Friday, December 26, 2003

Naturalism and the Scientific Enterprise

I bumped into the following on the website of the Intelligent Design Network (

As the authors explain:

On October 18, 2002, the Board of Directors of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) adopted a resolution which seeks to encourage public schools to ban "the teaching of 'intelligent design theory' as a part of the science curricula." This effectively promotes an "Evolution Only" science curriculum. Evolution Only is also promoted by censoring not only ID [Intelligent Design] but also core criticisms of evolution.

Their memo seeks to explain why the AAAS resolution should be rejected.

There's a lot more to the Intelligent Design Network's response than what I've copied below, but from a philosophical perspective, I think the comments below are helpful to “clear the underbrush” of presuppositions that are either poorly understood or completely unrecognized by most members of our society. Put another way: I hope, having read the relatively brief statement below, you will begin to recognize and understand one of the fundamental presuppositions of the modern scientific community at large. Most importantly, I hope you will recognize the difference--as I only vaguely did, until I read this article--between naturalism as a methodological commitment for scientific experimentation and naturalism as a philosophical commitment for all areas of knowledge or inquiry that so-called "science" touches.

[I am struck by the correlation between this article and the piece by Jacques Barzun from which I quoted back in my previous post.]

With that as background, consider the Intelligent Design Network's “Detailed Reason #2 for Rejecting the AAAS Resolution”:

The AAAS resolution fails to disclose the underlying motivation for censoring ID. The AAAS seeks to censor ID not because of its lack of evidentiary merit but to promote an undisclosed naturalistic philosophy.

The AAAS resolution leads one to believe that the reason for censoring ID is because of its alleged lack of evidentiary merit. It is claimed that if ID is allowed, it will "dilute" the evidentiary "quality" of science. As discussed above, the claimed lack of evidentiary merit is hollow. Philosophical positions can blind one to legitimate evidence. As Eugenie Scott, the Director of the evolutionist organization National Center for Science Education has stated, "I've never seen any evidence against evolution." The reason she doesn't see it is because her philosophy does not allow her to "see" it. The AAAS lack-of-evidence claim is disingenuous. It shifts attention away from a material omission - the fact that censorship is sought to support a philosophy, not due to a lack of evidence.

The underlying and guiding assumption of the AAAS is called Methodological Naturalism. The widespread use of the assumption was recently admitted in the July 2002 issue of the Scientific American: "A central tenet of modern science is methodological naturalism." (J. Rennie, editor). Methodological naturalism is also called scientific materialism. It holds that only natural explanations of phenomena are allowed in science (regardless of whether or not they are true), and that ID is invalid, not as an evidentiary matter, but as a philosophical preconception.

The assumption was explained in 1997 by Professor Richard Lewontin, a geneticist, as follows:

"....We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfil many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counterintuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door." (emphasis added) [Richard Lewontin, Billions and Billions of Demons, (The New York Review, January 9, 1997, p. 31)]

Although this "prior commitment" may have some utility in experimental sciences like physics and chemistry, the commitment destroys objectivity in subjective historical sciences like biological origins, particularly where it is not disclosed. This commitment permits only one answer to the religiously charged question - "Where did we come from?" According to this naturalistic bias, the only allowable answer to this question is that we are the result of a purely natural process, blind and unguided, and not one directed by an intelligence.

The intent of the AAAS resolution is to assure that any non-naturalistic answer to that question, however reasonable and regardless of the evidence, cannot be considered in public schools. Thus, rather than a true criticism of ID, the AAAS resolution is nothing less than an attempt to teach our children that methodological naturalism/scientific materialism is the only path to true knowledge about our past.

It is important for public school officials to know all of the material reasons for the AAAS resolution. School officials need to understand the nature and effect of the naturalistic assumption that undergirds the "Evolution Only" paradigm. It is our belief that schools should reject the AAAS position and adopt an objective policy that eliminates both naturalistic and religious assumptions from the teaching of origins science. Indeed, abandonment of the naturalistic commitment in public school teaching of origins science is dictated, not only by principles of logic, academic freedom and the scientific method, but also by the US Constitution.

What strikes you here?

How Modern Science Came to Eliminate the Idea of Purpose

I’ve been reading Jacques Barzun’s amazing From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present (HarperCollins, 2000). Today I came across the following comments on the advent of modern science:

When we speak of 17C science and scientists we are committing an anachronism. At that time the word science had not been narrowed down to one kind of knowledge; it meant whatever was known. . . . Those who spent much of their time in investigating nature were called natural philosophers. . . .

The road to the present was hard and long because the old systems were good. They had consistency and completeness; only at a few points did contrary facts or gaps in explanation threaten their validity. One such fact was the odd behavior of the planets, especially Mars, which at times went backward instead of forward. Another ill-explained phenomenon was that of horizontal motion: what keeps an arrow flying so far and no farther? Does the push of the bowstring put something into the arrow? Or, as some thought, does the air get displaced around the head and keep propelling it? Lastly, why do these forces give out?
Barzun does a great job setting up the problem more thoroughly. But here’s what particularly caught my attention.

For centuries, movement was studied by thinking of the arrow in flight or the cart drawn by a horse—it was push or pull by an unknown force. But what about falling bodies? After Galileo and Newton, by abstraction, motion no longer raised images of movement; it was defined geometrically as change from place to place, its rule being that it will continue forever until something stops it:—an obstacle or the friction of the air. Similarly, an object at rest stays put until a force is applied to it. The two statements make up the law of inertia. It is a law not because objects “obey” it—that again is a skewed interpretation; the law is only a statement of regularity in behavior. . . .

The common-sense look of things is not to be trusted; it is too variable. The human aspect of the world and human use of objects must be ignored by the student of nature. In this purging of variety the importance of words is considerable: it helps to keep the geometrical idea in mind. Thus mass is better than weight, which suggests a burden pulling at one‘s arms. Force also seems to imply our own exertion, and energy does not—or not so much. The abstract word gravitation conceals “heavy” very nicely. Again, references to spirit or principle to account for what happens are too vague and suggest unseen “powers.” . . . To sum up, any “anthropomorphic”—manlike—view of things is wrong in principle and will mislead. Especially wrong is the belief that anything in nature fulfills a purpose. Aristotle’s physics relied on a doctrine of ends, of final purposes and meanings. The reverse assumption yields the truth of science, not movement toward goals but purposeless push or pull that need not end.

It goes without saying that the cultural consequences, the effect on human lives, of this shift in outlook have been profound. To begin with, as success in “natural philosophy” became evident in one realm after another, scientists, as we now call them, came to be regarded as “those who really know.” This in turn meant that reality was split—scientific fact and human experience, no longer one and often contradictory. If the one was real, the other must be illusion.

—Barzun, pp. 191-195

I had never thought of these things before: how our scientific philosophical assumptions affect our view of purpose (or purposelessness) . . . and how in my own life, it is true: I have been taught, mostly, to consider scientists as "those who really know": "Science is true knowledge; everything else is conjecture."

But is that true? Is it true, 1) that science is always true knowledge? And, 2) that everything else is "mere" conjecture?