Science and supernaturalism – what we can and can’t know

A recent commenter in the New Zealand Herald made the claim that science assumes naturalism and therefore it is justifiable to assume supernaturalism also. This view, though riddled with fallacies, can teach us something about the nature of science and the limits of what we can know.

This post is a critical response to David Balchin (Presbytarian Reverend) of Waihi who claims that science isn’t justified in excluding God from scientific explanations. He does this by equating the efforts of legitimate scientists (evolutionists) with those done by creationists (non-evolutionists as he calls them).

… But science has now come to be redefined as the pursuit of knowledge within a naturalistic framework only. Thus God has been, by definition precluded from scientific pursuit, something that would have staggered the first scientists… Both naturalism and the supernaturalism that undergird each definition of science are non-falsifiable faith positions committed to an understanding of mankinds origin and purpose that is simply not empirically demonstrable.

Let’s look at the features of science that are relevant in showing the above claims about science are incorrect:

1. Falsification. Evolutionists (scientists) are trying to falsify a hypothesis. Non-evolutionists (creation scientists) are cherry picking data and conclusions to support a priori commitment to their belief in God.
2. Science is a method. No “faith” position is necessary to do science.
3. It is not the fault of science that supernaturalism is precluded, it is a flaw inherent in supernatural claims. If you can’t produce a testable outcome then we by nature can’t do anything with it. No test means there is no possibility of any new knowledge.
4. False equivalence – The methods employed in legitimate science are the opposite of what creation scientists do. Science progresses with reliable, verifiable knowledge. The fruits of intelligent design pseudoscience is disinformation.

No unjustified assumptions necessary

In practice, scientists don’t operate by the naturalism/supernaturalism distinction. They simply devise a test in an attempt to understand the phenomenon in question. How does it arise? How does it operate? There is no presumption a priori of naturalism.

“Science operates without any a priori ontological commitment as to what sorts of entities exist.” -Tom Clark, Why Science Can’t Get Us To God, Naturalism.org

Science is in a word, ‘agnostic’ to untestable entities.

But doesn’t science assume methodological naturalism?

Methodological naturalism allows science to get off the ground. When scientists devise tests they proceed on the basis that effects have causes that are in principle observable and quantifiable. If they didn’t the whole exercise would be pointless. By proceeding with experiments they implicitly assume there is a point to this exercise and there will be natural, testable phenomena.

“However, this assumption of naturalism need not extend beyond an assumption of methodology. This is what separates methodological naturalism from philosophical naturalism – the former is merely a tool and makes no truth claim.”Rational Wiki

Philosophical naturalism is a position an individual can take but, contrary to what some theists claim, it is not needed in science.

Creationists are not doing empirical tests

5. Science requires that a scientist demonstrate how the claims were arrived at. This makes the process open to others to investigate, reinforce or falsify (science is an open system).

The scientist
devises a hypothesis and sets out to test it. There is no commitment to any conclusion up front and they follow the evidence where it leads.

The creation scientist already believes certain unknowable (therefore unjustifiable) supernatural propositions and sees the world through that lens. Data is filtered through that prior assumption.

Creation scientists already bring a supernatural agenda to the table and therefore engage in confirmation bias – selecting evidence to support their claims while lying, denying and rejecting that which does not. This selective reasoning is exactly what enlightenment philosophers and scientists saw as barriers to unfettered pursuit of knowledge.

Of course, the creation scientists assume more than just the claim that God is a causal agent in the universe. Some believe the Genesis account is accurate history while other theistic scientists accept an older age of the Earth, others reject all those but still claim God can perform miracles at a whim.

**This poses a problem, if science was based on the presuppositions of the scientists involved, whose presuppositions do we accept? Catholic ones? Protestant ones? Muslim ones?**

Science would not be possible if presuppositions of untestable entities and unjustified assumptions were to infiltrate the process. Again, the fact that science can be done regardless of nationality, culture and beliefs is a strength of the method.

This way we converge on strong, reliable theories rather than divergent opinions of reality as is a feature of religion.

6. Supernatural claims are either unjustified presuppositions or premature conclusions.

At the end of the day, if there is an unjustified assumption X and the claimant cannot demonstrate why he or she thinks X is true, then it can’t be put forward as science. We use Occam’s razor to eliminate such unjustified assumptions.

After all the data is in we could still say, “Well God guided that process to happen”. This explains nothing and we are left with no choice but to ignore such pronouncements on scientific grounds. People are free to believe this if they wish but it cannot pass as scientifically valid.

This economy and parsimmony of science is one of its strengths.

Conclusion

While nothing can disprove an entity whose claimed existence is outside space and time (a contradiction as the very word existence implies physical existence) this is not a fault of science but more a fault with the proposition being made.

One of the strengths of science is that we can assign justifiable certainty to propositions – we can know something about the universe. This leads to theories that in turn allows us to make predictions about future observations. If validated, these predicted observations further strengthen the theories they stem from.

Science is a method that is simply agnostic – it says nothing about untestable entities or imagined realities. It simply deals with what is – a strength that separates science from other human endeavours.

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One response to “Science and supernaturalism – what we can and can’t know

  1. viewfromreality

    Someone left a comment on this post and in my haste I deleted it (it was in the spam folder and I saw that it was a legit comment as it was being deleted). If that was you – please feel free to post a comment again – I am keen to establish a discussion about this topic because there are many confused opinions about what naturalism and science are.

    Na shledanou

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