Thursday, February 12, 2009

On Methodological Naturalism...

Methodological Naturalism- "Science can only appeal to natural laws and physical entities as explanations of observable phenomena."

As a skeptic, I usually find many anecdotes of all sorts of strange phenomena. From alien abductions, to ghost stories, to faith healers, etc., people love to make up all sorts of extraordinary claims for very simple every day things that happen to them. For example, a person may be feeling a bit sick one day, so he decides to go to church and be prayed for. He then returns home, goes to sleep, and finds that in the morning, he's feeling much better. Would it be reasonable to say that it was the fact that he was prayed that which made him feel better? Is it simply ok to jump to the conclusion that God miraculously healed him? Not really. Take him to a doctor and you will more than likely get a perfectly natural explanation. Most diseases/viruses, etc. are self-terminating. Your body's immune system naturally fights them off, if given enough time. No need to invoke any sort of supernatural entity in order to explain your sickness going away.
And this is the nature of science, it deals with the known, physical world. Appeals to the supernatural are simply unnaceptable, and for good reason. One simply does not invoke miracles in order to explain anything, because a miracle is not an explanation at all. It is what Dawkins calls "A non-answer". The problem of appealing to the supernatural, or to the extranatural is that you are simply answering a mistery with a mistery. For example, in my home island of Puerto Rico, there have been reports of animals found dead with two 'vampire-like' holes in their necks. Many people then have invented a creature to explain these mysterious deaths, they call it "El Chupacabras"
The problem with using this as an explanation is that no one has ever confirmed the existence of this Chupacabra creature. So when you ask "What is going on here with these animals", the reply is "We dont know, but we think it may be this creature called El Chupacabra.", which then begs you to ask the question "What is el Chupacabras?", to which they will reply "We dont know". So in essence, you're back to square one. Nothing has been explained at all.

For every day, common things, we should all be extremely weary of appeals to the supernatural or appeals to the extraordinary for explanations. When someone tells you the reason you got Pink Eye is because a Demon has entered your body, you're better off ending the conversation right there and going to a doctor. It doesn't mean that the supernatural does not exist, it just means that science does not deal with that area, science is confined to the observable and testable, something which clearly the Supernatural is not, and so in the scientific way of doing things, the natural explanation is always the best one.
However, what happens with much 'bigger picture' type questions about the nature of the universe?

"Given the limitations placed by methodological naturalism, science is sometimes pushed into odd corners. Consider the discovery of finely-tuned cosmological constants, including each of the coupling parameters for the four fundamental forces. If any of these twenty or so constants had been slightly different, life would impossible anywhere in the universe. Most agree that this discovery requires an explanation. Under methodological naturalism, when physicist Lee Smolin explains fine-tuning by positing a vast multiverse of possible universes each with different values for these constants, he’s doing science. When astronomer Owen Gingerich explains the very same observations by means of purposeful design, he’s doing religion. This is at best an artificial demarcation. As archeology and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) project show, design is an explanatory concept already used in science. Nonetheless, the only scientifically acceptable explanation of fine-tuning at present is an undetectable multiverse. Cosmologists must therefore pursue this hypothesis to win grants, publish papers, and get tenure, even if supernatural design happens to be the right answer. As this example shows, methodological naturalism is actually in conflict with realism. In order to hold scientific realism, one must believe that theories are generally reliable indicators of truth. But if there is a choice between naturalism and truth, methodological naturalism forces science to choose the former. Once science is limited to certain kinds of entities, it can no longer follow the data wherever it leads. It is forced instead to beat the data until it offers a naturalistic confession."

"Another problem for methodological naturalism is that no one knows what sort of explanatory resources science will need in the future. One can bet that we will never need to use design, but that’s a prediction, not a discovery or an inference from established truths. Many of the expectations of late-19th century physicists were dashed by general relativity, quantum mechanics, and chaos theory. Instead of limiting our explanatory resources, we should allow scientists the latitude to employ whatever entities best explain the phenomena. " (Kopersky)

My opinions on this are mixed. Firstly, it seems to me like holding a dogmatic naturalist position in the sciences would eventually mean that science would completely be of no help if it indeed does turn out that it was God who created the universe. By simply saying "Science deals with the natural, not the supernatural", science has confined itself to a box, and as Kopersky says, it would mean scientists would no longer be able to follow the evidence wherever it may lead.

However, I have an issue with his statement "we should allow scientists the latitude to employ whatever entities best explain the phenomena."
Whatever entities? This takes me back to the first part of this blog, in which I explained that appeals to the supernatural seem to not ever bee adequate explanations for anything. Up to this day, the very best explanations for everything we know about the universe have been perfectly natural explanations. We no longer need to appeal to the 'Chariots of the gods' in order to explain why the planets revolve around the sun. We no longer need to attribute 'the god's anger' whenever there's a thunderstorm or a tornado, but instead, we can adequately explain these things by our observation of weather patterns, etc.
My main argument against this is simply that we should use history as a guidepost in order to judge the adequacy of a type of ‘God of the Gaps’ argument. Every single known instance in which the supernatural has been invoked as an explanation for any sort of phenomena has been wrong, thus, why should we believe any appeal to the supernatural will ever be right in the future?

"What if the right explanation for some phenomenon is supernatural? It doesn’t matter. Under methodological naturalism, the best naturalistic explanation is the best scientific explanation, and via realism, we take that explanation as true. Given that there is little if anything that science does not purport to explain, methodological naturalism plus realism implies that nearly every phenomenon has a true, naturalistic explanation, at least in principle."

If we are going to be honest about finding truth, wherever it may lead, we should recognize when it is that we are letting our metaphysical assumptions about the universe get in the way of investigating. If we assume a priori that there is no God, is it possible that we will then develop a method of investigation (the Scientific Method) that because of its very nature, will exclude the very possibility of finding evidence for a deity? In essence, won't we be finding what we're already looking for in the data, rather than letting the data speak for itself?

What are your thoughts?

1 comment:

David Plumb said...

First of all, great post, very thought provoking.

I'm almost positive that there are scientists out there that assume there is no god, a priori to investigating the mysteries of the universe.

But, I'm absolutely positive that there are plenty of good researchers who take the agnostic approach with respect to the existence of a god - although they do this with the caveat that if he's out there he's in the gaps.

Steven Hawking and Albert Einstein first come to mind, as in their writings on the universe they sometimes use god in a pantheistic way. Some people even say that god may in fact be the force behind the big bang.

However, I wonder if either assumption actually effects the scientific research. Science simply does assume that there is a natural explanation to be found - and its from this assumption that hypotheses form and eventually well demonstrated theories emerge.

Assuming a god caused the big bang, or is behind any other strange and unexplainable phenomenon does not yield any hypotheses.

Also, assuming there is not a god does not hinder hypothesis development from a strictly scientific approach - unless those who assume a god can develop a hypothesis to test in order to find the god they are assuming to be real.

Still, in this situation, no matter what the assumption, the answer is found using a posteriori evidence and methodology. Just as in proper research, the assumptions going in are rejected in the face of contrary evidence.

So, if someone maintains a testable assumption even in the face of contrary evidence they are being dogmatic - whatever the assumption - and in the case, whether it is the existence of a god or not.

There are still gaps in science, and we can speculate all we want, but it seems that ultimately the final answer will either come about through science - or not at all.

Even if a god itself descended to earth and was able to hold a press conference with the entire world and tell everyone what was going on, prove it to us beyond all doubt - I still chaulk this up to finding out via science - because we are given evidence/proof (although I use 'proof' and 'prove' lightly) through our sense experience, and this sort of knowledge acquisition is the real foundation of science. Although the scientific method, or some statistical method, or a trial of some sort was not used to find the god - we still in the end would accept this evidence based on the fact that we experienced it and could objectively verify it (still assuming the god provides it to us).

So, although this story was a bit of a digression, I'm trying to differentiate between learning and making assumptions scientifically (or via a posteriori ways) and learning and making assumptions unscientifically (or via a priori ways).

With science, holding assumptions as final answers is not a reasonable route to truth. With a priori beliefs, holding assumptions as final answers is often the most reasonable (maybe even the only) way to truth.

Agnostics and scientifically skeptical people will only conditionally accept truths based on the available evidence. To splinter off from this to create dogmas that stand in opposition to other dogmas is completely unproductive, in my opinion.