Methodological naturalism revisited

When countering anti-evolutionary views such as those put forth by the intelligent design (ID) movement, anti-ID commentators often refer to “methodological naturalism” as a “ground rule” of science.

I’m not entirely happy with this, but I don’t see any great problem either — provided we think of this “ground rule” as a pragmatic rule, not an a priori straightjacket on investigation.

We like to stick with methods that have a good prospect of working, judged according to our present knowledge of how the world actually works. We may be wrong. Hence anyone — such as any of the ID philosophers — is welcome to propose doing things differently, but the scientific community needs a damn good reason to depart from its tried and true methods. Whining about exclusion is not sufficient. But on the other hand, if the ID people were able to demonstrate that their way of doing things allowed us to learn a good deal more about the world, well, our methods are not set in stone and we’d have to change them.

So far ID has no signs of success in this direction, and I would guess a snowballs chance in hell of ever getting anywhere. So I wish they’d stop whining.

Still, I worry when anti-ID commentators give the impression that “methodological naturalism” is something set in stone, or that it jumps out of a philosophical hat without being connnected to real-world reasons concerning what works. When that happens, ID-sympathetic philosophers correctly object that it looks like we’re offering up an arbitrary prejudice as if it defined science (sez who?) and enforcing it by what boils down to force rather than argument.

I would prefer that we were more careful not to give them such an opportunity.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05917263957356181206 PK

    So on the one hand, the problem is that if methodological naturalism (MN) were a philosophical position, MN would be open to the charge of being an arbitrary prejudice. But on the other hand, the solution, that MN is pragmatic rather than philosophical, misses the fact that pragmatism too is a philosophical position. Granted, pragmatism isn’t an arbitrary prejudice, since the pragmatist’s standard is to subscribe to whatever actually works. If a scientific theory has real-world applications, the pragmatist accepts the theory as true. But there is still a philosophical question about why we should accept the pragmatic standard of truth, which is the standard of practical advantage.

    Notice that if the practical applications were taken only as evidence of nonpragmatic truth (say, of a correspondence relation between a theory and the facts), MN wouldn’t be accepted by the scientist for mere pragmatic reasons. Instead, the scientist would accept MN because the practical advantage given by a theory is a sign that the theory corresponds to reality. The technology works because the theory is True in some nonpragmatic sense. However, if the theory’s practical advantages weren’t regarded as evidence of nonpragmatic truth, such that pragmatism were adopted as an end rather than as a means, the need to defend pragmatism at the philosophical level would be even more pressing.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/18398099496947604380 Alonzo Fyfe

    These issues point to why I prefer the epistemological view known as “coherentism”.

    Coherentism holds that there is no foundational knowledge. Rather, every proposition is defended by the strength of its connections to other propositions. Not even the most fundamental propositions of logic and math are foundational.

    This allows us, as our knowledge progresses, to realize that Euclidian geometry, no matter how foundational it appeared to be, was ultimately a mistake built on false assumptions. Like Newtonian physics, it is accurate enough for the every-day world, but still fundamentally wrong.

    Methodological naturalism has some extremely strong connections. It has been tremendously successful in giving us the power to predict the effects of our actions, giving us a tremendous boost in technology, compared with the nearly complete impotence of competing views.

    However, at any time, we may discover a competing set of propositions with even stronger connections. It is possible. At this point, I cannot even imagine what that set would look like. However, it is still possible.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02126102764726361149 Gerardo Perez Plascencia

    [Alonzo Fyfe] This allows us, as our knowledge progresses, to realize that Euclidian geometry, no matter how foundational it appeared to be, was ultimately a mistake built on false assumptions. Like Newtonian physics, it is accurate enough for the every-day world, but still fundamentally wrong.

    How would Euclidian geometry be “fundamentally wrong”? What would be the “false assumtions”. I agree that the progression of knowledge allows us to realize mistakes made (or things ommited) in our reasoning, but I wouldn’t call Newtonian physics “fundamentally wrong” but incomplete. If it [Newton physics] would be wrong, then we wouldn’t have DirectTV or TiVo(we wouldn’t be able to launch communication satellites :) ).

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16826768452963498005 Jim Lippard

    On non-Euclidian geometry and the universe:
    http://www.damtp.cam.ac.uk/user/gr/public/inf_lowden.html

    Newtonian physics is results in accurate-enough measurements most of the time, but strictly speaking, it is wrong–in the realms of the very small and very fast, it gives incorrect results.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02126102764726361149 Gerardo Perez Plascencia

    On non-Euclidian geometry and the universe:
    http://www.damtp.cam.ac.uk/user/gr/public/inf_lowde

    Sorry, I couldn’t open the link (Error 404).

    I know about non-Euclidean spaces, what I think is that “fundamentally wrong” is not a correct assertion. You should not say Newtonian physiscs [NP for short] are “fundamentally wrong”, but that now NP have been derived from Einstein’s relativity theory when moving at slow velocities. Now we know that space and time are related and at high velocities mass has “weird” behaviors, so, in that sense, NP are incomplete, not “fundamentally wrong”, same for Euclidean geometry; as Issac Asimov book: “The relativity of error”

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/18398099496947604380 Alonzo Fyfe

    Euclidean geometry and Newtonian physics are wrong at all distances and speeds.

    However, at small distances and slow speeds the error Euclidian and Newtonian formulae yield results that are too close to the correct answer to worry about.

    When cutting a board for your house, an error of a few quadrillionth of an inch is not going to cost you anything.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10530471442283918005 HiveMaker

    Larry Laudan raised more or less the same concerns after the creation trials of the 80′s, notably in a paragraph that DI legal scholars and other apologists are fond of quoting. An algorithmic demarcationist description of scientific process does, among other problems (such as being false), set up science to be attacked as “just another philosophy”.

    But at the same time, there really is an issue when creationists try to redefine science, as they did in the Kansas standards, or as Behe’s lame “teach the astrology controversy” testimony did. It can’t be the case both that science has no definition and that trying to change the definition is a bad thing.

    The issue is even more vexed when one takes into account the fact that while defining what “naturalism” means is a question of great difficulty, absolutely no one seems to be able to say what “supernaturalism” entails. Do supernaturalists want us to admit a certain class of entities currently excluded in our theories, and if so is this class defined intensionally, extensionally, or ostensively? Is it that supernaturalists want us to employ certain vectors of knowledge currently discounted by science, such as personal revelation, tarot cards, and bibliomancy? Is it that supernaturalists want us to accomodate certain forms of explanation, such as irreducibly teleological ones, into science? Is it just that they want us to lower our standards of evaluation of competing theories such that evidence and consilience are no longer paramount epistemic virtues?

    I think the best way is to turn the question around and ask which if any of the above the supernaturalist is complaining about, and specifically to state what a “supernatural theory” would even look like. Take things on the offensive and watch them vanish in a puff of smoke.

    Alonzo Fyfe – I can’t make heads or tails of your post; it appears to be an incoherent jumble.

    The confusion starts right out of the gate. You defend coherentism by attacking foundationalism, even though no one is raising the issue of foundationalism. Then you use a correspondentist justification for it (“Euclidian geometry, no matter how foundational it appeared to be, was ultimately a mistake built on false assumptions. Like Newtonian physics, it is accurate enough for the every-day world, but still fundamentally wrong.”) And even this is factually in error; EG is neither “fundamentally wrong” nor “built on false assumptions”. Non-EG systems are constructed simply by arbitrarily altering one or more of the EG axioms, and the choice of which to drop is entirely contingent on what system you’re trying to model.

    Then after this, you proceed to make a pragmatist argument for science! (“It has been tremendously successful in giving us the power to predict the effects of our actions, giving us a tremendous boost in technology, compared with the nearly complete impotence of competing views.”)

    I think you need to get a bit clearer on precisely what your epistemic theory entails.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16826768452963498005 Jim Lippard

    HiveMaker: A coherentist theory of justification doesn’t entail a coherentist theory of truth. One can consistently hold a coherentist theory of justification and a correspondence theory of truth (Keith Lehrer, for example, holds such a position).

    You seem to miss Fyfe’s point about geometry–he was raising the issue of which geometry accurately describes the world. Your response is about the internal consistency of Euclidean vs. non-Euclidean geometries without regard to the question of which accurately describes physical space.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10530471442283918005 HiveMaker

    Granted that they’re oft-entwined-but-logically-severable, none of that obviates the weirdness of a defense of coherentist epistemology by (falsely) calling anything a “mistake” built on “false assumptions” that are “fundamentally wrong”, nor does it go to defending it on pragmatic grounds.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03558220107608284035 Tom Clark

    In describing methodological naturalism (the scientific method), the National Association of Science says that:

    “Science is a way of knowing about the natural world. It is limited to explaining the natural world through natural causes. Science can say nothing about the supernatural. Whether God exists or not is a question about which science is neutral.” (p. 58, “Teaching About Evolution and the Nature of Science” at the NAS site library)

    But where do the conceptions of the natural world and natural causes mentioned here come from? Only, I’d suggest, from the practice of science itself, in that what’s natural is just that which ends up playing a role in good scientific explanations of phenomena. What this means for the ID debate is that science doesn’t presume naturalism of any sort, and thus isn’t philosophically biased, rather it *generates* the natural/supernatural distinction.

    This effectively blunts the Wedge, since Phillip Johnson et al can’t any longer claim that science is being illegitimately hijacked by the nefarious proponents of naturalism.

    ref: http://www.naturalism.org/science.htm#integrity

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17592286526988152844 je armstrong

    The discussion of NM and PM always makes my head hurt. Speaking from down in the trenches of field research, I agree with pk, science is strictly a pragmatic, whatever works deal. So I think you accept the pragmatic standard of truth exactly because it works.


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