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Well, that’s what the Christian apologist philosopher Alvin Plantinga claims. And he has written a book to “prove” it - Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism. Apparently its required reading for students of theology and the philosophy of religion. Probably because he declares there is a “deep concord between science and theistic belief,  . . . .  and deep conflict between science and naturalism.” The book concludes with:

“there is indeed a science/religion conflict, all right, but it is not between science and theistic religion: it is between science and naturalism. That’s where the conflict really lies”

Personally, I think Plantinga uses motivated reasoning, logical possibilities, cherry-picked “science” (he quotes Michael Behe for example) and a naive understanding of adaptive selection to come to his conclusions. On top of that he usually acknowledges that each step is only logically “possible” – he preserves deniability all the way through. But nevertheless comes to firm conclusions! This must be very satisfying for him and some of his mates but I don’t think many scientists have even noticed his book.

I certainly haven’t noticed a sudden change in the way we do science, or the scientific theories we formulate.

I won’t review or comment further on his book here (although I have sort of promised to discuss one or two of Plantinga’s arguments in future articles). I recommend that anyone interested should read Maarten Boudry’s excellent review -Where the Conflict Lies, Really: Are Science and Theism Best Friends?  (I commented briefly on this in The paradoxes of theological gullibility). And I certainly don’t support Plantinga’s conclusions.

But I do agree with the statement that “Naturalism and science are incompatible.”

Before you go and quote me out of context I also agree with statements like “Theism and science are incompatible,” “atheism and science are incompatible,” “Marxism-Leninism and science are incompatible,” “Maoism and science are incompatible,” etc. You get the picture. I am saying that all philosophies or ideologies are incompatible with science in the sense that science does not, and should not, a priori, include any of these ideological/philosophical presumptions.

The conflict is not just between science and religion, but between science and all ideologies.

What about “methodological naturalism?”

OK, some people may now be revising their knee jerk reaction that the long-expected senility had finally struck. But what about “methodological naturalism” some would say – isn’t that a normal part of the scientific process. In fact, in a recent discussion a student assured me that “methodological naturalism” . .  is an assumption of science!”

Bloody hell, is this a new part of science training? I was never told during my university years that I should make such assumptions in my research. And I never went into any of my research projects with that or any other similar “assumption.” No colleagues mentioned such assumptions to me either. That claim may be coming from theology and philosophy of religion professors, but it certainly doesn’t seem to be coming from working scientists.

In fact, I have always been told, and always accepted, that we should make as few assumptions as possible in research. OK, perhaps reality exists, and perhaps we can assume that it is possible to investigate and understand at least part of that reality. But that is all. (Well, perhaps there was a strong preference for accepting the laws of thermodynamics – but even then there was a realisation that a Nobel Prize awaited anyone who disproved them.) But, on the whole, an open mind is essential for creative research.

Who is promoting this story?

So what’s all this palava about “naturalism” – and especially this “methodological naturalism” we are all supposed to assume? While such terms are not bandied about by scientists day-to-day they are used by a few philosophers and politicians. In fact this student could well have been mislead by a body no less august than the US National Academy of Sciences. In their booklet “Teaching about evolution and the nature of science” they say:

“Because science is limited to explaining the natural world by means of natural processes, it cannot use supernatural causation in its explanations. Similarly, science is precluded from making statements about supernatural forces because these are outside its provenance.”

This view was endorsed by philosopher of religion John Haught (“By its very nature, science is obliged to leave out any appeal to the supernatural, and so its explanations will always sound naturalistic and purely physicalist”) and  Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, who is also an atheist (“Science is a way of knowing that attempts to explain the natural world using natural causes. It is agnostic toward the supernatural – it neither confirms nor rejects it.”).

There are no shortage of atheist philosophers of science like Michael Ruse and Barbara Forrest who also provide quotes for the enthusiastic Christian apologist to cherry pick and throw at me when I discuss the subject with them. Of course these same apologists ignore philosophers and scientists, like Victor Stenger, who reject this characterisation of how we do science.

Accommodation in science

There are scientists and philosophers who argue the characterisation presented by the US National Academy of Sciences is just political opportunism. That the Academy is trying to placate religious critics by retaining a place for religion. By declaring that science had not found their god because of its own (science’s) limitations. Science is not capable of finding gods or other “supernatural” things – “Your god is safe from us.” A similar motivation is behind  similar comments from scientists and philosophers. Effectively that approach is a tactic which tries to neutralise attacks on science, and particularly evolutionary science, by ring-fencing certain issues. Making them out-of-bounds for science.

Some scientists describe the approach as “accommodation” and firmly criticise it. They see this political tactic as placing the defence of evolutionary science above science itself. The independence of science, the true lack of ideological assumptions within science, and the scientific ethos of searching for truth, are sacrificed just to get those troublesome theists off the backs of evolutionary scientists. And the political tactic fails because it allows theists to place, or attempt to place, arbitrary limitations on science, agrees to the ring-fencing of aspects of reality to exclude science, etc., just to appease the enemies of science.

This tactic also hands juicy quotes to religious apologists who cherry pick them to tell scientists how they should really do research. They can also use these quotes as an excuse for the continued lack of credible evidence for their preferred stories about life and the universe. Even, as Plantinga attempts, to try to discredit science and or leading scientists.

The philosopher Maarten Boudry has an interesting paper explaining the problems with the accomodationist approach of the US Academy of Science – How not to attack intelligent design creationism : philosophical misconceptions about methodological naturalism. I guess as a philosopher he must use the terms used by those he critiques. But he explains the problems and inadequacies of terms like “methodological naturalism,” and attempts to introduce amendments to make them more realistic.

Personally, as a scientist and not a philosopher, I feel we should just declare these terms irrelevant. They don’t describe how we do research and do encourage misunderstanding by non-scientists.

What the hell is “supernatural”?

People use this word a lot but no-one bothers with a tight definition – perhaps because that is not really possible. My dictionary describes the adjective as attributing a phenomenon or event to “some force beyond scientific understanding, or the laws of nature.” So, was lightning and thunder “supernatural” several centuries ago but not now? Is some phenomena we have recorded and do not understand “supernatural” now – even though it may become “natural” tomorrow when we do understand it? If this really means forever beyond potential understanding – how could we possibly know? Isn’t this whole thing circular? Theologians tend to define “natural” as “relating to earthly human or physical nature as distinct from the spiritual or supernatural realm.”

Surely it’s just simpler to say “I don’t know”  when we come across something we do not understand, that seems to conflict with the current state of knowledge (which the “laws of nature” represent). If we must give it a name call it something like “dark matter” or “dark energy” – place-holders acknowledging we are trumped for the moment but not preventing us from investigating the phenomenon. To call it “supernatural” has unfortunate consequences – it is usually interpreted to mean beyond scientific understanding. Such labels are of no help because they are science stoppers, preventing the progress of understanding.

I have discussed “natural” and “supernatural” before in Science and the “supernatural”, Can the “supernatural” be of any use?, The “supernatural” and dogmatism in science, Scientific method and the “supernatural”, Defining natural and supernatural and elsewhere.

And I should also make the usual qualifier here. I am by no means claiming that everything is understandable by the human mind, or even that we can detect everything. Nor am I suggesting that our mental and technological abilities are potentially unlimited. We may just not be able to ever investigate some things or understand them when we do. That doesn’t stop us from being a very curious species which will continue to investigate things far into the future.

We shouldn’t be setting “limits” to science or ring-fencing parts of reality to place them out-of-bounds for science – just to satisfy adherents of ancient mythical beliefs.

Scientific knowledge is counter-intuitive

And that’s a strong reason to expel any idea that scientists should make assumptions before the undertake research. For example, exclusion of ideas considered “supernatural” would have prevented progress in our understanding of gravity (action at a distance was considered as introducing an occult force in Newton’s time), relativity (how counter-intuitive is that?), quantum mechanics (“spooky action at a distance), and field theories of matter. Excluding the “supernatural” when it is used to mean something we don’t understand or don’t think possible) would just prevent scientific progress. And we don’t.

Of course, those who advocate most strongly for inclusion of the supernatural in science don’t really mean that. They mean the automatic inclusion of their god into scientific theories, as an explanation of observed facts, without any evidence. When these people criticise “naturalism” they are really criticising the requirements for evidence, testing and validation in science. But remove those and we no longer have science.

The god hypothesis

However, on the question of gods and similar beings – science does not exclude these, providing the requirements of evidence and testing are fulfilled. In fact scientists, whatever their personal beliefs, should not exclude such beings. After all there could well be a god, or gods. We might well find evidence for that. A god hypothesis may well survive testing and be incorporated into our scientific theories. That may sound mad to some – but personally I think a few hundred years ago gravitational forces, relativity and time dilation, quantum indeterminacy entanglement would have been considered a lot weirder than a god hypothesis

Personally I don’t believe there are gods, but as one grows older one gets used to having to adjust beliefs as we learn more about reality. One thing I am pretty sure of though – if a god or gods do exist they won’t be anything like the gods humanity has invented over the years.

A last point on god hypotheses. As science has progressed we have found less and less room for gods. Scientific theories these days don’t include gods. Not through any presumptions by science or biases in scientists beliefs but because we just don’t have any supporting evidence. Another problem is that there is no agreed, clear, structured god hypothesis that can be tested. In fact, as our knowledge has progressed and the lack of evidence has become obvious theologians and philosophers of religion have progressively redefined their gods to be less and less testable. I think they have effectively redefined their gods out of existence. Or maybe in the process of making their god undetectable they have also made it impossible for her to interact with reality. Impossible to have an influence. Which is basically the same as non-existent.

Being open-minded

I said before than an open mind is essential for creative scientific research. Some critics assert science is not open-minded because it doesn’t automatically include their (the critics) gods in scientific theories. That concept of an open mind means inclusion of any old idea, without evidence and validation, and no matter how vague. That is not science – it’s silliness.

The explanatory power of science comes from its interaction with reality. Creative research must be open to new ideas and speculations but they don’t throw away evidence and validation against reality. They are not so open-minded that their brains fall out.

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