Naturalism

So, what I want to do with “Faith vs Fact” is start with some of the bigger issues I had with it, and then maybe deal with some of the smaller ones, because there are a number of arguments in the book that even just on the first reading I have issues with but that aren’t really important to what I take is the main issue of the book: the purported incompatibility between science and religion. And to that end, my first two big issues come from the second chapter, which asks “What’s Incompatible?”.

Note: I usually like to quote a lot when I respond to arguments, but since I have a real, actual paper copy and since one of the things that stops me from dealing with Philipse is the need to quote from the book, I won’t do that here, and so will rely a lot more on summaries. This, of course, means that my summaries might not accurately reflect Coyne’s views, although I’ll try to be as charitable and uncontroversial as I can.

At any rate, Coyne identifies three main conflicts between science and religion: conflicts of method, of outcome, and of philosophy. As is fitting, this post will talk about the conflicts of philosophy, and the next post will talk about conflicts of method, which we’ll see is also a conflict derived from or justified by philosophy, at least if you want to claim that there’s really a conflict there.

But first, let me briefly dispose of the less interesting — to me, but probably not to Coyne — conflict of outcome. Why is this uninteresting? Because Coyne’s argument here is essentially that science produces knowledge, and faith/religion doesn’t. Anyone who, like me, doesn’t think that faith is a way of knowing cares not one whit for that conflict, and for anyone that does if Coyne can demonstrate that faith does not produce knowledge their main concern is not going to be that that means that religion is incompatible with science. They are going to be far more concerned and spend far more of their time arguing that faith does produce knowledge. Essentially, this argument is like Coyne saying to someone “You’re a jaywalker! I saw you cross against the light as you ran away after shooting that person!”. Yes, it might technically be true, but that’s not really what anyone should be most concerned about at the moment.

So, let’s turn to the conflicts over philosophy, which to no one’s surprise boils down to naturalism: science has adopted at least methodological naturalism if not metaphysical (or philosophical) naturalism, and religion accepts the supernatural. Coyne argues that science is not naturalistic because it starts from a presumption of naturalism, but instead because science has tested supernatural explanations against natural explanations and the natural explanations have won out every time. This has happened sufficiently regularly that he feels justified in adopting naturalism as part of the scientific method and even that it justifies the stronger philosophical claim that there are no supernatural entities … although, like all other claims, that is merely provisional. Still, I think he feels justified in claiming that he knows that naturalism is true, by the more common philosophical definition of it being a justified true belief that doesn’t require certainty.

Now, I strongly reject what Coyne calls philosophical naturalism, because I feel that it is not only unjustified but unjustifiable. The issue is with trying to determine what kind of phenomena count as supernatural and which don’t. What I find is that either what sort of phenomena count as natural is defined so broadly that anything that exists and that we can even see empirically counts as natural, or else if natural is defined in a way that doesn’t just devolve to “exists” that it seems that we’ve found all sorts of things that ought to count as supernatural. But I admit that this is a philosophical argument based on the conceptualization of “natural”. How do I fare against the empirical argument that Coyne advances?

Well, the first thing to note is that trying to use that argument to justify the philosophical argument is pretty much a paradigm example of the Inductive Fallacy: induction does not generalize that far. Whenever I raise this argument, the response — most often from a commenter at Jason Rosenhouse’s site using the handle “eric” — is that I’m demanding philosophical certainty and deductive proofs, while science works perfectly well with knowledge produced by induction. The problem with the response is that I’m not saying that you can’t get knowledge by induction, just that you can’t get knowledge from induction this way. Certainly, science generalizes using induction from a small number of cases, but it also generally limits it in scope and to things that are, in fact, generally related. When you include the paranormal — as Coyne does — what we have is a wide variety of claims that are often markedly different in character and explanation. Even the claim that Richard Carrier makes that the supernatural refers to things that reduce to mind and cannot be reduced further to anything physical captures a wide variety of claims and phenomena. You simply could not demonstrate that nothing supernatural can possibly exist to the level of knowledge by saying that you’ve looked at a limited number of supernatural cases and they’ve had natural explanations. It would be like saying that you’ve proven that there can’t be black swans because you’ve gone and looked at a number of swans and they’re all white, and we all know that that is the prime example of the Inductive Fallacy. How science actually uses induction to make a claim like “There can’t be black swans” would be to examine the pigment that gives swans their colour, and note that that pigment can’t be black, and so you can’t have black swans. Of course, that’s not actually true, but if it was true the claim is already limited to swans who use that pigment to get their colour, and if black swans were discovered what that would mean for science is already set: either those swans use a different pigment, or science was wrong when they concluded that that pigment couldn’t produce black. At any rate, the key point here is that the inductive leaps made by science are deeply constrained, which is why they provide a justification for knowledge. But taking the philosophical claim that none of the phenomena that might count as supernatural don’t exist is not a constrained inductive leap; it is as strong a universal generalization as you can get. And induction can’t justify those sorts of generalizations.

So, that seems to leave philosophical naturalism out. What about methodological naturalism? Can you reasonably argue that because the things that we’ve considered supernatural have so far always turned out to be natural that we should start with a methodological commitment to preferring natural explanations over supernatural ones? Well, this runs into the issue I pointed out above: in order to do this, you have to have a way to tell what explanations were actually natural, and so to be able to conclude that the explanation for that phenomena really was natural. If anything that science proved existed and was able to study gets called natural, then setting this out as a methodological commitment simply means that you will never, ever discover that any supernatural explanation is actually correct. If we had scientific evidence that telepathy worked, it seems unlikely that scientists would therefore conclude that something supernatural existed. Instead, they would most likely insist that telepathy was really natural all along and we just didn’t realize it (for an example of how that might work, see Babylon 5’s “The Psi Corps Trilogy”, where telepathy is discovered scientifically and becomes “natural”). And we’ve seen this sort of move in science already, with things like time dilation and quantum mechanics. Technically, if I’m sitting and watching the baseball game and then stand up and walk around the room, time is moving slower for me in the second case, even though it might feel like it’s moving slower in the first case. Sure, it’s imperceptible, but it means that I can control time by intentional actions. How is that not supernatural? And in quantum mechanics we violate the strong rule of causal determinism; we have events that are at least not strictly speaking caused. How is that not supernatural? Yet both are and are part of theories that are considered as natural as they come. Thus, it is difficult to imagine what sort of phenomena you could prove existed that science would not claim natural as soon as you did so, and if that’s the case then the claim that we’ve tested natural vs supernatural explanations and natural explanations is hollow; based on this, there is no way that a supernatural explanation can possibly win, and so this becomes a hidden presumption, but a presumption nonetheless.

Another counter is more specific to Coyne, but I also think it more devastating to Coyne’s argument. When you boil it all down, Coyne essentially characterizes science by two main principles: 1) Accept only those hypotheses that are sufficiently evidenced and 2) Prefer the hypothesis with the most evidence in its favour. Ultimately, though, Coyne very much wants us to accept hypotheses only on the basis of what evidence there is for that hypothesis. But if that’s true, then why would science make a naturalistic presumption at all? Shouldn’t it be basing its examinations only on the empirical evidence, and not on philosophical precommitments? If the empirical evidence better supports the idea that your friend’s dream was precognitive than that this was just coincidence, shouldn’t you accept that explanation, regardless of whether or not you consider that to be paranormal? If empirical evidence is to be the gold standard of scientific claims, then there seems to be no reason to even classify explanations as natural or supernatural to start with. Instead, you should just go straight to the evidence. If supernatural explanations don’t work, then the evidence will always lead you away from them. There is, then, no need to prejudge an explanation as supernatural and therefore one that you ought to be more skeptical of.

Now, Coyne could counter that scientifically we ought to prefer explanations that comport with the existing scientific theories over ones that don’t. The problem with this is that this applies to any challenge to an established theory like evolution just as much as it applies to any supernatural claim, which means that using that Coyne would have to advocate that challenges to evolution have a higher burden of proof than claims that align with it. Putting aside the question of whether it is reasonable or not for science to adopt such a notion — I’d probably claim that it is reasonable — this would clearly mean that science, in general, just by following its principles will privilege evolution over competing theories, which therefore means that evidence supporting evolution will be accepted over evidence that contradicts it. By building in this preference, it will not be possible to claim that science is not biased towards evolution, which means that in theory it might require far stronger evidence to overturn it than it has to support it. This is not something that scientists, I think, want to concede.

Ultimately, there is no justification for science to accept philosophical naturalism. It can accept methodological naturalism, but it has no justification for actually doing that beyond making it a presumption. Given this, if anything conflicts with science by refusing to accept naturalism, it is not that they are abandoning some justified epistemic position, but instead that they are refusing to accept a presumption that science may find useful, but that others may justifiably not consider reasonable or correct outside of science. In the next post, we’ll look at how science and other “ways of knowing” might or might not conflict.

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2 Responses to “Naturalism”

  1. Héctor Muñoz Huerta Says:

    There are huge amounts of very bad books printed and sold all the time that bring nothing valuable to the table. The on the other hand publishing industry is used to destroying full print runs of unsold books to offset shelving and warehousing costs.

    Is a book like this worth the trees?

  2. Naturalism « Biblical Scholarship Says:

    […] reviewing Jerry Coyne’s latest book, the Verbose Stoic makes a number of great points on naturalism that I regularly use in discussions with professed naturalists, materialists, and […]

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