Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Science Looks for True Explanations, Not Just "Natural" Ones

I get so tired of creationists constantly claiming that science only looks for "naturalistic" explanations and therefore a priori excludes supernatural ones. That's a load of crap. Science looks for explanations that are backed up by evidence, and supernatural explanations are only ruled out because there is never any evidence for them.

When creationists say that science is just "methodological naturalism," tell them they're full of shit. Science is about finding actual explanations instead of fantasy explanations. The reason fantasy explanations are rejected is not because science rules out the supernatural, it is because the purpose of science is to weed out things that are untrue, and fantasy explanations are untrue. Untrue explanations never have evidence to back them up, and that's why science rejects them.

When creationists say that science rejects supernatural explanations because it assumes "naturalistic" causes, tell them they're still full of shit. Science makes the assumption that evidence will lead to correct answers. It's not the fault of science that evidence never leads to supernatural explanations: it's the fault of the facts, which are that supernatural explanations aren't true. That's all.


At 5:45 AM, Blogger R. Paul Wiegand said...

Hmm ... there's a sense in which I agree with the outcome of your post, but not the letter of it. I've a feeling I'm nit-picking, but I've not posted on your blog in a while, so what the heck.

I do think science is a process designed to explain natural phenomena. I don't think science has anything to say about the supernatural one way or the other, except insomuch as it demonstrates naturally observable events or materials.

But this is not necessarily inconsistent with your post, I think.

If I can observe it (sense it directly, or detect it indirectly by reasoning over perceptions) then it is in the bailiwick of science to explain the mechanism behind those observations.

If it cannot be observed then science is not useful. Of course, nothing is useful ... if it cannot be observed, it is in some sense irrelevant.

Science doesn't reject supernatural explanations, it ignores explanations for things unobserved ... it avoids pointlessly pontificating about things that cannot be measured in any way. It isn't science's explanatory power that is constrained, it is the types of things it attempts to explain in the first place.

So science (I believe) has nothing to say about whether or not [Gg]od(s) exist(s), but it does have something to say about whether and how a human could walk on water, instantly heal someone's physical wounds, or even simply "be happier" if he or she believes. It doesn't have anything to say about whether or not [Gg]od(s) is in some metaphysical sense a "Creator", but it does have something to say about whether the Universe developed from a massive explosion out of a singularity, how celestrial bodies formed, how life deveped on the earth, and how that life could have developed into an organism as sophisticated as the human being.

I agree that the argument that science is blinded by its naturalistic assumptions is a fallacious one, but not because science isn't a mechanism bound to explaining the natural world -- it absolutely is -- but because such a boundary doesn't limit science, but in fact it makes it relevant.

My concern with "supernatural explanations" is not that they offer alternative explanations that violate my naturalistic assumptions, but that they either seek to explain something I cannot observe (and thus I do not care about) or offer no real explanation for the phenomena I can observe. Instead they offer a philosophy for why there can be no explanation.

True, accepting that some evidence cannot be explained is not science, but it's not useful either.

I agree with the spirit of your post, but I would put it differently. Science is about explaining the natural world. It finds no utilitiy in explanations of things outside the natural world, and it rejects responses to our questions that eschews explanation for natural phenomena.

At 6:27 AM, Blogger R. Paul Wiegand said...

I've been thinking more generally about the philosophical differences between myself and others that might have the view you decry.

If this were my blog, I'd make this its own post and title it:


There seems to be a tension within people between the love of the mysterious and and utility of knowledge.

This is a false dichotomy.

I cannot speak for others, but I can correct some misconceptions people have voiced about me and my motivations. As a scientist, I'm often faced with what I consider the "deconstructionism myth": By breaking down the things and systems I observe and explaining them methodically, I destroy the essense of them as a whole by removing their mystery.

Keats' Unweaving the Rainbow, and Dawkins' response come to mind here. And in a sense, Dawkins is bang-on ... the more you know, the more mystery there is. Learning how rainbows work didn't reduce the mystery of the world, it increased it ... it didn't destroy the beauty of nature, it enhanced it, brought us closer to it in some way.

But that's not the whole story for me.

I understand the alure of the mysterious because I am an intensely curious person. And curiosity resides between mystery and knowledge ... it is the motivation that causes us to bridge the two.

In fact, knowledge isn't my goal ... the search for knowledge is.

I see the dullness in the raw knowledge, but I also see the pointlessness and vacuity of unapproached mystery. It is that moment, that point in time between when I didn't understand something and when I do that I live for ... what I call the "epiphanies" of life (indeed, I named my child Epiphany because this is so important to me).

Life without mystery is sad. But life without approaching and crossing over mystery is pointless and empty.

I re-read my last post and saw how many times I used the word "explain" (even emphasized it) and it occured to me that it was because it is the process of science that is exciting, not the product.

I think the creationists of the world believe we are throwing the mystery away, when in fact (from my view) it is they who are walking away from it. They see the bridge, but they decide to stay on their side. When I see a bridge, I want to cross it ... I want to learn.

And if there's one thing I've learned from science, it is that every time I cross a bridge, I end up in a place where there are more bridges to cross. As Dawkins points out, explaning how and why nature operates doesn't destroy mystery, it brings us closer to it and opens up new mysteries.

I think those that really love mystery, must love finding an explanation. Those that do not are unreasonably and unfairly separating the goal from the journey.

I'm not willing to do that. I will always seek an explaination for what I do not yet understand, I will always find responses that reject explanation to be empty and sterile. If creationists can offer me an explanation, a real explanation that illuniates something about how the Universe works, I am all ears. But what they've generated so far is little more than "because I say so" and just as rewarding.

I, personally, am undoubtedly incapable of understanding certain things about the world. But the day I stop even trying to explain what I see, is the day the world ceases to have any mystery to me at all. Ironically, to me embracing the mystery fully as unexplainable is equivalent to reject it ... it means there is no room for curiosity or the pursuits it motivates.

At 12:05 PM, Blogger mooglar said...

See, my point is that, when you say, "I do think science is a process designed to explain [i]natural[/i] phenomena," that there's no necessity to have the word "natural" because, outside of thought experiments and imagination, there are no other kind of phenomena. By being willing to stipulate that science is concerned with "natural" phenomena creationists, right-wing fundamentalists, and other purveyors of woo can then make the claim I mentioned in my post, that science rejects "non-naturalistic" causes out of hand. By engaging with the term "natural" in this context, scientists tacitly agree that there exist types of phenomena that aren't "natural." Since there are phenomena, and no "non-natural" phenomena has ever actually been shown to exist, I see no reason to do that. Science deals with phenomena, and that's that, I think, and engaging with whether phenomena are "natural" or not is actually a useless exercise along the lines of debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

In the same vein, science may not have anything to say about God's or god(s)' existence, but since it does have something to say about this universe as you note, and there's no evidence in this universe for a God or god(s), then that God or those god(s) cannot be said to meaningfully exist in the first place. Science does not concern itself with things that do not exist. (Well, once we know they don't exist, at least. I suppose science does concern itself with such things until we know they don't exist, like phlogiston).

As to your second comment, I must admit that I am more interested in the results of science than the method... which is why I am not a working scientist but still keep up to date on modern scientific thought. But, nonetheless, I agree that mystery vs. knowledge is a false dichotomy and a stupid one. There is always more to know and thus there will always be almost infinite mystery, just not on the same topics. Besides, wanting to maintain "mystery" is just a way of saying they want to remain ignorant, and that they are romanticizing ignorance. After all, are there people out there who are missing the "mystery" of not knowing how diseases transmit and wish we could go back before we had the germ theory of disease? Well, maybe a few cranks, but mostly those worried about protecting the "mystery" are forgetting all the ways in which pulling back the mystery have afforded them the freedom to sit around wishing to have the mystery back.

At 6:13 AM, Blogger R. Paul Wiegand said...

But there may be phenomena that are not natural! I just have no means of verifying them because my abilities to observe are bound to nature. Perhaps that makes such phenomena irrelevant in terms of explaining the mechaisms of the world, but so what? Why does that necessarily mean that they are useless to consider writ large?

And thought exercises and imagination are perfectly valid intellectual pursuits ... they just aren't science.

I think including the word "natural" is important for helping to define science, and as such I don't find it a capitulation or concession in any way. Rather, I think it protects it.

Science is a tool, a utility, a means of understanding the natural world -- nothing more, nothing less. My point is that this doesn't limit science, it makes science possible and useful. Indeed, science is the best known tool for understanding nature. It is an enormously successful one.

Not everything is in the baliwick of science, and that's okay with me. In fact, the field of philosophy has often plumbed the depths of things for which there can be no proof, nor even empirical validation (e.g., metaphysics ... and to some extent, epistimology). Those fields are no less intellectually interesting because they do not (necessarily) rely on tangible verification of explanations of natural phenomena.

Some might argue that abstract philosophical pursuits are useless ... I've some sympathy for that argument, actually ... but they would be measuring their utility by their explanatory power, rather than their intellectual stimulation. And such stimulation may be personally necessary as a step to a better mental discipline, a discipline that may be useful in the end, even for science.

Indeed, understanding the deeper notions of epistomological relativism has helped me in studying machine learning: being able to easily discard the debate between whether we construct algorithms that "discover" knowledge or "create" knowledge as one that is neither answerable nor relevant (and one that was debated thousands of years ago ad nasuem) has allowed me to move past certain hang-ups in the field, I think.

I guess my point is to assume that the process of science subsumes all mental processes (or should) seems limiting to me. Clarifying the definition of science helps protect what it means in my mind ... metaphysics is not science. Which isn't to say that metaphics is totally useless in all ways.

Be careful not to read into my words that I admit that all beliefs are equivalent and fair, nor that I suggest there's proper a role for being unreasonable. Philosophy, as an intellectual pursuit, is not encumbered by a need to believe in any one thing (harkening back to my many posts on the differences between "supposing" and "believing"). Religion, on the other hand, requires an investment in the abstractions.

More importantly, (most) relegion demands a permenant suspense of reason, while philosophy (typically) merely requires a temporary suspension of certain aspects of reason in order to explore certain ideas.

As to your comment about God's existence, I still say this: Science has nothing to say about God's existence one way or the other ... whether meanignful or not. Science is not about bestowing meaning on the things it explains.

But this is a more profound difference that stretches outside of our disagreement about science and hits squarely at our (non)theological differences.

Skepticism is useful for eliminating potentially constradictory explanations and concentrating on the most salient ones. But it unnecessary to employ it when the thing being considered is not relevant. I see no need to pull the reductionist knife out of its case to bisect the irrelvent from the relevant. I'll just ignore the irrelevant.

In other words, logic doesn't dictate that God doesn't exist, logic dictates that the conversation about God's existence is pointless.

Theists and atheists seem to share something in common reqarding agnostics: they both seem to believe that it is necessary to have an opinion about the existence of God. It isn't. Since God's existence cannot be verified, I see the distinction of a Godless/Godful(?) Universe as unimportant.

This isn't indecision and it isn't reductionism. I simply refuse to classify something when the classification is unimportant and serves no informational purpose.

You have said in the past that you do not see the difference between negative atheism and empirical agnosticism, but here is a difference of effect: you feel that science (more precisely, skepticism) concludes that God doesn't exist, while I don't even think God's existence is a meaningful scientific pursuit.

At 7:46 PM, Blogger mooglar said...

I don't think I agree with you here.

In practice, science only deals with "natural" phenomena, but the reason isn't that science is limited to "natural" phenomena. Science, rather, I think, is limited to observable phenomena, and the only phenomena we have so far been able to observe, and thus put under scientific scrutiny, are natural ones.

But, you see, some theists, the ones who make the argument that science is blinded by its "materialistic worldview" believe that there is observable evidence of the supernatural, and that scientists simply refuse to admit it. These theists don't understand that scientists aren't rejecting supernatural explanations because of an inherent bias in science, but simply because the observable evidence is more consistent with a natural than a supernatural explanation.

Only supernatural phenomena that don't act in the observable universe are, in fact, outside of the purview of science. It is an entirely valid scientific question, for example, to investigate whether Jesus really did walk on water or raise Lazarus from the dead, even though those are supernatural phenomena, because they happened in the observable universe.

So, to say that science only deals in "natural" phenomena is not really true. Science deals in observable phenomena and those happen to all be natural ones. It is the nature of the universe, not of science, that dictates that science deals mostly with natural phenomena.

So, considering this aspect of science, I agree with you in part: Science has nothing to say about the existence of the sorts of god(s) you are agnostic about, ones that have never and can never act upon or in our universe. But science does have something to say about the existence of interventionist god(s). The existence of a God or god(s) who created the universe, appeared on Earth in the form of a 1st-century Jew who walked on water and rose from the dead, spoke to a 6th-century Arab and dictated a holy book to him, are not questions outside the realm of science. If we were able to scientifically determine that Jesus did not, in fact, rise from the dead, we would have good reason to believe that the God worshiped by Christians does not, in fact, exist, since having incarnated on Earth, been crucified, and then come back from the dead is part of the definition of the God Christians worship.

And, to reiterate some things I believe I have said to you before, I am an atheist because I do not believe interventionist god(s) exist. While I am, in fact, agnostic on the question of whether non-interventionist god(s) exist, as you are, I don't consider myself an agnostic because I think the issue of non-intervening god(s) is trivial. I think one's position on the existence or non-existence of intervening god(s) is the important one, and on that question, I am an atheist.

At 5:07 AM, Blogger R. Paul Wiegand said...

I think we are starting in the same place and ending in the same place, but getting caught up in the differences in language our different paths have produced. The more I read over our respective responses, the more I feel that we are disagreeing about very little.

First, I should be clear about my distinction between "observable" and "natural", which is to say: none. My eyes are physical, natural organs ... light is a natural phenomena ... what I observe by sight is natural. The same is true of all senses. If I can observe it, it is natural (the actual data I am perceiving).

Part of what I was getting at was that the hypothetical fundamentalist you describe in your initial post misses the point if he says that science excludes supernatural explanations because of its naturalistic tendencies: Science's basis in nature has to do with the inputs (observations), not the outputs (explanations).

And I agree, and have said so in this thread, that walking on water, raising from the dead -- all things that can be observed, are in the purview of science.

This is why I have said several times that this basis in nature is not a limitation. I was merely saying that science concerns itself with what can be seen and measured, not those that cannot be observed. That is the same as saying it concerns itself with "natural phenomena" in my mind.

I like the adjective "natural" because it helps clarify science's utility (for me, at least).

You feel that unobservable phenomena are meaningless and trivial. I get that and agree to some extent, but let me play Devils Advocate ...

Your dichotomy breaks down, I think, if one speculates of a nature residing properly inside of supernature ... i.e., all things natural are also supernatural, but not the reverse. That is, it could be simultaneously true that all things observable in nature can ultimately be explained by and through the laws of nature (something I see no reason not to believe), and all things in nature have a supernatural component with a symmetric explanation.

This cannot be distinguished from the asupernatural case, of course. So perhaps you would say that it doesn't matter whether or not it is true? Let me try to convince you how it might matter.

Suppose there's a such thing as a "soul", which I will not-so-cleverly fail to define or defend. I can eschew such defense because in my example, you cannot discern evidence of the existence of your soul by natural means. Your brain and body, the natural inputs into it, make up what we might call your "mind", and all of that can be explained through natural means. But there also happens to be a soul, unbeknownst to you. It is somehow "attached" to you, that is, it plays a symmetric role in the supernatural "superset" of the world as your body and mind play in the natural world.

When you die, a supernatural arbiter averages all the time you spent brewing tea and decides that if you (on average) spent less than three minutes and more than four minutes waiting for your tea to infuse, you are unworthy and should be tormented. Thus, your soul is somehow "punished" (which I wont begin to say means without a body).

So you should watch your brewing times, right?

I know (and agree with) the counter argument that the criteria might just have well been reversed, or something else altogether ... so your most rational course of action is not to make such assumptions, since you cannot verify them anyway. But I'm not really trying to convince you to brew your tea in any particular way, of course (though 3-4 minutes really is optimal, I think) ... I'm merely creating a hypothetical example that meets the conditions that 1.) All things observable within nature and explainable by and through the laws of nature; and 2.) A supernature exists, and nature is a proper subset of it; and
3.) It matters to "you" (being loose about "you" here, I know) whether 2.) is true or not.

Of course that's all a lot of hogwash, and I know it. My real point is this:

These are all fun little intellectual games to play, and the discussions vary in how rewarding or personally useful they might be to those participating in them. But they aren't science because whether my stupid little hypothetical example were true or not, science should and would proceed the same way. Whether a soul exists or not is not relevant to science unless the presence of the soul can somehow be measured or inferred from measurements. Whether the existence of the soul is important or not is (pardon the pun) immaterial: If it cannot be observed, it isn't within the purview of science.

That's what makes science meaningful, I think. That's what makes science useful.

Where I think we agree: Science is not limited by its function, rather it is empowered by it. Science concerns itself with contriving explanations for observations ... by which I mean, data that can be collected by means of natural sensory apparatuses (perhaps extended by technology).

Where I think we disagree: you feel that the existence of a supernature that cannot be naturally observed makes that supernature meaningless and trivial, whereas I think such existence is irrelevant to science regardless of whether or not it is meaningful "otherwise". In other words, I feel that science is unconcerned about the meaning of such things one way or the other.

Admittedly, it is easier to be unconcerned about the meaning of something meaningless, but you get my drift.

At 1:48 PM, Blogger mooglar said...

I agree with much of what you've said here. I just think it makes it easier for intellectually dishonest theists to quote-mine scientists and non-theists when we say "natural phenomena" rather than "phenomena." Of course, they're going to quote-mine us anyway, so it occurs to me that it really doesn't matter either way and was a stupid thing for me to disagree about in the first place.

I also agree we're not really disagreeing. I doubt there is really a significant difference between your "irrelevant" and my "trivial."

You say in your example that it matters to me whether the supernatural tea-brewing arbiter exists or not. I agree that it would, after my death, affect me, but since I can't know about it or do anything about it, it doesn't actually matter to me.

So there! Ha!!!


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