Laudan, demarcation and the vacuity of Intelligent design

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Larry Laudan, philosopher of science and Senior Investigator at the Instituto de las Investigaciones Filosóficas, National Autonomous University of Mexico, is often quoted by ID activists in support of their claims about the demarcation problem. The demarcation problem basically is a philosophical argument about how to define what is and is not science. Larry Laudan strongly criticized the ruling by Judge Overton in McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education. Laudan argued that contrary to Overton’s decision creation science is in fact testable, tentative and falsifiable.

Laudan is also the author of “The Demise of the Demarcation Problem”, printed in Michael Ruse’s “But Is It Science?”. The Discovery Institute and its various contributors have made extensive use of Laudan’s position on the demarcation problem. Ironically, it seems that Larry Laudan holds some very strong opinions in this area. In an article called On Methodological Naturalism and Intelligent Design (or Why Can’t Lawrence VanDyke Leave Well Enough Alone?) Brian Leiter simply went down the hallway to talk to his colleague Laudan.

Leiter: I’ve not only perused Beckwith’s book, I’ve read large parts of it, and it might be said on VanDyke’s behalf that the book is, in many respects, as misleading as VanDyke’s review (Beckwith is a bit more careful on certain crucial points than VanDyke, to be sure–but a competent book reviewer might have noted, rather than parotting, Beckwith’s misleading claims). My colleague Larry Laudan is, needless to say, well beyond being amazed anymore by the gross misrepresentations of his views–and of issues in the philosophy of science–in law reviews and by proponents of ID. (Didn’t it occur to VanDyke that I might walk down the hall and point out his nonsense to Laudan? He just rolled his eyes and chuckled.)

Leiter continues to explain:

Leiter Wrote:

Beckwith invokes Laudan on two main points.

First, Beckwith notes that Laudan, like every other major philosopher of science now alive, thinks that the “demarcation problem” that exercised mid-20th-century philosophy of science—how do we demarcate science from non-science, or genuinely cognitive domains from nonsense—can not be solved. This now banal piece of philosophical wisdom goes no distance, obviously, towards showing that ID and creationism aren’t bad science, with nothing to commend them as research programs–which Laudan clearly believes, as Beckwith correctly notes. Has VanDyke read Beckwith’s book?

If so, he might have also noted that Beckwith quotes Laudan [at 25] noting that ID “is inconsistent with methodological naturalism and ontological materialism…[b]ut that fact has no bearing whatsoever on the plausbility of the arguments for ID.” Why does Laudan say that? Because methodological naturalism is an a posteriori doctrine, which means if ID generated any empirical results incompatible with it—it has not, of course—then so much the worse for MN. The problem is purely a posteriori: ID has no research program and no empirical support, so it presents no challenge at all to the reliance on naturalistical explanatory mechanisms. Laudan thinks talk of “pseudo-science” is misleading in the absence of a solution to the demarcation problem; Laudan has no reservations about talk about “good” and “bad” science as measured by their results and the evidence on behalf of their claims.

Laudan, in other words, may not believe in the demarcation problem but he surely accepts the notion of good and bad science. So how is the determination of the quality of science made? Simply by looking at its contributions to our scientific knowledge, the presence of a research program, the level of empirical support and the challenges it makes to the reigning scientific explanations.

In this context it is helpful to remind our readers of the work by Ryan Nichols who observed that Intelligent Design is vacuous, dealing directly with Laudan’s objections to the demarcation principle by determining how relevant ID is in generating relevant scientific contributions which follow directly from its basic principles. Nichols shows how IDT is without any content either as a scientific theory or meta-theory.

Ryan Nichols Wrote:

In my argument against Intelligent Design Theory I will not contend that it is not falsifiable or that it implies contradictions. I’ll argue that Intelligent Design Theory doesn’t imply anything at all, i.e. it has no content. By ‘content’ I refer to a body of determinate principles and propositions entailed by those principles. By ‘principle’ I refer to a proposition of central importance to the theory at issue. By ‘determinate principle’ I refer to a proposition of central importance to the theory at issue in which the extensions of its terms are clearly defined. I’ll evaluate the work of William Dembski because he specifies his methodology in detail, thinks Intelligent Design Theory is contentful and thinks Intelligent Design Theory (hereafter ‘IDT’) grounds an empirical research program.1 Later in the paper I assess a recent trend in which IDT is allegedly found a better home as a metascientific hypothesis, which serves as a paradigm that catalyzes research. I’ll conclude that, whether IDT is construed as a scientific or metascientific hypothesis, IDT lacks content.

Source: Ryan Nichols, Scientific content, testability, and the vacuity of Intelligent Design theory The American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly, 2003 ,vol. 77 ,no 4 ,pp. 591 - 611

When I raised the concept of scientific vacuity in an earlier posting, some ID activists were quick to argue that my argument would run afoul of the demarcation problem, unaware of the fact that I was not claiming that ID was or was not science but rather that ID was “bad” science in the sense that it lacks content.

Laudan

Laudan’s work is quite extensive and I am merely touching on the top of the iceberg. Nevertheless, a picture emerges in which Laudan argues for the fertility of theories and not necessarily the truth level. In addition, Laudan seems to promote a form of naturalism called ‘epistemic naturalism’ in which science and the philosophy of science co-evolve.

Laudan’s approach is meant to resolve not only the concept of consensus finding but also the existence of disagreement. Since the typical hierarchical model relies on three successive stages, the following problem can arise:

Howard Sankey Wrote:

For where scientists disagree about the aims of their enterprise, no appeal can be made to common goals to resolve lower-level disputes about methodological or factual matters. Given that scientific disputes are to be resolved at a higher level, the hierarchical model does not possess the resources to explain resolution of disputes arising at the top of the hierarchy.

Laudan proposed a method to avoid these complications:

Howard Sankey Wrote:

To remedy this situation, Laudan proposes an alternative model on which cognitive aims are also brought within the range of rational appraisal (ibid., pp. 62-64). Laudan sketches a reticulated model of scientific rationality, on which aims, methods and factual beliefs form a network of shifting and interdependent justificatory relations. On this model, justification runs up and down the hierarchy, rather than being restricted to descent from top to bottom. Thus, not only may aims justify methods and theories, but factual information may be relevant to the appraisal of methods, and theories provide constraints on appropriate cognitive goals. Furthermore, considerations about available methods may shape scientists’ views about the attainability of specific cognitive goals. Given the reticulated nature of justificatory relations, changes that take place at one or more levels of the hierarchy may be warranted on the basis of factors obtaining at any other level of the hierarchy

Howard Sankey Normative Naturalism and the Challenge of Relativism: Laudan versus Worrall on the Justification of Methodological Principles

Similarly Freedman in Laudan’s Naturalistic Axiology describes the evolving nature of epistemic naturalism

Freedman Wrote:

Laudan’s reticulated model of scientific rationality is supposed to reveal an aspect of science that the traditional model fails to account for:4 rational aim change. The reticulated model is represented by Laudan as a triad consisting of theory, methodology, and axiology. On this model, each of these elements influence one another: justification flows both upward and downward in the hierarchy.5 The reticulated model, in Laudan’s opinion, better captures the “complex process of mutual adjustment and mutual justification going on among all three levels of scientific commitment”(1984, p.62). Significantly, with the reticulated model, no one level is more privileged than another. Aims are no longer construed as inflexible, nor are they the final court of appeal. Aims are informed by theories and methods, just as theories and methods are informed by aims. Furthermore, change within any triad, according to Laudan, is not wholesale (e.g. as Kuhn would have it), but rather piecemeal (1984, p.65).

Larry Laudan How about Bust? Factoring Explanatory Power Back into Theory Evaluation Philosophy of science, Vol. 64, No. 2. (Jun., 1997), pp. 306-316.

For the last two decades, I have been arguing that, in the appraisal of theories and hypotheses, what does (and what should) principally matter to scientists is not so much whether those hypotheses are true or probable. What matters, rather, is the ability of theories to solve empirical problems-a feature that others might call a theory’s explanatory or predictive power.

Larry Laudan Normative Naturalism Philosophy of science, Vol. 57, No. 1. (Mar., 1990), pp. 44-59.

My own favorite flavor of naturalism is the epistemic variety. Epistemic naturalism is not so much an epistemology per se as it is a theory about philosophic knowledge: in very brief compass, it holds that the claims of philosophy are to be adjudicated in the same ways that we adjudicate claims in other walks of life, such as science, common sense and the law. More specifically, epistemic naturalism is a meta-epistemological thesis: it holds that the theory of knowledge is continuous with other sorts of theories about how the natural world is constituted. It claims that philosophy is neither logically prior to these other forms of inquiry nor superior to them as a mode of knowing. Naturalism thereby denies that the theory of knowledge is synthetic a priori (as Chisholm would have it), a set of “useful conventions” (as Popper insisted), a proto-scientific investigations” (in the Lorenzen sense) or the lackluster alternative to “edifying conversation” (in Rorty’s phrase).

In other words, Laudan’s position is that one cannot reject something as being science or non-science a-priori but that such distinctions follow a-posteriori when good science is separated from bad science.

Crudely put, the normative naturalist holds that the best methods for inquiry are those which produce the most impressive results. He thus uses an ampliative yardstick for judging ampliative rules.

In another paper titled “Methodology’s Prospects”, PSA: Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association, Vol. 1986, Volume Two: Symposia and Invited Papers. (1986), pp. 347-354, Laudan looks at methodology and outlines a general theory of inquiry

Laudan Wrote:

Let us begin with basics. Science is a form of inquiry, not the only form to be sure, but probably its most impressive. Methodology is the study of how to conduct inquiry effectively. Methodology is thus both a form of inquiry and the study of inquiry. There is an obvious self-reflexivity there, but not of the vicious sort. The methodology of science is the study of how to conduct scientific inquiry. Inquiry–whether scientific or otherwise-begins, to but it in the simplest possible way, by raising questions or posing problems. It carries on by proposing answers to those questions, or solutions to those problems. Inquiry terminates, at least pro temporem, by the provision of satisfactory answers or problem solutions.

So far so good. We have methodology and inquiry but how about methodology, and Laudan’s claim that methodology is contingent?

Laudan Wrote:

This claim of mine about the contingency of methodology appears to trouble many philosophers. They would like to believe that methodological rules are derivable purely a priori and that they enjoy the status of logical necessities. As I have already said, however, the view that methodological rules can be derived a priori or that they would be true in all possible worlds is wholly implausible. Inquirers with sensory capacities different from ours, inquirers with neurophysiologies different from ours, and inquirers just like us but in a world constituted differently from the way this one is would all be well advised to use means for realizing the aims of inquiry other than those which we find efficacious.

But if the contingency of methodology makes our task more complex, in that we need more than our apriori intuitions to do it (see Laudan 1986), that very contingency points the direction to solving the problem of the warrant for methodological rules. Specifically, I hold that the correctness of a methodological rule (of the form “if one’s goal is x, one ought to do y”) presupposes* the truth of the claim that “doing y can realize x, or bring one closer to the realization of x”. More than that, the acceptability of a methodological rule rests on our having grounds for believing that “doing y is more likely to realize x than doing any alternative course of action open to us”. And that means that the acceptability of a methodological rule depends on our having in hand relevant empirical evidence or theoretical arguments concerning the relative frequency with which doings of y (and its known alternatives) lead to the realization of x.

It should be clear by now that Laudan’s position is of little relevance to Intelligent Design and in fact is an indictment of Intelligent Design because ID lacks in empirical relevancy.

An incomplete list of ID activists (Google Search) who refer to Laudan in their defense of “Intelligent Design”

  • Stephen C Meyer in The Methodological Equivalence of Design & Descent: Can There Be a Scientific “Theory of Creation”? Reprinted from The Creation Hypothesis, ed. by J.P. Moreland (InterVarsity Press, 1994)

    Meyer Wrote:

    The “demise of the demarcation problem,” as Laudan calls it, implies that the use of positivistic demarcationist arguments by evolutionists is, at least prima facie, on very slippery ground. Laudan’s analysis suggests that such arguments are not likely to succeed in distinguishing the scientific status of descent vis-a#2-vis design or anything else for that matter. As Laudan puts it, “If we could stand up on the side of reason, we ought to drop terms like ‘pseudo-science.’… They do only emotive work for us.”

    If philosophers of science such as Laudan are correct, a stalemate exists in our analysis of design and descent. Neither can automatically qualify as science; neither can be necessarily disqualified either. The a priori methodological merit of design and descent are indistinguishable if no agreed criteria exist by which to judge their merits.

    PvM: In fact Laudan considers Methodological Naturalism an a-posterio concept and there is where Intelligent Design fails to be fruitful

  • David De Wolf, Stephen Meyer, Mark DeForrest in Intelligent Design in Public School Science Curricula A Legal Guidebook

    As noted earlier, Laudan’s critique suggests that when the specific demarcation criteria promulgated in McLean are applied rigidly, they disqualify both Darwinism and various non-materialistic alternatives. Yet, as his discussion of falsification suggests, if certain criteria are applied more liberally, then both theories may qualify as scientific.

    More recent studies in the philosophy of science have confirmed and amplified Laudan’s analysis.46 They suggest that philosophically neutral criteria do not exist that can define science narrowly enough to disqualify theories of creation or design without also disqualifying Darwinism and other materialistic evolutionary theories on identical grounds

    PvM: Of course the simple observation that ID is scientifically vacuous should be evidence enough.

    As Laudan and others have argued, the status and merit of competing origins theories must be decided on the basis of empirical evidence and argument, not on abstract philosophical or methodological litmus tests. Yet as we have seen, design theorists in particular make extensive appeals to such empirical evidence and argument. Moreover, their arguments are now informed by an empirically based and mathematically sophisticated theory for detecting design. If design theory has both theoretical and evidential support, and if it meets abstract definitional criteria of scientific status equally well as its main theoretical rivals, then it is natural to ask, On what grounds can design theory be excluded from the public school science curriculum?

    PvM: ID activists appeal to empirical evidence ONLY to argue against evolutionary theories. On what grounds can ID be excluded from the public school curriculum ? Because it is scientifically vacuous and thus lacks a clear secular motive which combined with its entanglement with religious motivations and foundations makes it unconstitutional. But I am not a lawyer so perhaps we should listen to a judge.

  • Stephen C Meyer in Expert Report Part 3: The Failure of Demarcation Arguments
  • Will Robert Pennock Become the Next Michael Ruse? Evolution News & Views Center for the renewal of science and culture.

    In the Dover trial, Robert Pennock is the Plaintiffs’ expert on the philosophy of science, and Pennock pushed hard for a definition of science which is essentially “methodological naturalism.”

    PvM: What is wrong in showing how Methodologial Naturalism leads to good science a-posteriori? Laudan would have been proud of Pennock.

    Pennock Wrote:

    Q. How do philosophers of science distinguish between science and non-science?

    A. Philosophers of science focus on what scientists do. If one does philosophy of art, then one looks at what artists do. So our primary starting point is the practices, the concepts of science. So we’ll look at the nature of evidence for example, the basic characteristics that we expect to find that we will start with is that science is a practice that deals with examining questions about the natural world, giving explanations about the natural world in terms of natural law, and offering hypotheses that can be tested against the natural world.

    Pennock’s testimony during Kitzmiller

    During Cross Mr Gillen asked the following question

    Q. Are you familiar with the work of Larry Laudan, L-A-U-D-A-N?

    A. Yes, Larry Laudan was a philosopher of science who actually has been a previous professor at the university where I did my work.

    Q. And Larry Laudan said he believes that creationism is science, it’s just bad science, correct?

    A. You’re referring to a particular article that Laudan wrote that Michael Ruse included in his anthology on creation science movement in the early 80’s, and in that case Laudan is making arguments that creation science should be allowed to be science in that he says it’s offering a claim that could be proved, but that is found to be false such as the age of the earth, because we know that that’s not true. So in that sense he says this is something that is bad science.

    If one were to put that forward as though it were science, that would be wrong, it’s bad science. But he said we can allow that as science. Now, he does that under the assumption that we’re judging this under the kinds of rules that I’m mentioning, to say that we’re judging that the young earth hypothesis, let’s say that the earth is ten thousand years old is false, and that we have disconfirmed that. That disconfirmation is done by assuming that we can judge it under the rule of methodological naturalism.

    That’s to say that we’re taking our ordinary notion and not allowing supernatural intervention. If we were to allow it, then we would not be able to say that this is something that has been disconfirmed. That’s to say if you take seriously the content that departs from scientific method and at that part, point, you’d be wrong to say that it’s just bad science. At that point you’d just say it’s not science.

    So this is always the sort of a subtle point that’s important to try to get across, and let me try to put it this way, right? It’s often complained by creationists that they say oh, you know, you’re saying that we can’t be falsified, and yet at the same time you’re saying that we are falsified. Gosh, isn’t that a contradiction? And that’s just a misunderstanding, right?

    The claim that it can’t be falsified is the claim that it can’t be falsified if one is departing from methodological naturalism. That is to say if you treat this as just an ordinary scientific hypothesis, then you’d say well, we projected that the earth is ten thousand years old. But if you depart from it and take seriously the supernatural content, then you can’t say that anymore, because at that point who knows?

    Young earth creationists, some of them have said well, the world looks old, but it looks old because God made it old, that really it is six thousand years old but he made it so that it appears to be much longer, did much, much earlier. Well, that’s sort of a deceptive view about the way things were created. But if you take that view that it’s possible to say that the supernatural being is deceiving us in this way, then there’s no way to say that we’ve disconfirmed that.

    For all we know the world may have been created five minutes ago and we’ve just been implanted with memories to make us think it that it’s much longer, right? There’s no way to disprove that. If you seriously take the supernatural possibility, then you can’t disconfirm it. So that’s the sense in which it’s important to say under the assumption of methodological naturalism, we have disconfirmed it, it’s bad science, that’s what Laudan is talking about, but if you were to take seriously the non-natural part, that’s to say rejecting scientific method, then it’s just not science, and we can’t say that we have rejected it. So there’s always these two different hypotheses. You’ve got to keep them distinct. There’s no contradiction.

    MR. GILLEN: Thank you, Your Honor. I have no further questions.

    At this point I would like to point to a paper by Bradley Monton titled Is Intelligent Design Science? Dissecting the Dover Decision. Monton argues that Laudan rejects methodological naturalism as a demarcation criterion for science, ignoring that Laudan accepts methodological naturalism a-posteriori as a “good” science. I believe that is also what Pennock is trying to say here.

    Pennock Wrote:

    If you seriously take the supernatural possibility, then you can’t disconfirm it. So that’s the sense in which it’s important to say under the assumption of methodological naturalism, we have disconfirmed it, it’s bad science, that’s what Laudan is talking about, but if you were to take seriously the non-natural part, that’s to say rejecting scientific method, then it’s just not science… (Pennock 2005b, 104-5)

    Monton concludes that “ Of course, Laudan is not the only philosopher of science who rejects methodological naturalism.” but Laudan does not reject methodological naturalism, he rejects it as a useful a-priori demarcation principle.

    Leiter Wrote:

    Because methodological naturalism is an a posteriori doctrine, which means if ID generated any empirical results incompatible with it—it has not, of course—then so much the worse for MN. The problem is purely a posteriori: ID has no research program and no empirical support, so it presents no challenge at all to the reliance on naturalistical explanatory mechanisms. Laudan thinks talk of “pseudo-science” is misleading in the absence of a solution to the demarcation problem; Laudan has no reservations about talk about “good” and “bad” science as measured by their results and the evidence on behalf of their claims.

Kitzmiller Ruling

Judge Jones’ ruling may be of interest since it actually looked at the scientific nature of Intelligent Design

Judge Jones Wrote:

After a searching review of the record and applicable caselaw, we find that while ID arguments may be true, a proposition on which the Court takes no position, ID is not science. We find that ID fails on three different levels, any one of which is sufficient to preclude a determination that ID is science. They are: (1) ID violates the centuries-old ground rules of science by invoking and permitting supernatural causation; (2) the argument of irreducible complexity, central to ID, employs the same flawed and illogical contrived dualism that doomed creation science in the 1980’s; and (3) ID’s negative attacks on evolution have been refuted by the scientific community. As we will discuss in more detail below, it is additionally important to note that ID has failed to gain acceptance in the scientific community, it has not generated peer-reviewed publications, nor has it been the subject of testing and research.

I will explore the ruling by Judge Jones in a later posting to determine if indeed Jones relied on demarcation principles or “good” versus “bad” science to determine the status of Intelligent Design. Needless to say I will argue that Jones reached the conclusion based on Intelligent Design’s lack of scientific relevance.

Laudan and the demarcation principle

  • Keith Abney in Naturalism and Nonteleological Science: A Way to Resolve the Demarcation Problem Between Science and Nonscience PSCF 49 (September 1997): 162.
  • Victor Stenger in Supernatural Science Darwin Day (February 12, 2006)

    My university of Hawaii colleague at the time, the eminent philosopher Larry Laudan, had been one of the strong voices disputing Popperian falsifiability as a workable demarcation criterion for science. When the Arkansas decision was announced, Laudan objected strenuously. He pointed out that creation science is in fact testable, tentative, and falsifiable. For example, it predicts a young Earth and other geological facts that have, in fact, been falsified. Falsified science can still be science, just wrong science. Laudan warned that the Arkansas decision would come back to haunt science by “perpetuating and canonizing a false stereotype on what science is and how it works.”

    Coming up-to-date, we similarly find that ID is testable, tentative, and falsifiable. For example, William Dembski asserts a “law of conservation of information” which implies that information cannot be generated by natural processes. This is provably wrong. Information is negative entropy and the second law of thermodynamics allows for the entropy of systems interacting with their environments to decrease and thus information to increase naturally. Michael Behe’s examples of “irreducible complexity” have similarly been refuted.

    I am not quibbling with the ruling that creation science and ID represent unconstitutional attempts to promote a sectarian view of creation under the guise of science. And, I also agree that ID is pseudoscience rather than science. But my reasons are not based on plugging in some algorithm written by a lawyer that clearly does not serve as an accurate definition of science. Pseudoscience is like pornography. You know it when you see it.

    See also Stenger’s PDF Presentation for his perspective of science versus pseudo-science

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Demarcating science from Evolving Thoughts on June 12, 2006 5:13 AM

To be sure, there are grey areas in science itself. We don't know which avenues will be fruitful to pursue ahead of time - success is measured after the fact, not before it. So there are many claims in the literature that might be true... Read More

109 Comments

My philosophy of science professor, back in the day, would have liked Lauden. He was very big on the notion that while there was no single demarcation between science and pseudoscience, real science generates meters upon meters of papers, pseudoscience generates bank accounts for hucksters like Dembski.

PvM,

I’m not sure I followed all of Laudan’s thought (or even any of it). I think ID (as presented by Behe) is, in principle, falsifiable: Either evolve an irreducibly complex system, or provide a detailed Darwinian scenario for such a system.

The big question, I think, is its confirmability. How would we confirm, apart from evidence of a designer, that a thing has been designed?

And if we can’t do that, then in what way can we say that ID is a scientifically meaningful theory? Is that the gist of it?

I think that’s exactly right: in the absence of a suitable model of a Designer or a Design process that realizes the asserted Designs in what way is the assertion of Design meaningful? In fact the standard notion promoted by IDists makes it less meaningful, for it argues explicitly that Design means improbable by natural means. Or put simply, it argues either for a supernatural origin (for it couldn’t have been naturally originated) or substitutes necessary ignorance (namely, that it originated in a manner that is hopelessly out of study by natural methods) as a form of explanation.

There is nothing about being a creationist that stops one from making false statements. When one says creationism is not testable, one is not claiming that creationists can’t make false statements.

Creationism is ultimately not testable because of the universal fall back position: The Designer did it anyway. God made everything just recently, he just made it look old. And so on. What Bilbo ask for: Either evolve an irreducibly complex system, or provide a detailed Darwinian scenario for such a system has been done. How much difference did this make to Behe’s testimony?

I’m not sure I followed all of Laudan’s thought (or even any of it). I think ID (as presented by Behe) is, in principle, falsifiable: Either evolve an irreducibly complex system, or provide a detailed Darwinian scenario for such a system.

The big question, I think, is its confirmability. How would we confirm, apart from evidence of a designer, that a thing has been designed?

And if we can’t do that, then in what way can we say that ID is a scientifically meaningful theory? Is that the gist of it

That’s about it. While ID science may propose some falsifiable claims, even though these claims are hardly relevant to ID itself, it is easy to show that ID has no scientific relevance and is meaningless rather than unscientific. The whole thing about demarcation is easily circumvented by pointing out that ID is scientifically irrelevant, vacuous, infertile.…

bilbo Wrote:

I think ID (as presented by Behe) is, in principle, falsifiable: Either evolve an irreducibly complex system, or provide a detailed Darwinian scenario for such a system.

Behe’s claim of Irreducible Complexity is easier to falsify than that - if you take away one part of a claimed IC system and it still functions then it’s not IC.

And Behe’s claim of IC has been shown to be false for all of this three major examples - the blood clotting cascade, the immune system and the bacterial flagellum.

So Behe’s claim is falsifiable and every time he’s claimed it it’s been shown to be false.

Behe’s claim of Irreducible Complexity is easier to falsify than that - if you take away one part of a claimed IC system and it still functions then it’s not IC.

This merely falsifies a claimed instance of IC. It does not falsify the conjecture that there exists such a thing as IC; one could evolve a flagellum, blood clotting cascade, whatever, in a test tube, and Behe and his pals would just move the goalposts and claim that while maybe that wasn’t really an IC system, these other examples are, and since evolution can’t explain them yet, clearly they can never be explained by evolution and therefore god the unnamed Intelligent Designer (hint, hint) must have created designed them.

It’s like that Letterman bit, Is It Anything?

No, ID isn’t anything. Just an argument from ignorance based on a false dichotomy, unintelligently designed by antiscientific creeps to try to wedge the fundie christian god into the schools and into the public consciousness by whatever dishonest means necessary.

Bilbo Wrote:

I’m not sure I followed all of Laudan’s thought (or even any of it). I think ID (as presented by Behe) is, in principle, falsifiable: Either evolve an irreducibly complex system, or provide a detailed Darwinian scenario for such a system.

Well, by Behe’s definition of IC, both of those are strictly impossible. Behe says that Darwinian/evolutionary processes cannot produce IC by definition. There are good reasons for leaving out that bit of Behe’s definition, though. The fact that it’s impossible to demonstrate that something could not have evolved through natural means is one. Behe deals too much with absolutes, or he’s too loose with the meaning of “impossible.” The other approach is simply to knock out his supposedly IC systems one by one, which would only attack the specific instances and systems he invokes. It wouldn’t do much against the concept of Irreducible Complexity itself. Behe has, fortunately, been VERY loose with his examples of what is and isn’t an IC system in nature.

[Luskin:] In the Dover trial, Robert Pennock is the Plaintiffs’ expert on the philosophy of science, and Pennock pushed hard for a definition of science which is essentially “methodological naturalism.”

PvM: What is wrong in showing how Methodologial Naturalism leads to good science a-posteriori? Laudan would have been proud of Pennock.

Far from it. Making MN part of the definition of science is making it an a priori requirement.

PvM Wrote:

The whole thing about demarcation is easily circumvented by pointing out that ID is scientifically irrelevant, vacuous, infertile.…

Nevertheless, a great many critics of ID continue to insist that ID’s (alleged) violation of MN is sufficient reason to declare it unscientific (or “bad science”). Laudan and Leiter argue that this is not sufficient reason, because, if the evidence actually did favour ID, MN would have to be abandoned:

Leiter Wrote:

If so, he might have also noted that Beckwith quotes Laudan [at 25] noting that ID “is inconsistent with methodological naturalism and ontological materialism…[b]ut that fact has no bearing whatsoever on the plausbility of the arguments for ID.” Why does Laudan say that? Because methodological naturalism is an a posteriori doctrine, which means if ID generated any empirical results incompatible with it—it has not, of course—then so much the worse for MN.

So it is still necessary to show that the arguments for ID are bad arguments, which makes the appeal to MN redundant. MN is a red herring which merely distracts attention from the good reasons for rejecting ID.

I’m glad to see Laudan not only getting mention, but getting accurate mention for a change. On a couple of occasions I have tried to call attention to Laudan’s work in the comments section and people have pretty much ignored it.

Just a couple of brief points to put Laudan into context.

Laudan is part of the revival of classical pragmatism, which includes such figures as Hillary Putnam and Susan Haack, and also, IMO, Willard Van Quine, though Quine is often misunderstood and misquoted, much like Laudan. Laudan himself has I think unfortunately lent himself to some of the misunderstanding of Quine, but that’s another point.

One of Quine’s best essays is “Sins of the Fathers” where he points out how much of modern relativism is simply a reaction to the failures of positivism. Positivism fails in trying to find a pure, neutral, metalanguage. Relativists recognize rightly, that we cannot have such a language. However, as Laudan points out, that is not an excuse to abandon cognitive rationality, but simply means that we need to root our knowledge in the joint exercise of reason and experience. Pragmatism (in the classical vein) holds that we are always in the middle of things, but we can still make sense of things.

A second point about Laudan’s concept of “Truth”. Laudan has argued that we should not seek “true” theories, but this is IMO partially a misunderstanding of his about what a pragmatic concept of truth really is. I think what he is rejecting is the idea that we can have “True” theories in the sense of 1. knowing the thing in itself or 2. having our theories have a one to one, complete, point by point correspondence with the world.

But Laudan should know that does not mean we abandon truth in the sense that if we believe that p, and are prepared to act on p, then we are accepting p as true for the time believing. We have reason to believe that p is reliable, warranted knowledge. Classical pragmatism holds to truth in this somewhat weaker sense and Laudan, being a good pragmatist, should have brought this point out.

One of Laudan’s strongest contributions to the literature is his critique of all the standard canards of relativism.

Incidentally, another person who has a very similar theory of reticulated knowledge is Susan Haack. Haack also does a good job of addressing the issue of naturalized epistemology.

Any creationist who cites Laudan for support is either dishonest or hasn’t bothered to read Laudan.

Behe, DBB, p 39 Wrote:

“By irreducibly complex I mean a single system composed of several well-matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning.” [emphasis in original]

Wheels Wrote:

Well, by Behe’s definition of IC, both of those [items Bilbo asked for - PD] are strictly impossible. Behe says that Darwinian/evolutionary processes cannot produce IC by definition.

No, IC is just co-adapted parts, which biologists know are to be expected.

Behe tries to divide evolution into “direct” and “indirect” (everything else). Since such a regular commenter here as Wheels still thinks IC, a normal occurrence, is impossible, I will quote:

icdmyst Wrote:

Behe’s argument that IC cannot evolve is central to ID, so it deserves our attention. His method is to divide evolution into what he calls ‘direct’, which he defines in a special way, and ‘indirect’ (everything else). He finds that direct evolution of IC is logically impossible, and indirect evolution of IC is too improbable. The argument against ‘direct’ evolution of IC is contained in this long sentence right after the definition:

Behe, p 39 Wrote:

“An irreducibly complex system cannot be produced directly (that is, by continuously improving the initial function, which continues to work by the same mechanism) by slight, successive modifications of a precursor system because any precursor to an irreducibly complex system that is missing a part is by definition nonfunctional.”

The last part of the sentence, “…because any precursor to an irreducibly complex system that is missing a part is by definition nonfunctional.” is why we should agree to the rest of the sentence. There are some problems:

* The first part of the sentence refers to slight changes. Removing a whole part is a major change; this is a major ‘disconnect’ between the parts of Behe’s argument. * It is not true that a precursor missing a part must be nonfunctional. It need only lack the function we specified. Even a single protein does something. * The actual precursor may have had more parts, not fewer. * If the individual parts evolve, the precursor may have had the same number of parts, not yet codependent. We will learn more about this possibility shortly.

How can one construct a valid argument that IC cannot be produced directly? ID proponents have not found a way. Yet it’s easy (and left as an exercise for the reader) once you realize that a valid argument from definitions requires carefully defining the terms so that the argument becomes a tautology. This may be accomplished by redefining ‘direct’ or ‘IC’, or (best, I think) by defining Behe’s expression ‘be produced’ which he uses in place of ‘evolve’.

A precursor to IC lacking a part can have any functions except the specified one, which brings us to ‘indirect’ evolution. Consider a cow’s tail. So far as I know, the main thing a cow uses its tail for is to swat flies. Did tails originally evolve for this function? Hardly. There were tails before there were flies. Long ago, tails helped early chordates to swim. Going back still farther, some very early animals started to have two distinct ends; one end for food intake (with sense organs for locating food) and the other end for excretions. As a consequence, this back end, and muscular extensions of it, could also be used to help the animal move. This illustrates yet another important facet of evolution: not only single mutations, but even large organs may begin more or less accidentally. It also illustrates that biological functions evolve. Indeed organisms and ecosystems evolve. It may not even make sense to expect a precursor to have had the same function.

The long term evolution of most features of life has not been what Behe, or indeed most people, would call direct. And even short term evolution can be indirect in Behe’s terms. So it is surprising to read, on page 40, Behe’s argument against indirect evolution of IC systems. Here is the crux of it:

“Even if a system is irreducibly complex (and thus cannot have been produced directly), however, one can not definitely rule out the possibility of an indirect, circuitous route. As the complexity of an interacting system increases, though, the likelihood of such an indirect route drops precipitously.” (page 40)

He simply asserts that evolution of irreducible complexity by an indirect route is so improbable as to be virtually out of the question, except in simple cases. He makes no special connection between indirect evolution and IC. He offers no evidence. He just asserts that it is too improbable.

Actually, a more complex system probably has a long evolutionary history. Since evolution does not aim at anything in advance, the longer the history, the more circuitous it may be. And his very limited meaning of ‘direct’ renders much indirect that is not circuitous at all. Yet he insists:

“An irreducibly complex biological system, if there is such a thing, would be a powerful challenge to Darwinian evolution.” (page 39)

Here’s another exercise: before reading on, try to think of ways that IC systems, including biochemical ones, might evolve after all.

Source

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Objecting to falsification as a demarcation criterion is just silly. Consider the following:

It’s usually possible to generate equivalent statements in any given language. We determine whether statements are equivalent by observing their consequences: if every consequence of statement A is also a consequence of B, and vice versa, we consider A and B to be equivalent. For example, “the ice cream was atop the pie” and “the pie was beneath the ice cream” are equivalent, as are “four is one more than three” and “three is one less than four”.

If a statement cannot be falsified, no conditions can ever arise that are incompatible with its consequences. This can only be possible if it has no consequences whatsoever, and thus is equivalent to saying nothing at all. Nonfalsifiable statements are devoid of content.

It’s bleedin’ obvious why saying nothing at all is not an acceptable explanation.

I might add that there are intermediate positions in the various debates discussed in this article. For example, I agree with Laudan that the methodology of science coevolves with science itself. But I disagree that one cannot thereby codify principles which help to distinguish science (at the present time, I might add) from other activities, including pseudoscience. (The principles are differerent in each case: for example, science and technology have overlapping principles.)

As for ID in specific, I would argue that it is ruled out by its failure to abide by materialism. (This is a long story - it is, however, a great example of how methodology does change - it has been discovered that idealism is vacuous at best, harmful at worst, to scientific progress.)

Bilbo: Notice that to a Popperian, confirmation isn’t exactly relevant. But to someone like me (or others) who buy into that, how do you confirm design without evidence of designers? You don’t. If you mean without evidence of a specific designer, then the answer is presumably: you make up hypotheses concerning the designer and go through the usual procedure of hypothesis assaying. An unlawful (i.e. divine, miraculous) designer is compatible with any evidence whatsoever, and hence scientifically and practically worthless, because anything is compatible with it.

Tim Hague: I might add that some philosophers of science (including myself) would argue that one indicator of pseudoscience is refusal to admit repeated falsifications. So Behe’s unwillingness to modify his hypotheses is an indicator that IC is a pseudoscienfic hypothesis.

Chip Poirot: It has also been argued that that antipathy towards truth stems from an unwillingness to allow for partial truth, and in particular increases in partial truth. Most philosophers of science think the notion is silly (including one’s whose work I find more or less otherwise acceptable, like Haack’s), but I’ve always thought of error as the dual to truth, and scientists all know one can estimate one’s errors. Whence one can estimate one’s distance from the truth. (Life gets a bit more complicated than this, but the gist is there: See, e.g., volume 5-6 of Bunge’s Treatise on Basic Philosophy for more on this.)

Any creationist who cites Laudan for support is either dishonest or hasn’t bothered to read Laudan.

Unless, of course, a non-Darwinist cites the following from Laudan, in which case it bcomes simply the honest truth, one that Laudan has NOT retracted:

“If we could stand up on the side of reason, we ought to drop terms like ‘pseudo-science.’… They do only emotive work for us.”

Next time you hear an evolutionist use that term against non-Darwinian alternatives, just set ‘em straight…

FL

Well, when citing his objection to demarcation criteria, they have a fair point. Many ID critics do appeal to demarcation criteria (MN, falsifiability) in rejecting ID.

No, they don’t have a fair point. The question is, does ID have any value. If not, why not? Popper says it has no value because it can’t be falsified: supernatural “explanations” explain everything. Laudan says falsification is the wrong test; ID is has no value because it produces no predictions and informs no useful research.

So Popper and Laudan have different views of where the boundaries of science lie, or whether those boundaries are clearly drawn. But ID fails utterly as science under both formulations. It is NOT ‘fair’ to claim Laudan’s view supports ID as science simply because it disagrees with Popper.

I agree here with FL (!). ID should not be called ‘pseudo-science’ because it is not. It is wishful thinking. Science is something entirely different.

FL: We’ve already “set ‘em straight” about the term “pseudo-science.” You’re a bit late to the punch here. But I do agree: a more honest and descriptive term would be “fake science.”

FL: “Next time you hear an evolutionist use that term [pseudo-science] against non-Darwinian alternatives, just set ‘em straight…

What’s wrong with emotive complaints about ‘research methods’ that don’t follow logical or rational paths and consequently don’t produce viable programs of study? One calls something pseudo-science *after* having reviewed the details and methodology.

FL Wrote:

Unless, of course, a non-Darwinist cites the following from Laudan, in which case it bcomes simply the honest truth, one that Laudan has NOT retracted: “If we could stand up on the side of reason, we ought to drop terms like ‘pseudo-science.’… They do only emotive work for us.”

Next time you hear an evolutionist use that term against non-Darwinian alternatives, just set ‘em straight…

Yep! Tell ‘em, “Laudan doesn’t call ID pseudo-science because he doesn’t believe in that term. He prefers ‘bad science’.”

Laudan thinks talk of “pseudo-science” is misleading in the absence of a solution to the demarcation problem; Laudan has no reservations about talk about “good” and “bad” science as measured by their results and the evidence on behalf of their claims.

Of course the evolutionist might then say, “Wait, creationists consider an upgrade from ‘pseudoscience’ to mere ‘bad science’ to constitute support for their views?” and you’ll have to explain, “Well, they’re starved for scientific validity, poor things, so they take what they can get…”

This is a general response to several posters.

One of the problems raised by philosophers such as Laudan is their rejection of traditional dualisms, but acceptance of the ability to make meaningful, non-metaphysical distinctions. Laudan is not always, IMO, very clear on this, and it is one of his shortcomings (though on the whole I find him to be well worth the time to read).

The historical distinction made by Popper and others, stemming from the logical positivists, between science and non-science, or science and psuedo science rests on metaphysical dualisms such as meaningful/meaningless, analytic/synhetic, science/non-science.

We can reject these metaphysical dualisms and still have useful distinctions. FALSIFIABILITY in the strict Popperian or even the sophisticated Lakatosian version fails. However, “falsifiability” in the normal, every day language continues to be valid. For example, the statement Chip Poirot is 6 feet tall and built like a Greek God is falsifiable (and also false). The statement “all bachelors are unmarried” rests on conventional understandings about bachelors and marriage, and thus the term is synonymous and partially rests on experience. So it cannot be a pure analytic statement in the metaphysical sense. In the conventional sense, the two statements are different. It is very difficult to devise a test of statements that rest on shared conventions about the use of language, even if they do require collateral knowledge.

I think this is the point that Laudan is trying to make. Creation Science has the form of science, but denies the power thereof. ID does not progress beyond statements that are difficult to immediately test.

By the standard, conventional usage of the terms “science” and “pseudo-science” ID therefore fails. By the standard conventional usage of the term “science” as it is defined in K-12 curricula, ID and creation science completely fail.

I think Laudan could have been more clear and pushed this point. I do agree though, people should stop shouting “non-falsifiable” in crowded theaters and start shouting, “lacks empirical content and consistent theoretical principles”. On the other hand, if we recognize that by conventional usage of the term “non-falsifiable” rather than metaphysical usage of the term, we mean it in its normal, conventional sense, perhaps all we need to do is shout “non-testable”. Elliott Sober, btw, has an excellent paper on the difference between “testability” and “falsifiability”.

What it all comes down to is the constant parroting of ID proponents that there is no clear definition of science is just misleading rhetoric.

I suspect (as, I believe, Laudan does) that the demarcation problem has more bite in the United States because of the establishment clause, which makes it important to be able to tell whether something that is being taught as science is actually religion or whether something that is not being taught as science is not being taught for religious reasons. At the risk of some over-simplification, there is no constitutional problem with teaching “bad science.” If, for some reason, the Pennsylvania legislature required teaching of the phlogiston theory in high school chemistry, that would be “bad science,” but, unless we could come up with some theory and evidence to show that it’s actually “religion,” the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania can be as stupid as it wants. That is the problem demarcationists want to avoid. But there are no real cases of non-religious bad science (recognized as bad at the time, of course) being mandated in schools. I think a sense of history and some common sense will get us by when religiously-motivated “bad science” tries to sneak through.

FL Wrote:

Next time you hear an evolutionist use that term [pseudo-science] against non-Darwinian alternatives, just set ‘em straight…

I prefer the term “serve-my-selfish-interests-by-convincing-people-that-lies-are-actually-science”, or “lies” for short.

Chip Poirot Wrote:

We can reject these metaphysical dualisms and still have useful distinctions. FALSIFIABILITY in the strict Popperian or even the sophisticated Lakatosian version fails. However, “falsifiability” in the normal, every day language continues to be valid.

My view has always been similar to Caledonian’s (#105146). Falsifiability and predictive power seem to me to be different ways of saying essentially the same thing. However, Chip’s quote indicates that I’m using ‘falsifiability’ in the everyday sense, not the strict Popperian sense.

I freely admit my education in the philosophy of science is woeful. Can anyone point me to a good reference that will explain the difference implied above? On-line references are greatly preferred.

Thanks in advance.

Laudan argued that contrary to Overton’s decision creation science is in fact testable, tentative and falsifiable.

1) The claims of “Creation Science” are indeed testable. However, they flunked all those tests. If such ‘testable’ claims (e.g. young earth, global flood) fail in testing, are they still bad science, or do they then cease being science at all? If they are still (bad) science, then science would still include such things as claims that the moon is made of green cheese, that unicorns inhabit the Earth and that astrology is an accurate predictor of human events. In short, the word “science” becomes meaningless.

2) ID, since Edwards v. Aguillard, has dropped most testable claims of Creation Science.

I think the whole demarcation issue is a bit of a red-herring advanced to cloud the issue. Once you get some bright-line defined, you get a room full of lawyers trying to get their side on the “right side” of that line. Just like ID used a bunch of lawyers, and a search-and-replace function in a word-processor to jump around a bright-line court case.

Also, it frets me to no end that one of the “expert philosophers” starting this debate so incompletely understood what he was dealing with. Lauden was wrong about Scientific Creationism being falsifiable because he, apparently, thinks they play by his rules. They don’t play by any rules but “I win, you lose, regardless of the facts.” In these situations, creationists do what they always do when one of their pet theories is falsified, such as in the “Age of the Earth” issue, it goes something along these lines:

Creationist: “God made the Earth 7000 years ago.” Scientist: “But radioactive decay… blah, blah, blah for 16-solid-hours… 4 Billion years ago which falsifies your hypothesis.” Creationist: “Wrong! God made it LOOK old because he has INFINITE POWER. Praise Jesus, I win again!” In other words, 7,000 years ago God created a planet that looks like it is 4+ billion years old. And if you can do that, well, you can do anything… And explain away everything with the “Power of ‘Poof!’”

I think it’s obvious that we are dealing with a Bronze Age mindset. I think it is obvious you cannot approach any of these issues thinking these people will behave rationally or truthfully or accept ANY evidence that contradicts their bronze age world view. I think any philosophy, such as “Creation Science” or “Idiotically Designed” that can use the “Power of Poof” will use the “Power of Poof” to explain away EVERYTHING INCONSISTENT that you, as a rational, might notice.

quetzal,

The wikipedia entry on philosophy of science: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philos[…]y_of_science

is probably a pretty good place to start if you are looking for basic web entries.

I doubt if Lauden cares very much about the misuse of some of his ideas by the ID people. Politically speaking, the war between biology and Creationism may be important; but intellectually, it’s pretty dull–a mystery novel without a mystery. The demarcation problem, on the other hand, is a real question in the philosophy of science; and Lauden’s point that the methodology as well as the substance of science is always on the line is very well taken, which is to say, I agree with it! Neither logicians nor aging scientists can settle once and for all what counts as science and what does not because the answer to that question depends on what turns up as the researchers fool around with the things.

FL Wrote:

Laudan Wrote:

“If we could stand up on the side of reason, we ought to drop terms like ‘pseudo-science.’… They do only emotive work for us.”

Next time you hear an evolutionist use that term against non-Darwinian alternatives, just set ‘em straight…

Indeed, I personally prefer ‘scientifically vacuous’. Laudan seems to prefer ‘bad’ science. It all comes down to the same thing. ID is scientifically vacuous.

When ID is rejected a-posteriori for appealing to the supernatural, the ‘requirement’ of MN is one of pragmatism and not one borne out of an a-priori requirement.

I just skimmed through this and maybe someone said it and I didn’t catch. The big problem with ID/creationism is not that it can’t be scientific but that the practitioners of ID/creationism refuse to make it scientific (see Moses’ Post). If you make assumptions about the creator/designer then their ideas can be tested (e.g. 19th cent. quest for a flood). As a science, the ID/creationism platform had it’s day and it went the way of the passenger pigeon because it failed miserably to explain anything (it also continues to do this, I’m waiting for Dembski HIV research facility).

So, in principle ID/creationism could be scientific based on falsifiability. However, as illustrated by the moving goal-posts problem Moses mentioned, the practitioners of ID/creationism have no intention of being scientific or of allowing any of their arguments to be formulated in a manner that can be easily refuted because well, their end goal has nothing to do with explaining anything.

Sure, Moses, but those creationists who dealt honestly with their falsifiable creationism are no longer creationists. I’d say that the creationism I learned was falsifiable in an intellectually honest mind, which is why I gave it up in my teen years.

Paleyism was arguably falsifiable, too, in spite of the fact that it was partially apologetics which excused “bad design” via compensating mechanisms. Or rather, one might ask if “falsification” is really the issue when comparing explanations involving a number of phenomena. Perhaps we might say that Paleyism wasn’t so much falsified, as that another idea which did not rely upon ad hoc “explanations” came along which gave us causes (as well as leads to the discovery of further causes) for explanations at our “pathetic level of detail”.

I think that what I’m saying is that theories can probably usually be construed as falsifiable if they are genuinely saying something about the data, but that Popper seems not to have considered adequately how interpretation affects notions of “falsification”. We might have to change ID and Paleyism in order to make them meaningful, falsifiable, and thus, false, but we could probably do so adequately for most ideas that purport to be “theories”, as long as “scientific interpretations” are used in the process. We can make observations of organisms that will decide whether or not we see unambiguous results of design, or whether we in fact see only evolutionary results–as it so happens we do. Dembski et al will not concede that any meaningful tests do falsify their ideas, thus their particular conception of ID is vacuous–yet for the rest of us ID might be thought of as having been falsified.

I tend to agree with those who think demarcations of between “science” and other pursuits are generally not forthcoming. However, I think that in many single cases we can adequately, if not precisely, decide the matter.

And so, I would note that one huge “demarcation problem” for the IDists is that they fail to come up with anything that shows a difference between “designed machines” and “evolved machines” within organisms. Sure, they claim that complexity measures can differentiate in at least some cases, but they have no evidence that complexity tells us anything at all. That is to say, they make a distinction that leads to no difference, since we simply see the same kind of apparent derivation in bacterial flagella as we see in what IDists might concede are “evolved structures”. Without their explaining why this would be, of course.

If Laudan is a pragmatist as at least one poster says he is, we might mention that pragmatically we’d just as soon stick with evolution, at least until IDists are capable of making distinctions that identify differences. I don’t really accept pragmatism as the rule for what science is (one problem is the question of what people might want to use science “pragmatically” for), but surely in this case such a pragmatic view would serve us well enough.

Glen D http://tinyurl.com/b8ykm

One last comment on Laudan and falsification:

Laudan did not reject the importance of being able to test hypotheses. His discussion of research traditions and scientific progress rests on the ability to test specific hypotheses. In fact, Laudan presented a thoroughgoing critique of the misapplication of the Duhem-Quine thesis (which is actually several problems-not just one problem).

What Laudan rejected was Popper’s focus on falsification as the specific demarcation criterion.

Laudan’s point is that it is very difficult to draw a bright solid line between science and other things. So his point is actually that science is not one way of doing things, but a way of doing things that applies to most areas of our lives. A good bricklayer, in essence, must engage in good scientific practice to some degree.

For the record, I think Laudan missed a critical point in his critique of Ruse. It is still possible to distinguish between science, as the subject matter is defined for the purposes of K-12 education and religion.

I’ve just read Bradley Monton’s paper “Is Intelligent Design Science? Dissecting the Dover Decision”, which PvM linked to above. It makes a good case against methodological naturalism, and particularly against rejecting ID on the grounds of MN. I would recommend reading it.

I disagree with Monton (and with Laudan) on a point of terminology. Unlike them I have no problem with describing ID as “pseudoscience” or “not science”. There may be no clear line of demarcation, but when a position is so far towards the “bad science” end of the spectrum, it would be misleading to call it “science” at all, since that word carries connotations of scientific validity.

Richard Wein Wrote:

There is a case for saying that claims with no predictive power whatsoever (such as the ID hypothesis that an unspecified being of unspecified powers was involved in some unspecified way in the origin of species) cannot be judged by science, because there is no difference between what we would expect to see if the claim is true or if it is false. I’m not 100% convinced that this position is justified, but I’m not going to challenge it here. My more important objection is that many supernatural claims do not fall into this category, and some non-supernatural claims do fall into this category (such as “aliens did it”). So it is a mistake to refer to such claims as “supernatural”, when what you really mean is something like “non-predictive” or “unconstrained”.

Well, any justification of excluding the supernatural is going to have to refer to reasons apart from the word “supernatural”. I am not opposed to saying that methodological naturalism might simply be an application of larger principles to one specific (but very common in American society) issue. In fact, it is hard to see how it could be any other way, if methodological naturalism is well-justified.

Richard Wein Wrote:

As an example of a supernatural claim that has predictive consequences, take the alleged healing effect of prayer, which has indeed been the subject of more-or-less scientific studies. The hypothesis that prayed-for patients will do better than control patients is based on the assumption that God (or some other supernatural force) has a tendency to respond to prayers. Such a God is not utterly inscrutable.

You underestimate the creativity of the healing-prayer advocates. For example, the recent study on prayer came out, the biggest and best-controlled experiment ever I believe, and the result was basically: no statistically detectable effect. What did they conclude in their press release?

“One caveat is that with so many individuals receiving prayer from friends and family, as well as personal prayer, it may be impossible to disentangle the effects of study prayer from background prayer,” said co-author Manoj Jain, Baptist Memorial Hospital, Memphis, Tennessee.

Richard Wein Wrote:

I notice you added in the word “natural”, which does not appear in the quoted passage.

In this paragraph Laudan is specifically responding to Overton’s first two criteria, namely:

Laudan Wrote:

The Opinion offers five essential properties that demarcate scientific knowledge from other things: “(1) It is guided by natural law; (2) it has to be explanatory by reference to natural law; …”

Richard Wein Wrote:

Who says that supernatural phenomena can’t behave in “lawlike” ways (whatever that means)?

Everyone who says that God intervenes in natural processes, suspending natural processes at will, according to his good pleasure. Namely, creationists.

Astrology seems to have some more-or-less consistent principles, which could be descibed as “laws”.

Highly debatable (consider how commonly astrologers include the “well, if it works for you” caveat, and the fact that many people agreed that an astrological analysis done on a convicted murder described them). But, if one did find a lawlike process that acted in a mathematically predictable way, it would probably soon be recognized as a natural process. Some say that Newton thought of gravity as supernatural, but his discovery was widely interpreted as a natural law.

Richard Wein Wrote:

If you (and Pennock) do not think that falsification (i.e. showing that the hypothesis is logically inconsistent with the evidence) is the only way to reject a hypothesis, then please explain to me the logic of the following argument, because it appears to make no sense otherwise:

Falsification is the only way to falsify a hypothesis. It’s not the only way to reject a hypothesis. I.e., you can reject a hypothesis based on parsimony or another criterion, but this is not the same thing as testing it and showing it to be wrong (a point that Stephen Meyer and Francis Beckwith regularly get confused, BTW). Laudan says flat-out that YEC has been falsified, and I think he can only do this by assuming the evidence was produced by natural processes.

If you end up insisting that many of the phenomena which are typically considered supernatural are not really supernatural, then we’re back to my point that natural/supernatural is not the right word. At the very least, you have an obligation to clearly state up front that you are not using the word in its usual sense, yet proponents of MN never do so.

This would worry me more if it was not in fact the case that the only important supernatural thingy involved in current evolution debates is God/”the IDer”. I’m pretty sure that vampires come up only when people are disputing methodological naturalism.

Part of the problem with discussing what “supernatural” means is that there aren’t a lot of concrete, well-confirmed examples that can serve as undisputed members of the category.

But OK, let’s go back to calling vampires and similar constrained-but-weird entities “supernatural” for the moment. In that case, I would say we have two kinds of entities within the category “supernatural”:

(1) Classic supernatural powers – Gods, etc. Totally unconstrained by natural laws or psychology (being apparently inscrutable, outside time, etc.).

(2) Constrained supernatural powers – Vampires, werewolves, and the like, which follow some clear rules but defy various well-confirmed laws of physics.

I would say that case #1 is ruled out a priori because of being unrelated to data, a decision supported by much a posteriori historical experience, and case #2 is treated very skeptically because of a posteriori historical experience. Then we lump these two objections to these two sets of hypotheses together and call it methodological naturalism for short. True, perhaps we could get along without the MN label as a matter of formal philosophy, but the issue of people wanting to jam the supernatural into science is so common, historically and at present, that I think that it is reasonable to have a commonly-referred to principle denoting why this is a bad idea.

Hypothesized superpowerful-to-the-point-of-being-magical aliens don’t necessarily have to be included in this scheme (since MN was developed as a shorthand way to describe why science doesn’t include God-talk), but when the alien hypothesis in question flings aside many or all well-established natural laws, the situation becomes very similar. They may not be culturally “supernatural”, but they are certainly directly defying much of what we call “natural”, in terms of well-confirmed natural regularity. Whether or not we include them is a semantic question in my view.

Shall I post my standard response to all the “science unfairly rules out the supernatural, boo hoo hoo” crapola . … . ?

Just to show that omphalos (appearance of age) is “not quite dead yet”:

[asa] The Apparent Age Strikes Back

How about we forget about natural/supernatural, and just say that science looks for patterns in verifiable repeatable observations of (or related to) the thing(s) being studied.

Henry

Nick Matzke Wrote:
Richard Wein Wrote:

As an example of a supernatural claim that has predictive consequences, take the alleged healing effect of prayer, which has indeed been the subject of more-or-less scientific studies. The hypothesis that prayed-for patients will do better than control patients is based on the assumption that God (or some other supernatural force) has a tendency to respond to prayers. Such a God is not utterly inscrutable.

You underestimate the creativity of the healing-prayer advocates. For example, the recent study on prayer came out, the biggest and best-controlled experiment ever I believe, and the result was basically: no statistically detectable effect. What did they conclude in their press release?

The issue here is not the behaviour of typical supernaturalists but whether the supernatural must be excluded from science in principle. My point was that supernatural claims can give rise to predictions, unless you define “supernatural” in such a way as to make this untrue, something which you have so far declined to do. In fact, I don’t think that you have as yet given any definition of “supernatural”, so I’m still taking the term as refering to the kinds of phenomena to which it’s typically applied, including gods, ghosts, vampires and the like, but not advanced extra-terrestrial aliens.

Nick Matzke Wrote:
Richard Wein Wrote:

Who says that supernatural phenomena can’t behave in “lawlike” ways (whatever that means)?

Everyone who says that God intervenes in natural processes, suspending natural processes at will, according to his good pleasure. Namely, creationists.

Same point as above. My “who” was rhetorical. I really meant: what definition of “supernatural” excludes lawfulness? I would certainly agree that phenomena described as “supernatural” tend to be less lawful than everyday phenomena, but I would say this is a matter of degree, not an absolute difference.

Nick Matzke Wrote:

Falsification is the only way to falsify a hypothesis. It’s not the only way to reject a hypothesis. I.e., you can reject a hypothesis based on parsimony or another criterion, but this is not the same thing as testing it and showing it to be wrong (a point that Stephen Meyer and Francis Beckwith regularly get confused, BTW).

Ah, now I see the reason why we keep misunderstanding each other. The word “falsify” has a specific meaning in the work of Popper and other philosophers of science which is more specific than its everyday meaning of “show to be false”. You understand “showing something to be wrong” to mean absolutely falsifying it in the Popperian sense. I, on the other hand, don’t believe that claims about the real world can be absolutely falsified. So when I say that something has been shown wrong (or false), I only mean that it has been rejected. Obviously, some rejections are more decisive than others, and so the confidence with which I can say something is false varies. In practice, we often accept that something is false without having absolute proof that it’s false.

Why don’t I think claims can be absolutely falsified? Because we can never be absolutely certain of the reliability of our data or of the auxiliary hypotheses on which the falsification relies. To take an extreme case, it’s theoretically possible that the falsifying observations could turn out to be mass hallucinations.

Nick Matzke Wrote:

Laudan says flat-out that YEC has been falsified, and I think he can only do this by assuming the evidence was produced by natural processes.

If Laudan really meant falsified in the Popperian sense, then Pennock’s criticism of him is justified, though he confused the issue by using the term “disconfirmed” and not explaining it. I’ll drop any further discussion of Laudan as I obviously don’t know enough about his views.

Nick Matzke Wrote:
Richard Wein Wrote:

If you end up insisting that many of the phenomena which are typically considered supernatural are not really supernatural, then we’re back to my point that natural/supernatural is not the right word. At the very least, you have an obligation to clearly state up front that you are not using the word in its usual sense, yet proponents of MN never do so.

This would worry me more if it was not in fact the case that the only important supernatural thingy involved in current evolution debates is God/”the IDer”. I’m pretty sure that vampires come up only when people are disputing methodological naturalism.

But it can’t be a good idea to exclude an ill-defined and overly-broad category of phenomena from science for the sake of excluding one particular brand of pseudoscience. Moreover, MN doesn’t even do a good job of excluding ID, since the basic ID claim (an intelligent designer did it) makes no mention of the supernatural.

Nick Matzke Wrote:

But OK, let’s go back to calling vampires and similar constrained-but-weird entities “supernatural” for the moment. In that case, I would say we have two kinds of entities within the category “supernatural”: (1) Classic supernatural powers — Gods, etc. Totally unconstrained by natural laws or psychology (being apparently inscrutable, outside time, etc.). (2) Constrained supernatural powers — Vampires, werewolves, and the like, which follow some clear rules but defy various well-confirmed laws of physics.

The trouble is that there’s no clear line of demarcation between your “classic” and “constrained” supernatural powers. Some gods (e.g. classical Greek) are understood to have some limitations. You could put omnipotent gods into a separate category from others, but even omnipotent gods are assumed to have certain patterns of behaviour, i.e. are not utterly inscrutable (the point I tried to make earlier). Who would bother worshipping a god who was utterly unpredictable? So what we really have is a continuum, not a dichotomy. That’s why I think a demarcation criterion is impossible. But if you want to say that the more unpredictable the claimed entity is the worse it is as a scientific claim, I’d be OK with that. Again, that would enable you to catch super-advanced aliens too, instead of having to treat them as a separate case, along with all the other separate cases I could come up with. The point is that it’s not the supernaturalness which is the problem for science; it’s the unpredictability (or unconstrainedness or unlawfulness). You’ve got the wrong criterion.

Nick Matzke Wrote:

I would say that case #1 is ruled out a priori because of being unrelated to data, a decision supported by much a posteriori historical experience, and case #2 is treated very skeptically because of a posteriori historical experience. Then we lump these two objections to these two sets of hypotheses together and call it methodological naturalism for short. True, perhaps we could get along without the MN label as a matter of formal philosophy, but the issue of people wanting to jam the supernatural into science is so common, historically and at present, that I think that it is reasonable to have a commonly-referred to principle denoting why this is a bad idea.

Well, now you’re accepting that supernatural entities of type #2 are only to be “treated very skeptically”, not excluded from science in principle. True, you haven’t committed yourself to accepting that these count as “supernatural”, but you can’t exclude from that category them until you come up with an appropriate definition of “supernatural”.

Richard Wein,

Perhaps the “supernatural/natural” distinction is like a lot of other distinctions-they tend to break down as sharp dichotomies. Still, it seems to me that when people talk about “supernatural” they do mean some entity that is unconstrained by natural law. Ruse has a really excellent essay on science in 19th century England, pre-Darwin. Even Paley believed in a God who acted by natural law: it was just the case that God was able to so arrange natural law as to produce outcomes that would be impossible by “blind chance”. So Paley’s definition of a “miracle” excluded “supernatural” events in the strict sense.

What Paley and the ID’ists as well as the Creationists seem to want to argue for is a specific act by a Divine being, or a series of specific acts that amount to actual design by a being who is capable of manipulating natural law with extraordinary precision. It still seems to me that this is problematic because historically theism has held that God is made up of “different stuff” from matter.

I think the sole and sufficient assumptions that modern science makes are the “no evil demons” assumption and the things do not poof into existence assumption. Allowing for “evil demons” leads to incoherence and amounts to the same thing as the “brains in a vat” argument, which is incoherent. The assumption that things “poof” into existence abandons the effort to explain.

Re “Perhaps the “supernatural/natural” distinction is like a lot of other distinctions-they tend to break down as sharp dichotomies.”

Especially when the distinction is made by intuition and never really had a definition of where the boundary might actually be.

And even more esp. when “natural” seems to be largely relative to our ability to observe or measure stuff - the better our tech gets the more stuff becomes “natural” that wasn’t before.

Henry

I, on the other hand, don’t believe that claims about the real world can be absolutely falsified.

So if I were to claim that the moon is a cube that is made of green cheese, you, uh, wouldn’t be able to absolutely falsify that claim . … . . ?

Well, now I’m curious. If no claim is “absolutely falsifiable”, then, uh, by what methods do you choose which claims to accept and which to reject? Gut feeling? Why choose “my house is inhabited by humans” over “my house is inhabited by pixies, sprites, elves and vampires”, if there’s no way to “absolutely falsify” either statement?

OK, now y’all have forced me into posting my standard response to the “science unfairly rules out the supernatural, boo hoo hoo” crapola:

*ahem*

The scientific method is very simple, and consists of five basic steps. They are:

1. Observe some aspect of the universe

2. Form a hypothesis that potentially explains what you have observed

3. Make testible predictions from that hypothesis

4. Make observations or experiments that can test those predictions

5. Modify your hypothesis until it is in accord with all observations and predictions

NOTHING in any of those five steps excludes on principle, a priori, any “supernatural cause”. Using this method, one is entirely free to invoke as many non-material pixies, ghosts, goddesses, demons, devils, djinis, and/or the Great Pumpkin, as many times as you like, in any or all of your hypotheses. And science won’t (and doesn’t) object to that in the slightest. Indeed, scientific experiments have been proposed (and carried out and published) on such “supernatural causes” as the effects of prayer on healing, as well as such “non-materialistic” or “non-natural” causes as ESP, telekinesis, precognition and “remote viewing”. So ID’s claim that science unfairly rejects supernatural or non-material causes out of hand on principle, is demonstrably quite wrong.

However, what science DOES require is that any supernatural or non-material hypothesis, whatever it might be, then be subjected to steps 3, 4 and 5. And HERE is where ID fails miserably.

To demonstate this, let’s pick a particular example of an ID hypothesis and see how the scientific method can be applied to it: One claim made by many ID creationists explains the genetic similarity between humans and chimps by asserting that God — uh, I mean, An Unknown Intelligent Designer — created both but used common features in a common design.

Let’s take this hypothesis and put it through the scientific method:

1. Observe some aspect of the universe.

OK, so we observe that humans and chimps share unique genetic markers, including a broken vitamin C gene and, in humans, a fused chromosome that is identical to two of the chimp chromosomes (with all the appropriate doubled centromeres and telomeres).

2. Invent a tentative description, called a hypothesis, that is consistent with what you have observed.

OK, the proposed ID hypothesis is “an intelligent designer used a common design to produce both chimps and humans, and that common design included placing the signs of a fused chromosome and a broken vitamin C gene in both products.”

3. Use the hypothesis to make predictions.

Well, here is ID supernaturalistic methodology’s chance to shine. What predictions can we make from ID’s hypothesis? If an Intelligent Designer used a common design to produce both chimps and humans, then we would also expect to see … ?

IDers, please fill in the blank.

And, to better help us test ID’s hypothesis, it is most useful to point out some negative predictions — things which, if found, would FALSIFY the hypothesis and demonstrate conclusively that the hypothesis is wrong. So, then — if we find (fill in the blank here), then the “common design” hypothesis would have to be rejected.

4. Test those predictions by experiments or further observations and modify the hypothesis in the light of your results.

5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 until there are no discrepancies between theory and experiment and/or observation.

Well, the IDers seem to be sort of stuck on step 3. Despite all their voluminous writings and arguments, IDers have never yet given ANY testible predictions from their ID hypothesis that can be verified through experiment.

Take note here — contrary to the IDers whining about the “unfair exclusion of supernatural causes”, there are in fact NO limits imposed by the scientific method on the nature of their predictions, other than the simple ones indicated by steps 3, 4 and 5 (whatever predictions they make must be testible by experiments or further observations.) They are entirely free to invoke whatever supernatural causes they like, in whatever number they like, so long as they follow along to steps 3,4 and 5 and tell us how we can test these deities or causes using experiment or further observation. Want to tell us that the Good Witch Glenda used her magic non-naturalistic staff to POP these genetic sequences into both chimps and humans? Fine —- just tell us what experiment or observation we can perform to test that. Want to tell us that God — er, I mean The Unknown Intelligent Designer — didn’t like humans very much and therefore decided to design us with broken vitamin C genes? Hey, works for me — just as soon as you tell us what experiment or observation we can perform to test it. Feel entirely and totally free to use all the supernaturalistic causes that you like. Just tell us what experiment or observation we can perform to test your predictions.

Let’s assume for a moment that the IDers are right and that science is unfairly biased against supernaturalist explanations. Let’s therefore hypothetically throw methodological materialism right out the window. Gone. Bye-bye. Everything’s fair game now. Ghosts, spirits, demons, devils, cosmic enlightenment, elves, pixies, magic star goats, whatever god-thing you like. Feel free to include and invoke ALL of them. As many as you need. All the IDers have to do now is simply show us all how to apply the scientific method to whatever non-naturalistic science they choose to invoke in order to subject the hypothesis “genetic similarities between chimps and humans are the product of a common design”, or indeed ANY other non-material or super-natural ID hypothesis, to the scientific method.

And that is where ID “theory” falls flat on its face. It is NOT any presupposition of “philosophical naturalism” on the part of science that stops ID dead in its tracks —- it is the simple inability of ID “theory” to make any testible predictions. Even if we let them invoke all the non-naturalistic designers they want, intelligent design “theory” STILL can’t follow the scientific method.

Deep down inside, what the IDers are really moaning and complaining about is NOT that science unfairly rejects their supernaturalistic explanations, but that science demands ID’s proposed “supernaturalistic explanations” be tested according to the scientific method, just like every OTHER hypothesis has to be. Not only can ID not test any of its “explanations”, but it wants to modify science so it doesn’t HAVE to. In effect, the IDers want their supernaturalistic “hypothesis” to have a privileged position —- they want their hypothesis to be accepted by science WITHOUT being tested; they want to follow steps one and two of the scientific method, but prefer that we just skip steps 3,4 and 5, and just simply take their religious word for it, on the authority of their own say-so, that their “science” is correct. And that is what their entire argument over “materialism” (or “naturalism” or “atheism” or “sciencism” or “darwinism” or whatever the heck else they want to call it) boils down to.

There is no legitimate reason for the ID hypothesis to be privileged and have the special right to be exempted from testing, that other hypotheses do not. I see no reason why their hypotheses, whatever they are, should not be subjected to the very same testing process that everyone ELSE’s hypotheses, whatever they are, have to go through. If they cannot put their “hypothesis” through the same scientific method that everyone ELSE has to, then they have no claim to be “science”. Period.

Richard,

Various points on which I think we would agree:

1. One can take “falsify” in an absolutely-certain sense or a practical, common-sense fashion. Since nothing is ever certain, we should take it in a common-sense fashion. This doesn’t mean giving up on talking about true/false however, because it would incredibly annoying to insert parenthetical qualifiers every time we want to say “flat-earthism is false.” We can just take it as a given that there is a big asterisk over everything we say, saying “assuming, of course, reality is not a mass-delusion, a computer simulation, or whatever.”

2. Apart from falsification, there are other ways to reject hypotheses, e.g. parsimony, but this doesn’t mean we should simply give up on falsifying things if possible. (Or testing, which is more general than up-down falsification.) Saying that falsification is useful does not commit us to a whole philosophy of Popperian falsificationism.

(My conclusion here, with which you may or may not agree, is that Laudan, or anyone who thinks that it is correct to say that the 10,000-year old view is false – which I submit is an eminently reasonable thing to say – is assuming that natural causes produced the data showing an old earth. Without that assumption you can’t get to the conclusion that the earth is old.)

3. There is a continuum between completely unconstrained supernatural entities and somewhat constrained supernatural entities (I think that almost by definition “supernatural” entities are at least somewhat less constrained, e.g. they typically violate some, if not all laws of physics).

3a. You seem to agree that the completely unconstrained ones can be ruled out of science on philosophical grounds, although it could also be done based on historical experience. Notably this includes modern ID and other purposefully-vague

4. I have no problem saying that hypotheses get more potentially scientific as they get more constrained.

5. I think we would agree that claims about the existence of vampires and the like – various “supernatural” entities that are allegedly somewhat constrained* – should be treated very skeptically since they violate various well-confirmed natural laws.

(* It is worth thinking about how “constrained” entities like vampires really are. Many laws of physics would get broken if you literally had, strapped down in a lab, a vampire that could only be killed by a wooden stake through the heart, and not by physical damage, starvation, asphyxiation, etc. For starters, toss out conservation of mass/energy and the second law of thermodynamics, and with those go all of chemistry, let alone biology. Reality simply falls apart if you start to think about the vampire case systematically. You would need a continual series of miracles to keep that vampire going. Because of this, probably no amount of indirect evidence could ever document the existence of such a vampire, because it would be overwhelmed by the uniform direct experience of the regular physical laws. I think you would literally have to see it happen in front of you to make a convincing case, and you would have to have a bunch of people see it repeatedly to convince yourself you weren’t delusional.)

Moving on to the disagreement:

Where we disagree seems to be that I think it’s reasonable to call points #3a and #5 “methodological naturalism”. Your main objection seems to be that it’s unnecessary because we can rely on the underlying principles.

This then devolves to a secondary question of whether or not it is important to maintain “methodological naturalism” or a similar term. I think that creationists are one obvious reason this is indeed important. Others are (1) a defense against the accusation that science relies on philosophical naturalism (which, I think, is really the primary reason the specific term “methodological naturalism” was coined in the 1980s), (2) MN explains why science can be done by people of diverse religious views from around the world, and (3) the principle that science studies natural causes, not supernatural causes (or secondary causes, not primary causes), was developed slowly and painstakingly over hundreds of years, as scientific field after scientific field discovered that pious platitudes, biblical literalism, religious orthodoxy, and god-of-the-gaps hypotheses got in the way of actually understanding the natural world.

Why should we ditch MN in light of this historical experience, especially when exactly the same problems are popping up again today, and we are again seeing numerous attempts, such as the ID movement, to kill useful science (such as evolutionary immunology) and replace it with ignorant, empty, wishful thinking (such as “ID/God designed the immune system at an unspecified time for unspecified reasons”).

The history of methodological naturalism was written up in detail by Ron Numbers in 2003 – he traces its history back hundreds of years. It really is not just some arbitrary, recently-invented constraint on science. It was part and parcel of the origin of science as distinct discipline, and frankly was one of the more important things that came out of the Enlightenment. See this PT post discussing the Ron Numbers essay: On the Origins of Methodological Naturalism

Nick, I think we’re in agreement, except on the most important points!

Nick Matzke Wrote:

(My conclusion here, with which you may or may not agree, is that Laudan, or anyone who thinks that it is correct to say that the 10,000-year old view is false — which I submit is an eminently reasonable thing to say — is assuming that natural causes produced the data showing an old earth. Without that assumption you can’t get to the conclusion that the earth is old.)

I disagree. I would say that natural causes are a conclusion, not an assumption. After all, for centuries people thought that the earth was created by supernatural causes. It was the evidence that convinced them otherwise. The whole of our scientific knowledge is an interlinked web of provisional conclusions. Some parts may be so well-established that we treat them as assumptions in practice. But they are still capable of being revised in principle.

By the way, at the risk of going backwards, I’d like to draw your attention to a problem with your position, which I only hinted at before. You and Pennock argue that the claim of a young earth cannot be falsified (in some sense) without MN to prevent supernatural explanations (such as God creating a young earth with the appearance of an old earth). But, by the same logic, it cannot be falsified unless we prevent explanations involving super-advanced aliens (who also might have created a young earth with the appearance of an old one). It follows that, unless super-advanced aliens come within your definition of “supernatural”, the claim of a young earth has not been falsified. (By the way, there is no need to assume–as you did earlier–that such super-advanced aliens would be making use of heretofore unsuspected laws of physics. They might merely be employing the known ones in much more powerful ways.)

Nick Matzke Wrote:

3. There is a continuum between completely unconstrained supernatural entities and somewhat constrained supernatural entities (I think that almost by definition “supernatural” entities are at least somewhat less constrained, e.g. they typically violate some, if not all laws of physics). 3a. You seem to agree that the completely unconstrained ones can be ruled out of science on philosophical grounds, although it could also be done based on historical experience. Notably this includes modern ID and other purposefully-vague

A couple of points. First, as I mentioned earlier, I think that all the supernatural entities people actually believe in are completely unconstrained, even the omnipotent ones. Claims are made about the ways in which they behave, such as the claim that they answer prayers, and those claims place constraints on them. Perhaps we should call these patterns rather than constraints, but the effect is the same. Science studies patterns, so it can study these patterns too.

Second, I do have some doubts about ruling out even the most vacuous ID hypothesis (an intelligent being was somehow involved in the origin of species) on philosophical grounds. I’m even more hesitant about ruling out the less vacuous one (this structure could not possibly have evolved without intelligent intervention). And what if the IDists added in some minor but largely irrelevant constraints? I think it would be better for the definition of science to steer clear of these thorny problems, and leave them up to philosophers of science.

Nick Matzke Wrote:

Moving on to the disagreement: Where we disagree seems to be that I think it’s reasonable to call points #3a and #5 “methodological naturalism”. Your main objection seems to be that it’s unnecessary because we can rely on the underlying principles.

It’s worse than that:

- The use of the terms natural/supernatural in #3a is irrelevant, since the issue is actually whether the entities are constrained. If the term “natural” is irrelevant, it is deceptive to call this “methodological naturalism”.

- The #5 part is only a rule of thumb, yet MN as a whole is being claimed as an essential principle of science.

I think you’re taking two different concepts–one of which is not naturalism and one of which is not an essential principle–and combining them together so that you can claim that the combined concept is both naturalism and an essential principle!

Oops, editing error. I wrote:

“I think that all the supernatural entities people actually believe in are completely unconstrained, even the omnipotent ones.”

Of course I meant:

“I think that all the supernatural entities people actually believe in are to some degree constrained, even the omnipotent ones.”

I’m still not sure how much of our philosophical disagreements are just semantics. But perhaps we have gone around on the philosophy enough for the moment.

Take a look at the history of methodological naturalism, in that PT post, and tell me what you think. My question is this: Aren’t all of these various historical figures onto something, when they talk about studying secondary/natural causes and not primary/supernatural causes when they are doing natural philosophy? Or were they really just being arbitrary, dogmatic, atheists in disguise, poor epistemologists, or some other travesty of which modern methodological naturalists are sometimes accused?

PS: Email me at matzkeATncseweb.org if you would like Numbers’s essay

Nick Matzke Wrote:

I’m still not sure how much of our philosophical disagreements are just semantics. But perhaps we have gone around on the philosophy enough for the moment.

Well, let me just ask you some practical questions then.

- It’s turned out that you are using the term “natural explanation” in a double-barrelled sense meaning something like: (a) having non-zero predictive power and (b) not involving entities of the sort typically labelled “supernatural”. In future when the subject of MN comes up, will you explain that this is what you mean?

- Will you add that only explanations violating part (a) are excluded from science in principle, while explanations violating just part (b) could in principle be accepted by science if the evidence warranted it?

- Given that this meaning of “natural” is far from obvious, don’t you think that a definition of this sort should be included in any statement that restricts science to “natural” explanations?

Nick Matzke Wrote:

Take a look at the history of methodological naturalism, in that PT post, and tell me what you think. My question is this: Aren’t all of these various historical figures onto something, when they talk about studying secondary/natural causes and not primary/supernatural causes when they are doing natural philosophy?

Yes, they were “onto something”. Supernatural explanations are generally a bad idea in science. But what exactly were they onto? If philosophers of science still cannot agree on the nature of science, why should we think that these historical figures knew the answers?

Thanks for the offer of the Numbers essay. I’ll email you.

As I read Laudan in his essays in But Is It Science? concerning creationism and ID, Laudan’s position is simply that ID is a FALSIFIED scientific theory. Instead of trying to decide whether creationism/ID is science or not, Laudan recommends meeting creationism/ID head-on: “The correct way to combat Creationism is to confute the empirical claims it does make, not to pretend that it makes no such claims at all.” Commentary: Science at the Bar – Causes for Concern.

And yes, ID DOES make empirical claims. It tries not to, in order to avoid falsification. But ID cannot avoid empirical claims entirely and still keep its goal of being science.

As an example, there is the claim that irreducibly complex structures exist and they cannot possibly be made by any Darwinian process. Judge Jones noted in his decision that this claim had, in fact, been shown to be false.

Let me submit that the IDers quoted in the article and many of the respondents are making the same error about scientific theories: Being a scientific theory means being true.

Thus, if ID is said to be a scientific theory, that automatically means that it is valid or at least has some validity.

That is not true. Since scientific theories are falsifiable, that means they can be, in fact, false. Showing a scientific theory to be wrong or false does not change its scientific status, but simply moves it from the short column of currently valid scientific theories to the very long column of falsified theories.

Saying ID is not science is a very weak statement. It says nothing about its truth value(unless you make the mistake of adhering to scientism). The much stronger statement is to say that ID is a falsified scientific theory. That means it has been tested – as far as it can be – and the evidence has shown it to be wrong.

This is Laudan’s position, from everything I can gather from his writings.

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by PvM published on June 11, 2006 8:25 PM.

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