Essay / Uncategorized

A Good Letter

As might be expected after appearing on the radio one gets a good number of supportive and challenging emails. There is no need to post supportive email. Heaven knows it is appreciated, but readers of this blog don’t need me to post it. The critical emails are much more publicly important. Of course, a few are so insane that one is tempted to post them for fun, but since the person rarely gives permission that chance is denied me.By contrast with the insane critic, some posts are so sane and sensible that one wishes to reply with the joy of a chance at Socratic dialogue! Such discussion allows one to clarify and expand views. The “blog rule” comes into play of course. This means it is “no fair” to expect someone to write a book or paper explaining their views.Below is an example of a sane and sensible response that does not agree with my opinions.My first point to the writer would be that the “back and forth” in such a discussion is not likely to produce a winner. We will merely mirror the discussion the “big kids” are having at the highest levels of philosophy. This discussion would have very clever and well read persons who agree with this letter writer. It would have defenders of the general point of view that I would take. This is a real academic debate.Since we know students are talking about these issues, and since many science classes contain a “chapter one” on “What is Science,” we know that this is a good and appropriate subject for school discourse. Let’s have an Al Plantinga compose an essay for students arguing for a more open approach to science and have someone else of equal stature compose an essay defending the standard “text book” approach to philosophy of science. Let’s also up date the view of science taught to scientists so that we are not accidentally picking on a straw man. Text book writers sadly do not have the reputation for keeping up!This is the true “middle of the road” position in this debate. School boards will often say, “This debate belongs in philosophy class or some social science class.” Are they unaware that many of their science classes contain sections that can be described as nothing less than philosophy of science applied? Where are these wonderful public school philosophy classes? Most schools I know of can hardly afford state mandates . . . so an important inter-disciplinary discussion cannot be had fairly if it is pushed off into imaginary philosophy classes while philosophy is taught in chapter one of science books (only badly).When Michael Shermer, whose main day job is running a Skeptic advocacy group, is allowed to frame the debate no good can come of it. Shermer is not a scientist. . . his main job is promoting a religious (or anti-religious?) world view. Would NPR hire Greg Koukal to be their resident expert every week on ethics? Greg is at least as erudite as Shermer who is more the Pat Robertson of the secular community.When folk like Shermer are allowed to control the rules or given “neutral” jobs where they often get to make the rules regular folk will recognize their position is not being treated fairly and react. These reactions will often be too strong. Why not ask a respected open-to-ID scholar like USC philosopher Dallas Willard to write a piece for high school students to stimulate debate? We could then ask a foe to write a piece. Allow the two to interact in print about “the nature of science.”What is the possible harm of this?Instead, for some reason, some ID-foes have adopted the brittle policy of trying to define away the discussion. Even if we assume ID is NOT science, then it is an interesting idea with a long history in thought. ID persons (think Plato in Laws X) frequently inspired folk to create science. Ideas like the Razor have a theological pedigree. Demarcation of science and other disciplines is simply not that easy. When a theist goes to work in a lab and expects certain things based on his theism, and they happen, is that science? If not, what is it?In any case, on to the letter. My response is, as always, in italics.Rondam Ramblings: Is Intelligent Design science?: “I listened with interest to your appearance on Larry Mantle’s Air Talk this morning.You kept making the point that adhering to methodological naturalism (MN) was somehow holding science back from certain kinds of progress.Actually, I would argue that there is a possibility (if theism and psychological dualism are true), that science is held back by dogmatic adherence to ID. Of course I cannot be sure that this is true.You also made the point that there is debate about what science is, and that philosophers are the ones best equipped to make this determination. You are mistaken on both counts. This can be demonstrated (somewhat ironically) with an elementary philosophical argument, to wit:What distinguishes science from other arenas of human intellectual endeavor like drama, religion, law, etc. is that it produces certain kinds of results that these other arenas do not, e.g. antibiotics, semiconductors, nuclear weapons, etc. (One might go out on a limb and say that science seems uniquely suited among all arenas of human intellectual endeavor to produce results that allow humans to manipulate the physical world according to their desires, and that indeed this is the reason that people care so much about science and that we are even having this discussion. But this is not necessary to make the argument. All that is necessary is to agree that science produces results of a particular character, that these results ‘matter’ in some sense, and that they are not generally produced by non-scientific endeavors.)I do not agree that this is the sole reason folk care so much about science. Science, at least partly a product of Christian theism, has had great success in manipulating the physical world. We are all thankful for that. If science were only about this, then there would be much less controversy. Science frequently claims to explain reality or even to exhaustively explain reality. Is reality limited to the physical? If one wants to explore all of reality, then does one have to leave science by definition?Of course, if one is a Naturalist one knows all the answers to these questions. Reality is reduced for these “scientists” (doing philosophy without training) to those things that can be explained by science.Of course, almost everyone pressed on this agrees that this is an abuse of science. (A vocal minority does not agree, but I shall not argue against them here. Their position (Philosophical Naturalism is just Science and Science is just Reason) is unappealing enough that I feel like it is arguing against a straw man.) Let us agree that science then is limited to providing explanations of the physical (natural?) world.The question then becomes: What parts of reality are parts of this merely physical world? Is human personality? Is God? Is there a Person (divine?) that did work in that cosmos? In that case, science would be limited (if an active God is true) in what it could explain even in the material world. That is: It could be the case that not all caused events in the material world have (at their base) physical causes. At their base are human actions subject to merely physical or functional explanations? Is a psychological dualism possible?Real arguments can be made on both sides. They are being made. If Ron will limit science to “physical explanations” of “events caused by physical objects” then that would properly exclude ID from the realm of science. Let’s write the science books and start the classes with this interesting “what is science” debate. Let the chips fall where they may. However, nobody is allowed to stack the deck and just argue in circles.One cannot just p
roclaim: “Science is what scientists do.” (as Shermer did on the radio) for when otherwise normal looking scientists begin to think about intelligent causation, Shermer decides they are not scientists. He has a MN limitation to his definition not often stated.Why accept such a limitation, however?If we do limit science, then interesting questions will still be examined, just “outside of science.” All that will happen is that certain real things (perhaps psychological phenomenon) for example will be removed from “experimentation” in what we call “science.” There will of course be experimentation in meta-science or some such “new” field.Of course, this limitation did not exist until late in the history of science. Scientists frequently make statements with philosophical assumptions bulging out from them. My own position is that this is fine. . . and that everyone should get to present their point of view about “what is science” to students.We have to accept that for years the prestige of science gained in one area has been used (in a bad argument) to support Naturalism or scientism. Most folk find the two hard to keep apart (what we might call Ron-science and scientism). Why not help them do so?
The *reason* that science is able to do these things is its adherence to MN. MN does not hold science back; quite the contrary. MN is an *empowering* constraint. It is the reason that science produces the results that it does. Science without MN is like drama without conflict. It is eviscerated. It has been robbed of its essential character.This is a strong statement and requires strong evidence. Many scientists may believe it, but is it true?Two important tools of science are language and maths. Both may (or may not) depend on the existence of non-physical objects. If they do, and the case is very strong in math, then science is explaining things (often) using non-physical objects.What of math modeling? Sometimes persons in the maths do work that could described as “math for the sake of math.” It has not been created to do “physical” work, but then it turns out to have explanatory power in science. It seems hard to imagine that MN (adopted or rejected) would impact this at all.Is this science? Do numbers exist? If they do exist, they are not physical, so what is to become of MN while we are doing math?Why does math do work in science if MN is the whole story?This is not a deduction; it is an empirical observation. When one adheres to MN one produces ‘science-like’ results. When one rejects MN one fails to produce such results.If one defines science as control of the physical world by physical means, then one is likely to do science “best” when one looks for physical means to control nature. This argument smacks of vicious circularity.Suppose my own view prevailed. If the “new” ID scientists wanted to make a contact lenses (a physical object) he would (using his non-physical mind) look for a physical means to do so.One need not be dogmatically MN to simply say: “Most of the time it is sensible to use proper means to achieve proper ends.” If one wishes to control the physical world USING physical means, I know of NO PERSON in the ID camp who would go for anything other than physical means. MN is not necessary and MIGHT restrict thought. In medical science and psychology, to cite but two cases, one might look at the evidence and decide that “physical explanations” are not adequate and begin to deal with “persons” as NOT “computers made out of meat.”In any case, I would recommend an initial read of J.P. Moreland’s “Christianity and the Nature of Science” for a more sustained discussion of these issues at a popular level.This is why all scientists (including Feynman, to whom you appealed to support your position) agree: science is the proposition that experiment is the ultimate arbiter of truth (Feynman’s words). Inherent in this definition is the MN assumption. That is what the word “experiment” means.Agreeing with a philosopher on one thing is not agreeing with him on everything. The notion that “truth” is best found by experiment is (it need not be said) a philosophical prejudice. It may be a good one and it may be a bad one, but it is not itself a statement of science. As such following the simplistic Shermer rule (Only science in science class!) it could not be taught in science class. But of course, it is taught and this is why parents (sometimes inarticulately) are mad.The fact that all (or almost all) scientists make bad or crude philosophical assumptions is not surprising. Most people do. However, as Moreland points out in his book that is not in fact how scientists always behave.After all: What counts as an experiment?We cannot prove God exists physically, but we could devise ways of making His existence more or less probable.In any case, saying “experiments are the way to the truth” is a good slogan, but leads to many, many questions.What will count as an experiment is one of them!However, even if assume that this slogan is right, we could still do experiments without the MN assumption (contra RF). In fact, such experiments in the history of science were foundational to science.In the present day, one could go to the lab open to both physical and personal causation (as an archeologist does) without resorting to MN at all. Rejecting MN would not demand a scientist stop looking for physical answers. . . nor make much practical daily change in many fields. In systems, at a cosmological level, or in biology or psychology one would be tempted to look for the non-physical. . .though even here physical answers would still be on the table.Just because MN is false does not mean it is always (or mostly) false in a vicious sense. Some false ideas are useful or mostly useful. Given a sophisticated notion of causation (some things are caused by physical objects, some by non-physical) MN would not impact any search for billions of physical causes in the cosmos for the billions of physical events.Must one swear to only find “naturalistic” answers to find some natural/physical answers? No or Newton would have failed! One could simply swear to follow the evidence where ever it led!To suggest then that science would be well served by philosophers who wish to “free” it from the “constraint” of MN is rather like a non-lawyer suggesting that the law be freed from its dependence on legal texts. After all, textual law often offends our intuitive notion of “justice”, just as MN often offends our intuitive notions of self or soul. Why not instead appeal to “intuitive justice” (as an analog to “intelligent design”)?Or the natural law? Great plan!Natural law prevents war criminals from excusing their actions by saying, “It was legal in our state.” It can be abused, but it is (and always has been) useful in legal theory. This is all in Aquinas!I take an “open philosophy of law” (as they did in Nuremburg) where the law of the texts and the law of nature are both part of the legal system.This is not a bad thing to wish for. Indeed, the law (and science) has many shortcomings when measured according to how well they fulfill all of mankind’s needs. And indeed if you strip the text from the law you may actually end up with something worthwhile, but it will no longer be the law. Likewise, if you strip MN from science you may end up with something worthwhile, but it will no longer be science. It will be something else. If science no longer is about “truth,” but about “finding physical answers” to “physical questions” let’s make that clear. Let’s also NOT assume publicly or in scientific writings that all possible qu
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ons (What is the soul?) are therefore subject to scientific answers. Let’s limit the scope of scientific investigation hubris. . .Or just say, “If non-physical objects exist (God, souls) and act, then they might leave traces. These traces would not be subject to physical explanations. It is o.k. for scientists to see those traces.”From the perspective of the post this is tracing the “limits of science.” It would be science finding the “wall” at the end of the method. If this could be said in public school, I would be content. Though I want to open up science, the core of the debate is still about who defines for our kids what “truth” is and how it is best found.When we manipulate the physical world is the “we” part of the equation part of MN or is the MN advocate smuggling in a non-physical object and pretending not to do so?Of course, I don’t think the MN-Only Rule is a good definition of science. . . and would expand science to include more styles of investigation. . . but if scientists want to limit themselves (MN), then they should allow scientists to say, “Look! We’ve reached the limit of MN’s usefulness.” Philosophical naturalists of the Shermer sort will say, “Don’t give up! Keep doing science!” since they “know” that MN driven science will explain everything. However, we need not punish the scientific soul who using MN finds the limits IN HIS OPINION.Instead, let’s say: We don’t know what is physical and what is not. We are open to all truth. Some things are best understood by experiment. Other things are not.
I would close by observing that if you (or one of your philosopher colleagues) succeeds in making an actual contribution to human intellectual endeavor by rejecting MN then your names will be remembered with the likes of the greatest philosophers that ever lived.Well, I am more a teacher than a philosopher. Some of my colleagues argue that many scientists do not use MN now. . . they just proclaim it when asked. (They are like some Baptists who are for things that they do not live!) Seem Moreland.Powerful ideas like MN (or textual law, or conflict in drama) do not come along every day. There have probably been less than half a dozen ideas of such power in all of human history.One of those ideas is theism. . .which made modern science possible. The Razor is just one example of an important idea to the development of science almost entirely motivated y Christian theism in its early stages.To embark on such an endeavor requires certain hubris.One feels like sighing here. It is not hubris to follow Plato, Aristotle, Newton, Bacon et al in looking for intelligent design in the universe. It is not hubris to suggest that a rule many scientists do not even know how to coherently explain (MN) and do not practice is not necessary. The real hubris is in anyone who claims that their discipline is the ONLY way to truth or that they have a corner on it by definition. It is also hubris to suggest that one of the most fruitful ideas in the history science (ID) now CANNOT be used and we KNOW that we have outgrown it. How? Simply by defining it away. . .I point this out not to discourage you (all human progress has been predicated on the hubris that such a thing as “progress” is even possible) but merely to point out the magnitude of what you claim to be doing, and why some scientists might take offense at the suggestion that philosophers wishing to discharge the MN assumption are contributing something to science.”I am not being picky when I say we are making a point in philosophy of science which has implications on the practice of science. There is a difference. We are suggesting that an idea that scientists hold to fiercely may not do what scientists think it does.

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