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RE: [skeptics-137] Fwd: [New post] Must we assume naturalism to do science?

From: Don
Sent on: Monday, April 1, 2013 9:30 AM

I’m not sure I buy this, although this may be my non-philosphical plebian view.  If an idea has no physical manifestation, no entry into the natural world, makes no claims that can be tested, it can be ignored.  Have I missed the boat here?


Don Dodge


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Subject: [skeptics-137] Fwd: [New post] Must we assume naturalism to do science?



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From: Why Evolution Is True <[address removed]>
Date: Mon, Apr 1, 2013 at 8:46 AM
Subject: [New post] Must we assume naturalism to do science?
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whyevolutionistrue posted: "Yonatan Fishman sent me a paper  (free online) that he's just published with Maarten Boudry (they're both philosophers, and we've discussed Boudry's work before; see here and here).  The topic is of interest to both secularists and scientists: the claim t"

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New post on Why Evolution Is True


Must we assume naturalism to do science?

by whyevolutionistrue

Yonatan Fishman sent me a paper  (free online) that he's just published with Maarten Boudry (they're both philosophers, and we've discussed Boudry's work before; see here and here).  The topic is of interest to both secularists and scientists: the claim that science can study only "natural" phenomena, and is powerless before supernatural ones.

If you've followed the science-vs.-creationism debates, you'll know that often involve disputes about the importance of "naturalism" in science. There are two brands of naturalism under discussion:

Methodological naturalism (MN): this is, as Fishman and Boudry (F&B) define it, "the view that science, by virtue of its methods, is limited to studying 'natural' phenomena and cannot consider or evaluate hypotheses that refer to supernatural entities."
Ontological naturalism (ON; sometimes called "philosophical naturalism"): this is, as F&B note, "the metaphysical thesis that supernatural entities and phenomena do not exist."

As you know if you've read this site before, I don't adhere to the view that science should be wedded a priori to either of these views.  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. That is, unless, you define "natural phenomena" as those amenable to scientific investigation, in which case the claim is tautological.

And indeed, scientists have studied "supernatural" or "paranormal" phenomena before, including ESP, intercessory prayer, and so on.

F&B agree, and argue in the paper 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.

Their paper is a critique of an earlier paper in the journal by Martin Mahner (reference below), which argues that the supernatural is immune to scientific study.

Now some of you will argue, perhaps, that once a phenomenon is studied and confirmed by the methods of science, it must be natural rather than supernatural.  But, as I noted, that's tautological, and untrue if one defines the "supernatural" as do F&B. Their definition of course includes religious assertions, so that stuff can indeed be studied by science. And it's undeniably the case that science can and has studied things like PSI phenomena and intercessory prayer.  Science could study other supernatural phenomena, like miracles, rain dances, witchcraft, and so on, so that religious claims are not off limits. According F&B, science studies not what is natural, but what is real, and they prefer the term "ontological realism" to "ontological naturalism". I agree:

However, we maintain that ontological realism, while it may partly explain the success of science, is a defeasible conclusion of science—one that is arrived at by consideration of the evidence. What makes something ‘real’, and not just a figment of our imagination or a social construction, is that it exhibits a consistent pattern irrespective of (or indeed in spite of) our subjective beliefs, thoughts, biases, or desires. Whether or not there are phenomena that fulfill this criterion is empirically discoverable through science. Ontological realism about the entities described by science is the conclusion of an inference to the best explanation on the basis of the available evidence, not a presupposition of science.

There are two important points here.

First, phenomena traditionally seen as "supernatural" and "religious" clearly fall within the ambit of science. Why is that important? For two reasons. First, it makes religious claims about what is "real" directly amenable to scientific study.  Granted, testing things like the Resurrection is difficult since they're one-off claims (indeed, that's why Christianity ultimately rests on that claim rather than other scriptural claims that can be easily refuted), but science has already tested and refuted other religious claims, like the instantaneous creation of life, the Great Flood of Noah, the Exodus from Egypt, the young age of the Earth, the existence of Adam and Eve, and so on. What are those besides supernatural claims?

This makes hash, then, of an important accommodationist argument: science and religion study different things, and science has nothing to say about religion. That's the trope employed by the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), the National Academy of Science (NAS), and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). But—pardon my French—that claim is garbage.  Many theologians (including Haught, Polkinghorne, and Swinburne) argue that religion does indeed make truth claims about reality, and thus these epistemic claims can be addressed by ontological realism.

Accommodationist organizations like the NCSE and NAS argue that science can't address the supernatural for one reason alone: they want to show that religion and science can coexist harmoniously. If religious claims can be defined as outside the ambit of science, that makes it easier to accommodate them.

This is all very NOMA-esque, but it's wrong.  Science has, can, and will continue to address the supernatural.  What else was the Templeton-funded study of intercessory prayer (a study, by the way, that showed no effect of prayer)?

I once discussed this issue with Eugenie Scott, head of the NCSE, and she had no response. She kept insisting that science can't address the supernatural, despite my demonstration to her that it can and does. In fact, her claim is a political rather than a scientific or one: the assertion that science assumes 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.

Second, science has never assumed methodological naturalism as an a priori dictate of how to operate.  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."  The fact that we've provided natural explanations for what is real is simply a result of using the method, and suggests that there are not in fact any supernatural phenomena. But science could have detected such phenomena had they existed. F&B provide a list:

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’’.

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

Because of the repeated success of science in explaining reality as a result of natural and not supernatural phenomena, we have eventually come around to ON as a philosophical position: since there's been no evidence for anything supernatural (as F&B define it), we can provisionally assume that supernatural entities and phenomena do not existAs philosopher Barbara Forrest has pointed out (much to the chagrin of the NCSE, I suspect), ON—she calls it "philosophical naturalism"—is a worldview that's grown out of the repeated application of science, and not from a priori rumination. ON is thus a coherent worldview that can be justified from experience, not from philosophical premises.

Finally, F&B note (and again I agree) that claiming that the supernatural is off-limits to religion, while seemingly useful for accommodationism, is actually inimical to science in an important way. That's because the program of intelligent design creationism (ID) includes criticizing scientists for being "close minded" by ruling the supernatural out of court.  We scientists, they say, are biased by our adherence to MN, and thus sworn to ignore the supposed evidence for intelligent design. (This argument is also made by advocates of paranormal phenomena like ESP.)

F&B's claim, and mine, is that we shouldn't rule the supernatural out on first principles. Creationism and its gussied-up cousin ID shouldn't be dismissed because they invoke the supernatural, but simply because there is no evidence for them. After all, it's theoretically possible that all life appeared in one instant six thousand years ago and has remained unchanged ever since. That's a religious view, but also a scientific one. And it's wrong.

I'll give F&B the last word:

Our examination of the scientific testability of supernatural hypotheses and, more generally, of the issue of whether or not science presupposes ON has direct implications for science education policies. If, as we have argued, the scientific enterprise does not require an a priori commitment to methodological or metaphysical presuppositions, in particular Mahner’s ‘nosupernature’ principle, then scientists and science educators should not reject supernatural explanations out of hand. Rather, they should be rejected on the grounds that they fail to satisfy general criteria of good explanations in science. For instance, Evan Fales writes:
The reason that ID is not good science is not because it invokes a supernatural creator. ID is not good science because the empirical arguments it provides fail on their merits—e.g., because the criteria for irreducible (or ‘‘specified’’) complexity are defective, question-begging, or not demonstrably applicable to any known organism. (Fales 2009)
Thus, ID should not be taught in science classes as an alternative to Darwinian evolution not because it may make reference to a supernatural designer, but rather because its claims do not meet the standards of good explanations (see also Clark 2009; Laudan 1982). In agreement with previous authors (Martin 1994), we believe that teaching science students how to think critically and how to evaluate hypotheses according to the criteria of good scientific explanations (perhaps using the Bayesian and information-theoretic frameworks outlined above) is as important as teaching them what to think. Accordingly, except for the purpose of teaching critical thinking skills and the history of scientific thought, science educators need not waste their (and their students’) time considering discredited theories such as old earth creationism, phlogiston, disease as due to demonic possession, dowsing, psychic surgery, spiritualism, psi, flat earth theory, homeopathy, astrology, phrenology, or Ptolemaic astronomy. Again, rejection of these theories is not based on a priori methodological or metaphysical presuppositions of science, but on the grounds that they make predictions that conflict with the available evidence or they are unparsimonious.


Fishman, Y. I. and M. Boudry. 2013.  Does science presuppose naturalism (or anything at all)? Science & Education, published online, DOI [masked]/s[masked]-1.

Mahner M. 2012. The role of metaphysical naturalism in science.  Science & Education 21:1437-1459.


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