Detecting the supernatural: Why science doesn’t presuppose methodological naturalism, after all
|November 29, 2012||Posted by vjtorley under Intelligent Design|
Memo to Eugenie Scott and the National Center for Science Education: the claim that scientists must explain the natural world in terms of natural processes alone, eschewing all supernatural explanations, is now being openly denied by three leading scientists who are also outspoken atheists. I’m referring to physicist Sean Carroll, and biologists Jerry Coyne and P. Z. Myers, who hold that there are circumstances under which scientists can legitimately infer the existence of supernatural causes. That’s a pretty formidable trio. The NCSE is perfectly free to disown these scientists if it wishes, but I think it would be severely undermining its own credibility if it did so.
Let me state at the outset that Intelligent Design, while open to the supernatural, has no prior commitment to the existence of supernatural beings, as it is simply the search for patterns in Nature which can be identified as the work of an intelligent agent. At the present time there is tentative evidence that not only the universe, but also the multiverse itself is the product of an Intelligent Designer, Who would then have to be in some sense “supernatural.” However, that’s still a long way from establishing the existence of: (a) an omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent Being; (b) a personal God; (c) the God of classical theism; or (d) the God of the Bible, or any other book of revelation.
Without further ado, let’s have a look at what prompted three famous atheistic scientists to publicly declare that there could indeed be scientific evidence for the supernatural.
Sean Carroll on the supernatural
I’d like to begin with Assistant Professor Sean Carroll, of the California Institute of Technology. Two years ago, he wrote a blog article for Discover magazine entitled, Is dark matter supernatural? (1 November 2010), in which he plainly declared that scientists could legitimately invoke supernatural causes, if they were confronted with a sufficiently large volume of data indicating that the laws of Nature were being repeatedly violated:
Let’s imagine that there really were some sort of miraculous component to existence, some influence that directly affected the world we observe without being subject to rigid laws of behavior. How would science deal with that?
The right way to answer this question is to ask how actual scientists would deal with that, rather than decide ahead of time what is and is not “science” and then apply this definition to some new phenomenon. If life on Earth included regular visits from angels, or miraculous cures as the result of prayer, scientists would certainly try to understand it using the best ideas they could come up with. To be sure, their initial ideas would involve perfectly “natural” explanations of the traditional scientific type. And if the examples of purported supernatural activity were sufficiently rare and poorly documented (as they are in the real world), the scientists would provisionally conclude that there was insufficient reason to abandon the laws of nature. What we think of as lawful, “natural” explanations are certainly simpler — they involve fewer metaphysical categories, and better-behaved ones at that — and correspondingly preferred, all things being equal, to supernatural ones.
But that doesn’t mean that the evidence could never, in principle, be sufficient to overcome this preference. Theory choice in science is typically a matter of competing comprehensive pictures, not dealing with phenomena on a case-by-case basis. There is a presumption in favor of simple explanation; but there is also a presumption in favor of fitting the data. In the real world, there is data favoring the claim that Jesus rose from the dead: it takes the form of the written descriptions in the New Testament. Most scientists judge that this data is simply unreliable or mistaken, because it’s easier to imagine that non-eyewitness-testimony in two-thousand-year-old documents is inaccurate that to imagine that there was a dramatic violation of the laws of physics and biology. But if this kind of thing happened all the time, the situation would be dramatically different; the burden on the “unreliable data” explanation would become harder and harder to bear, until the preference would be in favor of a theory where people really did rise from the dead.
There is a perfectly good question of whether science could ever conclude that the best explanation was one that involved fundamentally lawless behavior. The data in favor of such a conclusion would have to be extremely compelling, for the reasons previously stated, but I don’t see why it couldn’t happen. Science is very pragmatic, as the origin of quantum mechanics vividly demonstrates. Over the course of a couple of decades, physicists (as a community) were willing to give up on extremely cherished ideas of the clockwork predictability inherent in the Newtonian universe, and agree on the probabilistic nature of quantum mechanics. That’s what fit the data. Similarly, if the best explanation scientists could come up with for some set of observations necessarily involved a lawless supernatural component, that’s what they would do.
While Sean Carroll doesn’t claim here that science is capable of establishing the existence of God, he certainly believes that it could establish the existence of a supernatural agent or agents.
Jerry Coyne agrees with Sean Carroll: there could be scientific evidence for the supernatural, and even for the existence of God
The following day, over at his Web site, Why Evolution Is True, evolutionary biologist Professor Jerry Coyne voiced his agreement with Sean Carroll’s conclusions, in an article entitled, Sean Carroll on the “supernatural” (2 November 2010):
This is where I agree with Sean, the philosopher Maarten Boudry, and, I think, Brother Blackford, and where we part company from P.Z Myers, The Great Decider, Eugenie Scott and the NCSE – and nearly everyone else. At least I (and probably Sean) could envision theoretical cases where we’d see behavior as sporadic and lawless – and provisionally indicative of a god. Others would not.
“What sort of cases?” the reader might be wondering. Professor Coyne helpfully lists some examples of evidence that would persuade him that God was real in another recent post, entitled, Shermer and I disagree on the “supernatural” (8 November 2012):
I’ve previously described the kind of evidence that I’d provisionally accept for a divine being, including messages written in our DNA or in a pattern of stars, the reappearance of Jesus on earth in a way that is well documented and convincing to scientists, along with the ability of this returned Jesus to do things like heal amputees. Alternatively, maybe only the prayers of Catholics get answered, and the prayers of Muslims, Jews, and other Christians, don’t.
P. Z. Myers regards the concept of God as nonsensical, but thinks that scientists could still discover and investigate causes that fall outside the natural order
The reader will note that Professor Coyne, in his recent article, Sean Carroll on the “supernatural”, listed P. Z. Myers as disagreeing with him on the question of whether there could conceivably be evidence for the existence of some sort of supernatural Deity. So I was bowled over recently, when I came across the following passage, in an article on Professor P. Z. Myers’ Pharyngula blog, entitled, In which I join Michael Shermer in disagreeing with Jerry Coyne, and Coyne in disagreeing with Shermer (November 8, 2012):
By the way, I do agree with Coyne on one thing: I also reject Shermer’s a priori commitment to methodological naturalism. If a source outside the bounds of what modern science considers the limits of natural phenomena is having an observable effect, we should take its existence into account. If Catholic prayers actually affected medical outcomes, we shouldn’t reject it out of hand because of the possibility of a supernatural source. But it’s still not evidence for a god, unless you’re going to commit to defining god as a force that responds to remote invocation via standard Catholic ritual chants by increasing healing…
In the same article, Myers also explains why he continues to reject the idea of God out of hand:
My position is that we cannot find evidence for a god, that the God Hypothesis is invalid and unacceptable, because “god” is an incoherent concept that has not been defined…
What I want is something like the Higgs boson: a description of a set of properties, inferred and observed, that can be used as a reasonable boundary for identifying the phenomenon. If you’re going to dignify it with the term “hypothesis”, there ought to be some little bit of substance there, even if it’s speculative. The god proponents can’t even do that.
Professor Myers’ position, then, seems to be this: he rejects the view that science has an a priori commitment to methodological naturalism, and he acknowledges the theoretical possibility that scientists might have to invoke an extra-natural (or supernatural) cause of some sort in order to account for some observable effect which defied explanation in natural terms, but he refuses to call such a cause “God,” because he considers the term unacceptably vague and imprecise. Fair enough. While I would personally argue that God’s traditional attributes, such as omnipresence, omniscience, omnipotence and omnibenevolence (see here and here), can be given a fairly rigorous definition of the kind that Myers wants, that’s the subject for another post. I will grant, however, that many religious believers are guilty of an appalling lack of precision when they talk about God, and that the Divine attributes need to be defined up-front in such a way that believers and non-believers alike can understand them.
So there we have it. No less than three prominent scientists, all of whom are outspoken atheists, publicly assert that science is not wedded to methodological naturalism, and that it is theoretically possible that scientists might have to invoke a supernatural explanation of some sort, in order to account for some observed effect. One of them (Coyne) is even prepared to publicly acknowledge that the best scientific explanation of this effect might involve an appeal to some sort of Deity.
Eugenie Scott’s key argument: supernatural causes aren’t scientifically testable, because we can’t control their behavior
Why, then, does the NCSE continue to insist that scientists must reject, on principle, the very idea of a supernatural cause? To understand why, it might be helpful to look at an article by Eugenie Scott, entitled, My Favorite Pseudoscience (Reports of the National Center for Science Education, volume 23, issue 1, January/February 2003), in which she explains why she regards methodological naturalism as a defining feature of science:
… [S]cience is an attempt to explain the natural world in terms of natural processes, not supernatural ones. This principle is sometimes referred to as methodological naturalism.…
Science is nothing if not practical. The explanations that are retained are those that work best, and the explanations that work best are ones based on material causes. Nonmaterial causes are disallowed…
Scientists do not allow explanations that include supernatural or mystical powers for a very important reason. To explain something scientifically requires that we test explanations against the natural world…
Science’s concern for testing and control rules out supernatural causation. Supporters of the “God did it” argument hold that God is omnipotent. If there are omnipotent forces in the universe, by definition, it is impossible to hold their influences constant; one cannot “control” such powers. Lacking the possibility of control of supernatural forces, scientists forgo them in explanation. Only natural explanations are used. No one yet has invented a theometer, so we will just have to muddle along with material explanations.
What’s wrong with Eugenie Scott’s “testability” objection?
Lack of testability is the principal objection to supernatural explanations put forward by Dr. Scott in her article. The first thing I’d like to note is that her argument, that we cannot control an omnipotent Deity and therefore cannot test its ability to influence events, would apply equally well to technologically advanced alien civilizations that are far ahead of us: we can’t control them either. Does that mean that scientists are prohibited from appealing to aliens too, when trying to account for observed effects?
Second, the objection fails to distinguish between the being and the agency of a supernatural Deity. One cannot perform tests upon a supernatural Being as such; but one can certainly perform tests that support or falsify hypotheses relating to the Deity’s mode of agency in the world – the “when”, “where”, “how” and even “why”. For instance, one can attempt to identify periods in the Earth’s past (e.g. the Cambrian explosion) when the complexity of fossil organisms increased relatively suddenly, and then inquire whether this increase was merely apparent or real. If it was real, one can ask whether these sudden bursts of complexity could have been front-loaded into the universe by carefully rigging the initial conditions at the Big Bang (thereby preventing the need for subsequent “manipulation”), or whether these relatively rapid jumps in biological information must have been “injected” into the cosmos periodically, at some time after the Big Bang. One can then inquire where these increases in complexity occurred, by looking for life beyond our Earth, and by performing tests as to what kinds of organisms can survive inter-stellar trips (panspermia). One might also attempt to scientifically verify or falsify the multiverse hypothesis, in order to ascertain whether life could have originated outside our universe. Finally, one might perform laboratory tests with the aim of identifying the easiest ways of genetically engineering any rapid increases in biological complexity that occurred in the past. This might shed light on the “how” of Intelligent Design. To identify the “why”, one might list some possible aims that the Designer could have had in establishing the cosmos (e.g. the production of stars, or of life, or of intelligent life), and then identify which of these aims are the most sensitive to tiny variations in the constants of Nature or the initial conditions of the Big Bang.
Third, there’s a difference between testing the ability of a supernatural Being to bring about some event, and testing the hypothesis that some event was brought about by a supernatural Being. Scientists have no way of doing the former, as they can’t control supernatural entities; but they can certainly do the latter. Yes, that’s right: I’m claiming that science can test for supernatural agents.
Why even advanced alien civilizations can’t arrange specific outcomes in any of the universes they create
“How?” you might ask. That’s a perfectly reasonable question. In an article entitled, Are we living in a designer universe? (The Telegraph, 31 August 2010), Sussex astronomer Dr. John Gribbin provocatively argues that a very advanced alien civilization could not only create baby universes, but also set their precise parameters, thereby designing their laws in detail, and he adds that our own universe might well have been designed in just this way. But then he adds a qualifying remark:
Crucially, though, it would not be possible in any of these cases – even at the most advanced level – for the designers to interfere with the baby universes once they had formed. From the moment of its own Big Bang, each universe would be on its own.
So even if aliens created our universe, they are incapable of interacting with it. Why is that important? Because three years ago, physicist Robert Sheldon wrote a thought-provoking article entitled, The Front-Loading Fiction (July 1, 2009), in which he critiqued the assumptions underlying “front-loading,” and argued that it would be impossible in principle for a Designer to pre-determine specific outcomes (such as the emergence of life, or of Homo sapiens) in a universe that He/She/It was creating, simply by carefully specifying the circumstances at the beginning. First, Dr. Sheldon explained why the clockwork universe of Laplacean determinism (the idea that you can control the outcomes you get, by controlling the laws and the initial conditions) won’t work:
First quantum mechanics, and then chaos-theory has basically destroyed it, since no amount of precision can control the outcome far in the future. (The exponential nature of the precision required to predetermine the outcome exceeds the information storage of the medium.)
Next, Dr. Sheldon examined what he called “Turing-determinism” – the modern notion that God could use an algorithm or program to design all the forms we observe in Nature – and found that it fared no better than Laplacean determinism:
Turing-determinism is incapable of describing biological evolution, for at least three reasons: Turing’s proof of the indeterminancy of feedback; the inability to keep data and code separate as required for Turing-determinancy; and the inexplicable existence of biological fractals within a Turing-determined system.
Specifically, Dr. Sheldon argued that the only kind of universe that could be pre-programmed to produce specific results without fail and without the need for further input would be a very boring, sterile one, without any kind of feedback, real-world contingency or fractals. However, such a universe would necessarily be devoid of any kind of organic life. Dr. Sheldon then proposed that God is indeed a “God of the gaps” – an incessantly active “hands-on” Deity Who continually maintains the universe at every possible scale of time and space, in order that it can support life. He argued that such a role, far from diminishing God, actually enhances His Agency.
Although Dr. Sheldon’s article was about God, the point it makes holds for advanced aliens too. It is impossible for them to guarantee specific results in any universe they create, simply by fine-tuning its physical parameters and initial conditions, or by kicking off some developmental program for that universe. Front-loading can only give you a very broad, limited control over outcomes in any universe you create. But as astronomer John Gribbin has pointed out, that’s the only control that aliens could conceivably have, over any universe they created.
How to test for a supernatural agent, and distinguish it from an advanced alien
I hope that readers can see where I am going by now. In order to demonstrate that an observed effect in our universe was caused by a supernatural Agent, we need only do two things: (i) show that its occurrence could not have been pre-ordained by any technologically advanced natural agents (i.e. intelligent aliens) living outside our universe, who may have created this universe; and (ii) show that the effect could not have been generated by aliens living within our universe, either. To satisfy condition (i), any highly specific effect will do; and to satisfy condition (ii), any effect which violates the laws of Nature will do. So would detailed foreknowledge of the future.
We can now see what’s wrong with the following claim by Professor Michael Shermer, in a recent article in Evolution News and Views, entitled, One Last Word on Alfred Russel Wallace, Intelligent Design — and Extraterrestrial Intelligence (January 30, 2012):
.. [A]ny ETI [extra-terrestrial intelligence – VJT] we might encounter would easily be able to engineer life, planets, stars, and possibly even universes. What would we call such an intelligence? If we know the technology behind the intelligence we call it an ET. If we don’t, we call it God. Any sufficiently advanced extraterrestrial intelligence would be indistinguishable from God.
Shermer reiterated the same point in a recent talk he gave at the atheists’ conference in Mexico City on November 3, 2012. Jerry Coyne, who was present, summarized Shermer’s key argument against invoking the supernatural in his post, Shermer and I disagree on the “supernatural” (8 November 2012):
Shermer’s argument is simple: we can’t distinguish between a supernatural being and an advanced civilization of, say, extraterrestrials that could perform all the “signs and wonders” that would convince most of us that God exists…
But if the argument I made above is correct, then there are effects that no natural extra-terrestrial intelligence could generate – whether it be an intelligence inside our universe or one outside it, in the multiverse. Even if we grant that aliens could create new universes, they could not specify in detail any outcomes occurring in those universes; nor could they violate any of the laws holding within those universes. I conclude, then, that there are concrete ways in which scientists could test for an effect’s being caused by a supernatural Agent.
What we need to look for, then, are highly specific law-breaking occurrences taking place within our universe. Where might we look for violations of laws? I would suggest that the laws of thermodynamics would be a good start. In this connection, it is worth recalling a famous quote by the late Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington, in The Nature of the Physical World , The Gifford Lectures 1927, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge UK, 1933, reprint, pp.74-75):
The law that entropy always increases holds, I think, the supreme position among the laws of Nature. If someone points out to you that your pet theory of the universe is in disagreement with Maxwell’s equations — then so much the worse for Maxwell’s equations. If it is found to be contradicted by observation — well, these experimentalists do bungle things sometimes. But if your theory is found to be against the second law of thermodynamics I can give you no hope; there is nothing for it but to collapse in deepest humiliation.
Eddington continued by drawing a distinction between two kinds of laws:
Primary and Secondary Law. I have called the laws controlling the behaviour of single individuals ‘primary law’, implying that the second law of thermodynamics, although a recognised law of Nature, is in some sense a secondary law. This distinction can now be placed on a regular footing. Some things never happen in the physical world because they are impossible; others because they are too improbable. (ibid., pp. 75-76)
The Resurrection of Lazarus by Leon Bonnat (1833-1922). France, 1857. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
There are a variety of outcomes forbidden by the second law of thermodynamics. Perpetual motion machines of the second kind are the best-known example. Another example would be knowing the position and velocity of a particle simultaneously with perfect accuracy: it has recently been shown (see here and here) that this would violate the second law. Time flowing backwards is another example. In this connection, even on a local level, a reversal of the flow of time for a sufficiently large, complex system which was rapidly losing order – e.g. the publicly recorded reassembly and reanimation of the body of a person who had just been blown to pieces by a bomb – would be such an improbable event that not even the advanced technology of aliens billions of years ahead of us technologically could make it happen.
Michael Shermer’s second argument for methodological naturalism: natural explanations are simpler – and Sean Carroll’s reply
Professor Shermer put forward an additional argument against invoking the supernatural, in his talk, as Jerry Coyne notes in his post, Michael Shermer’s talk in Mexico, and a note on the possibility of a god (November 3, 2012):
Shermer ruled the supernatural out of court from the beginning, saying that, like Hume, a naturalistic explanation is always more parsimonious, even if we can’t find one.
However, this argument has already been answered by physicist Sean Carroll in his widely cited online article, Does the universe need God? (in chapter 17 of The Blackwell Companion to Science and Christianity edited by J. B. Stump and Alan Padgett, Wiley-Blackwell, 2012):
All else being equal, a simpler scientific theory is preferred over a more complicated one. But how do we judge simplicity? …
The simplicity of a theory is a statement about how compactly we can describe the formal structure (the Kolmogorov complexity), not how many elements it contains. The set of real numbers consisting of “eleven, and thirteen times the square root of two, and pi to the twenty-eighth power, and all prime numbers between 4,982 and 34,950″ is a more complicated set than “the integers,” even though the latter set contains an infinitely larger number of elements.
Professor Carroll elaborated on what this meant with regard to belief in God, in his Uncommon Descent article, “No God Needed” CalTech physicist responds to Uncommon Descent’s questions (June 7, 2011):
Note that a theory that invokes God (or any other extra-physical categories) is, all else being equal, less simple than a theory that does not. “God + the natural world” is less simple than “the natural world.” This doesn’t mean that the idea of God is automatically wrong; only that it starts out at a disadvantage as far as simplicity is concerned. A conscientious scientist could nevertheless be led to the conclusion that God plays a role in the best possible scientific description of the world. For example, it could (in some hypothetical world) turn out to be impossible to fit the data without invoking God. As Einstein put it: “It can scarcely be denied that the supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience.” Alternatively, you could imagine deriving all of the physical laws from the simpler assumption that God exists. While these strategies are conceivable, in practice I don’t think they work, as should become clear.
Professor Carroll is willing to allow, then, that postulating God might be simpler than not postulating Him, if doing so enables scientists to describe the world more concisely than they would otherwise be able to do.
Carroll makes it clear that he has little time for the concept of God unless it does some useful scientific work, and makes predictions. And by predictions, I take it he means prospective ones, rather than retrospective ones like the easily falsifiable claim that “an omnipotent supernatural being wanted above all that everything in nature be purple,” as philosopher Elliott Sober suggests – or the more carefully worded claim proposed in its stead by Bradley Monton, that the supernatural being wished that “everything in nature APPEARS TO US TO BE purple.” Making retrospectively falsifiable claims like that doesn’t move science forward one millimeter: it adds nothing to our knowledge of the cosmos.
On the other hand, Carroll points out that if the laws and initial conditions of the universe could be deduced from the assumption that God exists, that would give Him much less freedom to act than religious believers usually ascribe to the Deity, as well as rendering Him impersonal. So it seems that theists are in a bind: if they insist on God’s total freedom, then the God-hypothesis does no scientific work; but if they come up with a God-hypothesis which yields specific predictions, then they’ve undermined God’s freedom and personhood.
An irenic proposal: how the God-hypothesis could be scientifically useful, while preserving God’s freedom
For my part, I take an intermediate view. First, I would suggest that God freely chose the underlying fundamental geometry for our multiverse, as well as the specific geometry for our particular universe, from a vast array of possibilities, based on aesthetic considerations. I have argued elsewhere that mathematical beauty is an objective property, so one prediction I would make is that the fundamental geometry underlying our universe is about as mathematically elegant as it can be, for a life-permitting cosmos which develops over time. There may of course be other possible universes which are just as elegant as ours in their geometry, but I doubt whether there are any that are more so. Second, let’s suppose that scientists conclude, in the course of their research, that while the underlying geometry of our cosmos fixes the kinds of parameters that define our universe, it does not determine their values. What’s more, it turns out that the values of the different constants are totally independent of one another, so that knowing the value constant of one tells you nothing about the value of the others. However, let’s also suppose that given the value of any one of the constants of Nature, scientists could deduce the values of all the other constants, based solely on the requirement that this universe has to be a life-permitting universe. Third, let’s also suppose that scientists were able to deduce these same values for the constants of Nature, this time on the basis of a different requirement: namely, that this universe has to be a maximally science-friendly one – in other words, a universe in which accurate scientific measurements can be made, which would permit intelligent beings to eventually figure out what the universe is made of and how it developed through time. If scientists were able to do all that, then that would be a striking confirmation of the hypothesis that the universe was made by a God Who fine-tuned it for life – and Who wanted intelligent beings to discover this fact, in the course of their scientific work. Here, then, we have an example of a God-hypothesis which would be genuinely useful in making predictions – and which could explain the values of the constants of Nature (and also, perhaps, the initial conditions of the universe) more simply than any alternative scientific hypothesis.
Let’s see how the rival hypothesis that our universe was created by technologically advanced aliens in the multiverse outside it could explain these thee discoveries. First, aliens might be able to make a universe whose fundamental geometry was a refinement of that of their own, but, not having made the multiverse, they would not be able to explain the mathematical beauty underlying it. Second, they might conceivably be responsible for the fine-tuning of the values of the physical parameters in our cosmos, as well as the fact that these values were especially friendly to life. However, they would not be able to guarantee that the same values of these were also science-friendly, allowing intelligent beings to measure and trace the history of the cosmos.
Will science work out like that in the future? Probably not, although it would be very exciting if it did. I’m just sketching a possibility here, to illustrate the point that God could be a scientifically fruitful concept, enabling scientists to describe the world in simpler terms than they could do without the hypothesis of God, and how the concept of God might guide future scientific discoveries.
I should also like to quickly point out that a life-permitting universe is not the same as a life-producing universe. If the mathematical arguments brought forward against front-loading by physicist Rob Sheldon are sound, then not even God could make the latter, because it’s mathematically impossible, as opposed to being merely physically impossible (which wouldn’t be a problem for a Deity Who created the laws of physics and can suspend them at will, if He chooses to). If Dr. Sheldon is right, then the emergence of life, even in our life-permitting cosmos, was not a foreordained result that could have been achieved through front-loading, but an effect that only an external, supernatural Agent could have brought about, by actively manipulating the cosmos at various points in its long history.
I used the phrase “manipulating the cosmos” rather than “intervening into the cosmos” in the sentence above, for a very deliberate reason. Intelligent Design proponents are not committed to holding that the Creator intervenes in nature, for the simple reason that the notion of the Creator “intervening” makes no sense. As Fr. Brian Davies, O.P. (who is no friend of ID), pointed out in a recent talk he gave on the New Atheism, you can only “intervene in” a situation from which you were absent in the first place. Since God the Creator is everywhere, upholding all things by the power of His Word, He can’t properly be said to “intervene in” any situation. What many ID proponents do maintain, however, is that God is capable of producing changes in creatures without using secondary causes, and that He has in fact done so. “Manipulate” is about the best term I can come up with for the activity of a hands-on Deity.
To sum up: in this post, I’ve not only refuted the NCSE’s leading argument for excluding the supernatural from science, but I’ve also examined two arguments brought forward by leading skeptic Michael Shermer in support of methodological naturalism, and found them wanting. I had originally planned to end my post at this point, but last night, I discovered that another distinguished skeptic had entered the controversy over methodological naturalism: John Loftus, who has written a couple of posts on the subject over at his Debunking Christianity blog.
Loftus: the success of science rules out appeals to the supernatural
The Creation of Adam, by Michelangelo. Sistine Chapel fresco, 1511. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
In a post entitled, Why Science Has No Need of God and What This Implies (November 26, 2012), Loftus explained why, in his view, science and supernaturalism don’t mix:
[I]f there is a God who intervenes in our world then science cannot work at all…
The very basis of science is predicated on a non-miraculous world order. Since science is possible a miracle working God doesn’t intervene… I have written about this with regard to meteorology… For God would have to intervene in the natural order of things, and if he did that very often the science of meteorology would not be possible. Meteorologists could not predict weather patterns and storms at all…
It goes for all the other sciences… Science itself would not be possible if there were a miraculous intervening God.
Now, I should point out that a supernatural act of intervention (or manipulation) need not be a miraculous event, as it may or may not contravene the laws of Nature. For example, the Creator may not need to suspend any laws, in order to bring about a specified outcome (say, a bacterial flagellum) that chance and necessity alone would not have produced within the time available. But we’ll let that pass. Let’s assume for argument’s sake that the Creator uses miracles to accomplish His desired effects.
A more serious flaw in Loftus’ argument is its unfortunate use of a loaded phrase: “very often.” Science would be impossible if God “intervened in” Nature (or “manipulated Nature,” as I would prefer to put it) so frequently that human beings were unable to discern any natural regularities at all. Indeed, the very concept of Nature would elude us. However, the proper conclusion to draw is not, “Therefore, no such interventionist God exists,” as if we’ve somehow ruled out the existence of one type of Deity, but rather, “Therefore, Nature does not require that degree of Divine intervention.”
Thus instead of arguing, “Since science is possible a miracle working God doesn’t intervene,” Loftus should have concluded, “Since science is possible a miracle working God doesn’t intervene very often.”
In a follow-up post, entitled, Either Choose Science or God, You Cannot Have Both (November 26, 2012), Loftus re-states the same argument more forcefully, but with less success:
Scientists require evidence before accepting a hypothesis, and so science can only investigate that which is detectable. This is its limitation. We all know this. So it operates on the principle of methodological naturalism. It cannot do otherwise. Science assumes there is a natural explanation for everything it investigates precisely because this is the only way it can work. If natural explanations for events were not possible because God regularly intervened in the world, then science simply would not be possible. Since science does work then a miraculous intervening God does not exist.
Once again, Loftus’ argument is logically invalid because it inserts the loaded term, “regularly.” (Actually, “often” would have been a better word, as the word “regularly” suggests that God “intervenes” at fixed intervals – say, once a week.) All Loftus’ argument proves is that if God intervenes in the world, He does so relatively infrequently. Note that I use the word: relatively. If someone were to pin me down, and ask me to say exactly how many separate Divine acts of intervention (or manipulations, as I would prefer to call them) were required to bring about life on Earth in all its diversity, my very provisional estimate would be: around 10 million. (I’ll explain how I arrived at that figure in the Appendix below. I’m quite sure that my figure is wrong by at least two orders of magnitude, but I don’t know which way. It’s merely my best guess, at present.) The point I wanted to make is that even if we postulate 10 million separate interventions in the 4,000 million-year history of life on Earth, that would still work out at only one act of Divine intervention every 400 years. If I were a scientist, I wouldn’t be too troubled by that.
Think of it this way. Government officials don’t usually bother planning for disasters that occur only once in 1,000 years; only if an event occurs with a frequency of more than once every 100 years do they try to formulate some plan for coping with the expected calamity. Why, then, should scientists be perturbed by supernatural events that occur once every 400 years, especially when these miracles don’t affect their laboratory experiments?
Loftus might reply that the Biblical God is supposed to have worked miracles a lot more frequently than that. In response, I would point out that Intelligent Design, which can be defined as the search for patterns in Nature indicating intelligent agency, doesn’t concern itself with the Biblical God, as such. However, let’s do the math anyway. Leaving aside the Creation (which I’ve discussed above) and the Flood (interpretations of which vary among Jews and Christians), the Bible contains less than 200 miracles, most of which occur between 1300 B.C. (Moses) and 100 A.D. (when the last books of the Christian Bible were written). That’s one miracle every seven years, and additionally, most of these miracles occur only in one corner of the globe (Palestine), and at a time long before the birth of modern science. Once again, if I were a scientist, this would not bother me. Even if one believes (as I do) that five loaves and two fish were multiplied to feed 5,000 people two thousand years ago, that in no way prevents scientists from verifying the law of conservation of mass-energy in their laboratories on a routine basis. And if it turns out that this law holds “only” 99.999999999999% of the time instead of 100%, then I’m quite sure scientists can get used to this fact. For practical intents and purposes, the difference between the two percentages is insignificant.
But Loftus hasn’t finished yet. In his post, Why Science Has No Need of God and What This Implies (November 26, 2012), he deploys a probabilistic argument to discredit the idea of a God Who has intervened on rare occasions in the past, but not in the present:
This world looks exactly like one without a miraculous intervening God in it. And if there is no detectable miracle working God in our world, then we must seriously consider two implications…
First, since God doesn’t presently intervene in the natural ordering of the world then it is exceedingly probable there was never a miracle working God who created the universe in the first place…
Second, since God doesn’t presently intervene in the natural ordering of the world it is exceedingly probable he just doesn’t exist at all…
I’d like to make three points in response. First, if we’re talking about acts of intervention in the biological realm, one would only expect to see them occurring when a new kind of creature is being produced. Since Professor Michael Behe locates the “edge of evolution” at the taxonomic level of the family (roughly speaking), and since the total number of families of organisms is certainly no more than 10,000 (after all, there are only 292 families of insects), and the average lifespan of a biological family is more than 10,000,000 years (even for a species, it’s at least five million years), then we would hardly expect to see these acts of intervention occurring right now, during our lifetimes.
Second, Loftus is appealing to a uniformitarian postulate here: if God doesn’t intervene in the world at present, then probably He never did in the past either. But if you believe in miracles, then obviously you won’t accept Loftus’ uniformitarian postulate. Miracles are by definition singular occurrences, and they don’t happen with a set frequency, at predictable intervals. If they did, then they wouldn’t be miracles.
Third, there are many people who would take issue with Loftus’ assumption that miracles don’t occur in the present world. See for instance this article in The Huffington Post by Craig Keener. Maybe they’re right and maybe they’re not, but I don’t know how Loftus can claim to be sure that they’re wrong.
Loftus’ last valiant attempt to slay belief in a miracle-working God
Coat of arms of Moscow, which depicts a horseman with a spear in his hand slaying a basilisk and which is popularly identified with Saint George and the Dragon. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
In his post, Either Choose Science or God, You Cannot Have Both (November 26, 2012), Loftus argues:
Now there are ways that science could detect the existence of God even if he didn’t intervene in the world today, but so far this is not what we find…
This is a remarkable admission. Loftus is conceding that science could detect the supernatural! Loftus’ methodological naturalism, it seems, is of a very weak sort: apparently he just thinks it’s a postulate that happens to be borne out by the facts, but which is not essential to doing science, after all.
The fact is that it didn’t have to turn out that science works. God could have made science impossible by intervening into our daily lives just as ancient superstitious people thought he did. That it has turned out the way it has is evidence a miraculous intervening God does not exist.
I have already discussed the fallacy in Loftus’ thinking here, so I shall not dwell on it further. But this time, he explicitly addresses the possibility of a God Who rarely intervenes:
If God exists then it’s entirely possible he could do a select few miracles here and there in the world, occasionally. So the Christian God could have resurrected Jesus from the dead (who else would have done this?) and science could still be possible.
Curiouser and curiouser! Loftus now acknowledges that miracles, if verified, could be used to argue not only for the existence of a supernatural Being but also for the truth of a particular revealed religion! And he admits that amidst all this intellectual upheaval, science could still carry on. I have to say it sounds like he’s sawn off the branch he’s sitting on, to me.
But herein lies a problem fit for God.
The more God intervenes then the less likely science is possible. Conversely, the less God intervenes then the more likely science can work. But science is not only possible, it has amassed an impressive amount of knowledge which has produced our modern world. So how likely is it that God has intervened compared with the weight of knowledge science has produced? At best, if God has intervened at all then he has done so in such minimal ways as to be indistinguishable from him not intervening at all.
Note that loaded word: “weight.” What Loftus is arguing here is that the more scientific knowledge we amass, the less likely it is that miracles occur. But the mathematical reasoning here is flawed. What Loftus should have argued was: the greater the percentage of categories of phenomena that prove to be tractable to explanation in purely natural terms, the less likely it is that miracles occur. And even that argument would still be flawed, as it relies on the hidden assumption that miracles, if they occur, are required to account for a class (or category) of observed phenomena. But if miracles are singular occurrences, then the success of science in accounting for all categories of observed phenomena on a generic basis fails to undermine belief in miracles. To do that, you would have to show that the evidence adduced in support of miracles was faulty.
But let’s grant Loftus’ assumption that some of the miracles that people believe in are generic in nature: that is, they are believed to occur because there are some classes of observed phenomena which are incapable of being accounted for in natural terms – e.g. the emergence of new families of organisms, as some Intelligent Design proponents would maintain. Loftus might then try to argue that since these unexplained kinds of phenomena constitute a very tiny (and ever-shrinking) percentage of the many kinds of phenomena known to science, a rational person would conclude, on the basis of past trends in the progress of science, that in the foreseeable future, this percentage will shrink to zero.
I would answer that this argument rests on an historical assumption which is empirically mistaken. In the superstitious Middle Ages, for instance, people believed in abiogenesis (or spontaneous generation), and they possessed no scientific evidence that the universe (and even the multiverse) had a beginning. They knew nothing about fine-tuning, either, let alone the impossibility of proteins originating naturally. Compared to the medievals, we are positively spoilt: we possess a superabundance of evidence that the universe, and life itself, had an Intelligent Designer. This conclusion is in no way weakened by the evil that individuals often experience in the world, because (a) the fine-tuning argument does not seek to establish the existence of an omnibenevolent Creator, and (b) the fine-tuning we observe in Nature is not geared towards individuals or even species, but towards the emergence of life, and in particular, intelligent life, so from a purely scientific perspective, the Designer might turn out to be indifferent to the suffering of individuals and interested only in the creation of intelligent life-forms. Disappointing? Yes, but still a lot better than having no Designer at all.
Finally, Loftus’ reasoning ignores the question of why God intervenes. If God intervenes to bring about a few very important outcomes that Nature cannot accomplish by itself (e.g. life, complex animals) then there’s a very big difference, in practical terms, between God’s intervening on these rare occasions and His not intervening at all: on the latter scenario, we wouldn’t be here.
I conclude, then, that Loftus’ arguments in defense of methodological naturalism are question-begging and unsound.
A revolution, it seems, is afoot. Scientists are finally coming out and declaring that they can live with the supernatural, after all. What will we see next? Open discussion of the flaws in Darwinian evolution?
My figure of 10,000,000 acts of intervention was calculated as follows:
10,000 families of organisms on earth today x 100 families in the past for every family that has ever lived x 10 acts of intervention (say) to transform one kind of animal into another (think land animal to whale lineage) through intelligently guided evolution. As I said, it’s probably wrong by an order of magnitude or two.