Home » academic freedom, Atheism, Culture, Darwinism, Education, ID Foundations, Intellectual freedom, Philosophy, science education » ID Foundations, 10: Alfred Russel Wallace takes on the attitude and assumptions behind methodolical naturalism

ID Foundations, 10: Alfred Russel Wallace takes on the attitude and assumptions behind methodolical naturalism

Alfred Russel Wallace (1869)

(Series)

Alfred Russel Wallace is the all but forgotten co-founder of modern evolutionary thought. His major book reveals a bit of why, right from the title and sub-title: The World of Life: a manifestation of Creative Power, Directive Mind and Ultimate Purpose.

In short, Wallace was a design thinker, and in fact he was also a supernaturalist. (A Spiritualist, actually.)

It should be no surprise to see, therefore, that he took on the methodological naturalism that was even then beginning to be informally institutionalised in science.  (In our time, it has now been formally written into redefinitions of science promoted by bodies like the US’s National Academy of Science and their National Science Teachers Association, in the teeth of serious historical, logical and epistemological issues and concerns.)

It is worth pausing for a few moments in this series of posts, to reflect on how Wallace responded to Hume et al, in his An Answer to the Arguments of Hume, Lecky, and Others, Against Miracles.

Clipping from p. 112 on, we may see:

[[p. 112]] The Supernatural and Modern Thought. It is now generally admitted, that those opinions and beliefs in which men have been educated generation after generation, and which have thus come to form part of their mental nature, are especially liable to be erroneous, because they keep alive and perpetuate the ideas and prejudices of a bygone and less enlightened age. It is therefore in the interest of truth, that [[p. 113]] every doctrine or belief, however well established or sacred they may appear to be, should at certain intervals be challenged to arm themselves with such facts and reasonings as they possess, to meet their opponents in the open field of controversy, and do battle for their right to live. Nor can any exemption be claimed in favour of those beliefs which are the product of modern civilisation, and which have for several generations been unquestioned by the great mass of the educated community; for the prejudice in their favour will be proportionately great . . . There have been times when popular beliefs were defended by the terrors of the law, and when the sceptic could only attack them at the peril of his life. Now we all admit that truth can take care of itself, and that only error needs protection. But there is another mode of defence which equally implies a claim to certain and absolute truth, and which is therefore equally unworthy and unphilosophical–that of ridicule, misrepresentation, or a contemptuous refusal to discuss the question at all. This method is used among us even now, for there is one belief, or rather disbelief, whose advocates claim more than papal infallibility, by refusing to examine the evidence brought against it, and by alleging general arguments which have been in use for two centuries to prove that it cannot be erroneous. The belief to which I allude is, that all alleged miracles are false; that what is commonly understood by the term supernatural does not exist, or if it does, is incapable of proof by any amount of human testimony; that all the phenomena we can have cognizance of depend on ascertainable physical laws, and that no other intelligent beings than man and the inferior animals can or do act upon our material world. These views have been now held almost unquestioned for many generations; they are inculcated as an essential part of a liberal education; they are popular, and are held to be one of the indications of our intellectual advancement; and they have become so much a part of our mental nature, that all facts and arguments brought against them are either ignored as unworthy of serious consideration, or listened to with undisguised contempt. Now this frame of mind is certainly not one favourable to the discovery of truth, and strikingly resembles that by which, in former ages, systems of error have been fostered and maintained. The time has therefore come when it must be called upon to justify itself . . . .

at the very beginning of the subject, we find that we have to take objection to Hume’s definition of a miracle, which exhibits unfounded assumptions and false premises. He gives two definitions in different parts of his essay. The first is–”A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature.” The second is–”A miracle is a transgression of a law of nature, by a particular volition of the Deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent.” Now both these definitions are bad or imperfect. The first assumes that we know all the laws of nature–that the particular effect could not be produced by some unknown law of nature [[p. 115]] overcoming the law we do know; it assumes also, that if an invisible intelligent being held an apple suspended in the air, that act would violate the law of gravity. The second is not precise; it should be “some invisible intelligent agent,” otherwise the action of galvanism or electricity, when these agents were first discovered, and before they were ascertained to form part of the order of nature, would answer accurately to this definition of a miracle. The words “violation” and “transgression” are both improperly used, and really beg the question by the definition. How does Hume know that any particular miracle is a violation of a law of nature? He assumes this without a shadow of proof, and on these words, as we shall see, rests his whole argument.

The True Definition of a Miracle. Before proceeding any further, it is necessary for us to consider what is the true definition of a miracle, or what is most commonly meant by that word. A miracle, as distinguished from a new and unheard-of natural phenomenon, supposes an intelligent superhuman agent either visible or invisible;–it is not necessary that what is done should be beyond the power of man to do. The simplest action, if performed independently of human or visible agency, such as a tea-cup lifted in the air at request, as by an invisible hand and without assignable cause, would be universally admitted to be a miracle, as much so as the lifting of a house into the air, the instantaneous healing of a wound, or the instantaneous production of an elaborate drawing. My definition of a miracle therefore is as follows:–”Any act or event implying the existence and agency of superhuman intelligences,” considering the human soul or spirit, if manifested out of the body, as one of these superhuman intelligences. This definition is more complete than that of Hume, and defines more accurately the essence of that which is commonly termed a miracle . . .

I had occasion to clip and comment on this just now, in response to UD commenter WJM, and so, let me simply continue by citing my onward comments:

{One does not have to agree with all that Wallace says, to see that he has some serious points, right out of the starting gates, and that his essay will well repay a serious reading . . . .

Further to this, I need to underscore that — ever since Plato [in The Laws, Bk X, 360 BC, 2350 years ago] — the proper contrast for empirical study is not “natural vs supernatural,” but . . .  “natural vs ART-ificial.”

The artificial, or intelligently caused, is eminently suitable for empirical investigation on tested reliable signs, such as functionally specific complex organisation and associated explicit or implicit information [FSCO/I]. (Onlookers, kindly note the link to a context that warrants this summary claim.)

The commonly encountered rhetorical insistence on a debate over natural vs supernatural is meant to appeal to precisely the attitude Wallace identifies and rebuts in the essay linked and clipped above. Design theory — as can be seen here in more details — is about the objective study of empirical signs of art, not signs of the supernatural, and it is applicable to designers that are a part and parcel of our common world, whether humans or beavers, etc.

Someone will ask: What about supernatural designers? Doesn’t ID want to infer that the designer is Supernatural?

From the very beginning of the modern design theory movement (read the epilogue here in TMLO by Thaxton et al in 1984, the very first ID work, a technical study of OOL on thermodynamics and related areas) it has been explicitly, repeatedly affirmed that the empirical evidence amenable to scientific investigation on origin of life does not warrant a conclusion as to whether the designers of the FSCO/I in the living cell comes from within or beyond the cosmos, though of course both are possible candidates. What it does warrant is an inference to design. But, as has been repeatedly said at UD, a molecular nanotech lab several generations beyond where Venter et al are, could do the job.

Where an inference to design by a designer beyond the [observed] cosmos is made, is on the other side of ID.

Namely, design of a cosmos finely tuned and set up at an operating point that facilitates C-chemistry, cell based aqueous medium life. A good place to start with on this is the fact that C and O depend on a particular nuclear resonance of +/- a few percent for their status as the third and fourth most abundant elements, and that water depends on a cluster of properties rooted in the core laws of the physics of our cosmos that allow a compound of H and O to have astonishing and unique properties.

Multiply by the credible evidence that our cosmos had a beginning, and the logic of a necessary causal factor implicated by that coming to be, and we have to seriously and soberly consider design by an intelligence beyond the cosmos, who would have organised our cosmos to facilitate the sort of life we have.}

So, now, we see that the proper issue on the table is whether science can properly investigate the artificial — the intelligently caused, on observation and experiment backed up by logical and mathematical analysis using the logic of abductive inference to best, empirically anchored explanation. Forensic science says, yes. Pharmacology says, yes, Archaeologists say, yes, engineers say, yes. And so forth.

Most relevantly, information theorists, say a loud yes.

The actual logic of warrant and investigation involved is not hard to follow, it can be represented in a fairly simple flow chart:

The empirical causal factor explanatory filter, used aspect by aspect to investigate an object, phenomenon or process

This procedure is actually glorified common sense. Is this brush-fire a matter of a natural regularity in action, an accident, or deliberate arson? To see so, we look for causal factors based on observable signs. A lightning strike would be a natural regularity, a carelessly abandoned cigarette butt, accident; a willfully set fire using say kero, arson.  When we investigate a pendulum, we isolate factors triggered by the underlying natural forces and factors that lead to regularities, we isolate scatter due to chance variations and influences, and we isolate aspects of the design that may bias the result.

Why is this then controversial once we turn to origins studies?

First, origins science, is about the deep past that we were not able to observe and cannot directly cross-check. So if scientific results where we can directly observe are provisional [think about what happened with Newtonian dynamics between about 1680 and 1930], origins science results must be far more so.

The investigation must therefore proceed on essentially forensic methods, a crime scene investigation of the deep, pre-historic past (i.e. that beyond records, which cut off c. 5,500 years ago).  That is what Lyell did to found modern geology, and what Wallace and Darwin did in founding modern evolutionary theory.  We identify known causal factors, forces and signs in the present that show how a like phenomenon happens, reliably. We then identify specific signs that reliably point to the relevant causal factors and resulting processes at work.  Then, on inference to best explanation, we construct an empirically referenced model.

But, as say Stonehenge demonstrates, that equally applies to traces in the present that point to intelligent causal processes in the past.

And, when we see that in the living cell, we have 100,000  and upwards to billions of bits worth of functionally specific, complex coded information that has to be in place to sustain metabolism and the sort of coded information based replication that we observe, this should give us serious pause. For, there is one causally adequate, empirically known force able to create such information: intelligence. The same, that explains the presence of texts in this blog site.

Going up to the observed cosmos, we see evident fine tuning at work, an intricate system of physics that facilitates a life sustaining cosmos.

So, in that context, when we see that the recently formalised rule that we may only use naturtalistic explanations in science, Wallace’s stricture becomes apt:

. . . there is another mode of defence [of a reigning orthodoxy] which equally implies a claim to certain and absolute truth, and which is therefore equally unworthy and unphilosophical – that of ridicule, misrepresentation, or a contemptuous refusal to discuss the question at all. This method is used among us even now, for there is one belief, or rather disbelief, whose advocates claim more than papal infallibility, by refusing to examine the evidence brought against it, and by alleging general arguments which have been in use for two centuries to prove that it cannot be erroneous. The belief to which I allude is, that all alleged miracles are false; that what is commonly understood by the term supernatural does not exist, or if it does, is incapable of proof by any amount of human testimony; that all the phenomena we can have cognizance of depend on ascertainable physical laws, and that no other intelligent beings than man and the inferior animals can or do act upon our material world. These views have been now held almost unquestioned for many generations; they are inculcated as an essential part of a liberal education; they are popular, and are held to be one of the indications of our intellectual advancement; and they have become so much a part of our mental nature, that all facts and arguments brought against them are either ignored as unworthy of serious consideration, or listened to with undisguised contempt. Now this frame of mind is certainly not one favourable to the discovery of truth, and strikingly resembles that by which, in former ages, systems of error have been fostered and maintained.

You will notice an odd term: unphilosophical.

This serves to notify us that the issue was and is philosophical, rather than “scientific.”

A hundred and more years after Wallace highlighted the problem (which has now been formally institutionalised), I am sure that the fair minded reader will agree with his concluding point that “The time has therefore come when it [methodological naturalism rooted in underlying a priori materialism] must be called upon to justify itself . . .”

And, I am confident that such an investigation will show that we need to restore the historic view that science at its best is and must be:

an unfettered (but ethically and intellectually responsible) progressive, empirical evidence-led pursuit of the truth about our world, on observation, experiment, logical and mathematical analysis, joined to uncensored (but mutually respectful and responsible) discussion among the informed.

Otherwise, science in our time will become little more than materialist ideology dressed up in a lab coat. END

  • Delicious
  • Facebook
  • Reddit
  • StumbleUpon
  • Twitter
  • RSS Feed

7 Responses to ID Foundations, 10: Alfred Russel Wallace takes on the attitude and assumptions behind methodolical naturalism

  1. Pro-tip — you can usually tell when a researcher has closet ID feelings when they refer to natural selection as the mechanism of evolution founded by Russell and Wallace. Materialists like to forget Wallace altogether. As a method it’s about 75% accurate.

  2. JohnnyB:

    Indeed, the fact of Wallace and how this has vanished out of the conventional wisdom on the theory, is an excellent illustration of the underlying cultural dynamic at work.

    That the name Wallace will lead you to the sort of analysis above, is telling.

    And BTW, in the essay I cite above, he goes on to show Hume contradicting himself on credibility of testimony to the miraculous, using then contemporary or near contemporary cases.

    Any thoughts on that claim?

    GEM of TKI

  3. We can all find something to agree with in the writings of a thoughtful and apparently sensible man. For example, an excerpt from a longer letter to his brother (my bold):

    … I remain an utter disbeliever in almost all that you consider the most sacred truths. I will pass over as utterly contemptible the oft-repeated accusation that sceptics shut out evidence because they will not be governed by the morality of Christianity … I am thankful I can see much to admire in all religions. To the mass of mankind religion of some kind is a necessity. But whether there be a God and whatever be His nature; whether we have an immortal soul or not, or whatever may be our state after death, I can have no fear of having to suffer for the study of nature and the search for truth, or believe that those will be better off in a future state who have lived in the belief of doctrines inculcated from childhood, and which are to them rather a matter of blind faith than intelligent conviction.

    That ‘contemptible’ stance is rife hereabouts, where the only reason some uncharitable souls can find why someone else takes a naturalistic stance is in order to justify amorality or a personal beef with the assumed creator – or, even more ridiculous, because they are ‘blind-faith’ followers of some religion with Darwin its pope. Please use the space below to make precisely those accusations.

  4. Chas D:

    Thanks for taking time to research and share with us.

    However, I must note that your response is significantly tangential. (Note too, unfortunately, there ARE skeptics — including some quite famous ones — who have confessed that moral issues played a role in their skepticism; I’m sure BA could come up with a list with some very telling quotes. It is not all a simplistic one sided story either way around.)

    But be that as it may, the key issue here for this thread is that this man — a co-founder of evolutionary theory — is a credible witness to the skeptical PHILOSOPHICAL climate among the educated elites of Britain, 140 years ago.

    Let us hear him about what is “unphilosophical” — notice, the worldview level commitment came first:

    . . . there is another mode of defence [of a reigning orthodoxy] which equally implies a claim to certain and absolute truth, and which is therefore equally unworthy and unphilosophicalthat of ridicule, misrepresentation, or a contemptuous refusal to discuss the question at all. This method is used among us even now, for there is one belief, or rather disbelief, whose advocates claim more than papal infallibility, by refusing to examine the evidence brought against it, and by alleging general arguments which have been in use for two centuries to prove that it cannot be erroneous. The belief to which I allude is, that all alleged miracles are false; that what is commonly understood by the term supernatural does not exist, or if it does, is incapable of proof by any amount of human testimony; that all the phenomena we can have cognizance of depend on ascertainable physical laws, and that no other intelligent beings than man and the inferior animals can or do act upon our material world. These views have been now held almost unquestioned for many generations; they are inculcated as an essential part of a liberal education; they are popular, and are held to be one of the indications of our intellectual advancement; and they have become so much a part of our mental nature, that all facts and arguments brought against them are either ignored as unworthy of serious consideration, or listened to with undisguised contempt. Now this frame of mind is certainly not one favourable to the discovery of truth, and strikingly resembles that by which, in former ages, systems of error have been fostered and maintained.

    Compare to the attitudes and behaviour of today’s New Atheists as they stand up in the name of “Science,” with Dawkins as chief spokesman.

    All that has really changed is that the flag of convenience for that a priorism and contempt is now “Science.”

    Lewontin is so blatant a case I just need to link.

    Mr Jerry Coyne is hardly less plain, and quite vitriolic:

    Religion in America is on the defensive.

    Atheist books such as The God Delusion and The End of Faith have, by exposing the dangers of faith and the lack of evidence for the God of Abraham, become best-sellers. Science nibbles at religion from the other end, relentlessly consuming divine explanations and replacing them with material ones. Evolution took a huge bite a while back, and recent work on the brain has shown no evidence for souls, spirits, or any part of our personality or behavior distinct from the lump of jelly in our head. We now know that the universe did not require a creator. Science is even studying the origin of morality. So religious claims retreat into the ever-shrinking gaps not yet filled by science . . . .

    Science and faith are fundamentally incompatible, and for precisely the same reason that irrationality and rationality are incompatible. They are different forms of inquiry, with only one, science, equipped to find real truth. And while they may have a dialogue, it’s not a constructive one. Science helps religion only by disproving its claims, while religion has nothing to add to science . . . . any progress — not just scientific progress — is easier when we’re not yoked to religious dogma. Of course, using reason and evidence won’t magically make us all agree, but how much clearer our spectacles would be without the fog of superstition!

    [[Column: "Science and religion aren't friends," USA Today, updated October 11, 2010. ]

    In fact, an examination will show that far too much of what Mr Coyne says is unsubstantiated, and is little more than red meat talking points. But the underlying message that this is the partyline for “science” could hardly be more plain. A priori materialism is imposed on science, science’s reputation is exploited to make materialism seem plausible (it is actually self-refuting) and anything that gets in the way is smeared as “antiscientific” or “superstition” or “dogma” — as though a priori materialism is not a dogma — or worse.

    No wonder ID thinker Johnson’s rejoinder is apt:

    For scientific materialists the materialism comes first; the science comes thereafter. [[Emphasis original] We might more accurately term them “materialists employing science.” And if materialism is true, then some materialistic theory of evolution has to be true simply as a matter of logical deduction, regardless of the evidence. That theory will necessarily be at least roughly like neo-Darwinism, in that it will have to involve some combination of random changes and law-like processes capable of producing complicated organisms that (in Dawkins’ words) “give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.”

    . . . . The debate about creation and evolution is not deadlocked . . . Biblical literalism is not the issue. The issue is whether materialism and rationality are the same thing. Darwinism is based on an a priori commitment to materialism, not on a philosophically neutral assessment of the evidence. Separate the philosophy from the science, and the proud tower collapses. [[Emphasis added.] [[The Unraveling of Scientific Materialism, First Things, 77 (Nov. 1997), pp. 22 – 25.]

    The philosophical agenda came first, resting on Hume’s errors. Then, if we are to believe Dawkins, “Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist” — NOT — and so the self-same question-begging, too often sneeringly snide philosophical agenda has now been written into science under the name methodological naturalism.

    It is high time for fresh thinking, even as Wallace called for 140 years ago.

    GEM of TKI

    PS: If you need it, a first look at how a worldview level warrant for a theistic and even a Judaeo-Christian theistic view can be developed is here on.

  5. KF – I apologise if my response appeared tangential. It was, at least, on the same subject as the original – Wallace, and his beliefs. To be more tangential still, having seen plenty of post-bombing on quantum entanglement and the whole of evolutionary theory and morality and causality and how people-who-aren’t-me-but-with-whom-I-happen=to-=agree-on-this-or-that-topic behave, when I am trying to defend some aspect of theory … permit me a quiet chuckle at the idea that there are UD threads that actually stay on topic! :0)

  6. Chas D

    One thing noticeable in the quote is arrogance. He puts himself above religion. Well, perhaps he might have been better off being more modest.

    Strange thing but those who do not believe in anything consider themselves in a position to say that people who do have a religious faith, have a blind faith necessarily. They don’t even admit to the possibility of being deluded on this account. Such is the risk of making general statements.

  7. CD:

    I appreciate your response above.

    I note, this thread is not about Wallace’s beliefs — he was a Spiritualist [roughly, a sort of prototype New Ageism] — but on his credible testimony on the rise of the philosophically driven skeptical attitude that from the late C17 on began to dominate the “educated” British upper classes — the famous “toffs.”

    The above clip is new to the current debates over design here at UD, in short.

    It documents the true ideas and historical roots of a pattern of thought that is now instantly recognisable as now flying the flag of “science.”

    Indeed, in our time, it has sought to redefine science in its image; which IMO will handicap science in its search for the empirically warranted truth about our world.

    In that context, too, the fact that Wallace was a co-founder of evolutionary theory, who saw the world of life as “a manifestation of Creative Power, Directive Mind and Ultimate Purpose” is not irrelevant. That is, he is also a witness and example that evolutionary thought was and remains compatible with design thought and various worldviews.

    In that context, the sort of thinking promoted by Hume and others needs to come in for a critical reassessment.

    Namely, the thinking that underlies the hostile proposal of a dichotomy between “natural” and “supernatural,” together with the loaded definitions of these that are on offer. Notice, the issue started out as a philosophical one, and has latterly been brought out as a “science” one.

    That has a lot to say about the attempt to present “methodological naturalism” as significantly distinct from “philosophical materialism,” and to suggest that to question the one based on its context is to try to improperly inject “the supernatural” into science. The historical evidence plainly is that methodological naturalism was imported into science from skeptical philosophy and ideology, though dominance of intellectual elites, not through any solid warrant on history of science and the philosophy of warranting knowledge claims, epistemology and logic.

    In that context the distinction that since Plato, design thought has marked a difference between the natural [in the sense of chance and/or necessity] and the artificial as a relevant categorisation of empirically warranted causal factors becomes a very important factor, especially as we can identify empirical signs that on test reliably distinguish how the three sorts of factors affect objects, phenomena or processes.

    BTW, as a final note, someone like BA 77 has his own perspective, and has been unfailingly polite in my observation. He is also a source of a wealth of especially video resources. And with physicists edging towards seeing the recent one cricket pitch too fast neutrinos result as maybe real, we just may be on the threshold of some interesting developments with physics. My guess and that of those I have talked with, is we are looking at extended extra dimensionality if this is real. I have a few suspicions on that, on the sort of result BA loves to emphasise, e.g. the quantum particle based double slit exercise.

    There are some REALLY weird results of quantum physics, and they serve to humble us in case we thought we had the world all figured out.

    And, In the threads I put up, especially those for the series in question, I do try to keep things as close to topic as possible. For the topics’ sake, and because there is an unfortunate rhetorical pattern out there of distraction, distortion, denigration and polarisation. (My personal blog comment inbox is full of this, from ill-bred busybodies. Evidence.)

    So, let us look at a significant bit of evidence from 140 years ago.

    GEM of TKI

Leave a Reply