Monday, February 14, 2011

Common Misconceptions Part Six: Science Is Biased Against Supernaturalism

In my experience theists usually begin a debate by appealing to standards of evidence we all find colloquially useful in everyday life. They will talk about the reliability of the Bible as a divine historical document, fulfilled prophecy, answered prayers, observed miracles and other claims that can actually be tested by experimental and historical sciences. However once you show them that:

a. the Bible has failed all the tests of a reliable historical document.
b. the Bible only makes self-fulfilled prophesies (i.e. "this took place to fulfill what was prophesied Matthew 21:4-5) or prophecies that correspond with normal probability laws (i.e. Jerusalem will be sacked; there will be wars, etc.).
c. several independent studies of intercessory prayer have proved prayer to be futile (see the STEP Prayer Project).
d. no miracle has been directly observed and verified by others without a natural explanation (i.e. a severed limb supernaturally regenerates).

…they then revert to pseudo-scientific arguments from incredulity. In other words, once they see that real science is no friend to their claims they begin using a bastardized version of science. They make the Cosmological Argument and they invoke the anthropic principle. Using legitimate scientific data they form unwarranted and illegitimate conclusions that life MUST have been implemented by their own god. They believe that pointing out weaknesses in evolutionary theory (something that scientists have been doing themselves for over 150 years) somehow lends more credibility to their god hypothesis. They draw unsubstantiated correlations between the theory of evolution and social darwinism (which, by the way, even if such a correlation was founded on evidence wouldn’t make it untrue). And so on, etc.

Once you show them that these arguments hold no water they revert back to what they should have started with in the first place: faith. This is usually combined with attempts to criticize atheism. This cycle happens almost every time I debate a theist. Science -> Psuedo-science -> Faith -> Denigrating atheism and “scientism.”

When science turns from amity to enmity for the theist things really start getting interesting. One of the things I hear a lot at this point is the paranoid assertion that scientists and/or science itself are biased against the supernatural.

This is wrong for two reasons. First, science itself is completely neutral on this issue. The fact is that supernatural claims lie beyond the purview of the scientific enterprise. The underlying principle of science is methodological naturalism which states that natural phenomenon can only be observed and explained by natural models. This is why science will never prove or disprove all possible gods. Science speaks to improbability, not impossibility. With a theistic god like Yahweh, Allah or Jesus all science can do is evaluate particular claims that occur in the natural world. This would include miracle claims, the effects of intercessory prayer, the historical merit of the Bible, the manifestation of a spiritual being, and so forth. While science cannot say whether or not all possible gods do or do not exist, it can say that the things one would expect to see if particular gods DID exist are simply not observed.

Secondly, if scientists have all conspired together on this anti-supernaturalism bias then why are roughly half of scientists religious? These scientists obviously believe in the realm of the supernatural but rightly understand that they must separate the supernatural, by necessity, from the scientific process because, by definition, it is a process that only works in the natural world.

Some people (I am not one of them) subscribe to philosophical naturalism which states that only the natural world exists in the universe. I am sympathetic to this philosophy. However, because I simply have no way of knowing this, I reserve judgment. In other words, I have no bias against the existence of the supernatural. Methodological naturalism is distinct from philosophical naturalism because it is simply an epistemological way of acquiring information, not a worldview pronouncement.


Robert said...

Western science has its shortcomings: If the results of an experiment are not repeatable, they are thrown out. There is a difference between no experiment and a set of experiments that yielded nonsensical results. That's definitely what I would call a bias (toward naturalism).

Clint Wells said...

Robert - Repeatability and independent verification are fundamental to the scientific method. This is not a bias against supernaturalism.

Supernaturalism, by definition, falls outside of the purview of science.

It's a category mistake.

When you talk about a set of experiments with nonsensical results being an example of scientific bias...what do you mean?

Can you provide an example?

Robert said...

Supernaturalism, by definition, falls outside of the purview of science.

By saying this, you are enforcing Platonism on reality. Super naturalism by definition falls outside "naturalist" science. Parapsychology would, by the naturalist definition, not be a science.

Then you have the problem of Heisenberg. That we cannot know both position and movement of a particle also implies that the universe cannot fully be understood by mechanical means alone. This undermines this reductionist scope of science.

The East hasn't been nearly as inhibited by reductionism in their practice of science. This book discusses certain research that was done to exploit telepathy and other divination for the purposes of Soviet intelligence.

In most of these paranormal experiments (pyramid magic, plant hypnosis, telepathy, telekinesis, mind control etc) the experimenter was the essential component in repeatability. Mythbusters, for example, tested the pyramid stuff on their show (to negative results). While others (Robert
Pavlita got a Czechoslovakian patent), have been well documented to provide evidence for successful such experiments. What then are you to conclude about pyramids and their ability to sharpen razors? Which is the fraud, or do both experiments have merit?

Clint Wells said...

Robert – Interesting points.
First of all, the term “naturalistic science” is redundant. There is no such thing as “supernatural science.” Telepathy, telekinesis, pyramid power, alchemy, homeopathy, astrology, parapsychology, and others are all rightly categorized as pseudo-science because they use scientific language but have either not met standard criteria for scientific investigation or survived the scientific method.
Secondly, should one of these pseudo-sciences meet the standard criteria of the scientific method (i.e. be repeatable, independently verifiable and survive falsification) then it would simply become science. Consider telepathic communication, for example. Say that we discovered telepathy really worked by some sort of mirror neuron transmission that occurred during the firing of synapses in a certain testable proximity with other sentient beings. Say that we discovered this through fMRI studies and began developing a map for this phenomenon. Well, then telepathy would be considered a (to use your term…which I still maintain is an incorrect one) “natural” science.
This happens often with pseudo-science. Alchemy gives way to chemistry. Astrology gives way to astronomy. Etc.
The Heisenberg principle rightly creates the problem of compromising one set of data to accurately observe another in particle physics. However, this does not mean that it will always be so nor does it mean that a supernatural element MUST be invoked to explain particle phenomenon.  The entire field of quantum theory exists to explain mysterious phenomenon on the sub-atomic level. Not having a current answer or model does not mean that we will NEVER have a current answer or model.
In regards to experiments with pyramid magic, you’ve got it backwards. Pavlita is the one with a biased emphasis on the experimenter. He is the one making the positive claim with purported positive evidence. What mythbusters (and others..Michael Shermer and James Randi to name a few) have done is follow the standard model of science and see if the results can be independently verified. The essential component is the CLAIM in that case, not the experimenter because, objectively speaking, they have nothing to lose or gain by simply testing a claim. Who is more likely to fudge results in their favor? The one making or testing the claim?
In the case of pyramid power when the only one claiming positive evidence is the one making the claim, I would say that he/she is the fraud. Wouldn’t you?

Robert said...

Sorry, it wasn't Pavlita but another Czech Karl Dyrbal (and Antione Bovis). Apparently, there are many folks capable of verifying the "pyramid claim". I personally do not have to accept one and discredit the other. I think both results are valid and explainable within my worldview.

My point is that this whole conversation depends on epistemology. Specifically, that cultures whom inherited far less from the Greeks than ours develop different standards for their practice of science.

I DO believe Heisenberg's work implies that there are aspects of reality that can NEVER be explained by mechanics. I believe that the modern philosophy of science was expressing just that (mechanical universe) prior to 1927 (Re: the HUP).

Clint Wells said...

Robert - I'm sure you can find a lot of people in this world who claim to "verify" pyramid magic. There are also lots of people who claim to verify that they have been anally probed by aliens in a crop circle or that the Holocaust never happened or that Santa Claus is real or that Elvis is still alive.

Having a bunch of people make a claim does not make it true or even slightly more credible.

Why haven't these Czech geniuses published their findings in Nature or Scientific American or any standard peer review journal? Why don't all of the farmers of America implement pyramid magic to preserve their crops? Why don't independent experiments by people who aren't seeking a patent continue to show negative results?

The answer is because pyramid magic is bunk. Plain and simple.

You are right. It is about epistemology. The distinction is that science only has one epistemology by definition and that is methodological naturalism for reasons I have already explained (and which have, so far, gone unacknowledged).

It doesn't matter whether or not the uncertainty principle will apply for all of eternity or not. The point is that not knowing something does not automatically make alternative theories true or credible. In this case, supernaturalism.

Robert said...


The pyramid magic example is in no way my attempt to provide evidence of the existence of the supernatural. Candidly, the last thing the world needs IMHO is science overtly practicing witchcraft. It was simply the first example that popped into my head. In not convinced that it works or not. (I am personally convinced/convicted that I don't need to experiment with it)

We could spend days discussing the truth of evidence presented on TV (mythbusters) vs some Iron curtain inventors and self proclaimed occultists to no end. But for the sake of my point I'm assuming legitimacy of their experiments. ...and that IS my point. I do not have to reject the least credible outcome. Likewise, I do not have to deny that two legitimate experiments took place and had different results.

I have no intention of piling "evidence" on you in hopes that you change your mind. I simply do not believe that is how men discern truth.

My claims is this: we live in a universe where the laws of logic and mechanics, while functional and useful, are in subjection to higher unseen forces (not the other way around). Further, there is knowledge of the universe that we are incapable of (p&m of particle) or prohibited from (witchcraft) knowing. Emphasis: metaphysical boundary

The implicit claim of modern science is that the universe (as best we know up to our current evolved state) is in subjection to the laws of logic and mechanics. Through further knowledge, research and human progress it can be fully understood and manipulated in such a way to achieve mans Utopian dream. Emphasis: no metaphysical boundary

Clint Wells said...

Robert - I think I understand your points. Thanks for taking the time to write this stuff.

I'm not asking you to necessarily reject the least credible outcome of an experiment. I'm simply saying that, in science, a hypothesis must meet certain criteria before one can lend provisional assent. Has the fact that the pyramid power theory failed repeatability made it CERTAINLY false? No. However, this does make it reasonable to maintain healthy skepticism until more positive evidence is in.

I disagree with you about how truth is discerned. Evidence is how you make 99% of the decisions in your everyday life. It is the reason you go to the doctor, take certain medicine, have certain surgeries, drive certain cars, read certain media resources, use certain toothpaste, invest in certain stocks, and so on and so forth.

Now, you may believe that you are inserting some "faith" into that decision making...but you and I both know that when it comes down to reality we are very concerned with what the evidence says.

A doctor tells you that your wife needs a certain immediate surgery or she will die within 24 hours. Where do you go first? To the church? No, you go to the hospital. If you were to choose between a secular hospital with a 99% survivability rate for your wife's particular surgery or a Protestant hospital that has thousands of people praying on hand over ever surgery but they have a 45% survivability rate...which hospital would you go to? I hope that question is rhetorical.


Clint Wells said...

You said:

"My claims is this: we live in a universe where the laws of logic and mechanics, while functional and useful, are in subjection to higher unseen forces"

What is your evidence for this claim? This seems like an argument from incredulity. Because we haven't mastered logic and mechanics in no way means that they MUST be subject to higher, unseen forces.

This idea about science aiming to achieve a man-centered Utopia is simply untrue. Science doesn't give a shit about man. Science is a neutral tool. It gives us both anti-biotics and nuclear weapons.