2.08.2011

Does Science Presuppose Naturalism?

No. Good science follows from the evidence. It’s a method to seek objective facts that support or discount explanations for events. That science has become associated with naturalism is used as a slam by some philosophers. If you say that it doesn't presuppose naturalism they count that as a victory. But only if we fail to drop the other shoe. The elephant in the room for the theist philosopher is the question ‘why has science become associated with naturalism?’ Why is it that our most objective methodology for proving cause and effect has become associated with naturalism? Why is it that our best method for overcoming human cognitive bias is so closely associated with naturalism? Could it be that it’s because all of the evidence, all the objective facts point to naturalism? If not then where is the evidence for theism? Mere argument and insistence are not evidence no matter how eloquently or slyly delivered. People do not now believe that evolution is true because Darwin argued the point eloquently. It is believed because enormous mountains of evidence, some from disciplines that did not exist in Darwin’s time, supports the truth of it. Because in 150 years, no factual data has ever been unearthed that disputes it.

Personally, I don't care what people believe in their hearts as long as it respects the rights of others to believe differently. As long as the belief doesn't become an excuse to persecute others. As long as it doesn't require the subjugation or mistreatment of others. As long as it isn't used to dehumanize opponents. But I do care when people try to discount or distort science in defense of their beliefs. When they try to portray science as just another belief system.

On another blog this was quoted (attributed to one or another famous deist) as part of an argument for deism; “ it's that rough, grainy, complicated feel that Christianity has that fits so well with our rough, grainy, complicated world.” This is for all practical purposes one of the most common arguments for deism. Is it compelling? Maybe, if you are looking for support of a preexisting belief. Is it factual? Not even a little. Feelings have far less to do with facts that we might hope. Feelings reflect wants, desires, fears, biases but not necessarily the facts. Feelings are subjective. Facts aren’t. The deist apologist would do well to avoid making the claim that science does not presuppose naturalism. The fact that science does not presuppose naturalism and yet naturalistic explanations are all we get makes the argument from nature all the more compelling.

Philosophical debate or argument can be compelling, logical, thoughtful and at the same time simply untrue. At some point, argument has to give way to facts. For the true skeptic, facts have to exist outside of the frame work of the argument. The notions and existence of the argument cannot be used as proof, though that’s something we see daily in discussions about this sort of thing. These are important personal experiences and drivers but not facts. Personal epiphanies, though important to an individual, are not facts. They are subjective experiences. They are arguments. For many of us, feelings, senses, historical context, etc., simply are not enough to cause us to believe. It's not that we lack imagination or passion - just that we aren't convinced to alter our world view by these things absent proof. Are subjective experiences important to our daily lives? Of course they are. The fact that I like movie X better than movie Y is subjective and of some personal importance. But my love of movie X doesn’t affect gravitation, inertia or thermodynamics. It doesn't bend spacetime.

Science does not presuppose naturalism. Science follows the facts. And the facts are these - the deeper we probe the more compelling becomes the argument for naturalism. A deist may counter that metaphysical explanations defy the methods of science in the same breath used to claim that science does not presuppose naturalism. Maybe so, but the deist arguments often leave out an important part. There are two reasons that this could be the case - one, that science cannot probe the metaphysical realm, or two, that metaphysics has nothing to offer in way of explanation. The truth of it is simple if not comforting: although science does not presuppose naturalism, all of the evidence, all of the facts, unearthed by science to date point to naturalism without exception. For a growing number of us, that's the end of the debate.

ALSO: please take the medical poll at the right, Thx. Oh, and as the Cuttlefish pointed out, there is no default of none of the above (my bad). If no is your experience, please leave a comment to that effect.

8 comments:

Harry C Pharisee said...

Took the poll. Just curious as to its specific purpose.

The more carefully I look at the practical uses for philosophy (except for logic), the more I find it's like exercise. Exercise is indirectly helpful for other tasks to those who benefit from it. A firefighter is not going to drop on the ground and do fifty pushups when he sees a fire, he might however use stronger chest muscles in order to save a life.

To philosophize and claim that it's end is empirical is the same as claiming doing pushups save lives.

Pliny-the-in-Between said...

Harry you are an insightful cuss! I agree to the most part. The purpose of the poll? Does a poll need a purpose? Does a Pole need a porpoise?

Cuttlefish said...

The poll has no "no". Which would have been my vote.

As for the presupposition of naturalism, I'd argue that we actually do presuppose naturalism, as an axiomatic assumption. Not because we are stating it is the truth, but rather so that we can proceed. You are quite right, we follow the evidence; if our assumption of naturalism was not useful, we would eventually abandon it. It is a working assumption, not dogma.

If we did not presuppose naturalism (and entertained supernatural explanations along with natural), every scientific finding would have to be asterisked, with the caveat that maybe gravity only works when it wants to, or when god wants it to, or when Deepak Chopra is in a good mood (so, most of the time, but not always). http://digitalcuttlefish.blogspot.com/2009/08/for-francis-collins-when-god-intervenes.html

So we have to assume naturalism. Again, not dogmatically, but pragmatically. We cannot proceed otherwise. But, of course, if our assumption turns out to be unwarranted, we can discard it.

So far, I'd say it has served us well.

Pliny-the-in-Between said...

Cuttlefish, thanks for stopping by and for the insights. I agree that for practical reasons we tend to focus on naturalism in science but historically, I'm not sure that was always the case. To me that's part of the power of the scientific method.In the early days of science people were often trying to glimpse the hand of god in some manner of creation. But the harder they looked the more naturalistic were the results. We went in with bias and the bias has been largely overcome.

Also - sorry on the 'no' option in the poll. I noticed that after it had been locked down. But I will include you in the no category.

Pliny-the-in-Between said...

Cuttlefish, thanks for stopping by and for the insights. I agree that for practical reasons we tend to focus on naturalism in science but historically, I'm not sure that was always the case. To me that's part of the power of the scientific method.In the early days of science people were often trying to glimpse the hand of god in some manner of creation. But the harder they looked the more naturalistic were the results. We went in with bias and the bias has been largely overcome.

Cuttlefish said...

Interesting; I think you are quite right in your historical perspective. But I may play devil's cuttlefish for just a bit: Looking, for instance, at Descartes' treatise on Man, although the language is certainly religious, the gist is naturalistic (well, for the body part of mind-body dualism). He (from memory here, so my quote will be off by a bit) wrote "let us suppose the body to be an earthen machine, formed directly by god..." with all the purely mechanical bits that make it breathe, walk, have a beating heart, etc. He uses the mechanical gardens at Versailles as his example of how this could be done, then admits that the machines he is assuming here could be even more detailed, because we are assuming they are created by god.

So yes, the language is religious, but the proposed thought experiment assumes no supernatural causation for a vast number of actions... until we get to where the nonphysical mind must somehow interact with this mechanical body.

The history of science is one of overthrowing supernatural explanations for natural ones; arguably, that step is what marks the beginning of the actual science, from the root in philosophy. If that is a reasonable demarkation (debatable, but defendable), then I'd call that a vote for naturalism as an assumption of science.

Pliny-the-in-Between said...

The history of science is one of overthrowing supernatural explanations for natural ones; arguably, that step is what marks the beginning of the actual science, from the root in philosophy. If that is a reasonable demarkation (debatable, but defendable), then I'd call that a vote for naturalism as an assumption of science.
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True. I guess I have wondered whether that was by design or simply a natural consequence. When philosopher scientists started the process did they intend science as a means to demonstrate the glory of god by looking for his or her marks on nature, only to find that naturalism was all that stared back at them. And eventually, just started from that assumption moving forward. But your points are well taken - and your poetry is better than mine as well ;)

Harry C Pharisee said...

To presuppose naturalism in one's scientific endeavors one would have to be a naturalist first. Given that many scientists have been theists, to say that they believed science could explain the *world* (the entirety and not just a single experiment) to them without recourse to the supernatural is silly.

Science does not presuppose naturalism. It concludes it, relentlessly.