Going beyond the evidence

By Ken Perrott 10/01/2013 5

My theistically-inclined mate, Dale, has a a provocative little post on his blog fruitful faith. Well, provocative to me anyway, as we have often debated these sorts of issues related to how science is done – and how it is described.  It’s titled methodological indifference, critiques “methodological materialism,” and draws some conclusions with which I must disagree.

Here’s the guts of his argument:

It seems that many people (against the evidence) are under the impression that ‘science’ supports naturalism (All-is-Nature) more than it supports theism (Nature caused and sustained by Supernature). But if our scientific observations are to be truly objective, then we must admit that when we look at any particular thing or set of things (or any particular process or set of processes) in what we call the world, we do not find accompanying labels or name-tags that tell us “Made by YHWH” or “Purely Natural: No God Required”. One must go beyond the evidence (though not leaving it behind!) to make such statements. The theist knows she is doing this, though she will rightfully claim that she has followed reason in doing so. The naturalist, however, seems to not often admit that they ‘go beyond the evidence’ to their Naturalism. Why is this? Do they think the world screams “not made by any God at all”? If so, why?

The irrelevancy of natural/supernatural labels

Well, people who call themselves naturalists may believe science supports their world outlook. And theists or non-naturalists, may also think science supports their opposing world outlook. But most scientists (whatever their religious beliefs) just don’t give a stuff. They get on with investigating and attempting to understand reality.

And I don’t think terms like naturalism and supernaturalism are useful anyway. In fact dictionaries usually define them circularly – naturalism rejects the idea of supernatural things in the world while supernaturalism claims their is more than natural things in the world! Hardly helpful. No wonder scientists don’t start of their investigations by asking “Now, is this natural or supernatural?” That would be a complete waste of time. Again, most scientist wish that dogmatic ideologues, “naturalists” and “supernaturalists” alike, would just get out of the way and let them work.

Selective “name-tags”

Dale is quite correct – when we investigate reality we don’t find “name-tags that tell us “Made by YHWH” or “Purely Natural: No God Required”.” But really, perhaps there are more important name-tags we don’t find also. Like “conforms to Newtonian mechanics,” “Einsteinian relativity required here,” “best considered from a quantum mechanical viewpoint,” or “hint – consider astronomical events and their likely effects on species extinction.”

Of course “One must go beyond the evidence (though not leaving it behind!) to make such statements.” To develop any explanatory theory for our observations. That’s what science is about.

Now, Dale is presenting a very black and white picture of our investigators. They are either “theists” who “knows she is doing this (going beyond the evidence), though she will rightfully claim that she has followed reason in doing so, or “naturalist[s], [who] seem to not often admit that they ‘go beyond the evidence’ to their Naturalism.”

Why the hell didn’t he just differentiate between theists and non-theists? Why throw in this meaningless term “naturalist” which seems to be used in a pejorative sense like the use of “communist” in red-smearing?

And surely his “naturalists,” who don’t ‘go beyond the evidence’ (or don’t admit to doing so), are very funny people for scientists. What’s the point of collecting the evidence if we don’t go beyond it? Try to fit that evidence into an explanatory hypothesis? That’s what scientists do, surely. And they do it whatever their religious beliefs, theist and non-theist alike.

A close and continuing relationship with reality

But here’s the thing Dale missed. Scientists don’t just “go beyond the evidence” and stop their work when they have developed an explanatory hypothesis. Their work continues – they must test their hypotheses by comparing predictions with reality. And very often they well find their hypotheses to be wrong, or at least incomplete. This testing enables them to improve their hypothesis – or even ditch it and set to work developing a better explanation.

This close and continuing relationship with reality, with the evidence, is key to the modern scientific method. Now contrast that with a common theist approach which may use evidence like a drunk uses a lamppost – more for support than illumination. Once the “my god did it” explanation is produced the evidence (or reality) has done its job. The desired conclusion has been “confirmed.”. There is no need or desire for testing or validating the conclusion.

An opportunist use of “evidence”

This opportunist use of evidence encourages cherry-picking (using only supporting evidence and ignoring the rest) or even falsification of evidence. Just look at how the so-called “fine-tuning” argument is used. The “fine-tuning” of physical constants is exaggerated or misinterpreted to justify the desired, and predetermined, conclusion – “their god did it” (see, for example, my posts Fine-tuning fallacies, Fiddling with “fine-tuning” and When the “best explanation” is the worst explanation).

I referred at the start to the confusing use of terms like supernatural and natural because of the circularity of their definition. And I mentioned that “naturalist” and “naturalism” are general used pejoratively. But I am forced to somehow interpret these terms when they are used by people like Dale.

Perhaps it is the the attitude to evidence, rather than vaguely defined “nature” and “supernature,” which differentiates the “naturalist” from the “non-naturalist” or theist? Perhaps the “naturalist” is the one with a close and continuing relationship with reality. Who tests and validates their explanatory ideas against reality. And the “non-naturalist” has the opportunist relationship to reality – using evidence like a drunk uses a lamppost. For support rather than illumination.

I think that’s how I will interpret these terms in the future. Makes everything so much clearer.

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5 Responses to “Going beyond the evidence”

  • My issue with this ‘supernatural’ assertion is that its similarity to the begging the question logical fallacy isn’t coincidental.

    Depending on the god, this deity is commonly held to intercede at a scale that is colossal. God creates the entire universe, he creates life on earth, if you deny speciation occurs, then he’s been very busy conjuring new species to replace the ones that go extinct. He intercedes in history, he answers prayers, he manifests in various forms.

    But apparently the whole reason there’s no trace of evidence for any of this, is because he’s ‘supernatural’. A more reasonable conclusion is that if there is any agent intervening as described above, there should be a lot of unambiguous evidence for it. Even if you’re “supernatural” sic it’s unreasonable to claim such interventions in the “natural” world would leave no evidence of their origin.

    In short, its a vacuous and elaborate dodge to avoid answering why no such evidence for this deity exists.

  • I thought “naturalists” are those who like to spend time outside in the nude?

    I think you mean ‘naturists’? Darwin was a naturalist & I’m fairly sure he didn’t wander around outside in the altogether :)

    • Thanks, Alison. I have obviously confused things all these years. I have had good friends who were nudists and always called them naturalists. Just thought it was a word with several meanings.

      Checked my dictionary and find that “naturism” means “nudism.” Hence “naturist.”

      So I have learned something.

      Now. Have just got to overcome that picture of Darwin prancing around his house in the altogether with a butterfly net.

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