Alberts on Behe

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Behe's op-ed piece in the NY Times of 7 February, which was rebuked here earlier, has been given an even more stinging setback. One of the authorities Behe cited, Bruce Alberts, has also come out in the pages of the NY Times with a forceful response.

The pro-science side of the blogosphere responds with fierce glee, with comments at Lloydletta's Nooz and Comments, EvolutionBlog, and Pharyngula. It's the perfect fillip for our Darwin's Day celebrations.


Carl Zimmer also weighs in.

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Michael Behe's op-ed piece in today's New York Times was completely discredited by Nick Matzke at Panda's Thumb and PZ Myers at Pharyngula. There is little that a amateur like me can add. I do think it is fun to... Read More

Michael Behe writes a puzzling op-ed piece for the New York Times (registration required) attempting to explain the basics of intelligent design. He raises more questions than he answers. First, I recognize the limitations of an op-ed piece in the Read More

35 Comments

The only thing that surprised me is that it took five days for Alberts to respond. But then he does have other responsibilties.

Alberts could have been a bit more forceful. But of course he does have bigger fish to fry.

There are some other good letters to the editor here, including a few from scientists. They are overwhlemingly against Behe. I can count only two that might be in his favor, and even those are questionable. I guess his big break in the Times didn’t pan out quite like he’d hoped.

Steve Reuland Wrote:

I guess his big break in the Times didn’t pan out quite like he’d hoped.

I don’t know about that. Reminds me of the one and only appearance of “The Doors” on the Ed Sullivan show.

He looked at Morrison and said, ‘Mr. Sullivan liked you boys. He wanted you on six more times. … You’ll never do the Sullivan show again.’ “

To which Morrison retorted with glee, “We just did the Sullivan show.”

I think Behe just did the New York Times. It fits in with the “all publicity is good publicity” attitude of the ID advocates.

Yeah, well, look what eventually happened to Morrison.

I agree with Wesley. This type of coverage will serve as a clarion call for the Religious Right. Movements of all stripes thrive on this type of attention - exposure is the name of the game.

Alberts alludes to methodological naturalism: “the scientific enterprise has depended on an insistence that these gaps be filled by natural explanations, logically derived from confirmable evidence”. I explained the role of science in taking this methodological approach, vs. religion, here (copied from some comments I posted on the NYT comments page on op-ed contributors, where nearly 80 different people posted rebuttals to Behe):

http://www.pandasthumb.org/pt-archi[…].html#c15858

Theological possibilities that science doesn’t contradict:

Here are several possibilities that science does not, has not, and cannot disprove:

God created the earth less than 10,000 years ago, with the fossil record and the mountains and the carbon dates and all the rest of it, just as it is.

God created the first replicating organism.

The flagellum didn’t evolve, it was designed as is by God, and thus “Intelligent Design” is true.

These are all opinions that some theologians have. Science can’t show they are false. But they are religious views, not science, and have no place in science classes, nor in the discipline of science. Anyone promoting any of these views, even if a scientist (as Michael Behe is) are not doing science by doing so, they are doing religion.

If science can’t disprove Intelligent Design, then how can it assert that evolution is true? Because science aims to produce predictive theories, theories that make true claims as to what we will observe under various conditions, something that religion cannot do – “God did it” provides us no way to predict what we will see if we look at the stars or in a microscope or in a fossil bed.

So science carries with it a condition – the scientific question is, how might this have happened if God didn’t do it, if it occurred entirely naturally. Answering that question can be very very hard, but answering it is what scientists are charged with. Thus the answer “God did it” is never the scientific answer – “If God didn’t do it, then it might have happened by …” can never be filled in with “God doing it”. Yet that’s exactly what so-called Intelligent Design Theory offers, which is why it’s not science. Scientists answer, yeah, sure, God might have done it, but suppose God didn’t do it, how then might it have happened?

When you understand that that’s what science is about, then you understand what’s so terribly wrong with trying to inject ID into science. ID says let’s give up on science, and just say God did it. That’s fine for people who don’t want to do the hard work of science, but it’s not science, it’s religion, and has no business in science classes, science textbooks, science institions, science forums, etc. – and it has no business being presented as science in the NYT, even on the op-ed page.

Steve Reuland Wrote:

Yeah, well, look what eventually happened to Morrison.

Ah, but the the Ed Sullivan Show bit the dust a month sooner in 1971, and Ed himself followed just 3 years later.

Nevertheless, there’s the old thing about no such thing as bad publicity. Especially when Behe has the sound bites that the public craves, and Alberts, whose rebuttal cannot be covered fairly in a short editorial, does not.

Flint will appreciate the comments in the trackback to Abnormal Interests below. I commend it to the attention of all of us, in fact.

RBH

Steve Reuland wrote

Yeah, well, look what eventually happened to Morrison.

He’s immortal.

I doubt that Dr. B will achieve the same level of fame. That’s one of the amusing aspects to this “ID theory” peddling program. If the “theory” is ever proven correct, suddenly many hypotheticals which were previously laughed about in hazy teenage bedrooms must be reconsidered in earnest.

For example, might not Jim Morrison have been used by aliens to communicate some hidden message? Did he not speak to us about virtues of breaking through to “the other side”?

Similarly, we could begin to explain the genius of such figures as Beethoven and Jimi Hendrix, who possessed abilities that are easier to comprehend if we consider the possibility of the intervention of alien beings. I recall Jimi vividly describing some sulfur mines on Jupiter … surely if we sent a probe to the surface of Jupiter and found such mines, that would give Behe’s “theories” additional weight.

RBH Wrote:

Flint will appreciate the comments in the trackback to Abnormal Interests below. I commend it to the attention of all of us, in fact.

Exactly! ID is a slick sales pitch that plays on the public’s desires - “fairness” in education, a God that can be pinned down, fear and suspicion of science and scientists, fascination with superstition and the paranormal, etc. While YEC appeals to at most half of the adult population, ID, with a tent big enough to accommodate the Raelians, has the potential to sell to a great majority.

Frank J Wrote:

Nevertheless, there’s the old thing about no such thing as bad publicity.

Maybe, but the fact that scienists (and laypeople) are getting fed-up and writing negative letters is encouraging. The IDists can only keep up the charade for so long.

I can’t share others’ enthusiasm for Bruce Alberts’ letter. As I’ve said before (sorry for sounding like a scratched record), rejecting ID out of hand on the grounds that it’s a supernatural explanation plays into the hands of IDists’ claim that ID is rejected because of an arbitrary “rule”. No, ID should be rejected because there’s no evidence to support it, and the IDist arguments are just old discredited arguments like the god-of-the-gaps, dressed up in new mumbo jumbo.

I tend to agree with Mr. Wein.

ID does indeed have religious foundations. That’s not a reason to reject it as science. Evolution has religious foundations, too – the assumption Darwin had, for example, that the deity that created life did things in a formal fashion that could be studied and understood from that study (in short, that nature accurately manifests the processes by which it was created). Much of creationism in the modern haunting is a rejection of that basic idea, which most of science yet finds useful.

We would do well to target the “fairness” issue of ID, however. Specifically, it is not fair to the student to “teach a controversy” without first teaching the facts.

And second, it’s not fair that ID should get to be presented as a full blown discipline of science when there is no discipline to be presented. In short, Behe asks that he get at least a second-place ribbon for the race, without having run the race. That’s not fair.

So Alberts’ letters should make that point. Alberts should be commenting that it’s been 14 years since Behe first proposed “irreducible complexity,” and he has not produced the paper he promised on it. Where is the paper? What happened to the research that was supposed to be done?

In short, why is Behe demanding, unfairly, that he be given credit for running a race he has not yet run?

Miller’s recent answer gets at this issue quite well, I think. He said, essentially, that ID has failed in the marketplace of science ideas, and now asks for a government handout to get it going in the schools. How fair is that?

As I?ve said before (sorry for sounding like a scratched record), rejecting ID out of hand on the grounds that it?s a supernatural explanation plays into the hands of IDists? claim that ID is rejected because of an arbitrary ?rule?.

Methodological naturalism is not an “arbitrary rule”. Science is in the business of finding predictive theories – that’s what it’s for, and is certainly not “arbitrary”.

No, ID should be rejected because there?s no evidence to support it

No evidence to support what? The claim of ID is that there are structures that could not have evolved. To say that there is no evidence to support it is to suggest that there could be evidence to support it. But there can’t – it’s not an empirical claim. And by implying that there could be, the IDers can point to all sorts of things that laypersons might take as evidence that “it was designed”. It’s far better to directly attack “it was designed” as a supernatural – inherently non-scientific – claim, one that doesn’t satisfy the requirements of scientific inquiry to continue asking questions.

and the IDist arguments are just old discredited arguments like the god-of-the-gaps, dressed up in new mumbo jumbo.

For most laypeople, “god-of-the-gaps” is esoteric mumbo-jumbo terminology, and they aren’t aware that it’s an old or discredited argument.

ts Wrote:

Methodological naturalism is not an “arbitrary rule”. 

I don’t think that’s Mr. Wein’s argument; rather, it’s IDists who argue that methodological naturalism is an arbitrary rule, and while they may be wrong, this line of argument is very effective rhetorically. You and I both know that “natural” as Alberts uses it is just a synonym for emprically observable, but the IDists have twisted it into a synonym for atheism. Hence, everytime the word “natural” comes up, the IDists claim that they’re being ruled out of bounds on a priori philosophical grounds. It allows them to flex their misplaced persecution complex.

I too wish that Alberts had taken a different tack and simply blasted ID for lacking any theoretical or empirical grounding, and kept the “naturalism” out of it.

One minor disagreement I’ll have with Richard is in the use of the term “supernatural”. If you’ll notice, IDists avoid this word like the plauge, even though it’s the proper antonym of “natural” as used in science. Instead, they try to use “intelligent” as the antonym of “natural”, which is pure language abuse. The IDists are clearly of the opinion that “supernaturalism”, while a correct description of their views, carries too much baggage. All the better reason to make them wear it.

I tend to agree with the comments made by Richard and Steve. I think part of the problem stems from the unfamiliarity of most scientists with the ID movement and how they work. In my department there are active researchers who don’t even think these people exist, let alone have vaguely sophisticated sounding argument. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; scientists need to get to grips with creationism.

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Steve R writes

it’s IDists who argue that methodological naturalism is an arbitrary rule, and while they may be wrong, this line of argument is very effective rhetorically.

Actually it’s a simple argument to destroy. Methodolical naturalism isn’t arbitrary – it works. After that point is made, simply go on the attack and show how hypocritical creationists are when they make the argument: they rely on methodological naturalism themselves all the time, as do monkeys, birds, cephalopods and other animals. Relying on mysterious alien beings or poltergeists to come to the rescue results in the disease and death of humans, e.g., children.

Science used methodological naturalism to determine that HIV causes AIDS. HIV kills children. Phil Johnson, the false prophet who inspired the latest wave of ID peddlers, is an HIV-denier. “Connect the dots,” as a certain troll here once said.

Remember: shine the spotlight on the creationist, then start stomping.

As for my man Bruce Alberts, he’s a straight talking guy (I recall when I discussed my thesis work that he had a somewhat “salty” manner). I hope he gets up to speed on the creationist strategy a.s.a.p. He seems to know enough, at least, not to cite Gould or Dawkins as “evidence” that what he says is true.

Richard Wein Wrote:

No, ID should be rejected because there’s no evidence to support it, and the IDist arguments are just old discredited arguments like the god-of-the-gaps, dressed up in new mumbo jumbo.

On one hand ID has no “it” to refute like the mutually contradictory creationisms. Independent abiogenesis, saltation and front loading may be implied in ID arguments, but the promoters never really commit to them. But even if they didn’t use “god-of-the-gaps” the way they misrepresent evolution is reason enough to reject ID as an educational strategy.

Steve Reuland Wrote:

The IDists can only keep up the charade for so long.

On my more optimistic days I am inclined to agree. But when I see people all around me, even with science degrees, falling for everything from astrology, to pareidolia, to alternative medicine, I can’t help getting pessimistic.

Ed Darrell Wrote:

And second, it’s not fair that ID should get to be presented as a full blown discipline of science when there is no discipline to be presented. In short, Behe asks that he get at least a second-place ribbon for the race, without having run the race. That’s not fair.

If anything, people like Stuart Kauffman, with his ~30 years of research and hundreds of peer reviewed publications, should get a “second-place ribbon.” For high school biology, that means no more than a brief mention. But look how IDers like to have it both ways with Kauffman. He is at once a “dissenter from Darwinism” (because he thinks that natural selection does not act alone) and part of the “Darwinist orthodoxy” (because he refuses to cop out with a god-of-the-gaps). Kauffman made it clear that he wants no part of the ID strategy.

I have to go strongly with “ts”. (By the way, I’m a Christian, although almost all ID and creationist types would deny it.) Every physical phenomenon has an infinite number of magical explanations that can’t be disproved, including, but far from limited to, the actions of a “designer”, or God, or Satan, or angels, or aliens, or the wee people, or ghosts - any of whom could act in an infinite number of ways.

Rather than choose between an infinite array of magical explanations, science takes simple assumptions about the natural world that we all, including the most ardent creationist, intuitively accept (doesn’t mean they’re “true”, just means they’re almost universally intuitively accepted) and says, if we work hard, can we find a purely natural explanation for this phenomenon? Virtually everyone who posts here accepts the scientific explanation for how their computer works. Here’s another possible explanation - your computer could be broken, or never have worked at all, but a guardian angel (a species of “designer”) is making it work, and making it look to you as if it’s happening naturally. You can’t disprove this, but there are an infinite number of other supernatural explanations you can’t disprove, as well. I find it bitterly ironic that science is seen as attacking religion. Virtually every supernatural explanation is more likely to outright contradict someone’s religion, including any ID explanation that makes any attempt to identify the “designer”.

Harold and GWW,

just to add on the theoretical foundation of naturalism: there are not only a infinite number of super-natural, but also an infinite number of naturalist explanations to each phenomenon - this is called the postulate of underdetermination. Fortunately the scientific method does not only allow for rating hypotheses by there simplicity and consistency with already established explanations (Occam’s Razor), but als to check how well the new explanation predicts and explains new, formerly unknown data. This can only be done with naturalist hypotheses, implicitely making ‘whatever makes no predictions and is not testable in principle’ the best definition of ‘supernatural’ in the scientific context.

P.S. this would of course allow for a totally predictable and testable ‘god’ within a naturalist hypothesis, but somthing like this would be theologically useless, and frankly for my taste border on pretty serious blasphemy (the tendency to diminish the divine into a factor for ad hoc explanations is one of my major beefs with ID/SciCre).

Steve Reuland Wrote:

it’s IDists who argue that methodological naturalism is an arbitrary rule, and while they may be wrong, this line of argument is very effective rhetorically.

It’s effective as long as it’s not opposed. We won’t get anywhere by sweeping the facts of scientific method and scientific epistemology under the rug.

You and I both know that “natural” as Alberts uses it is just a synonym for emprically observable, but the IDists have twisted it into a synonym for atheism. Hence, everytime the word “natural” comes up, the IDists claim that they’re being ruled out of bounds on a priori philosophical grounds. It allows them to flex their misplaced persecution complex.

We’re so powerless before those mean old IDists and their extraordinary rhetorical prowess; poor poor us.

Look, most of their audience wouldn’t know “a priori philosophical grounds” if it sat on their faces. And this idea that IDists need some grounds for flexing their persecution complex is absurd. Look at how the Christian right complains that secular Jews are taking Christmas away from them, and how Republicans play the “sore winner” role.

I too wish that Alberts had taken a different tack and simply blasted ID for lacking any theoretical or empirical grounding,

Ah, so you choose to completely and utterly ignore my point that blasting ID on those grounds gives ID legitimacy as the sort of thing that might have such grounding, making it seem that it’s just a dispute between two camps as to whether there is such grounding or not. As I noted, many laypeople find design in nature themselves, and simply claiming that there isn’t any makes it look like IDists are fighting against entrenched dogmatists. This is similar to what George Lakoff has written about “framing” in the political arena. Republicans talk about “tax relief”, which carries the implicit assumption that taxes are a burden. It’s hard to argue against “tax relief” when that assumption is widely shared.

and kept the “naturalism” out of it.

Failing to educate the populace about scientific method and scientific epistemology is how we got into this soup. Keeping naturalism out of it is to keep what science is out of it.

The IDists are clearly of the opinion that “supernaturalism”, while a correct description of their views, carries too much baggage. All the better reason to make them wear it.

And that’s what Alberts rightly draped them with. In any case, I find this post facto criticism of Alberts to be somewhat petty. If you think he didn’t write the best letter, send the NYT your own letter.

Steve Reuland:

You and I both know that “natural” as Alberts uses it is just a synonym for emprically observable…

I’m afraid this reminds me of Dembski’s use of “complexity” as a synonym for “improbability”: they’re not synonymous and neither are “natural” and “empirically observable”. In fact, they don’t even describe the same entities. Bruce Alberts referred to “natural explanations”. By your account, he meant “empirically observable explanations”. But explanations are not observable. (Well, the text of a written explanation is observable, but that’s obviously not relevant.) If you insist that, by “natural explanations”, he really meant “explanations derived from empirically observable evidence”, then you are making the second part of his expression “natural explanations, logically derived from confirmable evidence” redundant (assuming that “confirmable” means pretty much the same as “empirically observable”). This is just not credible.

Jonas:

Fortunately the scientific method does not only allow for rating hypotheses by there simplicity and consistency with already established explanations (Occam’s Razor), but als to check how well the new explanation predicts and explains new, formerly unknown data.

So far so good.

This can only be done with naturalist hypotheses,

Why?

…implicitely making ‘whatever makes no predictions and is not testable in principle’ the best definition of ‘supernatural’ in the scientific context.

Only if you have already decided that scientific hypotheses must be described as “naturalist” regardless of what the word actually means! This is an Orwellian use of language.

Ken Shackleton Wrote:

The only assumption that science makes is that the universe follows natural rules and that these rules are knowable.

What do you mean by “natural” rules? (I assume you don’t mean “empirically observable rules” as Steve apparently would interpret you).

Yet, even though these are basic assumptions of science . …these assumptions are strongly supported by observation and experiment.

I would agree that scientific thinking applied to observation and experiment give us strong reason to doubt the existence of those entities typically described as “supernatural”, such as gods and ghosts. But this does not justify ruling such entities out of science as a matter of principle, regardless of what evidence may appear in the future.

I Wrote:

No, ID should be rejected because there’s no evidence to support it

ts Wrote:

No evidence to support what? The claim of ID is that there are structures that could not have evolved.

I was referring to the claim that an intelligent designer was involved in the origin of species. The claim you mention is used to support that claim, so is not the ultimate ID claim.

Richard Wein makes some “technical” arguments

I would agree that scientific thinking applied to observation and experiment give us strong reason to doubt the existence of those entities typically described as “supernatural”, such as gods and ghosts. But this does not justify ruling such entities out of science as a matter of principle, regardless of what evidence may appear in the future.

Who was proposing to rule such entities out of science as a matter of principle regardless of what evidence may appear in the future?

Answer: nobody. When the mysterious aliens reveal themselves, they’ll be studied by scientists just like scientists studied medflies.

Creationist apologist can not win the battle or even score meaningful points by making pointless semantic arguments. The bottom line is that evolution has massive amounts of evidence in its favor. Awesomely powerful beings who flit about the universe depositing absurd numbers of diverse organisms for hundreds of millions of years? Zilcho evidence.

Game. Set. Match. (this is a rerun, actually, of a debate that ended many decades ago).

Richard,

I am trying not to be Orwellian, just to be precise. AFAIK there is no definition of ‘natural’ or ‘supernatural’ around. Are omnipotent space people supernatural? Would the judeo-christian God become natural if I called him ‘Y-Force’, would quarks become supernatural if I called them ‘fairies’? At least on straightforward approach is: ‘We can describe, observe or test the things and forces we see in nature, so we will call everything we can treat like this equally naturalistic, things that go beyond that are supernatural.’ On the other hand the answer to the question whether there are hypotheses whose underdetermination can not be constrained is, that this would apply to hypotheses which can not be tested. So by coincidence, things which fall under this specific definition of ‘supernatural’ make for hypotheses whose quality and practical relevance can never be judged, making them useless for science. You are very welcome to provide another definition of ‘supernatural’. It is just not sure whether this definition would have any relevance for the scientific testing of hypotheses, as science does not reject ‘supernatural’ because it is an icky word, but because underdetermined hypotheses are such a useless pain in the behind.

If you insist that, by “natural explanations”, he really meant “explanations derived from empirically observable evidence”, then you are making the second part of his expression “natural explanations, logically derived from confirmable evidence” redundant (assuming that “confirmable” means pretty much the same as “empirically observable”). This is just not credible.

Of course it is, as it is credibly equivalent to “natural explanations – explanations that can be logically derived from confirmable evidence”.

I was referring to the claim that an intelligent designer was involved in the origin of species. The claim you mention is used to support that claim, so is not the ultimate ID claim.

You’re confused. Evidence must be provided for the supporting claim, not the claim that IDists say is logically derivable from the supporting claim. The supporting claim that certain structures could not have evolved cannot possibly have any supporting evidence, since it isn’t an empirical claim.

Fortunately the scientific method does not only allow for rating hypotheses by there simplicity and consistency with already established explanations (Occam?s Razor), but als to check how well the new explanation predicts and explains new, formerly unknown data. This can only be done with naturalist hypotheses

Why?

Because “data” occurs in the natural world, observed or measured with natural instruments and natural senses. Only naturalist hypotheses are causal – relating natural phenomena to each other. Supernatural hypotheses are, by definition (“Of or relating to existence outside the natural world”), outside the empirical causal framework.

jonas Wrote:

AFAIK there is no definition of ‘natural’ or ‘supernatural’ around.

If that were true, there’d be no point in using the word. But in fact you can find definitions of those words in any dictionary. And I doubt you’ll find one that defines “supernatural” as “whatever makes no predictions and is not testable in principle” or anything similar.

The only reasonable thing to do is first decide what you mean by “natural” and then decide whether it is correct to say that scientific hypotheses must be natural in that sense of the word. You’re putting the cart before the horse, first deciding that scientific hypotheses must be “natural” (regardless of what the word means) and then inventing a definition of “natural” which fits what you want to say about scientific hypotheses. This is rather like claiming that the moon is made of green cheese, and then, when challenged, justifying your claim by defining “green cheese” to mean “rock”.

ts Wrote:

Richard Wein wrote: If you insist that, by “natural explanations”, he really meant “explanations derived from empirically observable evidence”, then you are making the second part of his expression “natural explanations, logically derived from confirmable evidence” redundant (assuming that “confirmable” means pretty much the same as “empirically observable”). This is just not credible.

Of course it is, as it is credibly equivalent to “natural explanations — explanations that can be logically derived from confirmable evidence”.

My mistake. I overlooked the comma in the quote I gave from Bruce Alberts. The comma makes your interpretation plausible, though not required, i.e. Alberts may or may not have meant the two expressions to be synonymous. If he did mean them to be synonymous, then his claim that ID theories are “based on supernatural explanations” is a claim that ID theories cannot be logically derived from confirmable evidence. But he makes no attempt whatsoever to justify this claim, which seems like rather a serious omission to me, since the claim is not obviously true.

ts Wrote:

Supernatural hypotheses are, by definition (“Of or relating to existence outside the natural world”), outside the empirical causal framework.

Please show how the assertion follows from the definition, as I don’t think it does. By the way, I’m glad to see that you are not using the definition used by Steve, Jonas and (allegedly) Bruce Alberts. Can I take it that you disagree with their definition?

I Wrote:

Please show how the assertion follows from the definition, as I don’t think it does.

Just to clarify… The reason I don’t think it follows is because your definition is in terms of “natural” while your assertion is in terms of “causal”. You seem to be assuming that “natural” implies “causal”.

The comma makes your interpretation plausible, though not required

That’s why I wrote “credibly equivalent”.

i.e. Alberts may or may not have meant the two expressions to be synonymous. If he did mean them to be synonymous, then his claim that ID theories are “based on supernatural explanations” is a claim that ID theories cannot be logically derived from confirmable evidence.

No, it claims what it claims. “ID theories are based on supernatural explanations” is loose language; there is no “theory” as such to be “based on” supernatural explanations. But … IDists say that the only explanation for certain processes is “design”. The IDists say it could have been space aliens, but they don’t really mean it, they mean it was God – this really can’t be disputed. God is “supernatural” in that God is acausal – not governed by any possible physical law or theory; you might say that God is a causal wildcard. It would be more accurate to say “IDists claim that a supernatural explanation is necessary”, which is equivalent to “no causal theory could suffice – we must employ a wildcard”.

Supernatural hypotheses are, by definition (“Of or relating to existence outside the natural world”), outside the empirical causal framework.

Please show how the assertion follows from the definition, as I don’t think it does.…The reason I don’t think it follows is because your definition is in terms of “natural” while your assertion is in terms of “causal”. You seem to be assuming that “natural” implies “causal”.

I said “empirical causal framework” – that is the natural world. What else could “natural” possibly refer to? nature = “The material world and its phenomena” per the same dictionary. “supernatural” (per the definition I used) cannot be “empirical”. “causal” refers to law-like relationships between empirical observations. www.dictionary.com doesn’t help here, but this has been the understanding since Hume.

By the way, I’m glad to see that you are not using the definition used by Steve, Jonas and (allegedly) Bruce Alberts. Can I take it that you disagree with their definition?

Jonas said there is no definition. Steve says “natural” is equivalent to “empirically observable” – I would say that is equivalent to my “The material world and its phenomena”. Or rather, coextensive with, because the concepts aren’t identical, but they imply one another. It’s hard to eke that out of the dictionary, but meaning is use, and this is how the words are used.

If you don’t agree, you’ll have to work it out yourself, cuz I’ve spent way too much time on this already.

Ts… Defining “natural” in terms of “causal” seems like a reasonable idea, and I’d be a lot happier if all proponents of methodological naturalism did likewise. Steve and Bruce Alberts said nothing about causality. Steve quite explicitly gave a different definition.

By the way, don’t some physicists believe that some quantum events and/or the universe are uncaused? Does that make it unscientific to invoke those events/entities?

ts Wrote:

Steve says “natural” is equivalent to “empirically observable” — I would say that is equivalent to my “The material world and its phenomena”. Or rather, coextensive with, because the concepts aren’t identical, but they imply one another.

There’s a big difference between defining “natural” as “empirically observable” and deducing that what is natural (i.e. caused) is necessarily empirically observable. (I think the deduction is, in any case, questionable.)

To sum up, if we want to say that science cannot deal with uncaused entities, then let’s just say so, rather than cloaking the discussion in misleading terms like “natural” and “supernatural”.

Richard,

just to make things clear, I have given a definition for natural, namely ‘open to empirical tests’, and I have tried to give a reasoning why this might be called natural, because of analogy to phenomena in the world around us. This is probably the same reasoning as behind ts’ eqaution of natural with observable (testable just includes factors not open to direct observation). I have stated there is no definition, because afaik there is not *one* agreed upon definition, but many ad hoc ones in differnt contexts, but have claimed that this definition or a very similar one is the only meaning of ‘natural’ really important for the scientific method.

You have so far not come up with an alternative definition and told us in how far this would change the relevance of untestable claims like ‘God did it, but nobody knows how’ or ‘ID did it, but nobody knows how’ to scientific inquiery.

jonas Wrote:

You have so far not come up with an alternative definition and told us in how far this would change the relevance of untestable claims like ‘God did it, but nobody knows how’ or ‘ID did it, but nobody knows how’ to scientific inquiery.

Well, it’s not for me to come up with a definition of “natural” because I don’t want to use the term, except in reply to other people who do use it. I don’t think it’s useful in this context.

I’m not 100% convinced that science is unable to consider claims like “an intelligent designer did it, but nobody knows how”. But if that is the case, why not just say that science cannot consider such vague claims? Why do we have to label such claims “supernatural”? If you want to say that science can only consider hypotheses which are open to empirical tests, why not just say “science can only consider hypotheses which are open to empirical tests”. Why introduce the word “natural” whose connection to “empirical” is dubious? If you feel the need to introduce a shorthand term to describe the concept, why not call it “empiricism”? I’m just arguing for some truth in advertising here. Why not just say what we mean? (By the way, you might argue that “empiricism” already has another meaning. But so does “natural”–several of them–and that doesn’t seem to be a problem for you.)

The only reason that anyone here seems to have for defining the word “natural” in this sort of way is in order to justify their insistence on methodological naturalism (MN). As I said before, this is putting the cart before the horse. And it doesn’t help you reject ID anyway, because you still have the problem of arguing whether the ID hypothesis is “natural”, i.e. is “an intelligent designer did it” open to empirical tests? The answer is not obvious. The ID crowd will almost certainly claim that it is open to empirical tests. So you haven’t really made much progress. You’ve just obscured the question by covering it up with a superfluous and misleading term.

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This page contains a single entry by PZ Myers published on February 12, 2005 3:47 PM.

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