Preposterous Universe

Saturday, April 10, 2004
Thinking scientifically

PZ Myers at Pharyngula is defending scientists against the pernicious charge of "methodological naturalism." This is an accusation levied by intelligent-design enthusiasts eager to show how closed-minded the scientific community actually is. This idea is just that scientists begin by assuming the existence of a purely naturalistic explanation for the natural world, and are therefore cognitively unable to recognize evidence of design when it is staring them in the face.

It's an interesting question, actually, one that addresses what it means to be thinking scientifically. We often think of science as searching for a simple set of rules governing the behavior of the world; what if there is no such set of rules that suffices to cover all circumstances? What if some aspects of the world can't possibly be explained by a mechanistic working-out of simple patterns, but instead arise from the actions of a conscious supernatural being that isn't subject to any rules at all? Would science be able to recognize this, or would it always assume that there were rules, just that we hadn't yet figured them out?

As I argued in my paper on cosmology and atheism, I think that the search for immutable laws is not the hallmark of science; rather, it's the search for a simple, complete, and coherent explanation for all we see. We should distinguish between the methodology of science, which is really what defines it, and the product of science, which is the worldview that methodology leads us to. Naturalism and theism are two competing worldviews -- nothing but rules vs. intervention by one or more supernatural beings. But the defining characteristic of science is its method, which involves observing the world, framing and testing hypotheses, and so on. The scientific method stands in contrast to other possible ways of trying to understand the world, including contemplation and revelation. The ID types actually do understand this distinction, which is why they are accusing scientists of "methodological naturalism." Their criticism could in principle be correct, but in fact doesn't describe real scientists.

This is basically Paul Myers' argument as well -- if our methods led us to the conclusion that an intelligent designer offered the best explanation for the world we see, that's what we would conclude. Physics can offer an example of how scientists are willing to toss out their absolutely most cherished principles if the method demands it: the origin of quantum mechanics. If there has ever been a principle that physicists thought they would never have to give up, it was the clockwork determinism of Newtonian mechanics, in which the outcome of any experiment could be predicted with arbitrary precision. Eventually it became clear that this idea just wasn't going to work any more, and (after much wailing and gnashing of teeth, to be sure) quantum mechanics was born. Scientists wouldn't necessarily be very happy if their research began to point them in the direction of intelligent design, but they would certainly accept it if the data forced them to.

Of course, the data force us to exactly the opposite. Long ago David Hume wrote in On Miracles about why there is a fantastic prejudice against claims of supernatural intervention: when the laws of nature work perfectly well over and over again in essentially all of our experience, any claim for miraculous violation of those laws would require absolutely overwhelming and incontrovertibly unambiguous evidence. This is not what we are getting from the ID folks.

Still, I imagine that there are scientists who would claim that naturalism is a necessary component of being a scientist. Don't believe them. Scientists are constantly speaking rashly about what is and is not science, but the sad fact is that scientists don't always understand how science works, even if they are very good at doing it. We shouldn't be too surprised. It's like Ted Williams said about Ty Cobb: he was the best hitter of all time, but if you followed his advice about how to hit you'd never make contact with the ball.

Ideas on culture, science, politics.
Sean Carroll

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