Sunday, April 11, 2004

Methodological Naturalism Since it's been a slow few days in creationism land, let me call your attention to an interesting dispute over the role of methodological naturalism. ID folks, unable to boast of any actual scientific results they have produced, have made this the centerpoint of their recent arguments. Specifically, they whine that science labors under a metaphysical bias that precludes them from giving fair consideration to supernatural explanations.

This argument is effective when presented to certain religiously-inclined non-scientists. These are people who have little interest in how scientific research actually gets carried out, but already sort of suspect that sceince is biased against religion.

To research scientists, the charge is absurd. They know that their only bias is towards theories that help them solve poblems that arise in the field and the lab. The day a supernatural theory helps them make progress on an actual problem is the day they will abandon methodological naturalism. The consensus in favor of MN among modern scientists is nothing more than a reflection of the fact that in the centuries long history of science it has never once happened that a belief in the supernatural has led to progress. More often, it has retarded progress.

Anyway, Brian Leiter has wieghed in with this characteristically clear-headed post. Go have a look at it, and follow some of the links contained therein. Here's a sample:

Stuart Buck , another Federalist Society lawyer (like the unfortunate Lawrence VanDyke, who is well-known to readers of this blog) is apparently intent on making sure the Federalist Society gets a reputation as a hotbed of dense apologists for Intelligent Design. Mr. Buck is the non-philosopher blogger Mr. VanDyke invoked, whom I alluded to in an earlier posting on Mr. VanDyke's muddle through philosophical naturalism . Mr. Buck's own muddle, as I noted, provoked a reply from a biologist ( they continue their "dialogue" here), and now also a physicist.

Mr. Buck, needless to say, remains quite attached to his “insight” that there are two different senses of “a priori,” one of which he denominates the “Kantian” sense. He explains:

“Scientists often say as follows: Other scientists have seen that methodological naturalism has worked in the past; therefore I will approach any new problem with a strict insistence that only naturalistic solutions will be considered, because I have decided that only naturalistic solutions count as science. Leiter focuses on the first part of that sentence [note: the sentence is Buck's, not Leiter's], and accordingly insists that methodological naturalism was not collectively chosen a priori in the Kantian sense. That's all fine and well, but it says nothing about whether an individual scientist today approaches new problems having ruled out a particular type of solution without regard for its truth. In that sense, the commitment to methodological naturalism is a priori,; because it comes prior to an individual scientist's investigation of any actual new problem or question.”

Where to begin? Let's take “a priori” in the new, “Buckian sense.” Scientists believe something “a priori in the Buckian sense” if “it comes prior to an individual's scientist's investigation of any actual new problem or question.” So, e.g., since most scientists accept the truth of Newtonian mechanics for mid-size physical objects, despite the fact that most of them have never conducted any investigations or experiments to confirm Newtonian mechanics, it follows that they accept it, then, “a priori in the Buckian sense.” Needless to say, natural scientists quite generally accept methodological naturalism “a priori in the Buckian sense.”

Indeed, it goes farther than that: most of us who are educated accept evolutionary biology “a priori in the Buckian sense” (after all, I'm no biologist, what do I know beyond what I've read and been told about it?). Indeed, I accept that FDR was President from 1932 to 1945, and that Hitler was a genocidal maniac in Germany during roughly those same years, and that Nietzsche was born in 1844 and died in 1900, and that Americans fought for independence from the British in the late 18th-century--I accept all of that “a priori in the Buckian sense,” since I've done no empirical investigation to confirm any of it.


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