Can Scientists Infer About Naturalism And Its Limitations?

Can Scientists Infer About Naturalism And Its Limitations? July 18, 2009

John Pieret is not thrilled with Sean Carroll’s foray into the philosophy of science and metaphysics from Thursday. Particularly, he is (rightly) critical of Carroll’s dismissal of major theories of scientific demarcation as mere “mottos” and his apparently unnuanced and uncritical preference for Occam’s Razor in all cases.  Only in the final paragraph does he address the portion on the possibility of supernatural causes being acknowledged by science which we quoted yesterday.

In what I present below from Pieret’s post is his attack on Carroll’s unqualified acceptance of the Razor and then his attack on Carroll’s door crack for supernaturalism as science:

As Samir Okasha’s Philosophy of Science: A Very Short Introduction states:

The idea that simplicity or parsimony is the mark of a good explanation is quite appealing, and certainly helps flesh out the idea of [the inference to the best explanation]. But if scientists use simplicity as a guide to inference, this raises a problem. For how do we know that the universe is simple rather than complex? Preferring a theory that explains the data in terms of the fewest number of causes does seem sensible. But is there any objective reason for thinking that such a theory is more likely to be true than a less simple theory? Philosophers of science do not agree on the answer to this difficult question.

Simplicity is surely attractive to those who want to think simplistically but does it have any truth-delivering capability? After all, it is the inference to best explanation and Occam’s razor that the Intelligent Design Creationists appeal to. As Carroll notes, the IDers, like Carroll, don’t see methodological naturalism as standing in their way:

There’s no obstacle in principle to imagining that the normal progress of science could one day conclude that the invocation of a supernatural component was the best way of understanding the universe. Indeed, this scenario is basically the hope of most proponents of Intelligent Design.

Carroll may not understand, or may not care, but, if his account of science is correct, then ID cannot be barred from American public classrooms. It is, under his version of science, a valid attempt at science and, even if he thinks it is wrong or unsupported, it cannot be barred from public classrooms just because it has religious implications. Nor is there any basis under our law to bar it just because it is “bad” science. Of course, simply because it will have bad consequences doesn’t mean that Carroll’s definition of science is wrong but, if your version of science includes something so clearly not science, it may be time to reexamine your definition.

But Carroll isn’t done with the razor. Based on it he declares:

In the real world, by far the most compelling theoretical framework consistent with the data is one in which everything that happens is perfectly accounted for by natural phenomena. No virgin human births, no coming back after being dead for three days, no afterlife in Heaven, no supernatural tinkering with the course of evolution. You can define “religion” however you like, but you can’t deny the power of science to reach far-reaching conclusions about how reality works.

In short, Carroll is maintaining that philosophical naturalism is a scientific result. I wonder when he will be publishing this in the scientific literature? I’d suggest he try publishing in a philosophical journal but I think philosophers would take him even less seriously.

My own argument that the success of methodological naturalism serves as confirmation of the thesis of metaphysical naturalism can be found in part of this post and then again in this follow up post to that one.

Are Pieret’s charges that Carroll should stick to science and stop trying to draw philosophical conclusions that go beyond his ken or does Carroll have make solid philosophical points nonetheless and Pieret is declaring a turf war when he should really just state a philosophical disagreement without an attack on Carroll’s credentials to speak on the topic?

Is this an example of that philosopher’s unwarranted presumption of “philosophical exceptionalism” about which Professor Jones has warned us or is it an example of the need for respect for the limits of specialization about which I warned?

And read up on the views of Carroll and Pieret .  And for further challenges to Carroll and Pieret, see Jason Streitfeld’s remarks by clicking on the links he has placed in this post’s comment section and by visiting my own follow up post remarking briefly on them here.

And give us Your Thoughts on which of all these is a better account of scientific demarcation in general and whether science can lead to a naturalistic metaphysics in particular.

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