Thursday, April 07, 2005

Evolution, Pt. 4: Is MN Question-Begging?

One of the main road blocks that the Intelligent Design (ID) movement faces is the widespread acceptance of methodological naturalism (MN). I should mention that it is not clear to me that all the claims of the ID movement are true, but the more interesting question is, “Is ID real science?” Defenders of MN would say, “No.” But is MN itself merely question-begging?

Question-begging, or petitio principii, is when one’s conclusion is simply a restatement of one’s premises. An example would be, “Capital punishment is wrong because taking someone’s life is something we have no business doing!” or “The Bible is the Word of God because it is divinely inspired.” So how is MN also an example? MN essentially claims that science should not entertain non-natural causes. Why? Because non-natural causes are simply not allowed in scientific endeavors. No real argument is being given as to why we should accept this conclusion. It is simply being asserted.

Some theistic scientists will claim that MN is justified based on the idea that God acts in the universe “exclusively through natural secondary causes.”[1] But on what grounds is this claim to be justified? Robert Larmer states, “All the great theistic religions seem to claim precisely the opposite. They all claim events that seem best explained in terms of God acting directly in nature. It seems difficult, for example, to think of Jesus’ multiplication of the loaves and fishes as an event that would naturally occur.”

Other defenders of MN will use argument based on pragmatic grounds, i.e., “the way we do science now works the best.” I will not take issue with this claim at the moment, but it fails to address the charge of question-begging, and thus fails to uphold MN on rational grounds.

[1] Robert A. Larmer, “Is Methodological Naturalism Question-Begging?” Philosophia Christi 5 (2003): 120-1.


Blogger Kelley Bell said...

If you dig deep enough you will find that the ancient hebrew and christian texts point to polytheistic matriarchy....

Modern english translations completly miss the point.

1:29 PM  
Blogger chris said...

I'm not familiar with this hypothesis. Which texts? Could you give me an example of what you are talking about? Feel free to use original languages.

4:25 PM  
Blogger Jill Pole said...

Chris - I am enjoying the conversation so far. Looking forward to more. I've got a student doing a project on Nihilism and I confess that I'm a little ignorant of what it is and the implications... Could you take a post and explain? --Dee Anne

8:35 AM  
Blogger chris said...

Nihilism is a term coined in the early 19th cent. and most often associated with Friedrich Nietzsche, a German athiestic philosopher. It comes from the Latin "nihil" which means "nothing," and implies that the universe is inherently meaningless. There are different versions, but they're all pretty bleak and hopeless. Quite depressing.

My blog title is the second half of the phrase "ex nihilo, nihil fit," or "out of nothing, nothing comes." It's really just a statement of humility -- "here comes nothing!"

1:00 PM  
Blogger Jim said...

Why do opponents of MN assume it grew up in a vacuum--as if, one day, scientists decided out-of-hand to dismiss supernatural explanations? MN is an end-point to an inductive research program that has been carried out for thousands of years, not an a priori elimination of supernatural causation.

12:26 AM  
Blogger chris said...

This is a good point, Jim. Other defenders of MN have raised it, also. The problem is, proponents of MN really don't appear to be saying, "We'd allow supernatural explanations if they are useful." Rather, those who defend MN appear to be excluding the supernatural in principle. So, even if your defense makes some sense, it doesn't seem to be how actual defenders of MN think. Advocates of Intelligent Design are not dismissed because they haven't produced enough evidence for their views, but because such evidence is in principle impossible.

8:01 PM  
Blogger Jim said...

"Advocates of Intelligent Design are not dismissed because they haven't produced enough evidence for their views, but because such evidence is in principle impossible."

We must not be reading the same articles and books, then. Can you point me to a dismissal of ID that doesn't discuss evidentiary value / quality? I take it you haven't read Mark Perakh's "Unintelligent Design," to cite just one example.

11:37 PM  
Blogger chris said...

I haven't read Perakh's book, although I've heard mixed reviews.

Here's a question -- why do YOU dismiss ID?

3:53 PM  
Blogger Jim said...

I'll raise you--two questions.

1. If Dembski is right and there is compelling mathematical evidence that points to a "designer," how is Methodological Naturalism in any way opposed to ID? Either Dembski is wrong, or you're setting up a false dichotomy.

2. You assume that because I have read evidence-based critiques of ID, I therefore "dismiss ID." Why?

4:54 PM  
Blogger chris said...

My last comment was lost in cyberspace, sorry. I'll repeat.

You win the socratic duel. In answer to (1), isn't that exactly the issue? I do believe there is evidence, but MNers won't even consider it because it CAN'T be evidence of supernatural causes. They say, "there MUST be a naturalistic explanation for these phenomena, so let's keep looking until we find it." So either I'm setting up a false dichotomy, or you are. Wait, that's a false dichotomy. Damn.

Regarding (2), I wasn't using "dismiss" in the pejorative sense, but I assumed you do not accept ID based on the tone of your posts.

6:14 PM  
Blogger Jim said...

"MNers won't even consider it because it CAN'T be evidence of supernatural causes."

To what evidence do you refer? TalkDesign, for example, rebuts ID claims blow-by-blow. How is this a refusal to "consider" evidence?

If there are some scientists who dismiss ID out-of-hand because of metaphysical commitments, fine; scientists are human, too. But it is a gross equivocation to imply that ID is rejected only on the strength of MN, and not on its paucity of evidence and lack of testable observations.

To answer your other question, I do not "dismiss" ID. I find its thesis intriguing, but yet unsatisfying because of its own methodological weaknesses. At any rate, its success or failure means nothing to my own worldview, because as Dembski has admitted, ID allows for alien super-intelligence, pantheism, multiple designers, and all other sorts of metaphysical possibilities. My beef is with people who misrepresent facts or skew arguments, no matter what their stake is in the debate.

11:22 AM  
Blogger chris said...

I think we have a misunderstanding here. I am not claiming that scientists or any community as a whole dismisses ID due to lack of evidence. My claim is much smaller than that, viz., that advocates of MN (perhaps a subset of all scientists) reject ID qua science in virtue of its failure to conform to MN. In other words, if you advocate MN, you MUST reject ID qua science because ID is in direct contradiction to MN. I.e., ID posits supernatural causes and MN excludes supernatural causes categorically.

So, ID qua science is rejected on the basis of MN by MNers. MNers are not equivalent to all opponents of ID.

4:10 PM  
Blogger Jim said...


I certainly did misunderstand your claim about who holds to MN, or, to quote your original phrasing, how "widespread" it is. (And I still disagree that MN is the "road block" that ID faces. As I've stated before, the paucity of evidence, the lack of a research program, that's the real concern.) But there you go again:

"ID posits supernatural causes."

This is the claim that Dembski directly denies. Why is Dembski wrong here?

9:41 AM  
Blogger chris said...

I've been very careful to phrase my comments accurately. I do believe acceptance of MN is widespread, however, I would never claim that EVERY scientist accepts MN. Thus, advocates of MN would be a subset of all scientists.

I wasn't aware that Dembski denies this. I could be speaking from ignorance here, but in my mind, the very idea of MN implies the supernatural, since I see the "alien" hypothesis as highly being implausible. But, I suppose the ID movement is trying to avoid mention of the supernatural. Maybe just a rhetorical move.

10:32 PM  

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