Among the Creationists: book review

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Jason Rosenhouse moved from the east coast to Kansas for a postdoc. He had studied a bit about creationism while a graduate student at Dartmouth, so it would be an exaggeration to say that he was surprised to learn that not everyone in Kansas was a liberal Democrat (even by today’s standard of liberalism). Nevertheless, for reasons that are not made completely clear, he humored his inner anthropologist and attended a handful of creationist conferences over a period of several years. The result is the splendid book Among the Creationists: Dispatches from the Anti-Evolutionist Front Line, which both shows creationists as regular people, just like scientists, and also takes them seriously, without condescension or sarcasm.

Not that Rosenhouse cuts them any slack. He gets up to the microphone and asks pointed questions, and he is completely open about who he is and what he believes. He mingles with the conference attendees and is impressed by how very pleasant they are; he is pleasant in return, except for one apparently unfortunate interaction with Ken Ham. Nevertheless, however pleasant the creationists may be, Rosenhouse makes clear that he and his interlocutors are always talking past each other, and his critiques have virtually no effect - except occasionally, when he sees a young student listening intently and thinks he may have planted some seeds of doubt.

The book is not exactly a travelog but rather is written as two interwoven strands. The first strand is, well, a travelog; the second examines scientific, philosophical, and theological topics that are prompted by the discussion of a particular conference. Rosenhouse makes clear that, however ingenuous the creationists may be, they are flatly wrong. But neither is he afraid to take on philosophers and others on his own side. In that, he is not entirely successful, partly because of the complexities of the arguments and length of the book. I remember being frustrated once or twice when he stopped an argument abruptly and simply deferred to one of his sources. That is OK in a short scientific paper, where readers are expected to check your references, but it seems to me it is less successful in a popular book.

About midway through the book, Rosenhouse compares us to fish in a tank hypothesizing about the existence of extratankular entities that provide their food. This allegory leads us to a discussion of methodological naturalism. I cannot evaluate Rosenhouse’s argument in detail here (read the book!), but plainly he thinks that science does not require methodological naturalism as a hard-and-fast rule, because, if there is an intelligent designer, then the designer itself is apt to be wholly naturalistic and therefore not ruled out by methodological naturalism. All that matters for Rosenhouse (and me) is whether a proposition is testable or not, and science can certainly test many of the claims of the supernatural. Rosenhouse argues further that sticking to methodological naturalism as a rule looks like a conspiracy against any design argument whatsoever, and perhaps it is. Oddly, he sees a need for a demarcation between science and nonscience in court, but nowhere else.

Rosenhouse finds that creationists believe as they do, in part, because they cannot accept a world in which a loving and just god brings about so much pain and destruction in order to create a world by natural selection – so creationism is sort of a poor man’s theodicy (my characterization, not Rosenhouse’s). Speaking of theodicy, Rosenhouse devotes an entire chapter to theodicy and takes on quite a spectrum of theologians with moderate success. One solution he does not discuss is to discard one of the three O’s - omniscience, omnipotence, and omnibenevolence.

Taking ancient or outdated beliefs and practices and expressing them or reinterpreting them in modern terms is often called transvaluation (as when I tell my Orthodox Jewish cousin that I keep kosher by not eating certain foods that are bad for my health or for the environment; it drives her crazy). Rosenhouse, who is culturally Jewish, enjoys the Jewish holidays and other sancta, and probably transvalues the blessings over bread and wine, else he would feel hypocritical reciting them. Nevertheless, he takes a dim view of, for example, an argument that reinterprets original sin as the selfishness that drives evolution. I will not go into detail, but this kind of thinking ultimately leads Rosenhouse to conclude that the creationists are essentially correct and that evolution and Christianity are not compatible. In this sense, he has the same narrow view of religion as the creationists – that it is all or nothing – and he risks alienating moderate theists who are otherwise on his side.

Among the Creationists is well written, well formatted, and well organized (though I thought that most of the content of the endnotes should have been incorporated into the text). It has a good list of references and a good index. It is barely 230 pages long, and it is a pleasure to read. May I recommend that anyone with an interest in creationism go straight to your local independent book dealer, buy a copy, and read it through?

31 Comments

“One solution he does not discuss is to discard one of the three O’s - omniscience, omnipotence, and omnibenevolence.”

He’s discussed this in his blog over the years, and the main issue about it is that those Christians liberal enough to consider those possibilities tend not to be creationists. Yes it gets into his secondary discussions with why he has a problem understanding moderate and liberal Christians unable or unwilling to reconcile evolution with the Three (or fewer) O’s view of God, but it is I think irrelevant to the core discussion of the book.

About the only problem I have with Rosenhouse’s discussions (which I do respect and follow) is how he addresses only the sincere creationists and avoids the larger issue of how those who promote creationism do so for almost exclusively political and monetary reasons. I’d be ok if 40% of the population “didn’t believe” in evolution (not that belief has anything to do with it). The problem comes when those who lead those 40% then use that influence and ignorance to get other laws passed to promote their religion, financially destroy our schools, deregulate abusive corporations, and generally restrict our freedom, all in the name of preserving their own so-called ‘freedom’.

Looks like a really good book!

jws.fbmm said:

“One solution he does not discuss is to discard one of the three O’s - omniscience, omnipotence, and omnibenevolence.”

He’s discussed this in his blog over the years, and the main issue about it is that those Christians liberal enough to consider those possibilities tend not to be creationists.

I get the same impression from his blog. He focuses on the “three O’s god” because its those believers who are politically active in trying to undermine science education. The more philosophically inclined believers that defend a generic causa causans are typically not the ones propositioning school boards to have ID taught in 8th grade biology.

[Matt Young said:] he thinks that science does not require methodological naturalism as a hard-and-fast rule, because, if there is an intelligent designer, then the designer itself is apt to be wholly naturalistic and therefore not ruled out by methodological naturalism. All that matters for Rosenhouse (and me) is whether a proposition is testable or not…

I’ll have to read the book I guess, because this paragraph is a bit confusing to me. If all that matters is testability, isn’t that saying that a designer doesn’t have to be ‘wholly naturalistic?’ It just needs to have one testable part.

And isn’t ‘methodological naturalism’ just shorthand for testability? It generally means the phenomena being investigated or hypothesis being proposed must be reproducible, mechanistic, and (in theory) accessible to all investigators. I can’t invoke my own personal revelation as evidence because you can’t reproduce it or detect it. But I could certainly invoke a ‘ghost’ as a cause, so long as I told you how to go about detecting the ghost I claim to have observed, and you could reproduce my experiment and results.

I guess what I’m saying is, you seem to be splitting hairs in that the term ‘methodological naturalism’ seems to me a fairly good description of what you are claiming is an alternative to it (testability).

Can someone give me an example of a scientific experiment that would not involve “methodological naturalism”? It does not need to be technically realistic - a thought experiment will do.

To some extent the ‘theo-logical’ god of Judaism and Christianity is mortally infected by Greek and Roman theism. There are a number of documents in the two religions (and even Islam) which have far less ‘theos’ in their understanding and conception of god than most popular religious understanding.

Rosenhouse argues further that sticking to methodological naturalism as a rule looks like a conspiracy against any design argument whatsoever, and perhaps it is.

Almost certainly not. What it seems to be is an old compromise reached between the religious and science, where science wouldn’t attack religion based on its supposed untestability (much, but not all, is untestable), and “reasonable religion” would respect science “in the natural realm.” Religion was allowed a realm that didn’t involve normal “truth claims,” wherein it was supposed to be safe because it didn’t encroach upon the “natural world.”

Of course it’s a privileging of religion, since no one would really suppose that something utterly untestable and without meaningful observation that wasn’t also privileged even matters. That’s life, though, and it wasn’t such a bad compromise.

What’s logically bizarre (if useful propaganda) is that the IDiots take something that already privileges religion–leaving religion alone as supposedly “beyond nature” yet able to make claims about the universe and life–and pretending that it’s a means of defining ID out-of-bounds. In no way would a meaningful, scientific ID even come under the protection of “supernaturalism,” since ID should be testable if it is science. Paley’s ID was at least potentially testable, Darwin tested it, and it failed. Today’s ID is out because it fails when proper tests of intelligent design are made, and is meaningless when, as is typical, it is shielded from tests of actual rational interference, vs. natural selection (ID is an attempt to define the evolved as design, in fact).

As far as I can tell, continental philosophy doesn’t bother with the artificial “naturalism” at all, since it’s really meaningless to epistemology. I believe it is Anglo-American “analytic philosophy” that continues to at least allow “methodological naturalism” to make claims.

If terms such as “naturalism” and “supernaturalism” are to continue to facilitate a sort of compromise between science and religion, the IDiots are going to have to quit attacking science for allowing a fake “space for religious claims” that has no real basis in human knowledge at all. Otherwise, we might just have to go the New Atheist way of just saying that religion is BS, because if religion insists on trying to meddle with science, it’ll have to be called the meaningless superstition that it is.

I’ve never been one who has gunned against religion, but I may very well have to if the IDiots continue to pretend that the conspiracy that uses bogus terms that allowed religion a harmless yet privileged status is in fact an attempt to illicitly define ID as not science. The fact is that ID is either failed “science” because no meaningful marks of design are detectable in wild-type life, or it is non-science and nonsense because it simply tries to take over science by redefining evolved characteristics as “designed.”

Glen Davidson

harold said:

Can someone give me an example of a scientific experiment that would not involve “methodological naturalism”? It does not need to be technically realistic - a thought experiment will do.

No, because by definition such a thing would never exist in the real world.

And that is why Creationism cannot be scientific. It is outright fraud or delusion to claim otherwise.

I’m going to disagree with Rosenhouse on one point. Xianity doesn’t need creationism at all. In fact worldwide, most xian sects aren’t creationist, including my old Protestant one which says right on their website that they don’t have a problem with evolution.

On longer time scales religions tend to be adaptable and those so called core beliefs can and will be tossed whenever they have to be. This is an empirical and common observation. A few examples:

1. Old Judaism was based on animal sacrifice in the Second Temple in Jerusalem which was god’s home away from home, run by the Sadduccees with a hereditary priest class, the Levites. When the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans and Jerusalem became Capitolina, the old Jews got together and invented Rabbinic Judaism and kept on going.

2. John Wesly: The giving up of (a belief in) witchcraft is in effect the giving up of (a beilief in the bible. Wesly was the inventor of Methodism. Guess what John? We gave up believing in witchcraft and killing witches centuries ago and nothing happened. There are still 2 billion xians in the world.

3. Catholics. If we give up burning heretics and witches alive on stacks of firewood, our religion will die. Expecially if the Protestants are allowed to run loose. Last I heard, there are still 1 billion Catholics.

4. Mormons. If we have to give up polygamy, our religion will die. Brigham Young claimed you had to be a polygamist to become a god in their Celestial Kingdom. They gave up polygamy anyway for political reasons.

5. Southern Baptists. We can’t give up slavery, it is god’s will and plan. They just elected a black President.

And why not. It’s all make believe and let’s pretend anyway. If the gods don’t like it, they can just do what even my cats do, and just tell us. We never hear from them.

This comment has been moved to The Bathroom Wall.

“When you know your right,” yet!

Byers, you wouldn’t know your right from your left.

Do write a book, by all means. You could call it “Misadventures in English”.

Dave Luckett said:

“When you know your right,” yet!

Byers, you wouldn’t know your right from your left.

Do write a book, by all means. You could call it “Misadventures in English”.

i would certainly love to read that book it would no doubt explain why, after over twenty years of ignorance and stupidity, byers never bothered to actually do any science, ore learn any science, or read any science. it should also explain why, after more than twenty years byers never learned to read english or write english or think in any coherent fashion in the words of that great philosopher ricky ricardo “you got a lot of splain to do”

Robert Byers said:

Yes creationists are and would be pleasant. They are Christian and so should be a cut above in character and they have a inner confidence in their being right about origin matters. When you know your right it makes one more easy in dealing with the opposition.

Yes he would be allowed to question and criticize even on their own turf. This Canadian creationist boy don’t always feel its the same way all round. Maybe i should write a book! “Out and amongst evolutionist front line troops”

I can only think of two creationists I have ever heard of, or even read a comment by, who can be remotely described as “pleasant”. Actually it’s more like one and a half.

Todd Wood. Now that guy seems pleasant.

I’ll give a “one half” to Robert Byers, as he avoids the unjustified anger and threats, and mainly doesn’t hurl unfair accusations, straw man misrepresentations, or deceptively out of context quotes.

On the other hand, there is a reason why Byers gets such a negative response. He doesn’t listen to feedback, doesn’t try to deal with direct questions, and arrogantly dismisses the hard won expertise of others.

Having said that, compared to a typical challenged creationist, he’s very pleasant.

However, that’s it.

I’m sure some creationists were temporarily pleasant to Rosenhouse, since they probably thought that he was a fellow creationist of potential convert.

But everybody’s pleasant under circumstances like that. Given the slightest challenge, a typical creationist becomes intensely unpleasant on multiple levels.

harold said:

Given the slightest challenge, a typical creationist becomes intensely unpleasant on multiple levels.

That was certainly my experience in public high school. Kids, parents, and even an occasional teacher.

Just Bob said:

harold said:

Given the slightest challenge, a typical creationist becomes intensely unpleasant on multiple levels.

That was certainly my experience in public high school. Kids, parents, and even an occasional teacher.

It’s interesting that Robert Byers said this -

When you know your right it makes one more easy in dealing with the opposition.

Plausibly, Robert Byers actually is calmly confident in his beliefs, mistaken as some of them may be.

The typical reaction of creationists to challenge is not consistent with “knowing that they are right”.

The unjustified fury and unfair attacks they engage in are typical of people who are desperately defending something that they fear, at some level, may be wrong.

I am not saying that they don’t also, at another level, consciously think it’s right.

Reactions by Scientologists to civil but skeptical feedback are almost identical. As is the subsequent reaction to reinforce the faltering brainwashing and double down on the commitment, after a challenge. It is how people behave when they are deeply committed to claiming to believe something, but nagged by doubts at an unconscious level.

Byers:

When you know your right it makes one more easy in dealing with the opposition.

Sure.

1. You can just hijack a jet and fly it into a skyscraper, killing a few thousand random strangers. Secure in the knowledge that Allah loves you and will give you 72 virgins.

2. Or you can walk into a crowd while carrying explosives and kill a few dozen random strangers for god.

3. Or you can burn 100,000 or so people alive on stacks of firewood for not being as sure as you are about which gods are the real gods.

4. Or you can just fight a war with those Fake Xian Catholics (or Protestants) that lasts for 450 years and kills tens of millions.

Religious fanatics like Byers who know they are right have killed tens of millions over the last 2,000 years.

Their last act will be to kill their own religion. After 2,000 years of bloodshed, people are tired of it. US xianity is now losing 2-3 million members a year.

“harold | July 16, 2012 1:24 PM | Reply | Edit Can someone give me an example of a scientific experiment that would not involve “methodological naturalism”? It does not need to be technically realistic - a thought experiment will do.”

You confuse me with the word “involve”. As a non-supernatural entity, my end of the test necessarily “involves” naturalism. But if the hypothesis under test is supernatural, then I think I am answering your question.

The High Priest says that God says that everyone in town needs to send The High Priest money or God will send frogs to their houses. I contrive (somehow) to randomly select half the town to NOT hear about the frog threat, but half of them will send money anyway. I also randomly get half of the ones hearing the frog threat to withhold money. If the withholders of money have no frogs, the hypothesis (that the high priest heard a legit frog threat from an omnipotent deity) is in serious trouble. Certainly a yard full of frogs for every withholder of money doesn’t prove the hypothesis. I would immediately form the hypothesis that the high priest drives around at midnight with a truck load of frogs.

But tons of supernatural claims have this form of proof. God told Lott not to look back at Sodom and Gomorra. How do we know God really spoke to Lott? Proof: Lott’s wife looked back and turned to a pillar of salt. God told Noah to build an ark. How do we know that Noah didn’t make that up? The flood. If the flood had actually happened, I’d be a believer. That’s why the story was made up. If you believe that story you have to believe in a supernatural entity who (although morally bankrupt) is extremely powerful.

So let’s say for the sake of a hypothetical that the flood actually happened. Geologists would know about it like they know about the KT boundary. They’d know when it happened and they’d know there is no viable natural hypothesis. Wouldn’t you agree that this is not “methodological naturalism”? I think it is using natural means to investigate (and verify in this hypothetical) a supernatural claim. Ron

Ron Bear said:

“harold | July 16, 2012 1:24 PM | Reply | Edit Can someone give me an example of a scientific experiment that would not involve “methodological naturalism”? It does not need to be technically realistic - a thought experiment will do.”

You confuse me with the word “involve”. As a non-supernatural entity, my end of the test necessarily “involves” naturalism. But if the hypothesis under test is supernatural, then I think I am answering your question.

The High Priest says that God says that everyone in town needs to send The High Priest money or God will send frogs to their houses. I contrive (somehow) to randomly select half the town to NOT hear about the frog threat, but half of them will send money anyway. I also randomly get half of the ones hearing the frog threat to withhold money. If the withholders of money have no frogs, the hypothesis (that the high priest heard a legit frog threat from an omnipotent deity) is in serious trouble. Certainly a yard full of frogs for every withholder of money doesn’t prove the hypothesis. I would immediately form the hypothesis that the high priest drives around at midnight with a truck load of frogs.

But tons of supernatural claims have this form of proof. God told Lott not to look back at Sodom and Gomorra. How do we know God really spoke to Lott? Proof: Lott’s wife looked back and turned to a pillar of salt. God told Noah to build an ark. How do we know that Noah didn’t make that up? The flood. If the flood had actually happened, I’d be a believer. That’s why the story was made up. If you believe that story you have to believe in a supernatural entity who (although morally bankrupt) is extremely powerful.

So let’s say for the sake of a hypothetical that the flood actually happened. Geologists would know about it like they know about the KT boundary. They’d know when it happened and they’d know there is no viable natural hypothesis. Wouldn’t you agree that this is not “methodological naturalism”? I think it is using natural means to investigate (and verify in this hypothetical) a supernatural claim. Ron

You give a classic, straightforward example of methodological naturalism.

We can and do test claims of supernatural power all the time, but using methodological naturalism.

Your example is just a classic controlled experiment.

Creationists don’t want this kind of experiment done at all. In fact, their underlying goal is suppress any field of study that implicitly does this kind of experiment. For example, scientific studies of human genetics and evolution don’t involve “God”, but they do implicitly test the hypothesis that God created two humans at about the same time 6000 years ago and all humans are descended from that breeding pair. Science rules that hypothesis out. Creationists therefore want to shut down science.

However, I was responding to this paragraph.

About midway through the book, Rosenhouse compares us to fish in a tank hypothesizing about the existence of extratankular entities that provide their food. This allegory leads us to a discussion of methodological naturalism. I cannot evaluate Rosenhouse’s argument in detail here (read the book!), but plainly he thinks that science does not require methodological naturalism as a hard-and-fast rule, because, if there is an intelligent designer, then the designer itself is apt to be wholly naturalistic and therefore not ruled out by methodological naturalism. All that matters for Rosenhouse (and me) is whether a proposition is testable or not, and science can certainly test many of the claims of the supernatural. Rosenhouse argues further that sticking to methodological naturalism as a rule looks like a conspiracy against any design argument whatsoever, and perhaps it is. Oddly, he sees a need for a demarcation between science and nonscience in court, but nowhere else.

I can’t understand the paragraph. It makes no sense to me. If intelligent fish in a tank wanted to investigate who provides their food, I can only recommend that they do their best to come up with a methodological naturalism technique to do so. Praying to fish gods won’t give them the correct answer. The paragraph says that they want a testable hypothesis. How are they going to come up with that without using methodological naturalism?

The analogy has no relevance to the human condition. We know where food comes from - with a few exceptions representing a tiny proportion of the biosphere, it ultimately comes from the sun, which is a completely natural entity, which we can study via methodological naturalism.

Having said all this, I don’t follow Jason Rosenhouse closely but tend to enjoy his writing.

For now, I suspect he has re-defined “methodological naturalism”. I strongly suspect, but based only on this review, that he is confusing it with “philosophical naturalism”.

I am not a fan of internet battles over semantics that devolve into endless loops, with at least one party refusing to admit that the issue is semantic, so I will stop and note this -

Your example involves methodological naturalism - in spades.

Can someone give me an example of a scientific experiment that would not involve “methodological naturalism”? It does not need to be technically realistic - a thought experiment will do.

Harold, I was sure you were wrong so I looked it up. Turns out I was wrong. The idea that I was thinking of where supernatural hypothesis CAN’T be considered is called metaphysical naturalism or philosophical naturalism. Now that I have my philosophy of science terms straight in my head I concur with your idea that there doesn’t seem to be any other way to do science. Ron

harold said:

Ron Bear said: As a non-supernatural entity, my end of the test necessarily “involves” naturalism. But if the hypothesis under test is supernatural, then I think I am answering your question.

You give a classic, straightforward example of methodological naturalism.

We can and do test claims of supernatural power all the time, but using methodological naturalism.

This is why Matt Young’s paragraph is confusing to me. “Whether a proposition is testable or not” seems to me to overlap with “methodological naturalism,” so saying we only need the former but not the latter is a bit of a nonsequitur to me.

Presumably, any test that Matt or Jason would accept as legit would have to involve evidence accessible to other people, not just the original proposition-asserter. It would have to be in some way reproducible or checkable and not a one-and-utterly-gone event. But that’s just methodoligcal naturalism, or pretty close to it.

To use Ron Bear’s example, Matt and Jason would probably accept ‘presence/absence of frogs’ as evidence because people other than the original claimant can observe frogs. Independent scientsts can measure them, weigh them, photograph them, observe their impact on the environment even if they then disappear. If someone were to say “I mean magical undetectable frogs that only I can see and which leave no trace, but trust me, they rained down,” then Matt and Jason would probably reject ‘presesnce of [this type of] frogs’ as not a viable test. The end result is that their testability looks awfully equivalent to the methodological naturalism they say they don’t need.

I guess I was too terse. Here is what I think Rosenhouse is saying: Methodological naturalism should not be used to automatically rule out claims of the supernatural. Rather, plausible claims should be tested. If the supernatural turns out to be real, then it is real. But if you use methodological naturalism as a demarcation criterion, then you will always reject claims of supernaturalism and never find out.

Harold takes the parable of the fish in the tank far too literally. I think the point is that the fish speculate that there is some entity, outside the tank, that provides them food, light, and water. Some humans likewise speculate that there is some entity, outside the universe, that provides us with physical laws, or a universe, or Higgs bosons, or something. The fish, it turns out, are correct, but the extratankular entity – Rosenhouse –- is not supernatural but rather subject to the laws of nature. The fish, however, will never understand those laws and will think that Rosenhouse is supernatural. Rosenhouse speculates that, if humans discover that there is an entity outside the universe, it will probably likewise not be supernatural but subject to natural law.

Matt,

Okay, that makes more sense. I agree with something like ‘test a novel claim before rejecting it due to novelty.’ With two caveats:

(1) I’m not sure ‘methodological naturalism’ says anything different. The method is pretty neutral about what you choose to point your microscope at.

(2) Most actual supernatural claims that actual people make have a long history of already being tested, and failing. I don’t feel science needs to really ghostbust any more. Put another way: many claims of the supernatural can be rejected without further testing, and this is not a philosophical rejection based on some ideological commitment to naturalism, its an empirical rejection based on past results of similar tests.

Not rejecting a novel claim because it is novel, but because it invokes the supernatural. We must be careful not appear to reject intelligent-design creationism merely because it involves religion or the supernatural. We must reject it because it has not made its case.

Matt Young said:

Not rejecting a novel claim because it is novel, but because it invokes the supernatural. We must be careful not appear to reject intelligent-design creationism merely because it involves religion or the supernatural. We must reject it because it has not made its case.

Intelligent design has no positive, substantive case to be made. It does not tell us what happens in a case of intelligent design, what material the design works with (nor the origin of that material), when and where design happens, nor what rules the design follows (such as what sort of thing is likely not to be designed). What we are told is that there is something, somehow, wrong with evolution, not what is right with intelligent design.

So I would say that intelligent design is not acceptable because nobody knows what it is.

Matt Young -

I guess I was too terse. Here is what I think Rosenhouse is saying: Methodological naturalism should not be used to automatically rule out claims of the supernatural. Rather, plausible claims should be tested. If the supernatural turns out to be real, then it is real.

I could not agree more strongly.

But if you use methodological naturalism as a demarcation criterion, then you will always reject claims of supernaturalism and never find out.

Apparently, I may have been incorrect about the definition of “methdological naturalism”. I thought it referred, usefully, to testing for natural results that can be verified by independent objective observers.

It seems that some do use it to refer to testing only for “natural” causes. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Method[…]l_naturalism

Therefore, I would say we may need a third term.

Claims that a supernatural entity or procedure will produce detectable results can easily be tested. If results are negative, no further testing is needed. If I claim that I can cast a spell that will turn a specific member of the British royal family into a toad within a given period of time, suitable testing can be arranged.

Those who defend the “only natural causes can be tested”, though, would likely note that if some British prince was turned into a toad as I claimed, that would not definitively show that I have supernatural powers. It would be very strong evidence that I have some unusual abilities, but it might provoke further testing.

Having said that, science can and does test claims that supernatural forces can produce objectively detectable natural results, all the time, e.g. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17487575 From a pro-science perspective, there is nothing at all wrong with such work, with the caveat that research funds should never be wasted on projects that lack a serious rationale. Perhaps we need a term for the objective testing of claims that supernatural forces will have physical effects. “Bullshit detection” is tempting, but biased and potentially divisive.

It is odd that Rosenhouse thinks that advocates of the supernatural want science to study such things. In my observation, as I said above, the whole point of creationism is to shut down implicit testing of supernatural claims by creationists.

Ron Bear, it would seem that you were correct, testing the supernatural claim in a physical, objective manner does not actually constitute methodological naturalism, as some define it.

I’ve never use the term “naturalism” in any variant to refer to myself. I subjectively perceive the use of the terms “materialism” and “naturalism” by creationists mainly as a dishonest attempt to imply equivalence between science and atheism.

Harold takes the parable of the fish in the tank far too literally. I think the point is that the fish speculate that there is some entity, outside the tank, that provides them food, light, and water. Some humans likewise speculate that there is some entity, outside the universe, that provides us with physical laws, or a universe, or Higgs bosons, or something. The fish, it turns out, are correct, but the extratankular entity – Rosenhouse –- is not supernatural but rather subject to the laws of nature. The fish, however, will never understand those laws and will think that Rosenhouse is supernatural. Rosenhouse speculates that, if humans discover that there is an entity outside the universe, it will probably likewise not be supernatural but subject to natural law.

1) I completely agree that some undetectable, highly abstract god might or might not exist outside of space and time or some such thing. With regard to such issues I am an apatheist.

2) I still don’t like the analogy very much, but that is subjective to some degree, so I won’t go on and on about it.

3) I do like the writing of Jason Rosenhouse in general, and this interested critical engagement is in no way intended to disparage his work.

Matt Young said:

Not rejecting a novel claim because it is novel, but because it invokes the supernatural. We must be careful not appear to reject intelligent-design creationism merely because it involves religion or the supernatural. We must reject it because it has not made its case.

I completely agree with this.

TomS said:

Matt Young said:

Not rejecting a novel claim because it is novel, but because it invokes the supernatural. We must be careful not appear to reject intelligent-design creationism merely because it involves religion or the supernatural. We must reject it because it has not made its case.

Intelligent design has no positive, substantive case to be made. It does not tell us what happens in a case of intelligent design, what material the design works with (nor the origin of that material), when and where design happens, nor what rules the design follows (such as what sort of thing is likely not to be designed). What we are told is that there is something, somehow, wrong with evolution, not what is right with intelligent design.

So I would say that intelligent design is not acceptable because nobody knows what it is.

I completely agree with this, too.

Just to really demonstrate that, I’ll post my standard questions for ID/creationists, most of which focus on encouraging positive claims and objective testing -

1) Could any evidence convince you of the theory of evolution, and if so, what type of evidence is now lacking, that would convince you if present?

2) The Supreme Court ruled against the direct teaching of Biblical Young Earth Creationism as science in public schools; however, if that ruling were overturned, which would you support more, teaching of ID, or direct teaching of Bible-based YEC?

3) Do you think it is important for opponents of the theory of evolution to fully understand the theory of evolution? If so, can you explain it, and if not, can you explain why not?

4) Who is the designer? How can we test your answer?

5) What did that designer do? How can we test your answer?

6) How did the designer do it? How can we test your answer?

7) When did the designer do it? How can we test your answer?

8) What is an example of something that was not designed by the designer?

9) Some parts of the Bible suggest that pi equals exactly three, and that the earth is flat and has four corners. Do you accept these as facts of physical reality, and if not, why do you deny the theory of evolution on the grounds of Biblical literacy, if it can be symbolic about other scientific issues?

Matt Young said:

Not rejecting a novel claim because it is novel, but because it invokes the supernatural. We must be careful not appear to reject intelligent-design creationism merely because it involves religion or the supernatural. We must reject it because it has not made its case.

I guess I’m going to have to read the book to make my own sense of this. I don’t know anyone who ‘uses methodological naturalism to automatically rule out the supernatural.’ Ghosts, miracles, stuff like that are rejected by scientists because of the large body of empirical, historical tests that have already been done.

IMO, our response to supernatural claims is not “against the rules, so rejected before we even consider evidence.” Its “considered the evidence for that one or something very much like it; its failed umpteen times already, so its not worth our time to do it again.”

Methodological naturalism (MN) addresses how we develop explanations – MN requires that scientific explanations rely on naturalistic cause and effect. What Pennock called ontological naturalism (also called “philosophical naturalism”) is a stronger assertion, that supernatural causes can’t be used because they don’t exist. From a practical standpoint, explanatory frameworks are developed the same way, using only natural causes and effects.

MN is not about ruling out the supernatural, although it’s been a powerful tool that’s allowed us to replace supernatural explanations with naturalistic explanations.

Testability is a different issue dealing with how we evaluate claims. As an example, if my understanding is current, string theory meets the requirements of methodological naturalism, since it invokes only naturalistic cause and effect, but nobody has figured out how to test it. On the other hand, studies attempting to test hypotheses about the effectiveness of prayer to heal disease aren’t rooted in methodological naturalism (since a deity is invoked as part of the mechanism), but the results of a trial can be measured objectively.

______

As an aside: IMO, one of the most deeply dishonest things creationists do is conflate methodological naturalism with ontological naturalism – “Since Dr. SWT will not allow God as a scientific explanation, Dr. SWT must not believe in God. See how this naturalism leads to atheism?”

harold Wrote:

2) The Supreme Court ruled against the direct teaching of Biblical Young Earth Creationism as science in public schools; however, if that ruling were overturned, which would you support more, teaching of ID, or direct teaching of Bible-based YEC?

All good questions, and I can think of 100s more that they will evade. Though I would rephrase #2. I could be wrong, but I’m fairly sure thar the Supreme Court’s ruling applied to OEC (age, gap, progressive, etc.) as well as YEC (and geocentrism, flat-earthism should anyone dare to demand them). Plus the DI, in the last 10 years at least, does not advocate teaching ID (by which they presumably they mean the IC/SC = ID bait-and-switch), but rather the “weaknesses” of evolution. So I would ask:

2) The Supreme Court ruled against the direct teaching of Biblical Creationism as science in public schools; however, if that ruling were overturned, which would you support more, teaching direct Bible-based YEC, direct Bible-based OEC, or just the strengths and “weaknesses” of evolution?

I will not go into detail, but this kind of thinking ultimately leads Rosenhouse to conclude that the creationists are essentially correct and that evolution and Christianity are not compatible. In this sense, he has the same narrow view of religion as the creationists – that it is all or nothing – and he risks alienating moderate theists who are otherwise on his side.

I’ve always liked Jason’s reports on various YEC conferences, especially what he did at the 2005 AiG mega conference, and in particular his encounter with Dr. Werner Gitt on the information nonsense, which is frequently raised by YECs ever since the infamous Dawkins silence some years ago.

However, of late he seems to have gone of on a Coyne/Dawkins type rant on Christians who accept evolutionary science (or science in general, to be more precice), which is a real shame.

The term “accomodationist” is just as offensive as “Christian compromiser”:

http://www.millerandlevine.com/evol[…]modation.htm

The tragedy of Coyne’s argument is the way in which it seeks to enlist science in a frankly philosophical crusade — a campaign to purge science of religionists in the name of doctrinal purity. That campaign will surely fail, but in so doing it may divert those of us who cherish science from a far more urgent task, especially in America today. That is the task of defending scientific rationalism from those who, in the name of religion would subvert it beyond all recognition. In that critical struggle, scientists who are also people of faith are critical allies, and we would do well not to turn those “Ardent Theists” away

Young Earth creationists just love it when Atheists tell them they’re right about evolution (i.e. science) and Christianity being incompatable:

http://blogs.answersingenesis.org/b[…]ot-it-right/

Now note carefully the following statement by Richard Dawkins:

Oh well, by far the most important was understanding evolution. I think the evangelical Christians have really sort of got it right in a way, in seeing evolution as the enemy. Whereas the more, what shall we say, sophisticated theologians are quite happy to live with evolution, I think they are deluded. I think the evangelicals have got it right, in that there is a deep incompatibility between evolution and Christianity, and I think I realized that about the age of sixteen

Ian Derthal said:

Young Earth creationists just love it when Atheists tell them they’re right about evolution (i.e. science) and Christianity being incompatable:

So what? You think one’s views should be tailored according to how creationists might react? And evolution does not equal all of science.

Not a bad review, and I agree with the positive parts of it but find myself at times thinking you, Matt, have damned with faint praise. That’s all right as this is clearly a matter of taste and opinion, but the thing I can’t quite let go of is the notion that Rosenhouse, finally, presents the reader with an “all or nothing” choice regarding creation, thus possibly jeopardizing a relationship with moderate theistic pro-science allies. Perhaps there is some risk in that, but it seems patronizing to me to tut-tut and hand-pat and pretend that mean old science has not in fact done away with all but the most imaginary of imaginary friends. It’s no good saying, “You get to go on being a Christian, with your god who has none of the characteristics of the Christian god.” Rosenhouse–quite rightly, I think–seems to think that the rotten theodicy provided by the cruel, inefficient, butt-stupid and grotesque processes of evolotion bang the last nail into the coffin of a tri-omni god…which the Christian (and other major world religions’) god plainly is supposed to be.

In a backwards way, it reminds me of the scholar who discovered that Homer had not written the “Oddyssey,” but in fact the work had been penned by another blind writer of the same name. If you say somethng, you have to actually say something, and those who are able to “transvalue” the real history of life on earth into some sort of theistic creation have successfully won a game of “words with friends” against the voice of reason in their minds, but they have nothing cogent to add otherwise.

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This page contains a single entry by Matt Young published on July 16, 2012 9:39 AM.

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