Tuesday, January 18, 2005

More Sticker Shock

Agape Press columnist Mark Creech has now weighed in with a response to the decision in the Cobb County trial. Oh joy!

It's the usual litany of ID chest-pounding, but there are a few points worth commenting on:

Few people understand that “Methodological Naturalism,” “scientific materialism,” or “Evolution Only” is the prevailing view of scientists that make up the National Academy of Sciences, which writes the National Science Education Standards.

Interesting. Methodological naturalism gets capitalized while scientific materialism does not.

Creech is conflating different things here. I'm not sure what the phrase “scientific materialism” means; I have not seen that one in other discussions of this subject. “Methodological naturalism” refers to the idea that as a practical matter science must restrict itself to naturalistic theories. The goal of science is to impose some order on nature's chaos. It is an attempt to render features of the natural world predictable and controllable. Theories that invoke the supernatural are unhelpful in reaching that goal. Consequently, scientists do not accord them much respect. Methodological naturalism is to be contrasted with metaphysical naturalism. The latter makes a definite assertion about how the world actually is (namely that there is no such thing as the supernatural). The former makes no such assertion.

“Evolution only” is intended to to be a snide description of the high school curricula now taught in most states. It is a term used by creationists when they are trying to paint scientists as dogmatic, anti-God militants. No doubt they would describe the prevailing view of physicists as “Astronomy only&rdquo (thereby leaving no room for astrology), or the prevailing view of doctors as “Germ theory only&rdquo (which shows a certain disrespect towards the alternative, Demon-Possession theory).

Methodological naturalism and support for evolution are two separate things. And metaphysical naturalism is a different thing still.

John Calvert, who has a degree in geology and currently focuses on constitutional issues relating to the teaching of origins in public schools, says a highly regarded poll published by Edward Larson and Larry Witham in the Journal Nature, reveals 93 percent of members of the National Academy doubt the existence of a “personal god,” versus 7 percent who professed a belief in God.

This is the standard credential-mongering so common in creationist literature. Mr. Calvert has a degree in geology? Golly! Guess he's someone I should take seriously.

But then you find out that actually he has an undergraduate degree in geology and that is all. Basically, he was a geology major in college. I also note that the favorable biography linked to above does not mention the school from which he obtained that degree. You can be sure if it were a reputable school it would have been mentioned.

Just to avoid confusion, I am not saying that Calvert should be ignored because of his lack of geology credentials. The fact is, however, that Creech is deliberately exaggerating Calvert's scientific expertise.

And what, exactly, is that survey of the NAS intended to prove? I have no doubt that an inclination to believe in God goes down as scientific expertise goes up. But that is not because of evolution. It is because when you spend every day of your professional life meticulously accumulating evidence for every assertion you care to make, it becomes difficult to go home and suddenly start taking things on faith. Furthermore, the NAS includes only a tiny percentage of the scientific community.

In his remarks, made during Darwin, Design & Democracy v Science Converges on Design at the University of New Mexico, Calvert further explained:

“Methodological Naturalism [MN] holds that when scientists investigate and seek to explain the natural world they must irrefutably assume that Naturalism is true. We must assume that only natural causes have operated throughout the relevant history of life without the aid of any intelligent cause. Those who break this rule are not scientists and therefore are not qualified to speak or be heard. MN is sort of a rule that would require arson investigators to provide only natural explanations for all fires. If an investigator disagrees with the rule, he is not deemed a qualified investigator, so his reports cannot be considered. The result would be massive increases in insurance premiums and profound misunderstanding about the true causes of fire.”

A moment ago I said that Calvert should not be ignored simply because of his lack of science credentials. But, assuming this quote is accurate, he should be ignored because he plainly has no idea what he is talking about.

Irrefutably assuming that capital-N Naturalism is true is precisely what MN does not do. As I said previously, MN makes no claim about the world at all. Furthermore, it is fine to hypothesize that intelligent agents are implicated in whatever it is you are trying to explain. It is only supernatural intelligences that are forbidden, and that is for the simple practical reason that such hypotheses have never led to progress in the past. In fact, they have often hindered progress.

Seen in this light, Calvert's arson example is especially poorly chosen. In that context it is useful to hypothesize that the fire was started by some human intelligence. Investigators can use that hypothesis as a starting point for an investigation. But I think even Calvert would look askance at any investigaor who suggested that it was a fire-breathing dragon that started a particular fire.

Although what Calvert describes is essentially what science has become, it should be noted that modern science could never have arisen in our modern culture on such a premise. In other words, today's science essentially claims all of life is random, irrational and illogical. To borrow from Calvert, the core claim of evolution is that “apparent design is just an illusion.” Such rejects the notion of absolutes, therefore, rejecting the very foundation of science. Consider carefully: if everything is irrational and illogical, if there are no absolutes, if there is no design, then results in experimentation are relative. Scientific claims cannot possibly be subject to refutation or falsification. A foundation of that order for science destroys its credibility.

This paragraph is almost complete gibberish. I have no idea what it means to say that life is random, illogical and irrational, and I don't know a single scientist who would describe any finding of science in that way. We can say that according to the theory of evolution, randomness in some well-defined sense has a role to play in the development of life. That is all.

As for “illogical” and “irrational” it is simply a category error to apply those terms in this context. Arguments can be illogical and behavior can be irrational, but it is meaningless to apply those terms to life in general.

Next he equates the claim that “apparent design is just an illusion” with the rejection of absolutes. Someone explain this to me. Apparent design of what? What kind of absolutes?

The next sentence gets even worse. He once again abuses the terms illogical and irrational and provides no explanation regarding the sorts of absolutes he has in mind. He then says that if there is no design then the results of experiments are relative. Er, relative to what?

I think what he is getting at is the idea that if there is no God to impose order on nature, then we should expect nature to be chaotic and unpredictable. That would indeed make science impossible. Happily, Creech has it completely backward. A world with no supernatural intelligences is precisely the sort of world that should be predictable and non-chaotic. Physical, non-living objects can only do whatever it is they do. They can not decide to behave according to their whim. But if supernatural intelligences are at work in the world, then the regularities upon which science is based hold only so long as it amuses the gods to uphold them. It is in that sort of world that science would be impossible.

From here Creech goes on to repeat the standard canard about the great scientists of old being creationists. Blah blah blah. Read it at your own risk.


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