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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Does science presuppose naturalism?

There's some interesting discussion going on around the web as to whether some form of naturalism - philosophical or methodological - is presupposed by science. Tom Clark has a useful post here, and there some good exchanges on Richard Dawkins' site. I haven't yet had a chance to absorb this article by Yon Fishman, except for its abstract, but I promise to look for the full text.

It appears to me that Fishman may well be correct in his criticism of the reasoning in the Dover decision, though that would not imply that the Dover judge reached the wrong result, since the ultimate issue is not whether a body of beliefs with a supernatural element could be science but simply whether, in all the current circumstances, the teaching of Intelligent Design in state schools in the US is forbidden by the First Amendment. I think there's ample reason to believe that it is. In any event, even if it would be possible in principle for intelligent design to be genuine science - notwithstanding its supernatural element - there is no basis to believe that it is genuine science in its current form. The main reasoning in the Dover decision does not seem to be marred by anything along the way that is not strictly correct (although there is surely room for further discussion about how the reasoning should best be recast).

Here is the best summary I can give as to why even methodological naturalism is not strictly required for the practice of science.

First, many scientists have historically proposed hypotheses that don't conform in any strict sense to a requirement of methodological naturalism: hypotheses that seem to require supernatural interventions from time to time or one-off. Some early theories of reproduction seem like this, as do theories that explain the geological strata in terms of Noah's flood, and we could probably think of other examples. I'd rather not say they were doing something other than science. Such an approach to science has not been fruitful, but it seems to me that it was a kind of science as science has been understood historically.

Second, science can indeed examine some of these hypotheses to see whether the evidence favours them, which is just as well. After all, we'd like to know whether these theories are actually likely to be correct without just ruling them out a priori.

As a massive understatement, the 19th-century Noah's-flood theory of geological strata and fossils seems untenable. Even without our modern knowledge of how geology actually works, we can see how it can't do the job it was supposed to do, and it's an embarrassment to those Young Earth Creationists who still rely on it. (I owe the thrust of the following to Philip Kitcher, though I'm giving a brief and garbled version for which Kitcher is not at all responsible.)

The Noah's-flood theory does give some sort of explanation as to why fish first occur lower in the geological strata than flying animals such as birds, but it should predict that flightless birds will appear lower in the strata than ordinary birds. Likewise, bats should be at the top of the strata, higher than primates. (This is very simplified, why should animals that like water, like fish, die in the flood before birds? The animals at the bottom should be whatever are most vulnerable to being killed by flooding. Flying birds should, however, be among the last to go, as they can easily get to higher ground and even fly above the waters until they eventually fall from starvation or exhaustion ... so, you get the idea. The point is that the theory fails to match the detail of fossils and strata, and became hopelessly impossible to hold onto even in the 19th century.)

Similarly, we can examine the evidence for such things as the power of intercessory prayer (as Tom Clark's post indicates), the efficacy of claimed supernatural powers, and so on. As long as those theories give systematic accounts of how things should happen, it's possible in principle to test whether the evidence favours them.

I'd say that the use of supernatural explanations has not been fruitful, and that these explanations should not be preferred as they are often ad hoc, fail the test of consilience, and so on, but they are not rejected a priori. They can be science, but so far they have been shown to be very bad science. Intelligent Design is arguably not science at all, because it is not able to postulate any system by which its seemingly supernatural "intelligence" works, but in principle there could be a version of ID that is more scientific. The trouble is that no one has any clue what it would be like - the idea made some sense in the 19th century, but it now appears to be a dead end, and we have plenty of evidence that efforts to promote ID are motivated by religious piety rather than by genuine efforts to augment biological science with new kinds of systematic explanation.

One kind of theory that science can never test in any systematic way is the self-insulating "deceptive creator" theory: e.g., the omphalos theory that God created the Earth 6000 years ago, complete with all the signs - such as fossils - of a much longer history. However, scientists, like anyone else, are entitled to dismiss this kind of theory as implausible and ad hoc rather than ruling it out merely because it posits something supernatural.

I should add that if we accept that all the above is correct, only to say that anything science can postulate is "natural" by definition, we are making methodological naturalism trivially true, in which case it gives no methodological guidance. We want to be able to test, rather than rule out a priori, a whole lot of claims about interventions by deities, the actions of individuals with anomalous psychic or magical powers, and so on. If these are supernatural, then testing the evidence for supernatural hypotheses is part of science. If they are considered part of "the natural", should they turn out to be real entities, forces, and so on, then methodological naturalism has no content. Indeed, once we define "the natural" in such a way, any kind of naturalism is devoid of substantive content - philosophical naturalism would boil down to something like, "The only kinds of things that exist are the ones that exist." Naturalism may end up having some irreducible vagueness to it, but it must have some content.

However you analyse it, neither philosophical naturalism nor methodological naturalism appears to be necessary for science. Philosophical naturalism is a meta-inference about what sorts of things are likely to exist - based on all the well-corroborated scientific inferences to hand - and it should be thought of as a philosophical theory rather than as part of science. It's a highly plausible theory - one that I subscribe to - even if difficult to state with total precision. Methodological naturalism is more a summary of the (again plausible) idea that supernatural hypotheses tend to be bad science. That may create a mild, practical presumption against using supernatural hypotheses, but it doesn't rule them out of all contention.


Steelman said...

I as quite prepared to disagree with you about the study of the supernatural being within the purview of science. Then I remembered a post I read some months back by Richard Carrier on his blog about Defining the Supernatural. I read it again, vaguely recalling that I had agreed with his conclusions, only to discover that I must be spending too much time reading the debates that erupt between Christians and atheists in the comments sections of blogs. I had completely forgotten the gist of Carrier's post, and began to adopt the "science can't comment on the supernatural" line.

An excerpt from Carrier's conclusions that is in accordance with your last paragraph: "If someone wants to spend his own time and money testing supernatural hypotheses and claims, then all the power to him. If they exist, he should be able to find them, and confirm them scientifically. Good luck."

Anyway, your post broke the misguided mental lockstep I was falling into regarding science and supernatural claims.

Russell Blackford said...

^I like Richard Carrier's work, so that's all good.

This blog is my sandbox - I say things here that are not fully tested. If they were, I'd be submitting them for publication somewhere that pays meoney or at least gives me brownie points. But that said, I'm fairly convinced about the line of argument on this occasion, though it does raise issues about what naturalism is. On reflection, the word "mild" may be unnecessary near the end of my post. I think that scientists have good reason by now not to reach for certain kinds of hypotheses, even though they can't be ruled out a priori or considered untestable before we even start.

There may also, as I implied, be a question as to what philosophical naturalism really amounts to beyond the philosophical meta-inference that certain specific kinds of things (such as providential deities) are unlikely to exist, as they comport badly with the scientific image of the world that has actually emerged.

Tom might like to comment if he is reading.

Blake Stacey said...

Here's a thought of my own, in the "sandbox" mode. First, to quote the post above:

One kind of theory that science can never test in any systematic way is the self-insulating "deceptive creator" theory: e.g., the omphalos theory that God created the Earth 6000 years ago, complete with all the signs - such as fossils - of a much longer history.

There is a domain of traditional wisdom which one might call "folk chaos theory". It includes the story about the kingdom being lost for the want of a horseshoe nail, the idea that history might have turned out completely differently based on the shape of Cleopatra's nose, and so forth. In order to predict how the war — or Mark Antony's love life and the rise of the Roman Empire — will turn out, we have to know all sorts of crazy details. Working in the other direction, if we wanted to plant the evidence that the Roman Empire had arisen, existed, and fallen for the want of a horseshoe nail, we'd have to reconstruct all the crazy details of Roman history.

Skipping over lots of logic, we could say that if God had wanted to fake a world which looked like it was 13.7 billion years old, God would have to hold in mind all the events and configurations of matter which transpired during those 13.7 billion years. I mean, if God put a star of the wrong mass in the wrong place, Earth would get fried by a supernova before six thousand years had elapsed.

So, the Mind of God must contain a Universe made of dream and contemplation.

But in order to fake the fossil record of the human species, God must be able to simulate with all fidelity the operations of consciousness and intelligence. The dreams of God must themselves be able to wake and worry and dream.

Therefore, we conclude that if God could have created the Universe six thousand years ago — or, for that matter, last Thursday at teatime — then we must acknowledge the possibility that God has not created the Universe yet.

Genesis is The Mousetrap, and we are the cast of Hamlet.

I doubt this is an original idea, but it sure is fun to play in the theodical sandbox!

Blake Stacey said...

I really like this part of your post:

We want to be able to test, rather than rule out a priori, a whole lot of claims about interventions by deities, the actions of individuals with anomalous psychic or magical powers, and so on. If these are supernatural, then testing the evidence for supernatural hypotheses is part of science. If they are considered part of "the natural", should they turn out to be real entities, forces, and so on, then methodological naturalism has no content. Indeed, once we define "the natural" in such a way, any kind of naturalism is devoid of substantive content - philosophical naturalism would boil down to something like, "The only kinds of things that exist are the ones that exist."

As I was raised by Star Trek, I can't help but think of Kira-Kin-Tha's First Law of Metaphysics: "Nothing unreal exists."

If life were like Star Trek, we'd go out exploring the Galaxy and find all sorts of things which, to early twenty-first-century experience, would seem "supernatural": telekinesis, telepathy and so forth. Yet all of these phenomena can, in the Trek universe, be investigated through rational and empirical methods. Vulcan telepathy is largely limited by the ability to touch; Platonian psychokinesis depends upon the ability to digest kironide. Is the Vulcan mind-meld then "natural" or "supernatural"?

Tom Clark said...

Russell, thanks, great post. Some thoughts on the substantive content of naturalism:

In testing what we consider to be a supernatural hypothesis we're already invoking the natural/supernatural distinction. One way of expressing the distinction is that a supernatural phenomenon exists outside or apart from the natural world as currently described by science. It seems to me that once science establishes the existence and characteristics of something, it necessarily becomes part of nature. In testing a supernatural hypothesis, science either turns up no evidence for it, in which case as naturalists we justly doubt or disbelieve in its existence, or if there *is* good evidence for it, it becomes part of nature. So part of the substantive content of naturalism is that what we take to be real is the world as *science* describes it, as opposed to what other purported modes of knowing (faith, intuition, revelation, etc.) say is real, which of course often includes the supernatural.

What Fishman does is to show how even rather vague claims about the supernatural can be evaluated on a multi-pronged Bayesian evidentialist account, and that we don’t necessarily have to conduct empirical investigations to have good grounds to reject them. So naturalism finds support on a broader basis than the practice of experimental science.

Anonymous said...

I've never been impressed with use of the naturalism super-naturalism divide in any circumstance and nothing in any of the cited posts has convinced me to change my mind. If we take Tom Clark's view for example and we can make some sense of the phrase "world as it is described by science" methodological naturalism might make sense but not philosophical naturalism. Methodological naturalism in this sense would simply mean having a certain presumption in favour of the null hypothesis of any experiment. Philosophical naturalism however would seem to mean something like it is unlikely or unreasonable to believe that something exists which has not been described by scince. Otherwise it would seem indistinguishable from methodological naturalism.

Carrier's post is interesting but the mental/non-mental distinction is going to be difficult particularly if we take science to committed to some strong sort of empiricism. Experience is a mental phenomena and science analyses experience so how can science end up suggesting that all mental events are caused by non-mental events? Empiricism just doesn't seem to have the resources to posit non-mental substances. In fact the idea of a non-mental substance doesn't seem to make a lot of sense so a rationalist isn't going to be able to easily invoke non-mental events either.

Maybe the mental/non-mental distinction can be reformulated to avoid this objection but it seems to me that any attempt to do so will run into the problems that Carrier was trying to avoid.

Finally I want to question the suggestion that science can have anything to say on the existence of for example the theistic God. To test this scientifically we need a hypothesis of the form: If God does/does not exist then if I do x, y has a probability p of occuring. The prove that God does/does not exist you need to come up with an x and y such that p=0. Particularly to empiricists this will see implausible but science is not generally in the business of proof. The problem is that if you have a different value of p the pre-experimental probability of the existence of God for many people will be so close to either 0 or 1 that it swamps any value of p. Of course this is not much more than an expression of a general problem with empiricism - the assignment of pre-experimental probabilities to different hypotheses but it seems especially severe in the case of God where the assignment of probabilities at all seems problematic.

Thomas Hendrey

Anonymous said...

"One kind of theory that science can never test in any systematic way is the self-insulating "deceptive creator" theory: e.g., the omphalos theory that God created the Earth 6000 years ago, complete with all the signs - such as fossils - of a much longer history."

I heard a comedian once do a great routine about this idea of a "prankster God" who went around during creation and placing things to fool everybody. So when you die and Peter is about to let you into Heaven he asks "wait a minute did you believe in dinosaurs?","yes","What were you thinking, you stupid shit? You believed in flying lizards? Come on, that is God's oldest joke."

Blake Stacey said...

Stuart Peace:

That was a Bill Hicks sketch.

Anonymous said...

Sorry Russell, but I don't see the point of wondering whether supernatural claims can be studied and falsified by science if you haven't even defined what "natural" and "supernatural" mean. If you had, there would be no need for a long post, it would be a simple exercise in logic.

As far as I know, there is no definition of naturalism that is widely agreed upon. Dictionaries certainly don't give one.

Russell Blackford said...

Janus, I'm not sure why that's a problem for me.

There's a position called "methodological naturalism", which I think is probably false. It says that science has to give "naturalistic" explanations of things, or that doing so is part of the scientific method. If that's true, we do need a clear demarcation between natural and supernatural claims so that scientists know what sorts of things not to postulate or try to test.

In my view, however, this is just not part of the scientific method: in principle it is quite acceptable for scientists for postulate hypotheses that may involve "supernatural" entities, forces, beings, events, and so on, and such hypotheses may well be testable in at least some cases (though some may be open to criticism for being ad hoc and so on).

Now, there may be good historical reasons to be suspicious of explanations involving some kinds of unseen beings and forces ... e.g. hypotheses about the actions of certain sorts of powerful agents whose powers include the ability to suspend scientific laws that would otherwise operate. I have nothing against a rule of thumb that it's now best, given the historical experience, for scientists to be reluctant to postulate such things.

Nor do I have anything against a philosophical position that looks at the general image of reality, admittedly incomplete, that we are getting from science and concluding that certain kinds of things probably don't exist. But the latter (which may be able to be tightened up a bit and called "philosophical naturalism") is a philosophical conclusion drawn from science and its historical success with certain kinds of explanations; it's not something that science presupposes.

It looks to me as if methodological naturalism is no more than a rule of thumb and can't be even given any terribly precise definition. It isn't part of the scientific method.

Philosophical naturalism, by contrast, is a worldview, a substantive metaphysical position, that perhaps needs a more precise definition than I can give it (though I think I have a reasonable idea of what it amounts to, and I actually subscribe to it). The point that I want to make about philosophical naturalism is not that's false or that it's so vague as to be meaningless. I don't think those things. The point is merely that it's a conclusion; it is not a something that science presupposes.

In any event, it's one thing, and perhaps not horribly worrying, to have a worldview such as philosophical naturalism, that's arguably a bit vaguer than you'd really like it to be, with grey areas as to what it allows. It may be that the class of "supernatural" things that philosophical naturalists don't believe in may not be definable in a precise way, but worldviews often do have an element of vagueness, and I'm not too upset about that.

It's another thing to have a methodological principle that uses such terms as "natural" and "supernatural", without being able to give precise definitions, and which claims that science rules out the "supernatural", not as a conclusion that philosophers might draw, but in advance. That's the position that I'm arguing against. I think that your point is a problem for someone arguing against me, not for me.

Is that clearer? Perhaps I should clarify that these thoughts were provoked by an observation, which I saw on another site, that suggested that naturalism is part of the scientific method. And one often hears similar claims. I don't think that that can be right. At best, it's a vague-ish rule of thumb based on the historical fact that recognisably supernatural explanations (e.g. Noah's flood to explain fossils and geological strata) have not been fruitful.

Anonymous said...

Russel, just a silly question from a non-philosopher about the following statement from your post:

Philosophical naturalism is a meta-inference about what sorts of things are likely to exist - based on all the well-corroborated scientific inferences to hand - and it should be thought of as a philosophical theory rather than as part of science.

Could you explain why you think philosophical/metaphysical naturalism is a philosophical rather than a scientific theory even though it is based on science and scientific evidence. Usually theories about the structure and function of the world that are corroborated by lots of empirical evidence are called scientific theories - what makes metaphysical naturalism different (remembering that your post argues that the supernatural is not generally outside the realm of science)?

Does this mean that you disagree with Dawkins when he states that the question of god's existence is a scientific one (i.e. neither a theological nor a philosophical one)?

Russell Blackford said...

Hmmm, just to follow up the last comment, I don't distinguish sharply between science and philosophy. I think that Dawkins is thinking of science in a broad sense to mean the whole of rational inquiry, and if that definition is used I'm happy to say that questions such as whether there is a god are, indeed, part of science. I usually try to distinguish science in that broad sense from a narrower kind of inquiry that really only became readily distinguishable in the 17th century. This a professionalised activity whose practitioners are specialised, trained in mathematical modeling, use instruments to broaden their perceptions when they can, conduct experiments to test conjectures, and try to control the experiments in various ways to rule out extraneous factors as far as possible. There may be other characteristics, but I think I'm describing a recognisable activity here, one centered around a certain kind of rational inquiry that has been made quite precise and highly ramified.

Now, it's possible for scientists in any of the many fields to test supernatural hypotheses (using some familiar sense of "supernatural") if those hypotheses are sufficiently specific. E.g. if someone predicts that animals will have been fossilised in a certain order as a result of the operation of Noah's flood (attributed in turn to the will of a god) paleontologists are well placed to check whether the animals were, in fact, fossilised in that order (this was done in the 19th century but there are still Young Earth Creationists who rely on flood geology, as you know).

Is science as a whole testing the hypothesis that "None of the supernatural hypotheses are true" or "There are no supernatural beings"? Well, I suppose you could think of it like that, but I doubt that that is what any scientist imagines she is doing as a working scientist. I.e., no one has a negative hypothesis like that and goes out to try to prove it by testing every possible hypothesis that involves supernatural beings or entities or laws.

When Dawkins argues that there is no supernatural designer of the universe, I don't think he's doing biology. He may still be doing science in a broad sense, but that sense would really be equivalent to philosophy or part of what goes on in philosophy, at least on one conception of what philosophy is. He's taking a synoptic look at what we think we know from the sciences, including evolutionary biology - using results reached across the various specialised fields, and reported to him since he can't do all the original work himself - and he's then reasoning on the basis of very general considerations. To me, that's doing philosophy - one way of doing it - and I think of The God Delusion as an exercise in philosophy rather than in specialised science. Writing something like that is certainly not typical of what working scientists do day by day, though I think someone with Dawkins' wide intellectual grounding is well-placed to do it. Philosophy is not a closed shop. It's not solely the province of professional philosophers (though it's worthwhile for outsiders to look at the work of the professionals rather than reinventing lines of argument that are known to have problems).

Given the way I conceive of philosophy, or one kind of philosophy, it's always going to blur into the more speculative reaches of the specialised sciences.

This is a controversial way of thinking of philosophy by the way, and perhaps not the majority view. A lot of people will claim that all we can really do as philosophers is analyse concepts.

I don't think that's right, though. I think we often argue about large, seemingly-intractable issues, trying to make progress on resolving them by using what may be learned or suggested by the state of our scientific and other knowledge, taken as a whole. I.e. the various specialised sciences "report back" to philosophy, as it tries to put together an overarching worldview. Philosophy, in turn, should defer to some extent to what the sciences are telling it - not completely uncritically, but to a large extent. But again, that's a very controversial claim among philosophers.

Russell Blackford said...

Thomas I agree with some of what you have to say - e.g. I'm not willing to draw a sharp line between natural and supernatural, since we'll consider anything we actually discover to be "natural". However, with your claims about the theistic god ... well, it depends. If what is said about this god were sufficiently specific, maybe science could corroborate it. It might conceivably have turned out, after all, that modern dating methods show an age for the Earth which closely matches what one would expect from tracing back the genealogies in the Bible, that there are geological formations very like those that would have been caused by a giant flood a few thousand years ago, that the Ptolemaic picture of the Universe matches up to astronomical observations with no anomalies, that incontrovertible miracles take place (such as severed limbs growing back in answer to prayer), etc., etc. I actually find it very easy to imagine what the findings of science would have been like by now if the canonical holy books gave a literal description of God and His modus operandi. If the scientific findings and other observations had turned out a certain way, the existence of the god described in the Hebrew Bible would not even be controversial. Of course, that's not how it happened, which is cause of the crisis that has faced theistic belief in the last few centuries.

Now that obviously doesn't prove the non-existence of a deity whose actions and so on are recorded in a symbolic or metaphorical way, and whose attributes cannot be understood literally, but only analogically. The God of the orthodox Abrahamic theologians can be rendered so abstract, and its properties so elusive and open to redefinition, that there is no way of falsifying the claim that it exists (but not much prospect of corroborating it, either). And of course, the dispute about whether this being exists has proven to be intractable, for practical purposes, precisely, in part, because there is no way of decisively falsifying the claim or dramatically corroborating it ... and no prospect of finding a way to do so.

But that's because of the nature of the particular claim, not because science cannot investigate any "supernatural" claim. If the claim were about some less abstract, metaphysical being that interacts with the world in certain specific ways, we might well be able to treat it as a testable hypothesis. In fact, I think we can already rule out ghosts, ancestor spirits, anthropomorphic deities, and so on quite confidently.

At the moment, we live in a universe where specific in-universe beings with anomalous (godlike or magical or "supernatural") powers don't seem to exist. I'm pretty sure that if we encounter any powerful aliens they will be as bound by the ordinary laws of physics as we are, and will not be capable of anything like magic. I'm also pretty sure that there is nothing around like Zeus, Poseidon, Aphrodite, Thor, Cthulhu, Baal, the Rainbow Serpent, the Midgard Serpent, the cunning serpent that tempted Eve, or any other kind of supernatural serpent ... or like, if it comes to that, the anthropomorphic wrathful being depicted in the Old Testament - if we read the Old Testament pretty literally.

But a conclusion like that may not be of much use in discussing a highly abstract creator/designer that has only ever been described metaphorically or symbolically or by analogy, so it's difficult to rule one way or the other on the claim that such a thing exists. The most that can be said against it, when the claim is at such a level of abstraction, is that there doesn't seem to be any rational motivation to believe in the existence of such a thing, and to the extent that the idea seems to be psychologically attractive to a lot of human beings that might require a psychological explanation rather than a metaphysical one.

I certainly can't see any reason to think that this thing does exist, and I'd be betting massively against its existence if it were described in any particular non-metaphorical, non-analogical detail. But as things stand, the nature of the claim is such that there's no prospect of bringing evidence that would be decisive in falsifying it.

I think that's a problem for theists rather than for atheists.

Anonymous said...

Russell, we are very much on the same page here, except perhaps that I don’t see any very convincing arguments for not calling metaphysical naturalism a scientific theory. I agree of course that no scientist would set out to test a hypothesis like "There are no supernatural beings", but then this hypothesis, apart from the fact that it as a negative hypothesis is impossible to test, represents a very strong version of metaphysical naturalism. I am more inclined to use a slightly softer definition, namely the one stating that the natural world is a causally closed system. This is a positive hypothesis and science has accumulated mountains of evidence in support of it. Comparing this to a scientific theory like evolutionary theory, I find it difficult to spot any significant differences. Evolutionary biologist also don’t set out to prove, that nothing in the living world has been created. They seek evidence that living organisms have actually evolved and study possible evolutionary mechanisms. And of course mountains of evidence in support of evolutionary theory have been accumulated.

I guess you could say, that the “causally closed system” hypothesis could be considered a scientific hypothesis rather than a metaphysical one because it only deals with the natural world and not the broader metaphysical question of what exists – maybe it should be called scientific naturalism. In any case, who cares whether supernatural beings or phenomena exist if they have absolutely no causal impact on the natural world that we live in – I certainly don’t.

Anonymous said...

Ok when I mentioned the theistic God I meant the god of 1st year philosophy courses, ie an omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent being. That's pretty abstract but I wouldn't say we're only talking about analogies here. And by science I meant enguiry using the scientific method. Defined in this way I don't see what science can have to say about the existence of the theistic God. I just don't see what testable hypothesis would have any, let alone enough, bearing on the issue.

Now if scientiffic evidence confirmed biblical accounts of history as it is understood by creationists, would that render "the God hypothesis" uncontroversial? I'm not convinced it would. I suppose there would be a lot of focus on biblical texts ... I'm having a lot of difficulty imagining such a world though.

In fact if I understand Dawkins with his argument about God's 'complexity' he, at least, would be committed, if he is consistent, to scepticism regarding the existence of the theistic God as I have defined Her. And if God is as fundamental to your belief system as it seems to be for some you can always potulate that you are living in some kind of matrix, it seems pretty much whatever the evidence (though the problem of evil cannot be evaded this way).

Now you may think, on pragmatist grounds, that it is therefore an irrelevant question whether such a God exists. This, I think, combined with the problem of evil is the strongest challenge for theism. Pragmatism, of course, changes the question somewhat, but I actually think it changes it in the right way for most purposes. I think the question of religion is a question of how we should view the world. Ultimately the nuances of any arguments for or against the existence of God really don't change the rationality of belief for the average religious believer, although they might think it does.

I think historical and scientific evidence should matter even less to the religious than the philosophical arguments. I am happy to call myself a Christian, but for all I know Jesus never 'existed', (though I think the conventional view among historians is that he did). I just feel an attachment to my understanding of the story of Christ. The question obviously here is if the Gospels are just a nice story why call yourself a Christian? After all I like Star Wars too but I don't call myself a Jedi. I think the thing is that being brought up as a Christian I interpret christianity with respect to what I believe and value and so this then becomes what christianity means for me. I associate christianity with consequentialism, liberalism, compatibilism, rationalism with some feeling that this is all based on some abstract Platonic conceptionion of love. If I woke up and found that I have been living in a matrix these beliefs/values, the fundamentals of MY christianity wouldn't change. Actually I pretty much define my religious beliefs as those I would keep after waking up from this dream, and that probably makes NOMA true by definition FOR ME.

Of course a lot of people do have beliefs that they understand as religious that conflict with scientific understandings of the world. A lot of people do identify their religion with the outmoded world views. And these beliefs can be dangerous and over-respected. So I think that Dawkins gets these things right and since it is these points that he seems mostly to be criticised for, I would defend him.

While I think Dawkins gets a number of things wrong I think we need someone like him now. There have probably been atheists who would give better justification for their beliefs but they haven't stirred the same public debate as Dawkins and the "new atheists" have (you've said you don't like this term for these guys, why is that?). While the public debate seems to consist of two sides talking past one another I feel it is good to know that it's there.

I think you're right that Dawkins probably does, at least at some points, talk of science as referring to a broader field of rational enquiry. And if science is defined in this way I don't want to put God outside the scope of "science", but I would rather call that philosophy. I think equivocation on the definition of science is the cause for a lack of a meeting of minds between Dawkins and theistic philosopher/theologians. Dawkins fundamental argument that God must be complex, therefore statistically improbable is met by the reply God is simple, that to say that God is complex is "brutally foisting a SCIENTIFIC epistemology upon an unwilling theology." (The God Delusion p.153) Dawkins then claims the theologians "were defining themselves into an epistemological Safe Zone where RATIONAL argument could not reach them."

But if I understand the theologians point they were not asking to be given leave of having to deal with rational argument they were asking for an articulation of why God must be complex and improbable. Dawkins never explains why he thinks this he just repeats it a number of times 'A God who could do A, B and C MUST be complex'. By what definition of complex and further why does that make it improbable? At best this argument works as a reductio against teleological arguments which are worryingly popular currently. I'd be happy to consider some sort of rational argument for the conclusion that God is complex but it seems Dawkins is making a mistaken inferrence from the fact we need explanations for the organised complexity we find on earth.

In fact we don't NEED an explanation, the anthropic principle in a very technical and abstract sense can cope with absolutely any level of improbability. What organised complexity means is that we can find an explanation why things will tend to organisation rather than chaos are more likely to be true.

For example suppose I am playing bridge and the dealer deals himself a perfect hand. It is possible that that would happen by chance and I don't need an explanation, but the chance of him getting that hand if he dealt fairly was 1/13!, suppose that if he is cheating it certain that he would deal himself a perfect hand. This makes the hypothesis that he was cheating more likely, if before plating I thought there was a 1/10 cchance he was cheating it would now be almost certain that he was cheating. So organised complexity of parts makes previously unlikely theories about the interraction of particles more likely if they would give rise to a tendency towards organised complexity. But I don't see how this analogy can be extended to God.

Thomas Hendrey

Russell Blackford said...

Almost too much to answer there, Thomas, and some of it will need to be taken up in other posts. I'll think about some of your more detailed points. Meanwhile, as you'll know by now you are exactly the kind of theist with whom I have no problem, even if in the end I take the view that there is just no basis for conviction that anything like the God of orthodox Abrahamic theism exists, and a lot of reason to be sceptical, to the extent that this is supposed to be a providential god with at least some connection to the god of the Bible. However, the orthodox deity is clearly more insulated from criticism than the character portrayed in the Bible, taken at face value with no scope for symbolic interpretations, etc. (I wrote about some of this, and the NOMA doctrine in my article on Stephen Jay Gould, which was published a few years ago.)

I'm pleased to see that you think Dawkins is playing a valuable role. That is a point that it's difficult to get a lot of people to understand because they either disagree with him so strongly or condemn what they see as his effrontery. I can appreciate the value of what he is doing without thinking that, for example, the ultimate 747 gambit proves as much as he thinks it does (I agree that it cannot, as it stands, prove what Dawkins claims, though I don't think it is without force, depending on what else someone whom it is aimed at believes).

On the "New Atheism", I'm a bit ambivalent about the term. It was a bit of beat-up, since the writers most commonly identified with it don't form a school, and they disagree about quite a lot of things (though it's true that Dawkins and Dennett are friends). On balance, I think the term is probably useful shorthand, but it's also true that there's nothing terribly new about most of the ideas. What is new is more that they are being presented so prominently and in a way that is commercially successful - leading to even more prominence and a more visible debate.

The debate itself is valuable, so cheers to the New Atheists for bringing it about.

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