July 15, 2004

Phillip Johnson - Limits to natural investigation

While reading Uncommon Dissent (ed. William Dembski) I have encountered no dearth of what I consider to be examples of flawed logic and misunderstanding of the nature, and/or interpretation of evidence. Some of these are obviously misguided and require merely a strong stomach and the fortitude to press on.

But some, I think, demand closer examination. One such passage from Phillip Johnson's essay "Evolution As Dogma, The Establishment of Naturalism" caught my attention. I think it offers some insight into the anti-methodological naturalism mindset.

Here is the quote,
"The problem with scientific naturalism as a worldview is that it takes a sound methodological premise of natural science and transforms it into a dogmatic statement about the nature of the universe. Science is committed by definition to empiricism, by which I mean that scientists seek to find truth by observation, experiment and calculation rather than by studying sacred books or achieving mystical states of mind. It may well be, however, that there are certain questions – important questions, ones to which we desperately want to know the answers – that cannot be answered by the methods available to our science. These may include not only broad philosophical issues such as whether the universe has a purpose, but also questions we have become accustomed to think of as empirical, such as how life first began or how complex biological systems were put together."
[This is an entire paragraph from Johnson's essay. Although I didn't really need to include the first sentence I did so in order to forestall any accusations of quote mining. All the relevant context is there.]

The opening sentence is unimportant except to the extent that it exemplifies the lengths to which anti-evolutionists will go in order to caricature science. The ultimately self-defeating ploy in playing "scientific naturalism" against a misuse of some "sound methodological premise of natural science" (wouldn't that be methodological naturalism?) is contradictory, and from there asserting that science proposes a worldview or universal dogma is nothing more than strawman construction. For the umpteenth time, individual scientists may propose worldviews, they may even twist scientific methodology in dogmatic ways, but science proposes no worldview and advances no dogma beyond an understanding of its procedural limits in uncovering knowledge of the natural world.

What really interests me are Johnson's comments following the first sentence. I find little to quibble with in his description of science, except that for "truth" I would substitute "provisional explanation." But the fact that he goes on to suggest the existence of important questions that are not amenable to naturalistic methodology strikes me as something of a philosophical crossroads. I say this because it seems to me this is where the opposing views, one, an understanding of the proper role of methodological naturalism in science and the other, a mindset that can accommodate the notion of a place in science for metaphysical hypotheses, diverge.

Many of us might argue, in the abstract, that it is entirely possible that what we can access and interact with in the natural universe is truly all that exists. But for the purposes of conducting activities and constructing lives, I'd submit that most find it perfectly acceptable to allow that science is but one tool for discovery and there may indeed be questions "that cannot be answered by the methods available to our science." As such we find in this idea no substantive disagreement between methodological naturalists and theists. However it is my suggestion that for methodological naturalists, and for individuals who share Phillip Johnson's perspective, the paths diverge from there.

Johnson's path is clarified in his next passage. He asserts that these questions may include "how life first began or how complex biological systems were put together." If your reaction was anything like mine you thought something along the lines of "how the heck can he say that?" But he does. And it doesn't matter if he equivocates by use of the qualifier "may," his argument depends on taking the statement without qualification. Johnson has inserted an article of faith here where it clearly does not belong. There is only one way to know whether empirical issues such as how biological systems were assembled can be answered by scientific methodology and that is to play the game out. Science is our only tool for reliable investigation of empirical phenomena and it is only through the prosecution of scientific research that we will know exactly which empirical issues are accessible through the methods of science and which, if any, are not. To state as a premise of his argument that empirical questions may not be answerable "by the methods available to our science" is to import an assertion that has no evidential support, and no basis in logic.

If Phillip Johnson, or any ID adherent wishes to propose that scientific methodology can or even should accommodate extra-natural phenomena then it is surely incumbent upon them to demonstrate how this would work, not merely whine about professional rejection. Further, if any ID theorist out there would like to offer evidence that, or just propose a logical basis for believing that, empirical events like "how life first began or how complex biological systems were put together" might resist "methods available to our science" they should take the time to forthrightly publish argumentation.

Without it, this problem - what characterizes the barrier between natural investigation and the supernatural? - will remain one of the fundamental flaws of Intelligent Design creationism.

1 Comments:

Anonymous Daniel said...

I stumbled on your blog entry and I agree with your reasoning up to this point:

"There is only one way to know whether empirical issues such as how biological systems were assembled can be answered by scientific methodology and that is to play the game out."

It appears in the Phillip Johnson quote that he is arguing that there are certain things that are thought of as empirical, but are not. But your argument here is that the items he brings up as possibly not empirical should be studied exclusively as if they are. These two arguments fail to address each other.

"[I]t is only through the prosecution of scientific research that we will know exactly which empirical issues are accessible through the methods of science and which, if any, are not."

Really? How do you know if science has found any event (biological or otherwise) to be empirical or not? When there is no naturalistic explanation for a long time? An alien coming to visit and saying they created life here? Why believe the alien?

The problem is you can never know what phenomena are accessible to science or not because any non-naturalistic explanation is invalid by definition.

I have also yet to see postulated any event or finding that would disprove evolution as a theory. If you could come up with one, it would be greatly appreciated.

6:32 PM  

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