Friday, January 18, 2013

Philosophical Fridays: Intelligent Design, the Nature of Science, and Truth

Many of you know that my wife was diagnosed with cancer last August, and since that time she has undergone chemotherapy and radiation to reduce the tumor, successful surgery to remove the tumor, and is now in the process of follow-up chemotherapy to prevent recurrence of the tumor. We appreciate all the prayers we have received, and all of the tremendous care we have been given by our fantastic doctors and nurses.

Just before the surgery I told our surgeon that were praying for him, and he seemed to appreciate that (I will forego the opportunity to make a joke about surgeons who think they should be the object of worship!). And it would greatly encourage me to know that he prayed before he began to operate on my wife. In other words, I would find encouragement knowing that he was not a philosophical naturalist, someone who thinks that all that exists is the natural order, to the exclusion of anything beyond the natural world, such as God.

But imagine that when we visited our medical oncologist, he took a look at my wife’s test results and said, “Wow, there is some weird growth in your body. It must be a demon – and I can’t do anything about demons!” We wouldn’t have accepted that diagnosis for a minute! In this case, whatever the doctor’s philosophical posture might be, we would want him to provide a naturalistic analysis of the growth, and to devise a treatment plan designed to combat the sort of cells threatening her life. In other words, we would want him to be a methodological naturalist – someone whose methods of investigation and treatment were grounded in the material world of drug therapies and radiation.

Furthermore, this doctor may in fact be a Christian, and not a philosophical naturalist. He may even believe that unseen evil spiritual forces may cause harm in the natural world (as Scripture itself suggests may happen). And he may very well pray that his diagnosis and method of treatment will be successful. But in terms of his work as a medical doctor, his methodology is limited to the resources of the natural world. And indeed, I would insist that he be a thoroughgoing methodological naturalist, using every conceivable means of medical treatment.

There is a difference between philosophical naturalism and methodological naturalism. But unfortunately, many people do not see this crucial distinction. There are some people who believe that the only legitimate sense in which a statement can be true is if it can be ascertained by scientific methodology.  Preacher-turned-atheist Dan Barker declares, “The scientific method is the only trustworthy means of obtaining knowledge” (Losing Faith in Faith, p. 133). Of course, the obvious question for Mr. Barker is, by what scientific method did you arrive at that bit of knowledge? Such an assertion is a matter of philosophy (really, a matter of faith), and in no way scientific.

Science is the study of the natural world, and it can offer a lot of insight into the nature and function of the natural world. But scientific truth is not the only sort of truth. Science may explain how to design a hydrogen bomb, but the question of whether the use of such a weapon is justified, and under what circumstances, is not a scientific question – it is a moral question. Scientific knowledge is a subset of Truth; it isn't the entirety of Truth.

Lack of clarity on this point is why the debate about intelligent design is so frustrating to both sides. I think the root of the frustration is a failure to recognize the distinction between philosophical and methodological naturalism. It is fair to say that ID is not a strictly scientific hypothesis, not in the methodological sense of the term. Rather, it is an inference drawn from scientific evidence. But whether ID is true is a completely different question from whether it qualifies as science, and as the citation from Dan Barker demonstrates, believers are not the only people who draw philosophical inferences from scientific data.

(For next time – the God of the gaps and the practice of science) 


  1. Great thoughts, Shane... inspires me to go reread C.S. Lewis's Miracles. I'm looking forward to the rest of the series!

  2. Generally well stated.

    I would not hold out the powerful anti-theist Dan Barker as the best example of someone to hold up this debate (His best contribution seems to be his willingness to make argument for the definite non-existence of g-d rather than agnost-athiesm).

    He still has much of his polemical skills developed as a preacher. He is not a scientist.

    I'd suggest rather Sam Harris and/or Richard Carrier (The latter's Sense & Goodness without G-d a defense of Metaphysical Naturalism)

    Specifically, I think Dan would be very open to saying: My statement is NOT a reliable means of gaining knowledge (truth).

    (After all that's merely argument by authority fallacy).

    And his point isn't at all harmed by that admission.

    That way A is reliable and that the set all all reliable ways is a set containing only A and finally that we cannot find this statement to be true by method of A you so deftly point out... doesn't mean that it's not 100% true :)

    And it is good your next step is the God of the Gaps because you're started to make that very argument. In the lack of full reliability ANYTHING and EVERYTHING equally possible? Is it any more "likely" because it's a logical inference when inference is so demonstrably unreliable?

  3. I'd use the example of base line verse individual outcome.

    If there's a disease that 1 in 1,000,000 people get on average. There's a test that is 99.9% accurate for the disease and you show as positive.

    Is it more likely that you have the disease or not?

    It's way more likely that you don't have it...

    Why? Because in 1,000,000 tests. There will be 10,000 expected errors. Of those errors only 1 of them could be an error that you have it and were cleared. That leaves (to simplify the maths a little) 9,999 other errors that are false positives.

    The chance you actually have the disease even AFTER a positive is effectively 1 in 10,000. The test would could be 99.999 percent accurate and you'd still only have a 1-percent chance of actually having the disease.

    This is both COUNTER intuitive when people hear it. AND, it's illustrative of the problem of rare events...

    ...why would you care for the prayers of others.

    It's at best's at worse consumptive of efforts/time/attention that could be better spent given the low impact/rarity of the outcomes that would suggest prayer made any difference. It's baseline is ...super low.

    Regarding you point about "we all having and operating on belief"

    Sam Harris points out, it's not the merely the issue of believing something upon insufficient evidence...

    ...the key distinctions are

    1) The willingness to abandon the original proposition in light of new evidence.
    2) The epistemological claims and cost incurred by the believer (and worse imposed upon others by the believer)
    3) The scope of operational phenomenology to provide any "better" result for the additional effort.

    So that I have both experience power outages and "more light" when I've flipped on a light switch.

    TO that extent the act of flipping on the light is an act of "faith" that is, I have 'insufficient evidence' (operationally) until I flip it and SEE the light.

    However, it's still a reasonable assertion (and one subject to test) to claim ...hey, flip the light-switch so I can see.

    Further more, I'm not saying... If you don't flip on the light, and flip on on at the hour and time I say because of my special communication with g-d you will be fined an punished by me the very hand of g-d and g-d's will. Further, you may NEVER turn on the light for must always make supplication so that I can intercede for you.

    Also, Jews may never flip the light switch for they have flipped the finger to the son of the only most high... And Gay, they must never see the light of day even should they lay with one another.

    And no amount of "removing the priesthood" really helps. Then you just have a nation of priests. Each person claiming to have a special relationship with their 'buddy' who just happens to have the exact same bigotries they have.

  4. Thanks so much for taking the time to respond, and in such detail. I am sleepy so forgive me for not replying with the same thoroughness, but I did want to make two points.

    1) Re: Dan Barker, you are correct that is he not the ablest defender of unbelief. But then, I am not the ablest defender of theism, so I thought it would be good to pick on some one my own size! :-) And seriously, I am in the nascent stages of working on a more philosophically rigorous approach to these questions, so a step at a time for me. You posts are exactly the kind of thing I was hoping to receive, so that I could have a clearer view of the issues at play.

    2) Regard prayer and its baseline effectiveness, I have seen believers point to polling that suggests those who pray regularly are happier, healthier, etc. I have never found those sorts of arguments convincing. And by the same token, the lack of tangible evidence regarding answered prayers is not convincing, either. From a Christian perspective (or maybe I should say, from this Christian's perspective), the relationship of which prayer is a central part is about more than an exchange of requests and favors. It is about a relationship, and about aligning my will to God's. I think there are many passages throughout the Bible that address this existential concern, so it is not a novel concept to suggest that for a believer, the "effectiveness" of prayer is measured in many ways, certainly including blessings that may seem to be in answer to prayer, but far more deeply, measured by the sense of grounding in the will of God. BUt these are topics worthy of much more time and talent than I have to contribute tonight!