We don't need no steenking Philosophical Naturalism

Oh dear, it’s happening again. We scientists are usually rather mellow, undemanding folk. Give us a cyclotron or an electron microscope and we will happily stay out of peoples way (pausing only to invent Plasma TV screens, or some such frippery). But what really gets our goat is when people decide to tell us what science is. It’s bad enough when philosophers or sociologists do it, but now lawyers want to get in on the act. Yes, lawyers (see Is Beckwith Right? Does MN entail PN?) have decided that since science uses Methodological Naturalism, it automatically means we are all dedicated to Philosophical Naturalism. Well, that gets an entire heard of caprine organisms! Well, we scientists have bad news for you lawyer buckos, we don’t do isms. We test things. And sometimes we test things that everyone widely accepts as “supernatural” that our lawyer friends would have us believe that dread Methodological/Philosophical whatever-it-is-ism will not allow us to test.

Like Ghosts. Ghosts would have to be the quintessential supernatural entities. Yet scientists used to regularly cart around sensitive microphones, video cameras, infrared imagers etc.etc. trying to capture these critters. They don’t do it so much now as all instances of ghosts turned out to be mundane things like marsh gas, teenagers or plain old self-delusion, not because the methodological Naturalism police have got onto them. You see, ghosts may be supernatural entities that hurl books/furniture/videotapes of the exorcist around the room by the suspension of natural law, but we can observe and measure flying books. So long as the supernatural entity has an observable effect in our world, we can study it.

Then there were the milk drinking statues in India. Pretty supernatural by all accounts. Spoilsport scientists went out with coloured dyes and showed it was all capillary action. Seems no one bothered to tell them that they weren’t allowed to investigate a supernatural phenomenon by the dread Methodological Naturalism.

And of course there is intercessory prayer. Praying for someone to get better would seem to have just the tensiest bit of supernatural involvement in it, and should be rigorously banned by the iron tenets of Methodological Naturalism. But no, respected journals such as Archives of Internal Medicine and British Medical Journal have published papers on intercessory prayer, peer-reviewed even (eg. Arch Int Med, 2001, vol 161, 2529-2536). Sure they were controversial and many column inches were devoted to discussing … blinding, crossover trials, statistical significance, objective endpoints, controlling for people who are praying at home, types of prayer and methodological and testing issues. No one seemed to have twigged to the fact that Methodological Naturalism supposedly bans testing such supernatural events. Mustn’t have had any lawyers around the lab on those days. Again, a supernatural entity might be responding to prayer, but if it does respond, we can certainly objectively measure changes in disease outcomes.

Now if studies of intercessory prayer can get into prestigious peer-reviewed journals, how come ID can’t get into peer-reviewed journals?