Oct 28 2008

More on Methodological Naturalism

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Comments: 70

My posts from last Thursday and Friday on materialism sparked an unusual amount of activity in the comments, which is always great. There is much great discussion and links to further reading. But I feel I did not make my position clear enough, and a longer clarification than is appropriate for the comments is needed.

Much of the confusion and disagreement seems to revolve around definitions – it is difficult to find common ground when people are using different specific definitions for the same words. This is a common problem in philosophy, which seems to multiple terms with subtle distinctions, and has been further magnified by the fact that I was partly confronting how other people (like ID proponents) are using terms, vs how philosophers define them, vs how the public perceives them. Confusion ensued.

Although this is probably obvious, I want to say for the record that I am not a philosopher. I am a scientist trying to understand philosophy as it pertains to science and skepticism. This probably causes as many problems as philosophers who are not scientists trying to understand the philosophy of science.

So as I crawl back through this discussion of methodological naturalism and materialism I will try to be careful about defining terms and in which context.

Materialism and Consciousness

Part of the problem, as I see it, is that the term materialism can have two uses. In one usage it specifically refers to the philosophical position of monism, as opposed to dualism. Monism is the notion that consciousness reduces to brain activity, and that nothing else need be going on to explain consciousness. Dualism is the belief that there is “something else,” although this something could be physical or not, depending upon the type of dualism.

Materialism has also been used, especially recently by ID proponents and their ilk, in a broader sense – applying it to all phenomena, not just consciousness. By this definition materialism is the philosophical position that all things can be explained ultimately by material physical causes.

This broader use is very problematic, for reasons explored thoroughly in the comments of my previous post. One definition that currently has no utility is saying that materialism refers only to matter. Science already includes things other than matter in its model of reality – no one, as far as I know, argues that the universe is made only of matter.

The problem is that the anti-materialists (I will use this term to refer ID proponents and others who argue that science is “rigged” against the supernatural) are using the term “materialism” to refer to the current scientific approach to understanding nature (not just consciousness). In that sense, materialism must include all of the stuff that science currently says nature is made of, including all types of energy, dark matter, and space-time itself.

Natural vs Supernatural

This seems to be the crux of much of the confusion – how to define natural vs supernatural. This is, in a way, an unanswerable question – because any meaningful answer requires absolute knowledge of reality, which we will forever lack. There is therefore no gold standard of natural that we can use to define, by exclusion, the supernatural.

Natural is therefore defined by our current knowledge – it is everything that has been discovered by science to exist in nature. That list will change as new discoveries are made. This is not an a-priori list – nothing is included or excluded based upon first principles or any bias. The list is strictly science-based and therefore open-ended.

In this sense, I agree with those who have argued that the distinction between natural and supernatural is meaningless, and that science does not restrict itself to any arbitrary list of what is “natural.” It is true as some have observed that saying that science deals with only the natural is a tautology, because the natural is defined by what science deals with.

The confusion stems from trying to define these terms by some fixed criteria.

The Method in Methodological Naturalism

The only way to make sense of all of this, in my opinion, is to define natural and supernatural not based upon what is, but on what we can know.  They are defined by whether or not they are amenable to scientific methods of investigation – not whether or not they are actually true.

Let’s take ID, for example. ID is outside the realm of science not because it posits something which is not known to exist, but because it frames that new thing outside the methods of science.  It is alright within the framework of science to hypothesize that the universe has intelligence, that a powerful force created life with intention and design, or any other such notion. The only requirement is that such a hypothesis must make testable predictions.

ID proponents say that life was created by an intelligent designer – but they do not allow anything to be speculated about that designer or the methods used. This prohibits any predictions. No ID proponent has ever proposed a method for the creation or the design, nor have they made any statement to the effect that – if life on earth were designed then it should have these testable properties. Rather, they flip it and say that whatever properties life has, that is what the designer intended – because the designer is not constrained in any way.

As an aside, ID proponents will say that they have done this – that if life were designed it will display “irreducible complexity.” But this does not work, because IC is not a demonstrable property of life or any component of it. Rather, it is based entirely on the perceived inability of another theory (evolution) to currently explain features of life (it is therefore a negative feature of another theory, not a positive feature of ID). As an example of why this does not make ID testable, prior claims of irreducible complexity have been shown not to be irreducible, and this has not falsified ID. Even if evolution could explain every jot an tittle of life ID proponents could still say that the designer just chose to make life look that way.

Getting back to the main point – what makes ID not science is not in the fact that it proposes new forces of nature (although that is a weakness, as Occam’s razor favors minimizing new assumptions), rather it is that it is not amenable to scientific investigation. As I said previously, scientific method does not allow you to say – “and then a miracle happens.”

Robert linked to this article on the naturalism.org website. Actually, I agree with the details of this article. It is really saying the same thing I am, just in a different way. For example, under the definition of science it says:

Science seeks testable, verifiable, and transparently mechanistic or specifiable explanations for phenomena – no mysterious or unspecifiable processes play a more than a passing role in scientific accounts.

And about why ID is not science it says:

ID doesn’t specify how design is carried out: no mechanism or process is proposed, and further, no means of discovering this mechanism is proposed. The mechanism remains unacceptably mysterious with no hope of being clarified.

What does “mysterious” mean? I think an operational definition of “mysterious” would be the same as my methodological definition of “supernatural.”

Science and God

This methodoligical approach also deals with the problem of whether or not science can deal with God.  The answer is – yes and no. If a supernatural (meaning inaccessible to science) power were meddling with our universe (with stuff science could access), science could detect it, document it, and even describe it. We could say that something was happening.

However (by the premises of this hypothetical situation) if the ultimate cause of these physical effects were beyond scientific methodology, the best science could do would be to describe anomalies. Science comes across anomalies all the time, and the typical approach is to assume (because we really have no choice) that the anomalies are due to either errors in observation, errors in our current theories, or incompleteness in our current theories, meaning there is some new phenomenon to discover.

So far the scientific approach (assuming anomalies will lead to a deeper understanding of reality) has worked out pretty well. This is the best evidence we have that our universe if mostly rational and does not include “supernatural” (by my definition) forces that will remain forever “mysterious.” If it did, then we would run across anomalies that we could never explain scientifically. All we could do would be to describe them, but we could never come up with a testable theory of mechanism.

Here is an example – what if we were all really just computer programs living in a virtual “matrix”-like universe? The laws of the universe that we are investigating are really the laws of this virtual matrix. But we are just virtual beings in this matrix, and as such have no hope of ever discovering the true underlying nature of reality. Only a perspective outside the matrix can do this.

However, the matrix is embedded in a physical universe with its own rules and laws. Beings in that greater universe who control the matrix can make things happen that cannot be explained by the rules that apply within the matrix – because they derive from a deeper reality inaccessible to being limited to the matrix itself. In this hypothetical situation the methods of science can discover the rules of the matrix, but not the rules of the deeper universe in which it is embedded, or this fact itself. Science could only be agnostic toward the matrix hypothesis because it cannot be investigated scientifically.

The matrix creators, however, could create anomalies within the matrix. Scientists could investigate those anomalies (document and describe them) but could never explain them – they would be enduring anomalies.

This is a perfect analogy to some concepts of God – he exists outside the confines of the laws of this universe but is able to meddle with it. We, as beings of this universe, have no hope of ever understanding God. But this also means we can never know scientifically if such a being exists or not. At most there would be enduring scientific anomalies.  There are currently no such anomalies, and the criteria for “enduring” is fuzzy, of course. How long must an anomaly defy explanation before we should conclude it is unexplainable? You could argue, never, and that is the approach I would prefer, but very long-standing anomalies would at least give those who choose to believe in an underling reality something to point to. Further, the lack of such anomalies is strong evidence for the power of science.


Saying that science requires methodological naturalism is really just another way of saying that science requires falsifiable hypotheses, which in turn requires the assumption that the universe makes sense – it consistently follows an internal set of rules. ID proponents and others who oppose this view want to inject supernatural explanations into science, by which they mean ideological beliefs that are not testable by science. They try to dress up these beliefs as scientific theories by framing god-of-the-gaps arguments from ignorance (like irreducible complexity) as if they were testable hypotheses – but they are not.

They further confuse methodological naturalism, which in practice means that “natural” is whatever is amendable to scientific investigation, with an a-priori list of accepted natural phenomena, everything else being excluded supernatural phenomena – but there is no such list.  The anti-materialist arguments are all an elaborate deception (facilitated by confusing philosophical terminology) meant to break the rules of science to allow for untestable ideological beliefs. This fight was fought long ago, and the current rules of science are the result. The anti-materialists just don’t like the view from the losing side.

70 responses so far

70 Responses to “More on Methodological Naturalism”

  1. Michael.Meadonon 28 Oct 2008 at 10:51 am

    Philosophy is really, really hard. (Which is one reason I’m no longer doing it). But, from what I can tell, you did he good job here Steve. You’re right on the button about the importance of definitions in philosophical discourse, too.

    I was a bit puzzled by: “Dualism is the belief that there is ‘something else,’ although this something could be physical or not, depending upon the type of dualism.” I’m not following. Strictly speaking, all dualism says is ‘there are two kids of stuff’. Usually, however, it means ‘there is matter and spirits/souls/God-y stuff’. I’m not seeing how the ‘something else’ could be physical, though, and still be dualism. (I.e. they’d be saying there is matter… and matter).

    Oh, and materialism is one kind of monism, so it’s incorrect to define monism as the belief that the mind reduces to brain activity. Idealism, for example, is the rather queer belief that only souls/spirits exists, i.e. that matter is illusory.

  2. Steven Novellaon 28 Oct 2008 at 11:04 am

    David Chalmers considers himself a dualist, but believes that the “something else” is not spiritual, but rather is an undiscovered higher order property of the physical universe. Therefore it does not “reduce” to brain activity. That’s what I had in mind specifically.

  3. Michael.Meadonon 28 Oct 2008 at 11:38 am

    Hmmm… right. If I recall, Chalmers is a property dualist, not a substance dualist. Since I was thinking in terms of substance dualism, I can see why I was confused.

  4. Fifion 28 Oct 2008 at 11:57 am

    Is the opposite of a Materialist an Immaterialist? If science is based in the material and the natural world, are other philosophies immaterial and unnatural?

    And what of anti-matter…..are the religious/spiritual adherents of dualism or an illusory and non-existent physical world an example of anti-matter? Or just anti-materialists?

  5. Fifion 28 Oct 2008 at 11:59 am

    And can we take away their basic rights to equality and lock them up for performing unnatural acts in public?

  6. davery11on 28 Oct 2008 at 2:59 pm

    It is alright within the framework of science to hypothesize that the universe has intelligence, that a powerful force created life with intention and design, or any other such notion.

    While I have no issues with this statement, I have grave reservations about the use of the non-word “alright.”

  7. Steven Novellaon 28 Oct 2008 at 3:22 pm

    “alright” is a perfectly cromulent word.


  8. davery11on 28 Oct 2008 at 5:07 pm

    Ah, once again my vocabulary has been embiggened.

  9. Jason Streitfeldon 28 Oct 2008 at 5:56 pm

    I agree with the generaly thrust of the argument here. I do have a few points of contention which might be worth considering.

    First, about Chalmers . . . He’s famously anti-physicalist. However, he has claimed that his view of consciousness (he thinks it must be a unique sort of entity or property of the universe which cannot be reduced to the stuff of physics) could be called a sort of physicalism, if we empty the term “physical” of most of its meaning. If anybody can tell me where he explains what sort of meaning he thinks the term “physical” has, and what it would lose by accomodating his views, please let me know.

    Here’s a link to an interview in which he tries to explain his notion of materialism/physicalism:


    To be frank, I don’t see much value in taking his view of consciousness too seriously, but that’s perhaps better left for another discussion.

    Here are a few observations about this new blog post:

    My biggest concern with the argument here is with this paragraph:

    This seems to be the crux of much of the confusion – how to define natural vs supernatural. This is, in a way, an unanswerable question – because any meaningful answer requires absolute knowledge of reality, which we will forever lack. There is therefore no gold standard of natural that we can use to define, by exclusion, the supernatural.”

    This position supposes that, if there is a supernatural, we could only know it if we had absolute knowledge of reality.

    First of all, what is meant by the phrase “absolute knowledge of reality?”

    Second of all, why suppose that the term “the supernatural” can only be used to refer to that which can only be understood once absolute knowledge of reality is attained?

    While I appreciate the concern and caution over how to define our terms, I think this view of the term “the supernatural” is unnecessarily problematic.

    I do agree with the comment that the natural/supernatural distinction is meaningless. It is a political ploy devoid of philosophical or scientific significance. That is to say that it has meaning only in the absence of philosophical and scientific legitimacy.

    My other issue here is about the discussion of a matrix-like scenario. I think this species of thought experiment is generally given more weight than it deserves. I’ll just point out the problems I have with the current discussion.

    The supposition is that “we are just virtual beings in this matrix, and as such have no hope of ever discovering the true underlying nature of reality. Only a perspective outside the matrix can do this.”

    My question is, why would an extra-matrix perspective be theoretically outside the realm of possible matrix perspectives? One could theoretically have access to extra-matrix events and truths from inside the matrix, just as one outside the matrix could have access to internal matrix events.

    That is, unless you want to postulate some absolute barrier which would prevent information from passing either in or out of the matrix. Such a postulate would sound an awful lot like the mysterious “supernatural” stuff that we’ve been talking about.

    Of course, you could postulate one of Descartes’ “evil demons” to keep the truth out of our grasp at all times. But this would mean that such limitations on our knowledge are not due to the nature of man, matrix, or God/Demon, but are only artificially placed on us by Demon/God’s choosing, because he intentionally wants to keep the truth from us.

    The difference is between believing in two realms which cannot inform each other, and believe in a guy who just doesn’t want us to know what’s really happening around us. The former is beyond reason; the latter is just sad.

  10. sonicon 28 Oct 2008 at 6:33 pm

    This is better. This clarifies a lot. I’m guessing you have spent quite a bit of time on this one. Cool–

    There are a few technical points regarding science that you may have overlooked—

    From physics we have these results from Einstein
    1) e=mc2 (which states that energy and mass have equivalence) (special relativity)
    2) Time and space and gravitation have no separate existence from matter. (general relativity)

    Einstein’s universe is a materialist universe then. This is what is meant when people say Einstein finished or completed classical physics. (as all phenomena were directly related to matter)

    We have a new physics now. The new physics is very useful-
    It is the new physics that allows for the fMRI that we find so useful in the study of brain function, for example.

    “We virtually ignore the astonishing range of scientific and practical applications that quantum mechanics undergirds: today an estimated 30 percent of the U.S. gross national product is based on inventions made possible by quantum mechanics, from semiconductors in computer chips to lasers in compact-disc players, magnetic resonance imaging in hospitals, and much more.” Max Tegmark and John Archibald Wheeler Scientific American, February 2001

    This new physics has come with a price-

    “The more you see how strangely Nature behaves, the harder it is to make a model that explains how even the simplest phenomena actually work. So theoretical physics has given up on that.” (Richard Feynman, Quantum Mechanics)

    This is in direct contrast to-
    “Science seeks testable, verifiable, and transparently mechanistic or specifiable explanations for phenomena – no mysterious or unspecifiable processes play a more than a passing role in scientific accounts.”

    What this really means is that—(I’ll quote Feynman again)
    “What is the fundamental hypothesis of science, the fundamental philosophy?… the sole test of the validity of any idea is experiment” (Six Easy Pieces)

    Your complaints about ID (or any other attempt at scientific explanation) should remain at that level- is it testable by experiment? Does it agree with existing experiments? The mechanism or lack thereof is of much less interest. What the philosophical underpinnings are is not important.
    As I understand it (I am pretty ignorant about ID) they are attempting to define complexity as a testable hypothesis. If they can do that, then I see no problem with calling (at least that part of it) a scientific hypothesis- do you?

    Science is more robust than you are giving it credit for.

  11. wertyson 28 Oct 2008 at 8:23 pm


    You may have missed the part where Steve pointed out that falsifiability is exactly why irreducible complexity isn’t science. Several attempts by the ID crowd such as eyes, brains etc were presented as being ‘irreducibly complex’ by their own definition. Scientific credibility requires that if the development of such examples are shown to be entirely possible by means other than they propose, ie they are not ‘irreducibly complex’, then the hypothesis has been falsified and must be abandoned or improved to take account of the new information. this is the proverbial ‘beautiful theory slain by an ugly fact’.

    What actually happens is that ID proponents descend into a flurry of logical fallacies such as moving the goalposts (‘Ok then this other thing is irreducibly complex’), special pleading (‘It’s that way because on this occasion a deity worked by evolution, but not in all these other cases’) or simply ad hominem attacks (‘stupid neo-darwinist materialist atheists’). They do not adjust their theory or admit it is wrong because they are not doing science, just using high school debating tactics which don’t advance any knowledge but simply create colour and movement to attract attention.

  12. Steven Novellaon 28 Oct 2008 at 8:54 pm

    Jason – the point I was trying to make is that you can only define natural vs supernatural based upon scientific methods of investigation, the former can be investigated by science, and the latter cannot. We cannot say a-prior that some phenomenon is supernatural vs natural. There is no teacher’s edition to the universe.

    Regarding the matrix analogy – if you were a virtual being in the matrix, you could have not possible existence outside the matrix, and all of your information would come through the matrix, there would therefore be no experiment or observation you could make to explore existence outside the matrix. The most that could happen is that you would be presented with anomalies you could not explain.

    Sonic – I agree that making testable predictions in the key, but the reason ID cannot do this is because of the how they formulate ID. It is precisely because they refuse to even speculate about the parameters of a possible mechanism. Without that, you cannot say that the ID is constrained by any physical laws or logic, and therefore you cannot make testable predictions.

    We can say that evolution cannot create a fully formed complex structure de-novo with no antecedent. But there is nothing the ID, in theory, cannot do. So you can you test it?

  13. John Piereton 28 Oct 2008 at 11:09 pm

    Very nice exposition (and not only because I agree almost completely).

    I agree that making testable predictions in the key, but the reason ID cannot do this is because of the how they formulate ID. It is precisely because they refuse to even speculate about the parameters of a possible mechanism. Without that, you cannot say that the ID is constrained by any physical laws or logic, and therefore you cannot make testable predictions.

    Elliot Sober makes the same point in his new and excellent (if also difficult) book Evidence and Evolution:

    “The problem with the hypothesis of intelligent design is not that it makes inaccurate predictions but that it doesn’t predict much of anything. Rather, the design hypothesis merely allows our observations – whatever they turn out to be – to be folded inside a simple formula. If the human eye has one set of features, we can construct the hypothesis that an intelligent designer brought this about; but if the eye turns out to have a different set of features, that outcome also can be accommodated within the framework of intelligent design. From the point of view of Duhem’s thesis*, the problem with the design hypothesis is that we have no independent knowledge of the goals and abilities that the designer of organisms would have if such a being existed.”

    * http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Duhem%E2%80%93Quine_thesis

  14. Jason Streitfeldon 29 Oct 2008 at 3:21 am


    Consider my comments about the matrix thought experiment in the following light: there are any number of ways information from the outside world can be gathered and transmitted to denizens of the matrix. And there is no reason that all truths obtained from within the matrix must be contrary to truths that would be attained from without the matrix. That is, unless you stipulate that the matrix is being run by an “evil demon” who is bent on misleading us at every turn.

    You said, “We cannot say a-prior that some phenomenon is supernatural vs natural.”

    We can say that, if the term “natural” refers to that which is, was, and can be discovered.

    Since the term “supernatural” is defined so as to refer to things which cannot be discovered, then we can, and must, acknowledge a priori that every phenomenon we discover is natural.

  15. sonicon 29 Oct 2008 at 3:50 am

    Steven, wertys-
    Perhaps I should have left the comment about ID out of my discussion. (I know almost nothing about it)

    The bigger point I was trying to make is it is not necessary to have
    “transparently mechanistic or specifiable explanations for phenomena” to be good science.

    In fact our most successful science does not.

    I think that this is an important point- to assume the universe will be explicable in terms that we don’t find ‘mysterious’ is not a requirement for science.

    As Feynman would say about the two slit experiment-
    “We cannot explain the mystery in the sense of ‘explaining’ how it works.” (Six Easy Pieces)

    So what I’m trying to say is this:
    “You don’t have a mechanism,” or “that doesn’t make sense to me,” or “you don’t have a specific explanation for your results,”
    are NOT valid complaints about a scientific hypothesis.

    The only valid complaint is – “it doesn’t match the experiments.”

    (It is nice when there is an explanation that makes sense and all that, it’s just not needed)

  16. Jason Streitfeldon 29 Oct 2008 at 5:58 am

    Just to add to my point about the matrix . . .

    Consider a situation in which matrix denizens had their own “virtual reality” device. From within the matrix, they put on virtual equipment which, in reality, gave them access to robots in the real world. These robots would be equipped with all the sensory devices a normal human being has, but the inputs are sent directly to the matrix person who is properly interfaced. Thus, from inside the matrix, they have normal experiences and interactions with the real world.

    This is just an extreme case, but it demonstrates why a matrix scenario need not exclude real-world interactions and understanding.

  17. tichtichon 29 Oct 2008 at 8:01 am

    Hi Steven. I’ve only just discovered your blog, and I’m finding it a fascinating read. However,
    I’m going to have to disagree with you on this subject, though my disagreement is more terminological than substantive.

    You choose to define “natural” as “amenable to scientific methods of investigation”. But this makes the statement that science requires methodological naturalism into a tautology: science can only deal with hypotheses that are amenable to science.

    The actual criterion which you say is essential to scientific hypotheses is that they “make testable predictions”. A sensible name for this criterion would be “testability”. The issue here is not naturalism but testability. It seems to me that you (and others) are so wedded to the term “methodological naturalism” that you’ll twist yourself into definitional knots trying to justify it. If you mean “testability”, just say “testability”, not “methodological naturalism”. Then, when you claim that the ID hypothesis should be rejected because it’s not testable, everyone knows what you mean, and you can get straight down to the question of whether the ID hypothesis is testable, without even mentioning the irrelevant words “natural” and “supernatural”.

  18. Eric Thomsonon 29 Oct 2008 at 9:54 am

    A few points.

    1. Sonic is right.

    For biology Novella is pretty much right: people are interested in mechanisms almost obsessively. Physicists, on the other hand, are often perfectly happy to find laws they can’t explain mechanistically. And for good reason, as there is no way we will be able to explain the fundamental laws mechanistically.

    The projection postulate in quantum mechanics has no good mechanistic underpinning. The fact that Schrodinger’s cat is in a single state is still not explainable using quantum mechanics without invoking this postulate.

    2. Creationists don’t understand the word ‘dogma’, but MN could change

    Science is methodologically naturalistic because, as Novella said, the alternative got its butt kicked.

    However, everything in science is subject to revision, especially methods, and even the definition of science (and even the view that all is subject to revision is subject to revision).

    But the creationists also can’t pretend that the present adherence to MN is a dogma–we are MN’s because of the complete failure of the alternative when they were both taken seriously (in meteorology, mental illness, geology, astronomy, biology, etc). This needs to be rubbed in the face of every creationist that says that MN is a “dogma.” They don’t understand the meaning of the word ‘dogma’ if they are saying that.

    3. All definitions of science are wrong
    While for purposes of curricula it is often important to clearly delineate science from non-science, in fact you will never produce a satisfying set of necessary and sufficient conditions for X to count as science. You will go crazy trying. Let us do our science while the philosophers tilt their lances at defining it.

  19. superdaveon 29 Oct 2008 at 10:17 am

    Steve said “In this sense, I agree with those who have argued that the distinction between natural and supernatural is meaningless, and that science does not restrict itself to any arbitrary list of what is “natural.” ”

    Because most of what is traditionally considered supernatural, (ghosts, esp, UFO (ok UFO are not technically supernatural but now i am using nested parentheses and that’s just confusing) etc) has been thoroughly debunked many times over, there is actually at least a pop culture list of things scientists just don’t believe. It is not the fault of science, it is the fault of people who refuse to let these issues die even in the face of the evidence, but it still perpetuates this idea that there is some arbitrary list of what is and isn’t natural. One thing I hope you can do with the skeptologist TV show is discuss just how far back in history the evidence against many of these things goes. It will show why this pop culture list of the supernatural can be a priori rejected in 2008 without restoring to some sort of hard criteria of what is and isn’t natural.

  20. DevilsAdvocateon 29 Oct 2008 at 10:34 am

    The difficulties in defining terms can often be a fault not in the premises on the discussion table, but in language itself.

    You can line up 100 Dr. Novellas and get 100 slightly varied shades of the same essential definition(s), and they’d all be essentially correct. Accordingly, you can beat a discussion of terms to death over those shadings. The ‘global’ argument is larger than ‘local’ arguers.

  21. pecon 29 Oct 2008 at 12:05 pm

    ” It is alright within the framework of science to hypothesize that the universe has intelligence”

    Yes, and that is exactly what we (non-materialists) are doing. We are looking for evidence of intelligence that is not restricted to physical brains. And, as you admit, there is nothing unscientific about this approach.

    I do not speak for ID researchers, and since they do not all think the same way that would not be possible. But they all share the hypothesis is that the universe has some kind of intelligence (of course “intelligence” can’t easily be defined), and they search for evidence of that.

    But there are many other branches of alternative science that share this central hypothesis, and no one is justified in denying that supporting evidence has been collected.

  22. Fifion 29 Oct 2008 at 2:24 pm

    I’ve found reading people’s discussion of this subject very interesting and illuminating (not being a philosopher even if I own an armchair), as well as my interactions as I attempted to understand the distinctions people were making armed with only a lay person’s understanding of philosophy (even though I’m familiar with cultural theory and things that cross over with philosophy). As a writer, I always find any discussion around language and meaning interesting. We all tend to assume that our understanding of a word is THE meaning, it’s easy to forget how fluid and inexact language can be and that understanding is a process that often involves a lot of clarification and back and forth to establish a common understanding.

  23. Jason Streitfeldon 29 Oct 2008 at 4:42 pm

    I’m no expert in quantum physics, but I’ve read a good deal about it and I think I have a strong enough grasp of the issues to make the following observation.

    On the one hand, quantum mechanics, as it is traditionally interpreted, rejects the notion of any underlying mechanism (or hidden causes) at work. On the other hand, the experiments which allow physicists to test quantum mechanics have clearly describable and repeatable mechanisms.

    What allows quantum mechanics (or any other scientific theory) to be tested is the fact that scientists can describe and repeat experiments, and that requires explanations of how events are related and descriptions of mechanisms which produce the predicted results.

    So, while sonic is right in one very important sense–that we have no need for a mechanistic explanation or description of what is going on at the quantum level–this fact does not allow us to conclude that we can do science without explanations and descriptions of mechanisms.

    If there were no mechanistic basis for the experiments that support quantum mechanics, and no ability to explain the relationship between the predictions made by the theory and the experimental conditions which test that theory, then there would be no experimental support for quantum mechanics.

    Frankly, this situation is not so new. Newtonian physics had the same problem with gravity, which was described as “mysterious action at a distance.”

    I also would argue with Eric Thompson’s claim that there is no way we will be able to describe an underlying mechanism for quantum events. We don’t have a complete understanding of the universe yet, so it is too early to say what we will eventually be able to describe.

    Eric, I also don’t see any reason to be so skeptical of all definitions of “science.” In fact, I think your position on that point is problematic, as you would appear to think you understood science enough to know that it cannot be contained within a single definition. But, if you do understand science that well, why can’t you define it?

    I don’t think “science” is so hard to define. However, getting people to agree on one definition is another matter entirely.

  24. sonicon 29 Oct 2008 at 5:56 pm

    thank-you for noticing.
    I went to your blog, you have some very interesting things to say there. I’ll be visiting again.

  25. pecon 29 Oct 2008 at 7:58 pm

    “We don’t have a complete understanding of the universe yet”

    Maybe next week.

  26. Steven Novellaon 29 Oct 2008 at 8:01 pm

    I do not screen comments for content. Pec – you are on probation for unacceptable troll-like behavior. That means your comments get moderated. I sent you an e-mail explaining this – using the e-mail you used to register.

  27. Eric Thomsonon 29 Oct 2008 at 8:25 pm


    Presently we have no mechanistic explanation for the projection postulate (wavefunction collapse). There is no good model of how we get determinate values of physical variables, or how Schroedinger’s cat ends up in one state.

    That could well be a contingent fact about present quantum mechanics, though. Hopefully that will change (though recent work on quantum decoherence suggests it will be a long time). At any rate, my more general point is that there will always be fundamental laws in physics, and these will not have mechanistic explanations. That doesn’t mean it’s bad science.

    As for defining science because I am famiar with it (and philosophy of science), that doesn’t really follow. I am quite familiar with language, and can poke holes in other people’s definition of language, but I have trouble defining it. Part of the problem is that the best definition of X comes after the science of X is very well developed, not before (imagine philosophers arguing about the nature of space and time before Einstein).

    More generally, I do have a rough view of how ‘science’ is conceptually distinguished in a polydimensional space that includes respect for experimental data, mathematical modelling, predictive power, attempts to falsify, etc.. Clear-cut cases of science are at one subvolume of this space, and there is a graded falloff as we move away from that subvolume until we are clearly in the realm of nonscience. But coming up with hard and fast criteria, where in this continuous space to cut off science from nonscience is somewhat arbitrary. It’s like trying to define how many grains of sand make up a ‘pile.’

    But just as I am fine using language without a definition, I (personally) would rather just do science and, as I said, let the philosophers argue about defining it.

    I realize, though, that is sort of against the spirit of discussions of creationism.

    sonic: Thanks, hope to see you around at neurochannels.

  28. Bellon 29 Oct 2008 at 8:31 pm

    I didn’t know where to put this, so I’m just putting it in here.. Thinking about the affect of advances in neurobiology on religion and human understanding.. I wrote something that I would like to present to you science folk.. Its here http://sickscorpion.wordpress.com/2008/10/29/the-brain-man/ ..


    Sorry for poking inappropriately, though!!

  29. Roberton 29 Oct 2008 at 11:25 pm


    Thanks for the clarification and elaboration. I am not a philosopher either, but am fortunate that my father is.

    I recall as kid he told me that most arguments were really just disputes about the meaning of words, so it’s always wise to clarify our language up front if we hope to understand each other.

    I think I tried to do that, but then all hell broke loose. I’m glad you found the links helpful.

  30. Jason Streitfeldon 30 Oct 2008 at 5:44 am


    “At any rate, my more general point is that there will always be fundamental laws in physics, and these will not have mechanistic explanations. That doesn’t mean it’s bad science.”

    I think I understand your thinking here. For, if a law could be explained in terms of some other mechanism, then the law wouldn’t be fundamental. So, the very idea of a “fundamental law” implies that it cannot be explained in terms of other mechanisms. I think this point is perfectly consistent with my observation.

    “As for defining science because I am famiar with it (and philosophy of science), that doesn’t really follow. I am quite familiar with language, and can poke holes in other people’s definition of language, but I have trouble defining it. Part of the problem is that the best definition of X comes after the science of X is very well developed, not before (imagine philosophers arguing about the nature of space and time before Einstein).”

    To take the last point first, it is not hard to imagine philosophers arguing about the nature of space and time before Einstein. Kant made a famous argument about it in his Critique of Pure Reason, where he argued that space and time are categories of human perception, and not properties of the universe. (Incidentally, I think he was wrong in one sense and right in another, but that is neither here nor there.)

    But to get back to definitions of science . . . I think your “polydimensional space” approach to understanding science is a more geometrical version of Wittgenstein’s idea of family resemblance. We define lots of things by using a wide set of variables, not all of which are necessary, but various configurations of which are sufficient, to form our conclusions.

    But none of that indicates that we should avoid definitions. On the contrary, terms like “testability” and “falsifiability” and “methodological naturalism” seem like perfectly fine ways of referring to the way we approach the polydimensional space, or family resemblances, that we mean when we talk about science.

    To suggest that we shouldn’t try to define “science” is to suggest that we shouldn’t come up with terms which refer to that polydimensional space.

    I think of science as nothing more than the formalization of discovery, and not as any particular set of rules or assumptions about what discovery entails. The notion of discovery itself implies many things, however, so we can a priori make many statements about science. For example, discovery implies the ability to make testable predictions. So, if somebody is working towards that end, even if they haven’t successfully made any testable predictions yet, I would say they are doing science. (We might call this a speculative stage of science, to emphasize the lack of testable predictions. String theory would be a current example.) But if somebody is working with irrational assumptions and incoherent definitions, then they are not working towards testable predictions, and they are not doing science.

    This seems like a pretty simple interpretation of Popper’s criterion of falsifiability, which is perhaps more simply reffered to as “testability.” I think it works very well as a definition of science, and I don’t think it does any injustice to your polydimensional space. If you disagree, let me know.

  31. sonicon 30 Oct 2008 at 6:57 am

    I hope you like the bits about physics. I think it is important that we take care to define science in such a way that we can include our friend Feynman as a scientist and the subject of physics as science. Agreed?

    The way you have this explained still leaves you open to very valid attack by people claiming that science is ‘dogmatic’ or ‘closed’ or has ‘a priori’ denied their claims.
    Allow me to explain–

    When you say ID is not science because:
    “ID doesn’t specify how design is carried out: no mechanism or process is proposed, and further, no means of discovering this mechanism is proposed. The mechanism remains unacceptably mysterious with no hope of being clarified.”

    I suggest you take that back. I can quote you chapter six of Feynman’s “Six Easy Pieces” if you need me to, but that is basically what he is saying about quantum mechanics repeatedly. (In fact it is possible the ID’ers used this wording to purposefully mirror some of those statements.)

    There are a couple more important issues to address.

    “Natural is therefore defined by our current knowledge – it is everything that has been discovered by science to exist in nature.”

    This assumes that science is the only way to knowledge. I’m not sure you want to try to defend that notion. Here’s why—

    Example (this is controversial, but be a skeptic in the sense of Socrates for a moment)
    Imagine a guy claiming to have long jumped 31 feet. We could say, “We don’t believe you, that is not humanly possible, we have to see you do it to believe it. We will set-up these conditions and test this claim experimentally.” But we know this won’t work. People set a world record one time. They may never achieve that same performance again. So, we don’t have to include his jump in the record books (records are made under certain conditions) but that is not the same as saying he didn’t do it.
    If I ask someone if they have ever experienced telepathy or ESP, it is surprising the number of ‘yes’s’ I get. I have heard and read many stories that are quite interesting.
    The question is- could these things be tested experimentally? Well, not one of the people I’ve talked to claimed they could make it happen on purpose, or that they knew that it was coming, or that it would ever happen again.
    How can you test something with those characteristics experimentally?
    So it is possible to say that this phenomena has not been observed under the conditions required by scientific experiment (yet), but that’s not the same as saying they have never happened. Why fight that fight?

    (Notice that what I am saying is that I know of nobody who has the ‘power of telepathy’ or the ‘power of ESP’. I just wouldn’t say these things never happen—two very different claims)

    “Saying that science requires methodological naturalism is really just another way of saying that science requires falsifiable hypotheses, which in turn requires the assumption that the universe makes sense – it consistently follows an internal set of rules.”

    But abiogenesis isn’t falsifable, and nobody I know is claiming physics makes sense. To quote Feynman—“No, there are no internal wheels; nature, as we understand it today, behaves in such a way that it is fundementally impossible to make a precise prediction of exactly what will happen in a given experiment.”

    So you can understand that an Id’er (or whatever) might cry ‘foul’ at what you have written here. And with good cause.
    It needs cleaning up because nothing I have said means that science has to include ‘god did it,’ as a central explanation.

  32. Fifion 30 Oct 2008 at 9:02 am

    I’m no philosopher but sonic’s argument seems to me to be an “argument of the gaps” to me, essentially saying that science should allow that any claim or theory should be respected as equally probable or possible even if there’s no actual theory to the theory! (A theory would provide a potential mechanism as explanation, even if it was highly improbable, and this theory would need to be at least theoretically testable. “God” is not a mechanism, it’s equivalent to saying magic without definining what one means by magic – or so it seems to me.)

    Sonic, it seems to me that what you are saying DOES mean that science has to accept “god did it” or “Mickey Mouse did it” as a theory even if there’s no mechanism other than “fairy dust” proposed. I don’t see how the centrality or non-centrality of a God/magic explanation change anything vis a vis if a theory should be accepted as a viable theory with no supporting evidence (direct or indirect) or plausable mechanism. You seem to be saying that personal anecdotes should suffice as evidence – such as in the case made for ESP – and should be taken at face value even if there’s a much easier explanation for why someone holds a subjective belief.

    As much as theoreticians and philosophers like to think they drive science and scientific discovery and as much as they contribute, I’d suggest that new “observers” are really what usually drives scientific discovery (and artistic innovation just as often). It is by changing and developing better “observers” (instruments of observation) that we’ve made huge breakthroughs in neurobiology, it is by changing our ability to observe (and create certain kinds of experiments to observe) that we’ll discover whatever we discover from CERN’s super collider. Science is very much about tools (be this the scientific method, a microscope, an MRI machine or a computer) which extend the human capacity for observation and this is actually often where innovations in practice AND theory come from (new tools not only provide new discoveries to ponder, they also give us another perspective which often opens up new avenues of thinking…not to mention the social changes they also often bring which bring new perspectives on being human).

    I’d also like to point out that another distinguishing feature of science is that it DOES say “no” and dispove theories. Science does reject weak premises and unfounded ideas, it does negate concepts with no validity or scientific meaning (deeper, personal, emotional meaning is the realm of art, clinical psychology and religion), it ISN’T all embracing. As a system, it’s integral to the proper functioning of the system to discern and deny certain ideas as being invalid (with the understanding that at a later time they may be validated if they are proven to be valid based upon evidence, be it theoretical probability or hard evidence of existence).

    Religion IS all embracing/consuming in many ways. How a major “networked” religion functions to survive as system – and socia-political systems built by humans tend to be self preserving in their structure and function – is that it absorbs “local” beliefs and recasts them as being that of the “conquering” religion (for instance, the Virgin Mary often stands in for local fertility goddesses, or how Buddhism in Japan is a reflection of Imperial politics in Japan from the time Buddhism arrived in Japan to become Zen Buddhism, or how Buddhism is practiced and sold in the West as being secular, and so on). In many ways, though the DI may appear like a sophisticated deception, this is actually an example of religion trying to absorb another belief system….think of religion as a boa constrictor, if you will. However, science is poison to religion. Religion relies on faith to gloss over the many logical fallacies and asks people to sacrifice everything from their freedom to their life (at times). Science relies upon critical thinking, this erodes faith making people less willing to sacrifice themselves for a system. (Nationalism works in a very similar way, it’s faith in a nation that is “immortal”.) All the major world religions function as and are the model for corporations, they’re brands fighting for marketshare (which is why content is essentially much less important than surface).

  33. Jason Streitfeldon 30 Oct 2008 at 9:25 am


    In Steven’s defense, the notion of “design” implies some kind of causal relationship, a fact which distinguishes it from the quantum events you are talking about.

    I think it is fair to criticize ID proponents who argue for the existence of design without specifying how that design operates or how it could be observed and tested. I believe that was Steven’s point, and I don’t see any reason to criticize it.

    Your comment about abiogenesis being unfalsifiable is strange. Scientific theories about abiogenesis are falsifiable. So what is your point there?

    Your argument about ESP seems slightly off-track here, because we have no trouble understanding how we might test claims about ESP. The idea of communicating by thought alone is not incoherent. The fact that successful cases of ESP have been looked for, but have not been well-documented, is strong evidence that it does not happen.

    And, about quantum mechanics not making sense, I think I made a valid point about this in an earlier post. While the apparent behavior doesn’t make sense to us, in so far as we have no conceptual framework for understanding why events happen the way they do, the mechanisms which allow us to test the theories do make sense to us. So it is more than a little misleading to say that quantum mechanics, as an entire field of study and theory of nature, doesn’t make sense.

    I, for one, have no problem saying that science is the only way to knowledge, because I regard science as the formalization of discovery itself.

    This is based on my understanding of discovery, which stems from my understanding of knowledge itself. Philosophy is not a way to knowledge, but rather the process of clarifying our concepts. It helps us do better science, but it is not a distinct path of its own.

    One might say that philosophy is also about discovering new aspects or theories of mind and thinking. In this way it does resemble a way of discovery. Yet, in so far as philosophy is a way of discovering new things about mind and cognition, philosophy is scientific. But since we only call it “philosophy” when we don’t yet have testable predictions, we should regard it as a speculative species of science, like string theory.

    So, again, if science is understood as I understand it (a view which I think pays due attention to the history of the philosophy of science as well as current trends in both philosophy and science) then it can safely be called the only way to knowledge.

    To argue this point in more detail would require delving further into the realm of epistemology, at which point I would have to convince you to adopt my understanding of knowledge itself.

    Any takers?

  34. Eric Thomsonon 30 Oct 2008 at 10:16 am

    To take the last point first, it is not hard to imagine philosophers arguing about the nature of space and time before Einstein.

    Of course they did, and they were wrong. The best philosophy of space and time came after Einstein. The best philosophy of X, in general, comes as the science becomes matured. This is one reason I find philosophy of mind boring, as the neuroscience is still too young to help the philosophers make strong statements about mind-brain relations.

    Philosophy loves to prematurely try to make precise definitions of things we don’t even understand. Heck, ‘digestion’ is not something you can define from the armchair, why should we expect it to be different with ‘space’ or ‘science’?

    If you like defining science, fine. This will be my last volley on this topic.

    The notion of discovery itself implies many things, however, so we can a priori make many statements about science. For example, discovery implies the ability to make testable predictions.

    There are exploratory sciences that just go and observe and make no predictions (mapping space or different planets, categorizing species in a locale). I consider string theory science even though many think its predictions can never be tested.

    The problem is trying to a priori find some single dimension along which science is clearly defined. That goes against the spirit of science and against the way science actually works.

    Incidentally I was in a more Paul Churchland inspired vein with that idea than the dreaded and murky Wittgenstein, but you are right they are similar on this issue.

    At any rate, I think the polydimensional view is right, and if that constitutes a definition (I’d call it a characterization not a defintion, but whatever) of science, fine. It’s better than the ones I’ve seen on the market and probably should be used in the creationism wars.

  35. Eric Thomsonon 30 Oct 2008 at 10:25 am

    Jason: I agree that sonic is being a bit fast and loose with QM.

    QM is a gorgeous theory that helps us make sense of/predict better than pretty much any theory out there. We understand what it predicts about macroscopic measuring devices, but interpreting the equations is sure to make even the best mind say stupid incoherent things, for instance to sputter on about consciousness in collapsing the wavefunction, or to posit multiple universes every time you measure the position of an electron.

    The people saying these crazy things aren’t dummies! So you are both right in a sense. When it comes to the concrete, we have a decent enough grasp of QM. When it comes to interpretation, there is room for kookiness because the science isn’t developed enough to exclude it.

    The solution will come from physicists not philosophers. Then, once the physicists solve the measurement problem in QM, the philosophers will be able to come in and do some good philosophy.

  36. Eric Thomsonon 30 Oct 2008 at 10:29 am

    Jason: I view philosophy as generative and productive and continuous with science, not merely an analysis of concepts.

    I wrote in the comments quite a bit about this here,where I attacked a lame analytic philosophy book by some Wittgensteinians [sp?] who thought they could help neuroscience by clearing up some conceptual muddles for the poor confused scientists.

  37. Fifion 30 Oct 2008 at 10:47 am

    Since neurobiology and philosophy have been brought up, I’d like to point out that some schools of philosophical thought face the same, what I will call, “extinction by fact” that religion does. A lot of philosophy is based around our experience of being alive…our SUBJECTIVE experience of being alive (and great deal of philosophy is warmed over religion or part of religion). Philosophy, like religion, is humanity’s attempt to make sense of the experience of being alive. It seems to me that philosophy isn’t so much about understanding the world as it is about understanding our experience of the world, our place in it and how to live. Religion also occupies itself with how to live. Science doesn’t, even though it can be used to support and inform (or dismiss) certain philosophies/belief systems. Some of these philosophies and belief systems, however, are very deeply imbedded in the structures and architecture of our systems so certain understandings of the brain and mind that are emerging from our observations and deeper understanding of neurobiology are actually in direct conflict with some very deeply embedded social/philosophical beliefs that are BASED IN the tricks and quirks of human cognition (since this is where the ideas grew from in the first place, the subjective observation of a philosopher’s own cognitive processes/experience that is then extended into the world).

    This is particularly relevant in an area like neurobiology that offers us a radical new insight and perspective on cognitive functioning. The switch in observer from purely subjective recounting of experiences and then subjective analysis of these subjective experiences to an observer that is objective (the MRI) that can then be correlated with reported subjective experiences. In this case, the observer very much defines what we see! This isn’t an argument for the primacy of subjectivity, it’s simply acknowledging that the observer in science is often not the human but the tool used to observe and measure. (Though, of course, it’s a very natural human tendency to locate one’s subjective experience as THE central focus of everything since that’s how we locate ourselves vis a vis the physical world.)

  38. Jason Streitfeldon 30 Oct 2008 at 3:27 pm


    Just a word about Kant, since it is tangentially relevant . . . While he was clearly wrong to say that we can only talk about space and time as categories of human perception, I think he was right to point out that we can define them as categories of human perception. It seems to me that the space and time we think about in our daily lives is not quite the same thing as the spacetime described by General Relativity, even though the two sets of concepts are related. And I think the former is the result of properties of human perception and information processing . . . properties which are no doubt related to the Einstein’s spacetime, but which are not directly described by it. So, I wouldn’t dismiss pre-Einsteinian philosophizing about spacetime completely. But that said, your point about the importance of scientific discovery to fruitful philosophizing is well-put, and I couldn’t agree more.

    I also agree that philosophy can be generative. I didn’t mean to suggest otherwise. It can be generative in two general ways, I think. The first is in generating metaconcepts which help us clarify our conceptual frameworks. The other sense in which philosophy can be generative is when it paves the way for new scientific discoveries; for example, Dennett has used philosophy to try to develop a new conceptual framework for understanding consciousness.

    As I suggested, the more cogent developments in the philosophy of mind can be thought of as a specualtive science. Unfortunately, much philosophizing is more about trying to get tenure (or justifying it once it’s already been attained), so a good deal of what is written in the field isn’t connected to science at all.

    Now, I think we still have a slight disagreement between us. I said that I regard science as the formalization of discovery, and that discovery implies the ability to make testable predictions. It follows that science is the formalization of a process which involves making testable predictions. It does not follow that science is nothing more than the act of making testable predictions. So, your response here doesn’t seem to quite hit the mark. You wrote:

    “There are exploratory sciences that just go and observe and make no predictions (mapping space or different planets, categorizing species in a locale). I consider string theory science even though many think its predictions can never be tested.”

    I’ve already made my view of string theory clear. I think the fact that it cannot yet make testable predictions (and the fact that the technology required to make any predictions about it might forever remain impractical) is significant, however. We cannot claim that string theory has the same scientific weight as, say, quantum mechanics, no matter how elegant the mathematics. It will remain speculative until it can be tested.

    Also, the “explanatory sciences” you mentioned are part of the general process of formalizing discovery. That is why we call them scientific. If we went around naming things willy-nilly, without order or reason, then we wouldn’t be furthering discovery. We’d just be wasting time and filling our libraries with a lot of pretty names.

    “The problem is trying to a priori find some single dimension along which science is clearly defined. That goes against the spirit of science and against the way science actually works.”

    You mean that goes against the spirit of discovery, right? And that is my point.

    So maybe we do agree on how to define “science.”

  39. Jason Streitfeldon 30 Oct 2008 at 3:51 pm


    “Philosophy, like religion, is humanity’s attempt to make sense of the experience of being alive. It seems to me that philosophy isn’t so much about understanding the world as it is about understanding our experience of the world, our place in it and how to live.”

    Since we cannot understand our experience of the world without also understanding the world, I think you are actually saying that philosophy is about understanding the world, but that it is primarily focused on questions regarding the meaning of life.

    I think that view of philosophy is too limited, because philosophy has traditionally been about much more than just the meaning of life. Originally, Western philosophy was just as much about the meaning of math as it was about the meaning of life. Not so long ago, science was called “natural philosophy.” The idea that science and philosophy are distinct fields of study, with distinct methods and principles, is rather new.

    If we look at the various subdivisions with philosophy today (logic, philosophy of mind, and so on), and take into account the history of the discipline (including its focus on ontology, ethics, metaphysics and epistemology), then we can find some general patterns. Philosophy has always been about finding and/or demolishing the underlying foundations of our thought. It has always been about understanding what we understand, what we can understand, and what we cannot understand, and why we can or cannot understand things.

    It does not pertain to one single discipline, because it grows in and through all of them. Any discipline can be analyzed and understood philosophically, in so far as we can analyze the underlying principles which define the discipline as such.

    I think we can conclude that philosophy is the process of analyzing understanding. It does so either very generally, by analyzing conceptual frameworks. Or it does so more specifically, by trying to further our understanding of the processes and mechanisms which define human understanding, including consciousness.

    This is why I don’t see philosophy as a unique path to knowledge, but as one indispendiable aspect of science.

    As for the meaning of life, I think a lot of people say “oh, that’s philosophy” because they don’t think such questions have concrete answers. They view philosophy as a sort of murky, touchy-feely way of trying to get on with life in the face of uncertainty. While many self-identifying philosophers may agree with (and enthusiastically promote) that view of philosophy, I don’t think it does justice to the discipline.

    Sorry for being so long-winded. This is obviously a subject I enjoy writing about.

  40. Jason Streitfeldon 30 Oct 2008 at 3:55 pm

    *Footnote: While it is not unusual to find people inventing new words during philosophical discussions, I did not mean to invent the word “indispendiable.” I meant to type “indispensible.”

  41. sonicon 30 Oct 2008 at 6:21 pm

    Further explanation on a couple critical points–
    A theory should be accepted if and only if there is evidence to support it. That theory then becomes a ‘scientific’ theory if it is testable (preferably by experiment). It is on the evidence that our decision gets made- not the mechanism or plausibility of explanation that supports the theory.
    (Oh, a good plausible mechanism is a good thing- just not needed)
    Historically the notion of mechanism was very important because the universe seemed well described as a clockwork mechanism.
    Physics is to blame for our change in thinking here. Sorry about that.

    Please read chapter six of “Six Easy Pieces”. I believe you will understand what I am saying about the quote from the post that I am talking about. You really don’t want to have a copy of a quote from Feynman saying “This is what science has shown us,” proving that some proposed theory is not science, do you?
    You understand why I would warn against that?

    I am saying that anecdotal evidence is not scientific, but that is not the same as saying that it is not true. “My friend made a hole-in-one yesterday,” maybe true, but it is not a testable scientific statement.
    This would be my argument against the notion that all knowledge is ‘scientific’ knowledge.

    “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”
    Albert Einstein, “Science, Philosophy and Religion: a Symposium”, 1941

    Isn’t it amazing how militant people who know much less about what science has actually found get toward religion?

    Abiogenesis can be used to develop testable hypothesis. Abiogenesis is not falsifiable.
    Biogenesis fits the experiments and is falsifiable. Generally science is done by taking the falsifiable and experimentally shown hypothesis and trying to disprove it. This is the one example I am aware of in which the hypothesis supported by experiment is decided to be false before experiment shows it to be. Do you know another?

    “but interpreting the equations is sure to make even the best mind say stupid incoherent things, for instance to sputter on about consciousness in collapsing the wavefunction, or to posit multiple universes every time you measure the position of an electron.”

    If these are stupid and/or incoherent, then you should be able to use science to show they are incorrect. If you can, then a Nobel Prize awaits. (And you will have pulled off something that Einstein, Feynman, Bohr, Pauli… failed to do)
    If you can’t use science to show they are wrong, then how do you know they are wrong?

  42. Jason Streitfeldon 30 Oct 2008 at 7:12 pm


    You are starting to sound a little bit like a proponent of Intelligent Design. You say that biogenesis is an “hypothesis supported by experiment” but which is “decided to be false before experiments show it to be.”

    As I understand it, there are two definitions of “biogenesis.”

    One refers to the process of creating new life from life. This process is a fact of nature which is observable every day. Nobody has decided this sort of biogenesis is false, so you must be using the other definition.

    The other definition refers to the idea that life forms can only be created by other life forms, which implies that abiogenesis is impossible. This theory is falsifiable, as you say. However, contrary to your claim, it is not supported by the evidence.

    For one thing, there is no evidence that suggests the idea that non-living matter cannot produce life.

    Furthermore, theories about abiogenesis can very well be tested against the available data. Considering what we know about life, the history of the earth, and the history of the solar system, the theory most supported by the evidence is that life on earth was created on earth some time after the planet was formed out of non-living chemicals.

    Why would you suggest otherwise?

  43. Eric Thomsonon 31 Oct 2008 at 12:52 am

    Jason: we disagree very little.

    I would say the early biologists that went around classifying different species (even though they thought they were classifying God’s creation) were scientists, many excellent scientists. Early neuroanatomists that simply named structures based on their appearance were also cartographers.

    Also, there can be a process of discovery that is not science. E.g., art history. So I wouldn’t paraphrase my view as saying that all the dimensions can be collapsed onto what you are saying. What you are saying may be one of the dimensions, though.

    I agree that string theory isn’t as prototypically scientific as, say, quantum theory (because on one of the axes–testability–it isn’t in the right ballpark).

  44. Jason Streitfeldon 31 Oct 2008 at 2:59 am

    What about art history makes it a process of discovery, but not a scientific one?

    ABout early biologists and cartographers and the like, my earlier point was that classification can either be scientific or unscientific. It is scientific if the process furthers discovery. More specifically, I’d say that discovery is furthered if classifications are made according to observable regularities which are well-document and can be recognized by any properly situated observer. In this way, classifications are repeatable and can be used to support or falsify existing or yet-to-be developed scientific theories.

  45. sonicon 31 Oct 2008 at 3:58 am

    You say-
    “For one thing, there is no evidence that suggests the idea that non-living matter cannot produce life.”

    You would not make this basic error if we were discussing a different subject. You wouldn’t make this error about mande barung, for example.

  46. Jason Streitfeldon 31 Oct 2008 at 7:05 am


    Just to help you anticipate my response to your response to my question about art history . . .

    I think subjects like art history are scientific to the degree that their methods and principles of discovery are formalized. Of course, there is no question that there are many subjects and practices which are borderline cases. I do not assume that every case is cut and dry.

  47. Jason Streitfeldon 31 Oct 2008 at 7:13 am


    I think you are confused. Try formulating your point into a coherent argument. And try answering my questions for a change.

  48. Eric Thomsonon 31 Oct 2008 at 10:55 am

    Jason: math is a more formalized discovery process than anything, but that doesn’t make it science.

    You seem to be a bit attached to one dimension. I am not, and I think my view better captures the richly textured and variable sense of the word ‘science.’ Science is not a natural kind, and there may be no fact of the matter here, or at best the fact of the matter would be a fact of semantic anthropology.

    This could be studied empirically using multidimensional scaling using judgments of relative ‘degree of scientificness’ between all major disciplines.

    Thanks for the discussion.

  49. Jason Streitfeldon 31 Oct 2008 at 3:42 pm


    Without allowing for the very possibility of a definition of “science,” how do you propose to establish an empirical test which would judge relative degrees of scientificness?

    I’m not sure that I am defining science as a “natural kind.” Is discovery a natural kind? Is the formalization of discovery a natural kind?

    And I don’t see how I’m ignoring or failing to sufficiently incorporate any relevant dimensions here.

    It would be good of you to clarify your comments about this, but I see that you are eager to move on to other discussions.

    I’m afraid that I am not convinced that your position here is entirely rational. Unfortunately, I guess I will have to remain uncertain as to why you so adamantly oppose the very idea of defining the word “science,” and why you don’t like my definition in particular.

  50. Jason Streitfeldon 31 Oct 2008 at 3:51 pm

    Oh, and about math and its relationship to science . . .

    My first question is, without having a definition of science to go on, what is your basis for excluding math from the realm of science?

    In my view, math is a part of the whole process of science. You can’t have science without at least a basic form of mathematics.

  51. sonicon 31 Oct 2008 at 4:40 pm

    To answer your question-

    “Considering what we know about life, the history of the earth, and the history of the solar system, the theory most supported by the evidence is that life on earth was created on earth some time after the planet was formed out of non-living chemicals.

    Why would you suggest otherwise?”

    I don’t know that sentence is clear enough for me to comment. I don’t know that I have suggested otherwise.

    What I have suggested is that the experimental evidence confirms the theory of biogenesis.
    I have no philosophic, or logical way to defend that experimental truth, but this is science and we can deal with schroedinger’s cat.

    You seem to be advocating that because we can not prove that life did not arise by abiogenesis, we must accept that life did arise that way.

    I would suggest that you woud not make that claim about any other thing. (I used mande barung because it had been used as an example of this fallacy on this blog recently).

  52. Jason Streitfeldon 31 Oct 2008 at 5:08 pm


    You mean that experimental evidence confirms the theory that life can only come from life, and that abiogenesis is imposible?

    What evidence confirms that theory?

    “You seem to be advocating that because we can not prove that life did not arise by abiogenesis, we must accept that life did arise that way.”

    I don’t know why you think I’ve advocated anything like that. I suggest reading my posts more carefully.

  53. sonicon 31 Oct 2008 at 5:37 pm

    I mean that the evidence confirms that all known existing life forms have come from pre-existing life forms.
    An excellent place to read about this is in the report to the British Association for the Advancement of Science, given by Thomas Huxley in 1870. This is the where the coining of the word ‘abiogenesis’ was done.

    I can give you some highlights, but I think it is worth reading the whole thing. I don’t want to give away the punch-line.
    (If you need the punch-line I can give it)

    I know of no experimental way to show something is impossible.
    (You can’t prove a negative is the usual way of putting it.)

    When you say-

    “For one thing, there is no evidence that suggests the idea that non-living matter cannot produce life.”

    you seem to be demanding a proof of a negative. If an experiment designed to produce something does not produce it, that is evidence of something. Sorry if I misinterpret.

  54. Eric Thomsonon 01 Nov 2008 at 12:32 am

    I gave as close as I think is possible to a definition, my main point being that any single dimension will leave out things that are science (e.g., string theory), or include things that aren’t (e.g., art history) To be accurate, it needs to take into account multiple dimensions. As is obvious from my comments, I do have a positive story about differentiating science from non-science, but that is not the same thing as a definition of science, is different from what a philosopher wants: a set of necessary and sufficient conditions for something to count as science.

    It is a vague category, with unclear boundaries, but as I said, there are clear-cut instances and clear-cut noninstances. So I have no problem saying something isn’t science. This isn’t based on a definition as you’d get from analytic philosophy (note I started by saying ‘no definition of science’ but the more important issue is ‘no single criterion for science’). The difference between ‘definition’ and ‘criteria for identification’ is very important, central to my point, and I am not sure the former exists, even though the latter does, and (I’ve argued) has the structure I am describing.

    Math is usually not considered a science, and I’d put it just over the border (into nonscience) too even though it is used by scientists (just as logic is used by scientists but it isn’t science).

    However, there is room for argument here, and I don’t really care since the dividing line in this conceptual space is written in by us, not by necessity. The reasons most people don’t put it in the same class as science are a) it isn’t empirical (it makes no claims about how the world is), b) it doesn’t make predictions about the world so isn’t falsifiable, and c) is not revised in light of data but in light of further mathematical facts. At any rate, for reasons I’ve said I don’t feel strongly about this and it may be one of those borderline cases for which there is no fact of the matter. Also, if math is science, then people gung-ho for methodological naturalism in science have some explaining to do, as mathematicians certainly aren’t wedded to it.

    Generally, philosophy has been fairly impotent because of its obsession with definitions. Imagine if biologists had obsessed with defining life (which still has no good definition) instead of simply studying life!

  55. Jason Streitfeldon 01 Nov 2008 at 4:18 am


    Firstly, I see no reason at all to give Huxley, or anyone else who wrote a century and a half ago, the last word on the subject of the origins of life, or any other scientific matter.

    While we don’t have any evidence showing that any particular organisms alive today sprung from non-living matter, we have lots of evidence suggesting that the first life forms on earth did spring from non-living matter.

    And I am not demanding proof of a negative. It was you who claimed that abiogenesis was impossible and unfalsifiable. Those claims are simply unfounded.


    A definition need not contain necessary conditions, but merely sufficient conditions. I think you are working with a set of sufficient conditions which allow you to make statements such as “discovery is one axis” and “testability is one axis” and “the spirit of science” and “I’d put mathematics just over the border into nonscience.”

    If you can make such statements without any set of sufficient conditions for regarding something as a science, then I would have to wonder what you were talking about.

    I am aware of the philosophical arguments about the relationship between math and science. I know that Quine, for example, argued that we should understand analytic and synthetic statements as differeing only in degrees, and not kinds, which would require us to see mathematics as only quantitatively different from science, and not qualitatively. I don’t actually agree with Quine here, but I don’t quite agree with Carnap, either. The point isn’t how we should understand the relationship between science, but that you want to talk about the relationship between math and science whilst claiming that we cannot define the word “science.”

    Yes, I recognize the difference between a criterion of demarcation and a definition. Popper’s criterion is a way of analyzing whether or not a theory is scientific. It does not tell us what practices or processes could be called “science,” however. Since we use the term “science” to refer to more than theories, we need more than Popper’s criterion of demarcation. We need to understand what science is generally about. We need to understand, as you put it, “the spirit of science.” Or, as I would put it, “the basic set of concerns and objectives that make science possible.” That is, in my understanding, the formalization of discovery.

    Since you don’t accept my understanding here, maybe you can clarify what you mean by “the spirit of science.”

  56. Jason Streitfeldon 01 Nov 2008 at 4:30 am

    By the way, if life only comes from life, then somebody should probably tell Jack Szostak and his research partners.

  57. Jason Streitfeldon 01 Nov 2008 at 7:53 am

    I want to thank you, Eric, for inspiring me to write a more formal presentation of my understanding of science. I’ve just updated my blog with some relevant thoughts on the matter:


    As a side note, here’s something I wrote about the Quine/Carnap debate on my blog a while back. If anyone is interested in better understanding the philosophical depth of my perspective here, it is probably worth reading. The first half is mainly about Quine and Carnap, though it does have implications for neuroscience. It does not presume any prior knowledge of philosophy. The rest of the post applies my understanding of knowledge to Frank Jackson’s famous Knowledge Argument. Some readers may need to follow the links to my previous posts on the subject to understand what I’m talking about there.

  58. Jason Streitfeldon 01 Nov 2008 at 8:46 am

    As promised, here is a link to my full-length criticism of Robert Delfino’s paper on methodological naturalism:

    On Junk Philosophy and Naturalism: A Criticism of Robert A. Delfino.

  59. Eric Thomsonon 01 Nov 2008 at 9:53 am

    Jason, I’ve not much new to add, and like most of what I said above.

    That your definition of science includes philosphy and would potentially include art history is enough of a reductio to relieve me of needing to take much time on it. It suggests you are too attached to your ‘formalization of discovery’ view and using it as a shoehorn. But other readers here can decide if they think they should be included in science.

    You are right that there can be a set of sufficient conditions for something to be science. If you want to call that a definition fine.

    Whatever you want to call it, as long as it includes enough dimensions to not have false positives (art history and philosophy) and to not have false negatives (purely descriptive science with no formalized discovery process), then I’m fine with it.

    Just to repeat for readers here tempted to spend a lot of time on philosophy: imagine if early biologists had spent their time trying to define ‘life’ instead of studying life. Where would we be? We still don’t have a good defintion of life, but look how far biology has come.

    Thanks for the discussion and I will bow out of this thread now.

  60. Jason Streitfeldon 01 Nov 2008 at 10:32 am

    I think it is too easy to dismiss my understanding by simply saying that it might regard some aspects of art history, or philosophy, as falling within the general rubric of science.

    These are controversial philosophical issues, so it’s not like there is an obvious and incontrovertible reason to disagree with me. In fact, I think a good number of philosophers of science–Quinians and operationalists, at least–would rather like my perspective here.

    I’ve carefully distinguished between science in general and the empirical sciences, and between these and mathematics and philosophy. If I’ve unfairly characterized any of these disciplines, then you would have a case against me here.

    The fact that my view does take into account the differences between, for example, physics and philosophy, or mathematics and art history, and that it also describes how such disparate disciplines can work together and have common attributes, is something to be appreciated.

    To dogmatically reject my approach here on the grounds that it challenges some of your assumptions about what should or shouldn’t be considered part of science, without pointing to any flaws in my reasoning, doesn’t seem to gel with your notion of the “spirit of science.”

    Anyway, I’ve enjoyed the discussion. Sorry it has to end without resolution.

  61. Jason Streitfeldon 01 Nov 2008 at 10:46 am

    Let me also point out that I haven’t actually said anything specific about art history here. It was you who proposed it as an example of an unscientific field which has its own process of discovery. I asked for clarification, but haven’t been given any yet.

  62. Jason Streitfeldon 01 Nov 2008 at 11:54 am

    Here are two examples of how philosophy informs the empirical sciences.

    First, consider Ockam’s Razor. It is a well-known philosophical tool with direct applicability to the empirical sciences, where it is considered indispensible. Second, consider Steven Hawking’s disagreement with Wheeler over the issue of Platonism.

    And what about Quine and other philosophers whose pragmatism, instrumentalism, and/or operationalism have helped us develop an understanding of philosophy that does not pit it against science, but sees it as continuous with scientific discovery?

    It makes sense to me that a definition of science would help us understand what philosophy is, how it informs (and is informed by) the empirical sciences, why in some cases it is not obvious how we should distinguish certain philosophical ideas from the empirical sciences, and how together philosophy and the empirical sciences help us achieve the same ultimate goal, which is to improve and expand our knowledge.

    Of course, there is plenty of so-called philosophy which I think is garbage. Probably too much of it. For example, see my criticism of Delfino which I just posted a link to here. So by arguing for continuity between the empirical sciences and philosophy, I am not arguing that all philosophizing should be so respected. That would be like saying everything that people think of as “science” should count as science, even the pseudoscientific blatherings of ID proponents.

  63. Jason Streitfeldon 01 Nov 2008 at 12:31 pm

    Sorry, that was Penrose who Hawking disagreed with over Platonism. Not Wheeler.

  64. sonicon 02 Nov 2008 at 2:57 am

    I claimed abiogenesis is not falsifiable. (I have not claimed it is impossible)
    I have heard complaints about the statement that abiogenesis is not falsifiable, but nobody has come up with a way to falsify it.
    Just tell me how to do so.
    Biogenesis is falsifiable as your link to existing research shows.
    This is one reason, there are others, that falsifiability is not a requirement of a scientific hypothesis as it is currently practiced.

  65. Jason Streitfeldon 02 Nov 2008 at 3:36 am


    Just one more observation and question. I recall you saying a while back that you view philosophy as being “generative, productive and continuous with science.”

    So I was wrong to think I had to persuade you to agree with me on that point. You do agree that philosophy is continuous with science. But why, then, are you disagreeing with the way I’ve described the relationship between science and philosophy?

    For all your comments about the dangers of philosophy, I don’t think I’ve said anything that runs contrary to your general understanding here. I’d even say that you probably do think the spirit of science is the spirit of discovery. If you don’t, then I really have no idea what you meant by the phrase.


    You claimed that evidence has confirmed the theory that life can only come from life, which would imply that evidence has confirmed the theory that abiogenesis is impossible. Thus, I responded by pointing out that there is, in fact, no evidence confirming that abiogenesis is impossible. Now are you chaging your mind about that, or what?

    Do you think abiogenesis is impossible? Do you think there is some evidence to support that view? I mean, real evidence, and not just a fatally flawed agrument made by Huxley in 1870.

    If you want to understand how abiogenesis is falsifiable, and how scientists support their claims about abiogenesis with evidence and reason, then you should study the field. It’s not my job to do the work for you.

    The notion of biogenesis you are throwing around here is not supported by evidence. It is falsifiable, and the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that it is false. If you don’t believe me, do some research.

    Here’s a link to point you on your way:


  66. kimmaon 03 Nov 2008 at 11:04 pm

    I’d have thought that a simple testable prediction for ID would be that living things are actually well designed. But of course that it is so easily proven that they aren’t so they have to fall back on ‘god works in mysterious ways’.

  67. Eric Thomsonon 04 Nov 2008 at 3:47 pm

    Jason: that is a good point. I was targeting more traditional philosophy that obsesses with definitions. The Churchlands do nothing of the sort, and actively try to contribute to our understanding of brains. What they do is at the interface between science and philosophy. However, traditional analytic philosophy, which ruminates on concepts and their meanings, is quite a different fish (and of course there is Heideggar, who we will all agree I think is not close to science).

    I was a philosophy grad student with the Churchlands and switched to neuroscience proper because it is so hard to get jobs doing their style of philosophy (plus, who wants to waste their time teaching Aristotle to undergrads when you can be teaching neurophysiology). I was always wasting time defending the approach rather than simply employing it (it’s kind of like an evolutionary biologist responding to creationists all the time rather than just hitting the bench and doing experiments).

    So my view clearly cannot let me say that no philosophy is science. Just mainstream philosophy (analytic and continental).

    Since then, about 10 years ago, things have shifted in philosophy so it is much more open to substantive research outside of linguistic analysis. Quine has taken hold.

  68. Jason Streitfeldon 04 Nov 2008 at 5:01 pm

    I also went to grad school for philosophy, but dropped that academic trajectory after witnessing how academic philosophers tend to resemble mind-numbingly pedantic librarians. But I do think teaching philosophy is important and can be rewarding, especially if you can focus on critical thinking and relevant issues.

    But, yeah, continental philosophy has been little more than a distraction from the principles of philosophy and should be forgotten as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, it carries way too much currency in a lot of academic circles. I wonder if the less benefit a field has to humanity, the greater the number of incompetent academics it attracts.

    In any case, I wouldn’t be so disparaging of analytic philosophy. Many severely important advancements in logic have occured within analytic philosophy, starting with Frege. Quine was an analytic philosopher, after all. Pragmatism (and its kin, including instrumentalism and operationalism) is, if not a blood relative, then at least a very close friend of analytic philosophy.

  69. Eric Thomsonon 08 Nov 2008 at 9:25 pm

    Good point. Without Frege, there would be no Russell/Whitehead. Without Russell/Whitehead, there may have been no Godel. There is a lot of good work in mathematical logic that came out of the Fregean tradition.

    Your description of academnic philosophers is hilarious! 🙂

  70. tootson 22 Aug 2015 at 8:52 am

    An interesting discussion.

    A mammal fossil in the Precambrian would falsify evolution. A living cell popping into existence somewhere in space-time would falsify abiogenesis in the most general sense; meaning that life anywhere at any time only gets going by means of scientifically understandable processes producing life form lifeless matter.

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