it would exclude a real and tangible factor governing the universe from scientific consideration. As Richard Dawkins wrote (see also Edis 1998; Edis 2002):
A universe with a supernatural presence would be a fundamentally and qualitatively different kind of universe from one without. The difference is, inescapably, a scientific difference. (Dawkins 1997, p. 399)
Huh? Just how in the world does Dawkins know that a universe with a supernatural presence would be a fundamentally and qualitatively different kind of universe from one without? Does he have independent knowledge of what the two different universes look like? No. So it just seems that way according to his own personal intuition, right? And just how, pray tell, would they look different? According to Dawkins, that is.
The only thing clear is that Boudry et al. and Dawkins personally believe that a universe with a supernatural presence would be a fundamentally and qualitatively different kind of universe from one without. They are describing themselves, not any universe. They are entitled to opinions about this matter, but this type of vague squish cannot support the conclusion they wish us all to share.
Okay, so Boudry at al. want to use science to test theology without giving theology serious consideration. They vaguely imagine a world where supernatural interventions to have occurred to be fundamentally different from ours. Then, to make things even more obscure, now is the time to exploit the multiple meanings of “science” (recall they made zero effort to define the terms):
But as we have shown in our other article on MN (XXX), if the supernatural were knowable at all, there is no reason why science would in principle be incapable of telling us anything about it. If supernatural forces were to intervene in our material universe, as IDC proponents and other theists maintain, they would have empirically detectable consequences, and these are in principle open to scientific investigation.
Just because science entails empirical detection does not mean empirical detection is science. Just because something was empirically detected does not mean it is now open to scientific investigation. Just because all crows are black does not mean anything that is black is a crow. Get it? The simple fact is the empirical detection most commonly takes place outside of science and there is no reason to think that anytime an event has empirically detectable consequences, these are open to scientific investigation. Maybe it’s the case; maybe it’s not.
At this point it would help to read two previous essays that are quote relevant:
Coyne and the nine-hundred-foot-tall Jesus – let’s make it clear – empirical detection does not equal science
Science does not contradict the Resurrection of Christ – an example where science cannot investigate a claim which has empirically detectable consequences.
Look at it this way. The authors insist:
If supernatural forces were to intervene in our material universe, as IDC proponents and other theists maintain, they would have empirically detectable consequences,
Okay so far. In fact, from a theological perspective, such supernatural intervention would be a miracle or sign. From the scientific perspective, it would be a gap.
and these are in principle open to scientific investigation
Bzzt. Wrong. A miracle or gap is something science cannot explain and is thus not open to scientific investigation. To be open to scientific investigation, the miracle, at the very least, would have to be reproducible. But miracles are not reproducible in any scientific sense, as they depend on the context that is only known by God and will of God. Boudry et al. are simply trying to make the nonsensical point that miracles can be part of science.
In summary, Boudry et al.’s article, Grist to the mill of ID creationism: the failed strategy of ruling the supernatural out of science by philosophical fiat, is a completely unconvincing. It fails to provide any evidence that MN is “grist to the mill of ID creationism” in a manner that is significant; it appears more concerned with the fact that MN is an obstacle to Gnu atheist apologetics than anything else; it attempts to obscure the necessary bias of MN by posturing as if it could be dispensed by making vague, fuzzy assurances that the god-of-the-gaps approach can be embraced in science such that miracles are deemed scientific explanations, and it does all this without any consideration of what any “God hypothesis” would predict. In fact, it fails to take even the most basic tenets of Christian theism seriously and instead builds on a logical fallacy by providing the reader with the false dichotomy of atheism vs. deism.